On board with Brian O’Sullivan, owner of motor yacht Komokwa
Superyacht owner Brian O'Sullivan may have travelled the world at the helm of his 40 metre motor yachtKomokwa, but it’s wind power that’s driven this Canadian boat lover. Stewart Campbell meets him...
If Brian O’Sullivan ever sits down to write the book in his head, he’s got the title: Among Cannibals and Kings. In truth, he never actually saw either on his trip from his native Canada, across the Pacific and Indian oceans and then into the Med, but it’s a handy shorthand for what boats can offer you: an unrivalled breadth of experience. There was that time in the Marquesas, when he was touring a sacrificial altar and his business colleague Matt reached into a crack in a wall and brought out a human jaw bone. “The guide told us cannibalism had been outlawed 100 years ago, but that jaw looked pretty fresh!” he jokes.
They cruised into a Tongan town the day after the king visited and saw the streets dressed to welcome royalty, and then children being taken to school on the back of flatbed trucks. On Fijian beaches, his two sons played rugby with local kids who had nothing, on islands with no roads, phones or electricity. He met yachtsmen in remote corners living day to day, and one who was forced to use a sewing machine as an anchor after selling his actual anchor to make ends meet. “It dragged, and the boat ended up on the rocks. Turns out sewing machines aren’t good anchors.” And on the party island of Ibiza, which must have felt like another planet, he watched curiously as one of the world’s largest superyachts motored into the harbour every evening and left the following morning with a fresh contingent of guests – all young and all female. “This happened every day for a month! I mean, it was [going from] subsistence living to 60 girls a day. Just the contrasts, they were so dramatic,” he says, wide-eyed at the memory.
O’Sullivan is able to spend so much time on board because, at 64, he’s a relatively free man nowadays – just the 30 employees instead of 250. His business is the wind, specifically the harvesting of it. He didn’t start out in the industry with a “save the planet” philosophy. In the early days, back in the 1980s, it was all business, but he admits over the years he’s become something of an evangelist.
“You’ve got to walk the walk. I’m certainly a believer [in green energy] now. In the beginning I was just a believer in not being a lawyer. And maybe having an opportunity to do something in California where the sun was shining more often than in Vancouver. That sounded like a pretty good idea,” he says.
The Sunshine State back then was governed by Jerry Brown, who is currently enjoying another belated term in office. In the early 1980s he had the nickname Governor Moonbeam, and it was subsidies and tax credits introduced by Brown that drew early wind entrepreneurs to the state, including a young O’Sullivan, then barely 30. “Around 87 per cent of your investment was covered by some form of rebate or credit or depreciation. So if you put up $100, only $12.50 came out of your pocket. As bad as that may sound, it actually spawned a multi-trillion-dollar industry.”
The wind wasn’t his first stab at making a living. He trained in law, but “I didn’t like being a lawyer so quit and I started in real-estate development”. But interest rates blew to 20 per cent, which killed that dream. Then one day he got a call. “It was my uncle, asking if I was interested in investing in a wind farm project in California. Well, I had no money – I spent it all starting the real estate business – but I did have lots of friends who trusted my judgement. My choice was going back to be a lawyer, or to try something different.”
O’Sullivan raised the required $100,000 but by the time he got it together the window had closed – another investor had slipped in ahead of him. No matter, he would start his own wind company, with his friends’ backing. The site of his first turbines was Tehachapi, about 100 miles north of LA, in between the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert, and one of the windiest places in the US. It was a genuine wind rush, a mania not seen since the 1850s when 300,000 “forty-niners” made the journey west to stake a claim.
Within a year O’Sullivan had sold that business and struck out on his own, eventually building his new wind company into one of the largest in the US, with operations all over the world, from India to Italy to Mexico. It was the sale of this business in 2012 that allowed him to buy his yacht, the 40 metre HorizonKomokwa. “I never thought I’d be able to get a boat as big as this,” he says, “but it was just good timing because, at the same time wind was booming, the market for big boats was cratering.” He found her in a shed in Turkey, basically brand new after her first owner pulled out. He bought it off a creditor, at a very agreeable price, and got her shipped to Vancouver. The first thing to go were the Italian toilets, replaced by Headhunters, the air-con piping was changed and a bulbous bow was added at Delta’s yard in Seattle, as well as new hull paint. In 2013 he and the boat were ready. “I’d had it in my head to go around the world since I was in my early 20s. But I had businesses to build and I was fairly ambitious and didn’t want to be a bum on a boat, doing work wherever I could just to pay for fuel,” he says.
His dad first got him into boats. “He couldn’t afford to buy one, so built a 34-foot cabin cruiser when I was seven years old,” O’Sullivan remembers. “He made a steamer out of a carpet tube and bent the stem himself. It had a GM diesel that he bought for $100 from war surplus. When we were kids, in order to get dessert, he would have us sanding teak plugs.”
It was launched when O’Sullivan was 10 and from then till 2015, every single family holiday has been spent on a boat, mainly exploring the beautiful British Columbia coastline. It was only when he was in his early 20s, though, that O’Sullivan truly learnt how to run a boat. By then his dad owned a 15 metre former fisheries vessel, complete with fireplace. “It was really fun. When I graduated I asked him if he would teach me how to run it and he said ‘sure’ and handed me the keys and told me to figure it out by myself. That’s when I really started to love the sea. I remember going up to Desolation Sound with prawns aplenty and lots of friends. And all the pressure, whether it was being a young lawyer or being a young windmill guy, just sort of evaporated in this environment. I think my whole life has been spent trying to recreate that dissipation of pressure.”
You’d think someone so keen to de-stress would spend most of his time on board Komokwa on a sunpad, occasionally reaching for his beer, but instead O’Sullivan is in the wheelhouse, or on the flybridge, operating the yacht himself. Of the 25,000 miles the boat has done since he took ownership, only 2,000 were completed without him at the helm. He was initially refused insurance because of his insistence on being an owner-operator, but three weeks of skipper school and an aced exam in Fort Lauderdale convinced Lloyd’s he was a safe bet.
He began his big trip west by going south, as Komokwa made passage from Vancouver to LA, San Diego and on to Cabo San Lucas and La Paz on the Baja Peninsula. “We wanted to swim with whale sharks,” O’Sullivan explains. Then it was on to Puerto Vallarta further south in Mexico, before a straight shot across to the Marquesas – 15 days at sea. A month in Tonga and a month in Fiji followed, as well as visits to some of the other island paradises that pepper the Pacific, including Bora Bora, Moorea and Papeete. He put into Sydney in Australia to get some work done, but encounters with aggressive customs officials (“they quarantined the boat for two days! They even went through the crew’s underwear, piece by piece”) and a quote for AUD$8,000 to wash down the boat saw him quickly crossing the Tasman to New Zealand. “We cruised all of the North Island. It’s really beautiful. I wish I could have spent more time there,” he says.
The spectre of Somalian piracy and a destabilised Yemen convinced him to load Komokwa on to a Dockwise transport bound for Palma, Mallorca, a base from which he criss-crossed the Med, covering Italy, the Adriatic and the Côte d’Azur. “A friend of mine is a movie producer so I lent him the boat for the Cannes Film Festival. He had a party on board and I got tickets to the black tie, red carpet events. Movie people are crazy,” he says.
Perhaps not as crazy as the crew that came and went throughout the trip. Crew are a necessary evil for O’Sullivan – if he could run the boat entirely on his own, he would. “I don’t know what it is about crew, but they’re all nuts. The biggest source of conflict on a boat is crew. And if I could get a boat with a much larger crew area, but that would still only house five crew, I would be interested.”
Australian officialdom wasn’t O’Sullivan’s only drama down under. It turned out a stewardess, who was on board with her deckhand boyfriend, was having an affair with the engineer. The engineer in turn was sleeping with the chef. “So I ended up losing all of them,” he says, shaking his head. But this is pretty tame compared to O’Sullivan’s best crew story: “We had a cocktail party on board the first summer I had the boat. Later that night one of my guests got up to get some water and heard a thumping sound coming from the walk-in fridge. I open the door and the chef, a guy and the first one I had on board, is in there going at it with a guest from another boat!”
When I graduated I asked [my dad] if he would teach me how to run the boat and he said ‘sure’ and handed me the keys and told me to figure it out by myself.
He says he prefers the European way of running a boat – a more upstairs, downstairs relationship – to the North American “we’re all one happy family” approach. “You don’t be mean but you set the boundaries. I didn’t come from money. When my father died he left me $764. That was it. So I’m not used to having staff around me all the time. The thing I love about boats is being able to get away from people. The top deck of Komokwa is essentially an owner’s deck and I don’t want to see crew there. I absolutely demand my privacy.”
Despite all this, he still considers the cruise one of the greatest experiences of his life. And why not? He knows how lucky he is to be doing what he’s doing. “How many guys can live a life cooler than I do right now, which is zipping around on my boat? And I get to see my two sons a lot, and I meet great people.”
He’s thankful, too, for the wind industry, which has given him all this. He’s still involved and is developing sites in Mexico with a new company. It’s boom-time down there, he says. “I challenge anyone to get a hotel room tonight in Mexico City.” He did try other things, even movie producing, working on a film called Dangerous Love, released in 1988. “It was a turkey! But I had fun doing it and I managed to not lose any money.” That experience meant he passed up the opportunity to invest in another production, which turned out to be Dumb and Dumber (box office gross: $127 million). “Perhaps I could have stayed on for one more movie!” He also built some apartment buildings in LA and chose not to invest in Cirque du Soleil. “I thought: ‘Who the hell would pay good money to go see a circus?’”
He can laugh about it today because he’s living the life he always wanted. “I say to my sons: ‘Find a job you love and you’ll never have to work again.’ For me, that was wind power. When I look back on everything, I’m very fortunate to have been where I was at the time, to have had the opportunities and experiences I’ve had. You guys even got me a free pass to the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show. It’s the first one I’ve ever got!”