Back to Features

  Cruising with Patrick O'Brian -
The Man and the Myth

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 from myself.

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 my yacht.


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 as well.

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

This story was reprinted from the August 2000 issue of Latitude 38. To order a copy (complete with photos in living black & white), use the subscription order form, and specify the 8/00 issue, or just drop us a note with a check for $7 to Latitude 38, Attn: Back Issues, 15 Locust Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941.

Please note: After a couple of years, the actual issue will no longer be available, but we will still be able to make photocopies of it.

©2000, 2001 Latitude 38 Publishing Co., Inc.