The original plan, which Lord knows didn't mean very much when
that plan had been made by Jim Clark, was that we would test
the boat quickly in the North Sea and then sail it across the Atlantic
Ocean. If nothing went too badly wrong, it would take us six days to
sail down to the Canary Islands and another ten to the Caribbean. I had
seen Clark in so many different situations that I felt sure I knew him,
and the range of behavior he was capable of. But there is nothing like
sixteen days on the high seas with a small group of people who have a
lot of doubts about each other to test one's assumptions about human
character. On the Atlantic crossing Hyperion would carry only the
captain and his seven crew members, one or two computer programmers,
Clark and me.
Why Jim Clark was so worthy of study was another matter, and I'll
come to that soon enough. For now I'll just say that the quirks in the
man's character sent the most fantastic ripples through the world around
him. Often starting with the best intentions, or no intentions at all, he
turned people's lives upside down and subjected them to the most
vicious force a human being can be subjected to, change. Oddly
enough, he was forever claiming that what he really wanted to do was
put up his feet and relax. He could not do this for more than a minute.
Once he'd put up his feet, his mind would spin and his face would redden
and he'd be disturbed all over again. He'd thought of something or
someone in the world that needed to be changed. His new boat was a
case in point.
For all I knew, Clark would be remembered chiefly as the guy who
created Netscape and triggered the Internet boom, which in turn triggered
one of the most astonishing grabfests in the history of capitalism.
Maybe somewhere in a footnote it would be mentioned that he came
from nothing, grew up poor, dropped out of high school, and made himself
three or four billion dollars. It might even be said that he had a nose
for the new new thing. But to my way of thinking these were only surface
details, the least interesting things about him. After all, a lot of people
these days have a billion dollars. Four hundred and sixty-five, according
to the July 1999 issue of Forbes magazine. And most of them
are no more interesting than you or me. You have to trust me on this.
Along the stretch of canal outside of Amsterdam where the water is
deepest, the swollen tankers and stout tugs come to rest. Neither the
driver nor I had the slightest idea where in this stand of massive industrial
ships one might park a pleasure boat. It was not a place anyone
would normally come for fun. The driver finally turned around and
asked me exactly what I was looking for, and I told him I was looking
for the sailboat that would take me out to sea. He laughed, but in the
way people do who want to prove they get the joke. The Dutch do this
a lot. They appear to live in terror of being mistaken for Germans, and
to compensate by finding a funny side to life where none exists. Tell a
Dutchman that your dog just died, and he will pretend that you have
just made some impossibly witty remark. This is what the driver did
when I told him I was about to go sailing in the North Sea. It was early
December, the winds were up around thirty-five miles an hour, and the
North Seawell, the North Sea in winter is not the place to be in any
kind of sailboat. The driver roared in the most un-Germanly fashion.
"Yachting!" he said, and burst out laughing again, far too loudly, as if he
had seen me my one joke and raised me another. "Yes," I said, which
only brought forth more peals.
The great mast rescued us. One moment we were lost; the next we
turned a corner and spotted on the horizon the tall, rigid white rod. Its
brightly colored pennants flew in relief against the gray sky, and its five
spreaders reached up into the clouds like a chain of receding crucifixes.
They beckoned everyone within five miles to drop his jaw in wonder.
It was then that the driver finally stopped laughing. "Yacht," after
all, is a Dutch word.
Three minutes later we drove onto the dock up near the low white
sailboat, next to the name painted in blue cursive on the side:
Hyperion. You could tell the driver knew at least a bit about sailboats
because he immediately called the boat a "sloop." A sloop is a sailboat with one
mast, to distinguish it from a sailboat with two masts, called a "ketch."
"How long is this sloop?" he asked me. "One hundred and fifty-five and
a half feet," I said. "That is the biggest sloop I have ever heard of," he
said. I said that that was because it was the biggest sloop ever built. His
eyes moved from the hull to the mast, and from the mast to the boom,
and from the boom to the sails, which, unfurled, would cover a football
field. "How many men are needed to handle the sails?" he asked.
"None," I said, "at least in theory."
The Dutchman laughed again, but nervously, as if deciding whether
it was better to be mistaken for a German or a fool. It wasn't until I told
him that the boat did not exactly require a crew, that it could be completely
controlled by a computer, that conviction returned to his laughter.
The whole thing, after all, had been some foreigner's idea of a joke.
When I arrived that morning of the first North Sea trial, Wolter
Huisman was standing on the deck beneath the mast. Wolter owned
the boatyard that had built Hyperion. Wet snow dribbled from his rain
gear, and his woolen cap drooped around his ears. His chin sunk glumly
into his dark tattered parka, and his old Dutch shoulders sagged like
a commuter's at the end of a long day. He seemed to be melting. Coming
up from behind, I caught him muttering to himself. Later I learned that
Wolter hadn't slept. He'd stared at the ceiling all night, worrying.
"What's the worst weather you ever tested a sailboat in?" I asked him.
"Dis wedder," he replied. Then he sighed and said, at once apropos
of nothing and everything, "When Yim wants something, Yim gets it."
In his pessimism Wolter had found a strategy for getting through this
life and onto a new and better one: so long as he insisted to himself that
tomorrow would be worse than today, it did not matter as much if it
was. He still had the Dutch habit of laughing at whatever you told him,
just in case it happened to be a joke. But his laugh was harsh and unhappy.
Wolter was pushing seventy, and his heart was old and weak, but
this gloom of his was young and vital. Who could blame him? His fate
was now intertwined with Hyperion's. And Hyperion was at this
very moment the most spectacular maritime disaster waiting to happen since
the launching of the Titanic.
Of course, every new yacht that left the Huisman Shipyard was, so
far as Wolter was concerned, an accident waiting to happen. It had
taken Wolter, and his father before him, and his father's father before
him, decades to build their reputation as perhaps the world's finest makers
of yachts. Each time Wolter launched a new yacht, that reputation
went up for grabs. But this was different. This was new.
"Where is he?" I asked.
"Behind duh computer," said Wolter. Pause. "When Yim sits behind
duh computer, he is not any more in dis world."
That was true. He was creating a new one.
On that bitterly cold December morning Hyperion left its moorings
so silently that the programmers didn't notice. The programmers were
three young men Jim Clark had flown over from Silicon Valley to the
North Sea to help him turn his new yacht into a giant floating computer.
Technogeeks. Each was in his early thirties, each possessed a
wardrobe that appeared to consist of nothing but T-shirts and blue
jeans, and each was a former employee of Clark's first technology start-up,
Silicon Graphics. They clambered up on deck from below, where
they had been typing away on their keyboards, to see what they'd wrought.
It was as if they hadn't quite believed that Hyperion would float.
The bridge was a technogeek fantasy. Where an experienced sailor
would expect to find a familiar row of gadgetsradar, sonar, radio,
GPS, and so onwere four large flat-panel computer display screens.
The three young men took seats in front of these and started pressing
buttons. Soon enough they were making small quivering sounds that
suggested all was not right with the computers. On one of the screens
was a map of Holland. The map focused on the area immediately around
us, perhaps twenty square miles. A miniature Hyperion inched stealthily
across it, like a boat in a video game. But according to the computer
map we were chugging on top of a farmer's field, and heading toward
an airfield. The slender canal we were actually on lay three miles to the
east. Any captain using the computer to run the boat would think he
was heading full tilt into an aircraft watchtower.
I walked out onto the deck to find that the same map occupied the
computer screen in front of Allan Prior, the man Clark had hired to captain
Hyperion. Allan was from the old school. He'd won the Whitbread
around-the-world race in a sailboat so stripped down that it looked vandalized.
Allan himself looked vandalized; the wind and the sun had ravaged
his complexion. Allan did not believe that sailboats should be run
by computers. Now he was staring straight ahead, attempting to avoid
a large ferry that was making a dash across the canal. "Don't bother me
with that," he said when I asked him why his boat was in the middle of
a wheat field. "That's a computer problem." Clearly, he was in no mood
to consider the undeniable fact that his entire boat was a computer
I returned to the programmers on the bridge. After a couple of minutes
of furious typing, they had the boat back on the water. Yet the head
programmer, a fellow named Steve Hague, retained a certain dubiousness.
His eyes darted back and forth between the edge of the canal and
the map on which Hyperion chugged along. All of the computer's gauges
seemed to be either inadequate or inaccurate. A captain steering off
themwhich Allan Prior at that moment declined to dowould not
only think that he was sailing through a wheat field. He'd think he was
sailing through a wheat field in the wrong direction. For no apparent
reason a red light flashed on one of the screens. It said, DANGER, DANGER,
Steve punched some buttons. According to the computer we'd been
grounded. "It is truly unfortunate that we find ourselves in this situation,"
he said, at length.
Yes it was. Just a few hours earlier the weatherman had predicted
Force 4 sailing conditions. Force 4 implied pleasant winds of twenty
knots and seas of perhaps six feet. Even before we left the canal and
passed through the locks into the North Sea, the report lost its credibility.
The gauges on the boat that measured the speed of the wind had
frozen at fifty knotsthe computer had not been programmed to register
winds any higher.
As we passed through the lock and into a harbor, we could finally
see why Wolter Huisman muttered to himself. Fifteen-foot waves
crashed against the seawall and flicked their white foam thirty feet in
the air, where it mingled with falling snow. Gusts of wind blew at seventy
miles an hour. The boat suddenly began to rock too violently for
anyone to stare very long into his computer. The programmers scrambled
out from the bridge and onto the deck, where Allan and Wolter
stood together in the snow with pretty much everyone else: twelve
boatyard workers, seven crew members, two Dutch friends of Clark's,
a photographer, and a German television crew present to document the
launching of the world's first computerized sailboat. The only person
missing was Clark himself, but, then, people who knew Clark knew better
than to expect him to be where he was meant to be. Sooner or later
he'd turn up, usually when he was not wanted.
"It's too goddamn windy out there," Wolter Huisman shouted, to no
one in particular. "It is wedder to test people, not boats." He shot Allan
a meaningful look, who shot it right back to him. They both knew that
the weather was the least of their problems.
When Hyperion left the seawall behind, it put itself at the mercy of
a furious North Sea. Instantly, the boat was seized by forces far greater
than itself; its magnificence was trivialized. A furious partial corkscrewing
motion pulled us up to the right and then down to the left. We'd
dip into a trough, experience a brief, false moment of calm, and then
be picked up and twisted again. The German television soundman
dropped to his knees, crawled over the side of the boat, and vomited.
There was no question of his suppressing the urge; it was as if someone
had pushed a button on the computer that instructed the man to be
sick. There, prone and puking on the violent deck, he lifted his microphone
into the air to capture the ambient noise. Room tone. A young
Dutch friend of Clark's along for the ride chuckled and said, "The
Germans. They will always do the job they are given no matter what."
But the German soundman was a trend setter. It took about a minute
and a half before the first Dutch boatyard worker leaned over the safety
ropes and vomited the Saint Nick's cake he'd been served an hour
before. A minute later he was joined by two poor colleagues who had
been down below monitoring the engines. A few minutes after that the
three fellows working on the foredeck came back to join the party. Then
came the rest of the German television crew. Hyperion rose and twisted
and plunged and settled, then rose and twisted and plunged and settled
all over again. Within twenty minutes eight men had gone as lifeless as
if they had been unplugged from their sockets. Those who weren't sick
pretended to be amused. They clustered around the captain and clung
to the rails and smiled crazily at each other.
Eventually, Allan reduced the engine speed and hoisted the sail. He
did this by pushing a button, which told the computer to hoist the sail,
which the computer, for once, did. The mast was hatched with crossbars,
called spreaders. The sail rose with a great flapping sound past
them one by one until at length it reached the second-to-last spreader.
Just when you thought there could be no more sail, more sail appeared.
The mainsail alone was 5,600 square feet, a bit more than a quarter of
a football field. The world's largest sail, as it happened. It was expected
to handle up to eleven tons of wind. That is, the force on its ropes
was the equivalent of dangling from their ends an eleven ton steel block.
Already the ropes were being tested. "The wind is too strong to let it
all out," Allan shouted to Wolter. Wolter nodded solemnly.
Not until you have hoisted a sail and turned off the engine can you
fully appreciate the euphoria that accompanied the invention of the
steam engine. The boat, now engineless, was subjected to a grosser,
more primal force. The waves crashed and the spray came in sheets and
the partial corkscrewing motion became a full corkscrewing motion.
The eight men in Puker's Alley retched all over again. This time it wasn't
so funny to the others. A wave washed over the deck and knocked
two of the Dutch shipyard workers on the bow off their feet; they were
saved from the sea by their safety ropes, which they alone wore. The
three technogeeks clung to the rails and tried not to remember that
they didn't belong here. They knew without being told that anyone
who went overboard was as good as gone. A person tossed into the
North Sea in December would last only a few minutes before freezing
to death; and in these conditions it might take an hour to pick up a man
overboard, if you could find him. Maybe for this reason no one bothered
to don a life jacket.
It was then I noticed Wolter, his arm wrapped tightly around a rail,
trying not to look at everything at once. It was Wolter whose ass was
really on the line out here. If a Huisman mast snapped, or a Huisman
hull leaked, and a Huisman yacht sank, a long and glorious family tradition
bubbled to the bottom of the North Sea floor. That is why Wolter
and his three hundred stout and sturdy craftsmen back in their tiny village
in the north of Holland resisted change. They did not cling to the
past mindlessly. But they were as immune as people can be to the allure
of a new way of doing things. Traditional, in a word.
Wolter had spent the past three years wrestling with a great force
that had neither the time nor the taste for tradition. The struggle had
turned Wolter into an old man. Before Jim Clark had come to the boatyard
at the end of 1995, Wolter had never heard of Silicon Valley, or
of the Internet, or, for that matter, of Jim Clark. Yim, as Wolter called
him, had sat down amid the exquisite models of ships built centuries
before, and the old black-and-white photographs of Wolter and his
ancestors at work building them. He had seen a yacht Wolter had just
finished building, he said, and wanted one like it. Only bigger. And
faster. And newer. He wanted his mast to be the biggest mast ever built.
And he wanted to control the whole boat with his computers.
Specifically, he wanted to be able to dial into his boat over the Internet
from his desk in Silicon Valley and sail it across the San Francisco Bay.
It was as if someone had distilled manic late twentieth-century American
capitalism into a vial of liquid and poured it down Wolter's throat.
Only a small part of the discomfort experienced on that wintry, gray
December afternoon on the North Sea was physical. Most of it occurred
inside of people's minds. Clark pushed people into places they never
would have gone willingly. Often the people who'd been pushed
assumed, for one reason or another, that Jim Clark, the rich man from
Silicon Valley who seemed to know what was about to happen before
anyone else, would make sure that it didn't happen to them. The problem
with their assumption was that it wasn't true: all Jim Clark ever guaranteed
anyone was the chance to adapt. His penchant for disrupting
his environment was at the bottom of every new company he created;
now he'd used it to transform a sailboat. The many strange deep sensations
on boardWolter's dread, Allan's frustration, the computer
geeks' unlikely feelings of responsibilityall were the doing of Clark
and his new technology. It was a single great, messy experiment, which,
in retrospect, was bound not to end well. And it didn't.
At the moment when the seas were most fierce, the boat's tiny population
huddled together on the stern. Hyperion pitched and rolled; its
passengers clung to the rails and to each other. Even Allan, who had
sailed around the world three times in boats the size of Clark's bathtubs
back in California, was numb as a mummy. "It's not sailing," he hollered
to Wolter. "It's more like throwing something into a washing machine
to see what breaks."
It would have occurred to no sane person at this point to crawl along
the side and have a look around. But that is what Clark did. He emerged
from his cabin, where he'd been fiddling with his computer, and made
his way up the safety ropes along the side. Since Hyperion was 157 feet
long, and he was six foot three, this took some doing. I should say that
he did not look as he was expected to look; his appearance was just
another element of surprise in a surprising universe. He was tall and
broad in a way computer nerds are not supposed to be. His blond hair
was neatly combed. His features were small and delicate: one could easily
imagine that he resembled his mother. He was handsome. Unlike
most men who make billions of dollars for themselves, he had an expansive,
easy manner. At any rate, that's the first impression he made. If you
looked closely, you could see that each of the slow and easy gestures
was countered by another that was small, tense, almost involuntary. His
body language was engaged in a debate with itself. It was as if he had
an itch that he was refusing to scratch.
When he reached the bow, he climbed up toward the world's tallest
sailboat mast, which rose to a point 189 feet over the deck. He put his
hand on it, to steady himself. There he stood for some long while, a
large yellow lump of Gore-Tex, directly beneath the tall, rigid white
rod of his ambition. He was looking, it appeared, straight up at the sky.
What he was looking for, no one could say. Probably he was thinking
about something he might like to change. Possibly he was not thinking
at all but groping. That is how his mind workedthe logic always
came after the initial, inexplicable, primal impulse. But whatever he was
doing he didn't do it for long. Once he'd found his footing, his mast
began to sway. At first its movements were barely perceptible; then they
became more pronounced; at last they were violent.
Later someone who had been on the bridge said he had heard a loud
crack. The rubber at the base of the world's tallest mast had shattered.
The foot-wide seal that kept Clark's 189 feet of carbon fiber standing
straight had frozen into a crystal, and then broken to bits. The mast
came loose in its socket. Its three and a half tons rocked wildly back
and forth, like a broomstick rattling around inside a garbage can. As
quickly as he could press a button, Allan Prior lowered the sail, before
the mast itself broke and fell over into the sea.
"Yesus," Wolter Huisman muttered, and looked away.