The Proving Ground - By G. Bruce Knecht, 294 pages, $24.95, Little, Brown and Company, New York
The subtitle of The Proving Ground is “The Inside Story of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race,” and writer Bruce Knecht says he wanted to describe the tragic race (in which six sailors died) more thoroughly than had previous authors. He focused on the crews of three boats-Sayonara, Sword of Orion and Winston Churchill. Sayonara won the race after taking a beating. The Sword lost Olympic Star sailor Glyn Charles overboard during a 360-degree roll that dismasted and disabled the boat; its crew was later air-lifted to shore. The 56-year-old Winston Churchill, a classic wooden yacht that had raced in 16 Sydney-Hobarts-including the first in 1945-was stove by the sea and sank. Her nine-man crew abandoned ship into two life rafts, but three of them drowned as they awaited rescue.
Knecht says his goal was to present rich portraits of these racers, and the big name interviewee is Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle and one of the richest men in the world, who owns Sayonara. Knecht leads with Ellison and Sayonara in the thick of the storm that brutalized the fleet, and right there the book began to bother me. Ellison is certainly a powerful, interesting man, and his yacht, with its completely paid, professional crew, is one of the best in the world. But 115 boats started the 45th running of this race, and 43 finished. Most were sailed by unsung yet talented and dedicated amateurs. The focus on Ellison smacked to me of heavy-handed name-dropping to sell the book to a mass audience. Furthermore, experienced sailors will likely be annoyed by the book’s lack of basic yacht racing details. For example, nowhere do we learn something as rudimentary as the boats’ length, or who designed them, or even what class they are racing in.
Clearly Knecht spent a great deal of time interviewing sailors who survived the Sydney-Hobart, and for me the most revealing details are within the story of Sword of Orion. A crew’s cohesion and ability to trust one another is paramount in ocean racing, and nowhere is this more evident than on Sword, on which owner Rob “Kooky” Kothe at the last minute brought aboard two outsiders-Glyn Charles and Steve Kulmar-in an effort to get some big-name helmsmen. Kulmar in particular was a pushy prima donna, alienating the regulars and, when the going got hellish, basically becoming useless. Knecht describes Charles as being overwhelmed by the conditions, and the book at least obliquely blames him for steering the Sword into its death roll. In a truly horrific scene, the Sword’s crew is rendered utterly incapable of reaching Charles-whose tether had snapped-as he floats away, apparently injured and unable to swim to the boat. With their rig over the side, the wheel ripped apart, and the running rigging all about the boat and certain to foul the prop, all they could do was try to hurl Charles a line and life ring-neither of which could penetrate the howling wind. And so his mates could only watch as he slowly drifted away, wave top to wave top, to his death. The feeling of frantic helplessness is palpable, and it’s one of the book’s strongest moments.
Unfortunately, there are too few of these moments, when you really feel the fear and exhaustion these people faced, and I think it’s because Knecht, a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, does too much telling and not enough showing. The book has some powerful descriptions from the sailors, but somehow it maintains a distance from the reader. Only a few times did I really feel I was in the thick of it.
And for me, Knecht commits his greatest sin when he relegates women to the role of hand-wringing wives and girlfriends. Nowhere does he say that women race in the Sydney-Hobart; they’re all on the beach, evidently too delicate to handle racing or just dedicated to getting their husbands to quit. “Since girlfriends and wives were part of the crowd,” Knecht writes, “there wasn’t much discussion about the ominous forecast.” Later he says, “Yachting is full of hard-charging men who are used to having their own way.” Last time I checked, women were running America’s Cup campaigns and single handing Open 60s around the world. The author’s notes say Knecht is a sailor and racer. If so, he should know better.