For Tech Pioneer, Sailing Is Simplified
Philippe Kahn’s Pegasus Racing was once a globe-trotting sailing team, but today, the good stuff is right at home in Santa Cruz.
Philippe Kahn started late, but in a few short years of going hard he won more races than most people manage in a lifetime. Then he declared, “I have to learn how to sail before I die.”
If someone told you the man now sails only small boats—after 15 big-boat races from California to Hawaii, three of them doublehanded, two with doublehanded records—you might wonder if a spark had burned out. The way Kahn sees it, no. A light flashed on.
But before we get to that, let’s make sure we know who we’re talking about. The short course on Kahn is that he invented the camera phone—and it wasn’t his only score in tech—and it’s been a journey, and now he does his sailing out of the tiny harbor at Santa Cruz, an hour’s drive south of San Francisco. Solid and fully fit, but heavy-set, and lately with a COVID beard, these days he’s focused on biosensing. “I don’t need to work anymore,” he says, “but I love what I do. I can’t help it.” And even the biosensing has ties to sailing. So, how did Philippe Kahn become Philippe Kahn?
It started with being French, and that should tell us a lot. His single mother was an Auschwitz survivor, a concert violinist and, at one time, an officer in the French Resistance. There is nothing one-dimensional in that, and Kahn’s education included a master’s in mathematics and a master’s in musicology and flute performance. By that time, he was already dreaming of crossing oceans under blue skies. “Growing up,” he says, “I had no idea what a sailboat was, but like all the French, I was in awe of Tabarly and the other sailing legends. Everybody in France follows their stories. So, when my first company went public, I went out and talked to a friendly salesman and wound up building a Baltic 43. That was 1986, a long time ago. He taught me how to get it off the dock, and every weekend I would reach across Monterey Bay and back. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I always made it. My friendly salesman was Chris Boome, one of those guys who grew up but never grew out of racing Lasers, and Chris convinced me to do a Mexico race on the boat and to bring along a 14-year-old kid. That’s how I met Morgan Larson. Morgan is now 50, which is a scary fact, but it matters how in this game you meet these characters, and they’re all connected, and then it’s ‘we’ who are all connected.”
Kahn is ever-ready to tell anyone who will listen about the beauty of the sailing life and the relationships it builds, and it’s not hard to get him going on Santa Cruz either. He says: “All the best people like to come to Santa Cruz. Mark Reynolds, Olympic gold medalist in the Star. Mike Martin, five-time 505 world champion, and I want to say right here that I love the 505. I don’t know how many Worlds I’ve done in that class, and I can never be competitive because I’m not 180 pounds and 6-foot-3. I’m 250 pounds at 6 feet. But I love the boat. I love racing a 505 because it gives me a reason to go sailing.”
And that brings us back to what makes Philippe Kahn tick.
Of his 15 Pacific crossings, he says: “I was most interested in the doublehanded races, and the last one I did with Crusty Christensen, where we crushed the record, that was exciting—much more exciting than ’01 or ’03 when we beat Pyewacket twice with full crew [in the Reichel-Pugh Pegasus 77]. All good, but how many times would I want to do that? Doublehanding added adventure rather than logistics. I do plenty of logistics management at my company, Fullpower-AI. In sailing, I’m not interested anymore in assembling a crew, booking plane tickets, booking hotel rooms, setting shipping dates, juggling changes, managing personalities. That’s a lot of logistics for very little sailing. Here in Santa Cruz, we’ve built a house next to the yacht club, across from the dinghy ramp. With two dinghies sitting in my yard, I can roll out either boat and be on the water in five minutes. The beauty of Santa Cruz is that nearshore you get 8 knots of breeze, and out at Mile Buoy you get 25 knots and rollers. More days than not, you can pick your conditions. It was after we built this house that I began to ask myself, why would I want to travel, maybe change planes twice and go through a checklist of logistics, to sail maybe seven races when I can stay here and sail every day with no hassles? I tell people, if you love sailing, you’ll love Santa Cruz.
“I can sail for an hour or two on an interesting boat and improve my skills and go head-to-head against the kids. It can happen on a foiling catamaran, a Laser, a Moore 24, just about anything. I’m too heavy for some of the boats, but that doesn’t matter because I love doing it.” And it’s not as though Kahn’s ambitious Pegasus Racing program is mothballed. He reports: “We have a warehouse where we build our own sails and our own carbon parts, but now we leverage Pegasus Racing by sailing every day as opposed to chasing an arms race around the world. We also have a slip and a couple of keelboats, and when there’s a big event in Moore 24s, it attracts the likes of Steve Bourdow and Morgan. The Moore racing is a lot of fun and more competitive in many ways than the big-boat stuff.”
Philippe Kahn’s sailing escapism today often includes solo mind-cleansing sessions in his Finn or foiling catamaran.
The Moore 24, produced from 1974 to 1982, rests on the altar of a regional cult of downwind flyers, and Larson has been a thread in Kahn’s sailing life since his race to Mexico as a 14-year-old. Larson crewed often for Kahn in the big-boat days, Pacific crossings included. In the spring of 2021 in Santa Cruz, Larson finished second in the Moore 24 Nationals to Kahn, whose thoughts came in a rush as he spoke to your reporter. Picture the man asking himself: “Would I do another doublehanded Transpac, but with a foiling boat? Maybe we’re considering that. Because that would be extreme. That would be new. But there’s another thing I want to talk about. When my son, Samuel, was growing up, I looked for something we could do together, and I said, ‘Let’s do a two-boat program in Melges 24s rather than an ego-stroking big boat, and let’s train together and get a father-son thing going.’ The first year [that] Shark came to Key West, he was, I think, 11 or 12, and I asked Kevin Burnham, ‘Can he drive?’ Kevin said, ‘Let him drive.’ And he did amazingly well.”
For the Melges campaign, Kahn brought in professional crew for both boats (to go against other pro crews), so team building was not an issue. Kahn remembers: “When we went on the Melges circuit, in training, I always beat Shark. In racing, he always beat me. He won the 2003 Worlds at 15, and he drove every bit of it. When he went off to college, I realized I didn’t want to do the Melges circuit on my own. We had lived through a fantastic time together, but you can’t bring that back. Shark took a master’s degree in data science, and now he lives in Mammoth Lakes because he’s all about mountain climbing. When he comes down here, he’s mostly interested in kiting or windsurf foiling. That told me it was time to ask, what do I really want to do for myself? And that’s what we’ve been talking about.”
Santa Cruz is a surfing town. A laid-back attitude is built in, and Kahn surfs, but he lives his own high-energy version of laid back. Only a narrow stretch of coastal mountains separates Santa Cruz from the hustling pace of Silicon Valley, and only winding, nerve-challenging Highway 17 carries traffic through the gap between the Sierra Morena and Sierra Azul to Freewayville, a place that Kahn no longer needs to visit often. His doublehanded racing partner, Christensen, is also a business partner but no longer lives in Santa Cruz. As COVID-19 came on, biosensing work was shut down in the US, but not in New Zealand. Christensen moved his family in December 2020 to set up operations there and keep the enterprise moving at full power.
It’s now been a decade since these two were studying the demands of doublehanding big boats across an ocean and looking to optimize power naps. They created prototype sleep trackers using biosensors and triple-axis accelerometers to detect micromovements that would offer clues, and you can’t argue with the race results. Their 2009 Transpac lopped two days off the doublehanded record.
Ultimately, Kahn is all about the enthusiasms that he rides like half-broken broncos—for sailing, for technology. And then there is love of family. Daughter Sophie is all grown up today and living in New York, a good sailor but focused elsewhere. In 1997, her approaching birth set Kahn on fire to complete a project more than a year in the making. He had already built a photo-messaging infrastructure in his home, and with wife Sonia in labor, he jury-rigged a live connection between a digital camera and a mobile phone—still experimenting, mind you—and succeeded in sending out photos of his newborn. With that, a worldwide picture-sharing culture was also born. In 2016, Time included Sophie’s birth photo in its list of the 100 most influential photos of all time. And speaking of time, let’s end this on Kahn’s widely quoted observation about inventing the camera phone, applicable to so much of life: “Without the last minute, nothing would ever get done.”
In case you’re wondering when you’ll be ready for that next big race.