Friday, December 23, 2011

The Falcon Maltese


Tom Perkins had done it all.
He'd made a fortune, conquered Silicon Valley, even been Danielle Steel's fifth husband for a time.
His venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, was an early backer of Genentech, Netscape, and Google.
But when he turned 70 a few years ago, Perkins decided to do something even grander and a bit crazier: He would build the biggest, riskiest, fastest, most technologically advanced, single-hulled sailing mega yacht in the world.

The 289-foot Maltese Falcon, launched in spring 2006, is that engineering dream come to life.
There's no official definition of a megayacht, but every one agrees they're longer than 250 feet and tend to be triumphs of excess, with opulent staterooms, stainless steel and leather galore, plasma TVs — even their own speedboats and jet skis.
To accommodate these toys, all mega yachts used to be powerboats, for the simple reason that sailboats must be reasonably svelte.
But Perkins insisted on sail power — and refused to compromise on speed or lavish appointments.
The solution was to go long, since (other things being equal) the longer the hull, the faster a sailboat can go.
The result is the perfect blend of ego and utility, a $130 million wonder that represents the most daring advance in sailing technology in 150 years.
If the 1,367-ton Falcon were anchored in New York Harbor, its masts would nearly reach the tablet in the arm of the Statue of Liberty.
The exterior has teak decks, a varnished cap rail, and exquisitely finished surfaces — all attributes of a classic ship — yet the overall look is sleek, metallic, and ultramodern, almost foreboding.
When Darth Vader builds his own intergalactic yacht, it will look like this.

Under sail, the square-rigged Falcon evokes the magnificent clipper ships that raced across the oceans in the late 19th century.
But Perkins' creation is more New Old Thing than mere tribute to the past.
The heart of the boat's technology is a novel rigging system called the DynaRig, designed by Dutch naval architect Gerald Dijkstra and based on a half-century-old German concept.
The genius — and risk — of the DynaRig is its use of freestanding masts that rotate to adjust sail trim and tack the boat.
There are practically no external ropes or wires, no traditional rigging of any sort to brace the spars or control the nearly 26,000 square feet of sail.
The 15 sails deploy at the push of a button, rolling out from inside each hollow mast along recessed tracks on stationary horizontal yardarms.
When Dijkstra's drawings first came in, the CEO of Perini Navi, the Italian company that built the ship, muttered, "Whatever that is, it's not going to sail." Fellow mega yacht owner and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch looked at them and asked Perkins, "Is it going to look so frightening that people won't go on the boat?"
Murdoch isn't easily intimidated.
But three towering 192-foot masts — unsupported by the usual fore and aft stays and shrouds on the sides — would scare the Top-Siders off even Columbus or Magellan.
Each mast is secured to the hull by two huge steel bearings.
The three assemblies — mast, bearings, motors, and fittings — each weigh well over 30 tons. That's a lot of material twisting and bending overhead in a gale.
The key is carbon fiber.
It's exceptionally strong and light, and it doesn't fatigue like metal, allowing the mast walls to be remarkably thin.
Near the deck, where they're subject to the greatest loads, the walls measure just 5 inches thick. Toward the top, they taper to half an inch — no thicker than sturdy cardboard.
To measure the stress on the masts, a fiber-optic network is embedded in the layers of carbon-fiber laminate.
These 0.01-inch-diameter cables contain sensors that relay real-time data about the structural health of the masts to a graphic display on the bridge.
If the forces on them become too severe — masts can snap, and on a vessel this size, the results might be catastrophic — Perkins can dump wind out of the sails or reduce sail area.

Dozens of microprocessors, connected by 131,000 feet of hidden cable and wire, automate the operation, allowing Perkins and his crew to control the boat nearly effortlessly.
Seventy-five sealed motors, 60 for unfurling and 15 for furling, are used to manage the sails. They are synchronized by computer, but the skipper still needs to implement each step: Perkins insisted that electronics not govern the whole process.
The vessel would not be sailed by computer.
"No way Bill Gates is controlling my boat," he likes to crack.
"I don't ever want to have to press Control-Alt-Delete to restart, to make my boat go."

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