Mine's Bigger Than Yours

Tom Perkins, the legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist, had a dream. It wasn't to get rich, acquire power or marry into fame. He'd done all that, as part of a larger-than-life life. His firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, remains the most celebrated money machine since the Medicis. He'd help found Genentech—the first biotech company—and fund Google, the darling of the Internet age. In 2006, his resignation from the Hewlett-Packard board triggered the revelation of a spying scandal that dominated the front pages for weeks. And along the way, he managed to get himself convicted of involuntary manslaughter in France and to become novelist Danielle Steel's ex-husband No. 5.

But when he hit his 70s at the turn of the century, Perkins became obsessed with creating the world's biggest, fastest, highest-tech, most self-indulgent sailboat—what he described as "the perfect yacht." He fantasized about a modern clipper ship, as long as a football field, 14 meters wide, with three masts each rising 20 stories toward the heavens. So he had it built.

The $130 million square-rigger—the Maltese Falcon—evokes the era of magnificent vessels that raced across the oceans in the 19th century. Yet the Falcon is more than a tribute to the past. Gone are the scores of deckhands who climb the yardarms. Gone is the intricate rigging that gave the square-riggers their impressive look. Instead, the Falcon's giant carbon-fiber masts are entirely free-standing and rotate by computer. The 15 huge sails unfurl at the touch of a screen. And the bridge is something out of "Star Trek." It's a revolutionary machine, representing the most significant advances in sailing in 150 years. Perkins recently put the vessel up for sale, but the story behind it reveals the boundless ego of a nonpareil entrepreneur, embodying the best, as well as the most absurd, of the wealth race.

From the start, Perkins faced competition. Sailboats of 50 meters or so were no longer novel. Strong, light materials like carbon fiber had gotten cheaper, and it was logical to assume other people with overflowing bank accounts might be dreaming of the first sailing megayacht, nearing 70 meters or more. Chief among them: Jim Clark, who had launched three billion-dollar Silicon Valley start-ups (including Netscape), and Joe Vittoria, who made a fortune when he led a buyout of Avis in the 1980s. Clark had in mind an enormous gaff-rigged schooner, which he'd name Athena. Vittoria planned the largest sloop ever, Mirabella V, with a mast that was higher than the boat was long. Perkins, Vittoria and Clark were the Vanderbilts of the new yachting age—each with a very different boat, each with his own exemplar of conspicuous construction.

The only thing funnier than listening to them trying to find out how big the other guy's next boat was going to be was them explaining how uninterested they were in the comparisons. When Clark found out Perkins was considering a replacement for his 51-meter ketch, he set out to find out how long it would be, for he, too, was shopping for a new boat. When the two next saw each other, Perkins graciously obliged him and let him know that Perkins's next boat was going to be … a few meters shorter than it really was. "That's how I made sure the Falcon was going to be longer," Perkins gleefully recalled.

Clark eventually learned of Perkins's head-fake and went bananas when he next saw Wolter Huisman, the owner of the revered Dutch shipyard that was building Clark's new boat. Huisman told Clark that it was too late to make Athena's hull longer. Clark could console himself only with the fact that if you included his 10-meter stainless-steel bowsprit as part of the length, then his was bigger than anybody else's—even though nobody included a bowsprit in a boat's length. Typically, you measured along the water line (where the Falcon was longer) or, most likely, along the deck, in which case the Falcon's 96 meters far exceeded Athena's 84 meters.

In contrast to Perkins's mischief and Clark's reaction to it, Vittoria was exquisitely normal. He surely wanted his boat to be big and had not the least bit of embarrassment that he had devoted a substantial percentage of his net worth to boats. "My goal was to do something outrageous," he said. It was simply a question of personal style in conveying his chutzpah. When Vittoria went on the lecture circuit, he gave a video presentation about Mirabella V's construction. To dramatize its width, he showed a doctored slide of a red double-decker London bus sitting in the depths of the unfinished Mirabella V hull: it looked like a minnow in the belly of a whale.

Vittoria realized if you wanted to convince people a sailboat might be as luxurious as a powerboat, you'd better build one as big. He thought 58 meters would be enough, but that proved far too small—not because of the sailboat itself but because of all the "toys" he wanted to bring along for guests: a jet-propelled tender, four Laser dinghies, Jet Skis, kayaks, windsurfers and scuba gear. Given how big "Joe's Garage" had to be, Mirabella V had to grow proportionately larger to accommodate the staterooms, salons and deck areas. As the yacht got longer, he decided a sauna and gym would be nice, too, as well as an open-air movie theater, just a call away from the 600-bottle wine cellar.

The boat grew to 75 meters. But after learning of a four-masted schooner that was the same length, Vittoria asked his designer to lengthen the swimming platform at the stern. At least until Perkins finished the Falcon, that extra 20cm gave Mirabella V the distinction of being the world's largest privately owned sailboat, but the largest sloop ever, with the tallest mast—a mind-boggling 89 meters—to match. "Until your mast goes above 206 feet, which is the clearance at low tide at the Panama Canal, then you're not doing anything new," he said. "If this boat ever has a collision at sea," cracked an Australian columnist, "it will probably be with an aircraft."

Vittoria's sails weren't just large—they were staggering. The largest of the three jibs cost $250,000 and was the largest sail ever. With 1,833 square meters of synthetic Vectran fiber, a space-age polymer used for the Mars Rover airbags, the jib could drape a suburban house. The mainsail, made of heavier cloth, was only about 15 percent smaller. The overall effect meant the sloop could roar when going upwind—but with a few qualifiers. For starters, it couldn't significantly alter course without lowering its sails. And even though sloops were supposed to be easier to sail than multimasted vessels such as schooners and square-riggers, gargantuan sails represented weapons when they came whipping across the deck.

One of the liabilities of trendsetting is that some folks can't wait to see you fail. Mirabella V's schadenfreude moment happened a few months after its 2004 launch, days before the glamorous Monaco Boat Show. Just off the French Riviera, the boat was at anchor, waiting to pick up Vittoria's daughter and her friends at the dock. In a 22-knot shifting breeze, the crew knew it was too close to shore, but the daughter insisted the boat stay put. The professional captain, Johnno Johnston, was caught between the rocks and a hard place. The anchor began to drag and Mirabella V drifted on to the reef nearby. It stayed there until the next day, as a crowd on shore watched. When Perkins in San Francisco heard Mirabella V was high and dry, he called his own captain aboard his other yacht, Atlantide, which Perkins knew was only 8km away. "Go see it," Perkins told him. Within the hour, Perkins had received e-mailed JPEGs of the circus at Cap Ferrat.

Mirabella V eventually freed itself at high tide; nobody was hurt; the captain was fired, and the boat's keel was repaired at million-dollar expense. The greater cost was a certain degree of ignominy. Running aground was about the worst embarrassment a captain could face. Doing so in daylight and with an audience didn't help. Perkins liked Vittoria, but when discussing Mirabella V on the yacht-club circuit, he couldn't resist referring to its name in French: "Mirabella cinq," as in "descended to the bottom of the sea." Vittoria kept his sense of humor: the screen saver on his PC is Mirabella V on the rocks. It's a good bet that neither Tom Perkins nor Jim Clark would be quite so even-keeled.