An acquaintance who is a professor
of literature at Stanford brought Patrick O'Brian to my attention,
claiming him to be the finest living author writing in the English
language. Being an avid reader who had consumed about everything
including, of course, all of Forster's Hornblower books, I had
my doubts. But after an increasingly mesmerizing reading of all
of the sixteen O'Brian Aubrey/Maturin novels then in print with
ever mounting captivation and awe, I wholeheartedly concurred.
After a second reading of the entire series which revealed to
me previously undiscovered depths and glories I felt compelled
to pay down the debt I owed this author for the wonderful, life-enriching
experience he had given me. Since O'Brian obviously loved the
sea, it occurred to me to write offering him a fortnight's cruse
aboard my Perini ketch, the 154 foot Andromeda la Dea,
for himself and his friends without any interfering presence
I asked Danielle Steel if she thought O'Brian would be offended
by receiving such a letter and her interesting reply was, "I
get about 20,000 letters per year from readers and I have yet
to receive a single one offering to do anything for me - he will
be delighted even if age and circumstances prevent him from accepting."
So I wrote via his publisher, having literally no idea where
in the world he lived, and after some forwarding delay I received
his handwritten reply, in his fine and precise penmanship, saying
"I accept your kind offer with perhaps obscene haste."
As Mr. O'Brian was to give a
lecture tour of the United States in early 1995 that included
San Francisco, I invited him to dinner the week of his visit
and I first saw him in person when I attended his lecture in
Herbst Hall. His host was the poet laureate of America (Robert
Haas). I was both charmed and alarmed when introduced to O'Brian's
lightening quick wit and rather acerbic manner.
The following evening he and his wife, Mary, came to my house
in Belvedere for a 'literary' dinner with admirers and one or
two other authors. Mr. O'Brian was utterly charming, if perhaps
a little aloof. He took tremendous interest in an Admiralty Board
(dockyard) model I have of an English First Rater of 1702. He
understood everything about that ship and greatly augmented my
own knowledge. After the other guests departed, we settled into
a series of brandies by the fire and I discovered: 1) his capacity
for serious drinking greatly exceeded my own; 2) his reserve
only eased very slightly in the presence of this unknown American
(me) and; 3) his knowledge of the practical aspects of sailing
seemed, amazingly, almost nil.
After a half liter of cognac had vanished (and we were still
calling each other Mr. O'Brian and Mr. Perkins), I produced a
chart of the Mediterranean and we began to discuss the agenda
for his cruise.
I had learned that the O'Brians' home was in Collioure, a village
on the Mediterranean coast of France just north of the Spanish
border, in Basque country. The harbor of Port Vendres lies nearby,
where Andromeda could pick all of them up. O'Brian then
suggested a cruise circumnavigating Sicily, a stop in Greece,
dropping by Beirut and winding up with a comprehensive tour of
the Balearic islands. I was stunned! How, I wondered, could this
old salt possibly comprehend a tour of over 3,000 nautical miles
with numerous port calls, in only 14 days in a yacht capable
of only about 12 knots?
As I began to explain the physical limitations of time and space
he added a desire to drop the hook in Naples, Capri and Tangiers
as well. While I could not reconcile this plan with reality,
I assumed it was the wine in control and then I was both startled
and pleased when he added at the evening's end that he had a
major non-negotiable condition to accepting my offer; namely
that I personally would join him, Mary and their guests aboard
In May 1995, as the departure
date appoached, I had a rough time getting Andromeda to
the tiny and picturesque Port Vendres in time to pick them up.
Every time I have been in the Gulf of Lions, I have been pasted
and this was one of the worst. Andromeda broke her inner
forestay and lost all telecommunication as well, but after a
real dusting we made it and O'Brian and Mary showed me around
the village and offered a lunch at their modest and charming
home. He took tremendous pride in his wine made from his own
grapes, pressed and fermented in barrels in his cellar. I was
fascinated by his office, where the books were written. It was
lined floor to ceiling with reference works on an array of subjects
(botany, geography, zoology, medicine, etc.) in several languages,
but not a single volume dated later than 1820. He was literally
immersed in the period of his work.
The following morning we were joined by his close friend, the
scholar (and foremost authority on Peeps) Richard Ollard, his
publisher Stuart Proffit and his agent Vivien Green. We finalized
our itinerary with the decision to visit all the Balearic islands
and O'Brian, somewhat wistfully, asked if an additional stop
in Istanbul would not be possible? Told it was not, he boarded
radiating the impression that I was something of an Indian giver,
short-changing him on his yachting holiday.
Underway to Menorca beneath a sunny sky with a twenty knot following
wind, the sailing was marvelous and O'Brian was delighted. I
introduced him to the helm, but he seemed to have no feeling
for the wind and the course, and frequently I had to intervene
to prevent a full standing gybe. I began to suspect that his
autobiographical references to his months at sea as a youth were
fanciful. He had no idea of the limitations of even a big yacht
like Andromeda in terms of the handling and actual distance
we could cover in a day. However, he and Mary adapted quickly
to the yacht with no trace of seasickness. Mary, quiet, kind,
interesting and interested, was wonderful to have aboard. However,
she was very frail. They were both nearly 80 and I constantly
feared she would take a tumble with the ship's motion, but thankfully
this never occurred.
Before dinner O'Brian asked me if I was familiar with an American
drink called the martini and he tested my composition of two
such killers with relish. All the conversations at the table
were spirited and he was the center of the talk and controlled
its direction totally. I found the level of sophistication and
erudition of these people to be greater than any I had ever experienced,
and when they turned to literary or historical contexts I was
left far behind. My MIT engineer's degree had, alas, not prepared
me for cultivated discourse at such a level. It was literally
exhausting, but a marvel to follow.
The weather continued to be fine and the next morning we were
off Menorca. O'Brian suggested that we sail (sail, not motor)
into the long narrow channel leading to the port of Mahon, the
location of the first meeting between Aubrey and Maturin. This
was pretty tricky for a boat of Andromeda's size, but
I carried it off, happily, without mishap. We had an interesting
afternoon ashore with O'Brian showing us about the old city with
intense enthusiasm while also demonstrating his fluency in Catalan,
the local tongue. That evening, while at dinner back aboard the
yacht, he suggested for the first time that I call him Patrick
and he would use Tom for me.
And so our cruise continued, with Patrick showing keen interest
in everything; we fished with some success; we sailed every day;
we visited the port of Ciudadela on Menorca and we sailed past
the majestic Cape Formentor on the northeast tip of Mallorca
where Patrick was entranced by the thousands of sea birds. Ornithology
was his true passion as it was for his character Stephen Maturin,
who is clearly modeled on Patrick's physique and personality.
One evening there was an extremely
heated discussion around the table which led to hurt feelings
requiring overnight to heal. It started with Patrick asking me
if I had heard of a place, Indiana, and a school, the University
of Indiana and did I think the school financially responsible?
The University's English department had purchased (and not yet
paid for) two or three of Patrick's manuscripts and had a professor
offering a course on O'Brian which Patrick found intensely offensive.
Patrick then mentioned that he was destroying all of his diaries,
his journals and all of his correspondence so that no trace of
his existence would remain save his novels.
Richard Ollard was aghast, and Ms. Green was very upset with
this quite startling revelation. Ollard said that it was a crime
against the future and reminded Patrick that he himself had relied
heavily on Pablo Picasso's letters when he had written a well-received
biography of the artist.
Patrick heatedly countered that Picasso had trusted him, but
that he, Patrick, could not rely upon the goodwill of "some
post-doctoral American fool." So the tension-filled discussion
continued. The analogy of an artist framing his painting was
raised; it was then complete and should not require either the
support nor deserve the distraction of knowing the artist's frame
of mind at the time of creation.
Now, after Patrick's death, we understand some of his thinking.
He was his own construct, born Patrick Russ, English not Irish,
not university educated, not a sailor, a father who abandoned
his family, and altogether a piece of his own fiction. But, that
night aboard Andromeda, only Mary knew the truth and understood
his deep motives.
The following day the unpleasantness passed with more superb
sailing in fine Mediterranean weather. While under full sail
with the huge MPS drawing in light wind, with our centerboard
keel raised and guided by - as it turned out - an inaccurate
Spanish chart, we decided to sail between the coast and a small
island, and we ran firmly aground in shallow water. In the Med
one can't simply wait for a higher tide, so we emptied all our
fresh water tanks and tried to back off. No luck. I blew out
the water in our centerboard trunk with compressed air, over
ten tons. Still no luck. Finally, we tied a long hawser to a
rock astern and, using our anchor windlass to bar-tight tension,
we slowly worked our way off waggling to and fro with our bow
thruster. Patrick was delighted with all these nautical operations.
He nearly believed, I thought, that we had arranged the event
for his entertainment.
One morning at breakfast, after our friendship had become more
firmly established, Patrick said, "Tom, I wish to ask you
an embarrassing question which will reveal my utter and total
ignorance of all things in this modern world. What is software?"
My answer, "The piano is the hardware and the sheet music
is the software," satisfied him and upon reflection, myself
Every afternoon between two and five, Patrick retired to my on-board
office to work on his novel The Yellow Admiral, then in
progress. He borrowed the yacht's charts of France, particularly
the area around Brest, to incorporate detail of the blockade
of Brest which is featured in that book. Very much to Mary's
surprise he showed me each day's progress. She said that he had
never shared his work with anyone before completion. Later, Patrick
sent me the original manuscript for this volume which I still
keep aboard and which I treasure.
Thus we cruised for ten days arriving in Palma where the demands
of business required that all of Patrick's guests and I depart.
He and Mary continued on to Ibiza with the yacht's crew for three
further days, mostly to study that island's renowned bird colonies.
Then they sailed, uneventfully, back to Port Vendres.
My friendship with Patrick continued until his death in January
of this year. We corresponded. He and Mary stayed in my home.
They were aboard my schooner Mariette. We met at his club,
Brooks, in London. He was a genius and his books remain a towering,
towering achievement. I miss him greatly.
- tom perkins