Tom Perkins sounds good. Happy. Relaxed. And why shouldn't he? He's two days out of St. Maarten en route to the sparkling Mediterranean and all is right with his world. Speaking via sat phone from the bridge of his mammoth, 298-foot Maltese Falcon, he's discussing his morning thus far."Right now the wind is about 14 knots and we're sailing along at 12.5 knots," he says. "The wind is aft of the beam so we're basically broad reaching. We have the weather charts out and the idea is to sail with the wind behind us as much as possible all the way across the Atlantic. It's taking us pretty far north. We're steering 060 at the moment. It's great." Well, of course it is. Perkins has certainly earned the right to feel flush and content. For towering above him, under full press of all 15 sails, is one of the most complex and intricate array of carbon-fiber structures ever created: a massive wind-driven powerplant comprised of three 184-foot freestanding spars; 2,400 square feet of sail area; and 76 separate motors to handle it all. Perkins, a youthful 75-year-old venture capitalist who amassed a fortune in numerous Silicon Valley enterprises, not only bankrolled the boat's so-called DynaRig, he played a major role in its invention and development. The DynaRig took six years of work and a small army to assemble, and it brought together an all-star team of naval architects, engineers, and builders whose wits were challenged on a regular basis in bringing it from pie-in-the-sky theory to ocean-going fruition. But the best thing about it? It works, efficiently and nearly maintenance-free, and it's done so since the boat was launched last summer and in the more than 15,000 nautical miles it's subsequently sailed."I got so deep into it that when it was finally finished I almost took it for granted," says Perkins. "But now that I have some distance from it I sometimes think, wow, I really accomplished something here. The boat is amazing. It's so simple. It can be sailed by one person. It's really fast. It's beautiful. I'm more impressed with it now than I was in the beginning."Modest BeginningsIt was German hydraulics engineer Wilhelm Prolss who first conceptualized the DynaRig, borrowing freely from the Cape Horn clipper ships of the Great Age of Sail. But Prolss, inspired by an oil crisis in the 1960s, took the square-rigger notion another step further. Prolss envisioned a fleet of gargantuan, sail-powered freighters and tankers with up to six masts; via hydraulic motors, these spars, as well as their yards and sails, would automatically align with the wind to maximize their efficiency. It was an interesting idea that died on the vine, partly due to the ending of the crisis, but also because of the niggling dilemma that, given the materials of the day, they'd be absolutely impossible to build to scale. For the next four decades, the DynaRig laid dormant.Enter carbon fiber, Tom Perkins and, soon after, Dutch yacht designer Gerry Dijkstra.Perkins, a long-time sailor who'd owned a couple of Perini Navi superyachts and the classic 135-foot Herreshoff schooner, Mariette, took control of a massive Perini hull, a project that had been started but never completed. Perkins commissioned Dijkstra to help complete the job; one of the first orders of business was the rig. "We considered a lot of different ones," says Jeroen de Vos, a naval architect in Dijkstra's office and a key member of the Maltese Falcon design team. "Then Gerry proposed this modern square rig, the DynaRig. It involved a lot of studying and design work and I think this really appealed to the owner."Though somewhat reluctant at first, Perkins gave the rig the green light. There was, of course, one rather daunting obstacle: No one had ever actually built a DynaRig. The advent of carbon fiber had addressed one major obstacle-unlike Prolss, they now had the material at hand that could withstand not only the bending moments and considerable loads, but also addressed the rather knotty structural issues associated with introducing multiple cavities in the sections through which the sails would furl and unfurl-but the fact remained that there was no ready source for the parts, bearings and machinery that would be integral to the rig's ultimate success, or lack thereof. Simply put, there was no template: Everything would need to be invented, fashioned, and manufactured along the way."We figured out a program of gradual experiments," says Perkins. "We started in towing tanks and wind tunnels and then built some small models. Then we put (a prototype) in a small sailboat and finally we ended up with a full-size model of a mast section and two yardarms that we [erected near the Perini yard in Turkey] so we could test the sail mechanisms in the wind."In the beginning, there were many trials and constant errors. Along with Falcon captain Chris Gartner and chief engineer Jed White, Perkins spent countless hours on the model rig dealing with torn sails and searching for answers that would ensure reliable solutions. There was constant input from U.K. spar builder Insensys, Italian hydraulics specialists Cariboni Spa, and from Fabio Perini himself, who Perkins credits for designing the "captive" outhaul winches, or motors, that are at the heart of the sail-handling system. "It's very clever, very simple," says Perkins.The sails, by Doyle, are what Perkins calls "the only low-tech part of the system. They're made of simple Dacron and the higher and higher you get off deck, the lighter they are. At the very top, the Royals aren't that big but they do put a lot of bending force on the mast. If they're set in an 80-knot blow, they're designed to just blow away, on purpose. We'll furl them before we get there."A Vision RealizedAll up, each of Maltese Falcon's three rotating carbon-fiber spars weighs 13 tons, is supported by a nine-ton bearing and has affixed to it a half-dozen carbon-fiber yards, which, unlike those on a traditional square-rigger, have a built-in camber, or curve, of 12 degrees. What sets the DynaRig further apart from the clipper ships of yore is that when deployed between the yards, there are no loose-footed slots in the sail plan; the five sails per mast effectively act as a single foil. In addition, Insensys laminated into each spar a series of fiber-optic sensors that provide constant feedback on torque and loads to the central control panel on the bridge. "This is the only boat in the world where you can see the driving force and heeling moment when you are trimming the sails," says de Vos.In practice, explains White, the rig works quite simply. "Each sail is furled around a vertical mandrel in the mast," he said. "When setting sail, four outhaul motors wind in the outhauls and the sail clews are pulled (via bolt ropes) to the end of the yards. The middle of the sail leaves the mandrel and sets in the middle of the yard, creating a pre-curved single sail. With all the sails set you have an 8,600-square-foot sail that is aerodynamically curved, and with no gaps from the head of the Royal (the topmost sail) to the foot of the course (the lowest sail)."To furl the sail," he continues, "you release the brakes on the outhaul motors, then rotate the mandrel, which pulls the middle of the sail across the truss between the mast and the yards and into the mast where it's furled around the mandrel. The clews of the sail come to rest just as they enter the mast slot, with the sail completely inside the mast."All this is done by placing a finger on an image of the sail in question on a control-panel touch screen. It takes about a minute to set a sail, and you can set one per mast at the same time, thus requiring about six minutes to "hoist" the entire sail plan."We sail the boat kind of like a dinghy," says Perkins, "where in a strong wind you're working the mainsheet all the time to keep it from capsizing. When we're racing, and trying to go as fast as we can, we pretty much set all the sails and if the boat starts to heel too much, instead of reefing and screwing around with that, we just rotate the rig into the wind. That luffs the leading edge a little bit and depowers the rig slightly. It prevents the boat from heeling too much and it keeps our speed up."And make no mistake: Perkins loves to sail, and sail hard. "The owner likes to put the rail in the water," chuckles de Vos.Perkins says the boat will sail upwind at apparent wind angles between 33 and 36 degrees, and tacks through 100 to 105 degrees, though he admits that tacking is a bit of an exercise because the spars must rotate into the wind: "After the bow has come fully through the wind we let the sails back to sort of pull the bow around onto the new tack. Then we rotate the masts."Jibing, on the other hand, is what Perkins describes as "trivial. We just rotate the masts a little bit and we've jibed. It's almost unnoticeable."To date, Falcon's best 24-hour run is 325 miles, which Perkins says is "good, not great. We'll eventually do better." More impressively, the boat has weathered a 70-knot blow
under sail. "Everything was fine, no problems," he says. "We had the three lowers up, the loading wasn't exceptional, and we were sailing at 24.5 knots."That's a serious milestone, and there are sure to be more. Before hanging up, I asked Perkins if there was one moment, thus far, that crystallized the experience of owing and sailing Maltese Falcon. He didn't hesitate."We were sailing downwind off Sardinia," he says. "All sails were set. We'd been hovering at 19 knots and then we broke 20 for the first time and just kept cruising at 20, 21 knots for a half hour or so. The boat was creaming along, there was bright sunshine, and I said to myself, 'This is it. I've got a clipper ship for the 21st Century.'"