David Glenn looks back at the life of entrepreneur and technologist Tom Perkins, a passionate sailor and innovator and the mastermind of the sensational square-rigged superyacht Maltese Falcon
Tomas J. Perkins 1932-2016
Tom Perkins, who has died aged 84, was one of Silicon Valley’s most successful venture capitalists and a prolific superyacht owner whose innovative thinking led to the launch of The Maltese Falcon, an 88m, fully-automated, modern day square-rigger. The yacht remains in a class of her own.
The Herreshoff classic Mariette of 1915, two Perinis, a restored classic motor yacht called Atlantide and mini-submarines were among many vessels he owned.
As an electrical engineering and computer science graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Perkins joined Hewlett Packard in the 1960s launching and running its mini-computer division. In his spare time he started a laser technology company to fund other projects before co-founding his venture capital business Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) which ignited the tech boom in California.
The firm’s science-based instincts and close involvement in fledgling companies helped develop the likes of bio-tech pioneer Genentech, whose cancer and insulin drugs helped turn the company into a giant. Netscape, AOL, Sun Microsystems and later Amazon, Google and a host of other household names were all KPBC investments.
Perkins was a passionate and highly knowledgeable sailor whose earliest experiences were in Lightning dinghies on Long Island Sound. His large yachts included the 43m Andromeda la Dea and then a 47m ketch of the same name aboard which he completed an eventful circumnavigation including a grounding on a shale bank in Alaska. Both yachts were built by Fabio Perini, whose inventive brilliance attracted the like-minded Perkins. They became good friends.
His thirst for competition was demonstrated when he campaigned with considerable vigour the magnificent Nat Herreshoff-designed schooner Mariette of 1915. His meticulous restoration of the famous yacht in the 1990s, using original drawings from the MIT library, was an achievement in itself and helped him cope with the death of his first wife, Gerd Thune-Ellefsen, a Norwegian he’d met more than 30 years earlier while skiing near Lake Tahoe. He was later married for four years to the author Danielle Steel.
He raced Mariette hard, but in 1995 tragedy struck when a collision between the 42m schooner and the 6-Metre Taos Brett IV during a regatta in St Tropez, then known as La Nioulargue, resulted in the drowning of one of Taos Brett’s crew. Perkins was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and the controversial incident led to a complete overhaul of the regatta’s structure. It re-emerged as Les Voiles de St Tropez.
Six years later in 2001, Mariette won the Yachting World Concours d’Elegance Trophy at the America’s Cup Jubilee Regatta in Cowes competing against some of the world’s finest yachts. Despite Perkins’s devotion to Mariette, the seed of an idea for a new and technically advanced yacht had already been sewn.
The Maltese Falcon was launched by Perini in 2005, a ground-breaking 88m, square-rigged sailing yacht equipped with three free-standing carbon fibre masts from which 15 squaresails could be set at the press of a button. The yacht also contained some of the most remarkable modern art ever seen aboard a sailing superyacht.
Along with Netscape’s Jim Clark, who launched the 90m schooner Athena and Avis owner Joe Vittoria, whose Mirabella V (now M5), at 75m, was and still is the biggest sloop in the world, it was a time of excess even by modern superyachting standards.
An avid Yachting World reader, Tom Perkins invited me aboard his restored art deco-styled motor yacht Atlantide (re-built by Camper & Nicholsons in Gosport) during a Perini Navi regatta in Porto Rotondo Sardinia to explain how the rig, sails and the scores of electric motors controlling them would work aboard Maltese Falcon. He sketched the idea in my reporter’s notebook and I admit I found it difficult to see how the project could succeed.
But succeed it did and the ground-breaking yacht was launched to immense fanfare. Except Yachting World was not invited to the party. The reason was a review I had written for the magazine of Perkins’s book Sex and The Single Zillionaire, a work I really couldn’t recommend to anyone.
Perkins took umbrage and banished me from the project until he eventually relented a year later when he gave me a personal tour of Maltese Falcon in Monaco and took me sailing for a couple of days off St Tropez. That was one of my career highlights and the sea trials proved without doubt what an extraordinary sailing yacht Perkins had produced.
Later in life Perkins became interested in small submarines and with a mothership called Dr. No went in search of the humpback whale in its Pacific mating grounds, photographing them to great effect.
Perkins died at his home in Marin County, California and is survived by a son and a daughter from his first marriage.