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Last Updated: Monday, 16 August, 2004, 17:04 GMT 18:04 UK
Nautical novelist 'couldn't even sail'
By James Landale
BBC News

Patrick O'Brian
Patrick O'Brian: Could he sail? An associate says not
The late Patrick O'Brian's celebrated maritime novels inspired legions of fans to venture on to the ocean waves. But fresh evidence suggests the legendary writer couldn't even sail.

Since Patrick O'Brian died four years ago, the author of the famous seafaring novels behind the film Master and Commander has been exposed as a man who invented much of his own life. He was English, not Irish; his name was Russ, not O'Brian.

Yet none of this has dented his cult following and reputation among his fans as one of the greatest story tellers in the English language. His 20 novels about the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin continue to sell by their thousands.

But now fresh claims have emerged that will test the loyalty of even his most vocal supporters.

It appears that the man who wrote so brilliantly and so accurately about naval warfare and life aboard ship during the Napoleonic wars did not actually know how to sail. The claim is made in an article by a wealthy American businessman called Tom Perkins in the current edition of the sailing magazine Yachting World.

Mr Perkins, a venture capitalist behind some of the world's biggest internet companies, was such a fan of the books that he invited Patrick O'Brian, then aged 80, and his wife to spend two weeks on his 154ft superyacht "Andromeda" on a cruise of the Mediterranean in the summer of 1995.

Russell Crowe
One of O'Brian's books spawned the movie Master and Commander
In his article, Mr Perkins describes a dinner where he and Mr O'Brian discussed the trip. He claims that the author's "knowledge of the practical aspects of sailing seemed, amazingly, almost nil".

They agreed to start the voyage at the small harbour of Port Vendres on the southern French coast near to where the reclusive writer lived.

"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," Mr Perkins writes.

"I was stunned! How, I wondered, could this old salt possibly comprehend a tour of over 3,000 nautical miles with numerous ports of call, in 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."

On being told that this was impossible and that they would confine the trip to a cruise of the Balearic Islands, a somewhat disgruntled O'Brian gave Mr Perkins the impression that he was "short-changing him on his yachting holiday". And once on board, Mr O'Brian revealed a further lack of nautical knowledge.

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
Tom Perkins, Yachting World
"Underway to Menorca beneath a sunny sky with a 20-knot following wind, the sailing was marvellous and O'Brian was delighted," Mr Perkins writes. "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 [a sudden change of direction involving the boom swinging violently from one side of the boat to another].

"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."

Mr O'Brian had in the past claimed that he had sailed on board square-rigged ships in his youth, learning to "hand, reef and steer".

In the article, Mr Perkins also gives fresh insight into Mr O'Brian's otherworldliness, a man who knew more about the 19th Century than his own time.

"One morning after breakfast... Patrick said: 'Tom, I wish to ask you an embarrassing question which will reveal my utter and total ignorance of all things in the modern world. What is software?'" Mr Perkins replied: "The piano is the hardware and the sheet music is the software."


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