‘Eat My Wake’

-Forbes Life

The preferred sport of father-son team Philippe and Samuel Kahn isn’t sailing. It’s beating each other’s brains out.

It was the moment every parent dreads. Philippe Kahn watched, crestfallen, as his son committed a transgression so grave, so obvious, that he had no choice but to administer drastic punishment.

So Kahn flew a red protest flag from the stern of his racing yacht and forced his son Samuel (Shark) Kahn to forfeit a first-place position in the Mumm 30 World Championship in Toronto last September. Shark, all of 15, was helming his own $100,000 yacht with a crew of five. He had tried to sneak in front of his dad but fouled him instead.

Kahn thought about letting the offense pass–what father wouldn’t?–but under the strict rules of yacht racing he was obliged to require his son to perform two 360-degree turns as a penalty. Shark went from the front of the fleet to the back and finished fourth. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Kahn, 52, a beefy French-born software magnate who in January sold LightSurf, his latest company, to VeriSign for $270 million in stock. “But everybody else was watching. What could I do?”

The snarling, hypercompetitive dad who seeks to realize his own frustrated ambitions through his kid is a cliché. But that’s not Kahn. Yes, he foots the bill for an outrageously expensive sailing program that has helped transform Shark into one of the world’s best racing skippers. But what he wants isn’t a surrogate. It’s a sparring partner.

At the Mumm 30 regatta, as in other top-level races around the world, the Kahns compete first against each other, then against the fleet. “Dad won’t give me a break,” says the shaggy-haired teenager. “I’m sure he didn’t want to protest me, but it’s about racing, and it wouldn’t have been fair for anybody else.”

Shark could hardly expect less from someone of his dad’s background. Kahn’s mother survived a Nazi death camp, his father the French Foreign Legion. Kahn himself became a karate champion at age 16. In the early 1980s he abandoned a career as a high school math teacher to strike it rich in Silicon Valley. His first big success, software house Borland International, grew to more than $480 million in revenues in the early 1990s before withering from bad management and bitter competition from Microsoft.

Undeterred, Kahn started Starfish Software, whose products synchronized data between mobile devices. He sold the company to Motorola for $258 million in 1998 (his share was 50%). Motorola and other cell phone companies backed his next idea–software to transmit photos between cellular phones. That was LightSurf (his take: VeriSign shares worth $125 million).

Kahn spends $1 million to $2 million a year hiring sailors to coach himself and Shark, while also bankrolling those sailors’ Olympic campaigns. Racing with Kahn & son these days are: Kevin Burnham, gold medalist in the 2004 Olympics; Jeff Madrigali, two-time Olympic medalist and 1990 world champion in the Soling (a 24-foot keelboat) class; Fredrik (Freddy) Looff, Swedish champion in the Finn and Star classes; and William Hardesty, 1998 College Sailor of the Year and an Olympic hopeful.

Aided by such talent, in 2003 Shark became world champion at 14 in the Melges 24, a five-person hot rod of a sailboat that can do 20 knots-plus with a stiff wind behind it. But hired talent didn’t explain his victory. Says yachtsman and sailmaker David Ullman, who lost to Shark that day: “It’s absolutely insulting to the rest of us to say, ‘Daddy bought him the best crew and he won.’ I had two Olympic medalists on my own boat.” Kahn Sr. himself has felt the sting of losing to Shark. “I’m not pushing him–he’s pushing me!” he complains in French-accented English.

Shark seems completely unfazed by his success, yawning and looking bored as his father holds a team meeting in a rented bungalow at the tony Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida, after a recent regatta. Discussion shifts to conflicts between Shark’s school calendar and a regatta in Europe. “He’s a pro sailor now, isn’t he?” Dad asks, only half-jokingly. “You’re dropping out of school, right?”

Shark doesn’t bother to reply. His self-confidence and self-possession come in part from the fact that he enjoys a life outside the world of sailing. He likes math and hockey and attends a private school in Santa Cruz, California. His stepmother, Sonia, makes sure Kahn doesn’t push the boy too hard.

The software entrepreneur and his wife were each the first in their families to finish high school, let alone go to college, so they don’t have outsize academic dreams for Shark. Kahn says sailing can teach Shark about teamwork, performance and having a positive attitude. “It sure beats watching television.”

When asked what he enjoys most about thrashing around in high-performance sailboats, Shark says, “I like going fast. I’m 15.”

Forbes Life
Eat My Wake
Daniel Fisher, 02.28.05