We sail Maltese Falcon off St Tropez and learn how she handles in 50 knots of wind!


Falcon goes mistral hunting

Just back from sailing Maltese Falcon off St Tropez… she may not have been competing in the Voiles, the iconic local regatta just finished, but the 88m three-masted modern clipper yacht towered above the event whether at anchor off the town or spreading her 25,000 square feet of square rigged Dacron as she thundered up an down the flanks of the race course.

My sail aboard Pink Gin (see previous story) in the same waters the week before was always going to be a hard act to follow but it’s not difficult to see why Tom Perkins’s Falcon is in a class of her own in almost all respects. My day aboard last Thursday, along with guests from the St Francis and San Francisco Yacht Clubs who had outbid the commodore of the New York Yacht Club in a fund raiser for the US Olympic sailing movement for the ‘Falcon experience’, was one of the more memorable in my YW career.
When you consider some of the facts about this truly revolutionary Perini Navi-built, Perkins-inspired yacht, one has to say that by the law of averages the chances of something going fundamentally wrong in her trial period were high. But the truth is very little has gone wrong and Falcon has had the yachting cognoscenti almost dumbstruck with awe. It is a measure of the planning and execution of one of the most audacious sailing projects in living memory that this yacht has sailed her first 6000 of miles virtually fault free, 70 per cent of that distance under sail. “Aren’t you surprised at how successful this has been?” I ask Tom Perkins. “David, I have been living and breathing this thing for five and a half years so what do you think? – no of course I am not surprised,” came the not unexpected answer. In short Falcon is a triumph of design and engineering and in my opinion is set to change the way we go big boat sailing.

Consider the facts: three rotating, free-standing, carbon fibre, 58m tall masts setting 15 automatically furled sails using 75 electric winches and a completely computerised trimming and handling system – there simply isn’t a piece of rope in sight. Each rig weighs 25 tons which is scary enough and they are designed to survive the 1240-ton yacht being thrown onto her beam ends! “The masts will not break,” Tom Perkins assured us.

Since Falcon’s launch her sail setting and stowing system, which still has observers scratching their heads as to how it works (see an upcoming issue of YW), have been operated more than 1000 times and there have been only two small problems. The only change planned at this stage is the replacement of the sails with a spare suit which is being re-cut by Robbie Doyle in the USA to make them flatter.
So how does this yacht perform? Does she do the business? A few days before my sail which was impressive enough, Tom Perkins, renowned for his tendency to push his yachts to their full potential, went looking for some rough stuff. “Some people go hurricane hunting, well we went mistral hunting,” said Natalia Singleton from Lymington, one of 17 crew on board.

They didn’t have to go far – the Golfe du Lion served up 50 knots and, according to Tom Perkins 5m to 8m waves (!) typically nasty, pyramidal Med stuff. He said that it was so rough the entire main deck was awash for some of the time and with just ONE sail up Falcon was doing 12 knots. “The sea wasn’t long enough for us and we had to hold back,” said Tom who admitted that assuming the crew would never have to use lifelines was a mistake.

The day before my Falcon experience she was out again in a local mistral off St Tropez and in slightly less accentuated seas broke her own speed record clocking up 20.7 knots on a close reach. With just six of her 15 sails set – they tend to reduce the fore mast and mizzen sails fist leaving more sail on the main – she was controllable and fast but her angle of heel can be alarming to look at. It’s always been predicted by Gerry Dijkstra the naval architect who crunched the numbers on Falcon, that she will be on the tender side upwind. “We had the water up to here,” said Tom pointing to the Perini Navi logo on the starboard hand superstructure 1.5m above the deck. That’s an awful lot of water running down the deck at 12 or 14 knots and one can understand the reason for such enormous scuppers in the steel bulwarks.

If the yacht’s sailing performance is impressive take a look below. Falcon’s quite extraordinary interior, designed by UK based Ken Freivokh is a masterpiece of carbon, leather, velum, timber and glass combined and embedded with a mass of modern art collected by Tom Perkins. Underway you can wander around below as if in an art gallery, the yacht heeling silently and the blue Med zooming past her hull ports. It really is mesmerising. We anchored off Le Club 55 on Pampelonne Beach, but aperitifs and lunch were about to be served aboard? there really was no choice.

Read more about Falcon, our day sail and how the whole thing works in an upcoming issue of Yachting World – in fact why not subscribe and you’ll never miss a trick!

Next week we’re off to the Superyacht Cup in Palma?