Excerpt from The Proving Ground by G Bruce Knecht, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Proving Ground

The Inside Story of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race

by G Bruce Knecht

The Proving Ground
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2001, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2002, 368 pages

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Ellison had entered the Sydney to Hobart Race because it is one of sailing's most challenging contests. The danger had been part of the appeal. But as he lay in his bunk and looked around the cabin, where some of the world's best sailors were lying on heaps of wet sails and retching into buckets, he was having second thoughts about his compulsive need to win.

Sayonara burrowed deep into each oncoming wall of water. Then, as if remembering it was supposed to float, it bobbed straight up to the wave's crest. At that point Ellison began to count--"one one thousand, two one thousand--as the bow projected out of the wave's other side, again seeming to defy the natural order of things, until such a large section of the seventy-nine- foot vessel was hanging freely that gravity brought it down. That motion seemed to continue forever, although he had only reached "four one thousand" when the cycle ended with a violent crash.

This, he kept saying to himself, would be a stupid way to die.

PART I
THE CALM

PHYSICALLY AND CULTURALLY, the harbor is the center of Sydney, never more so than the day after Christmas, when the start of the 630-mile race from Sydney to Hobart, a city on the east coast of Tasmania, causes it to become an enormous natural amphitheater. Virtually everyone in Sydney watches the start, either in person or on television. Parks, backyards, and rooftops overflow with thousands of spectators, most of them with drinks in hand. The harbor itself is crowded with hundreds of boats and is noisy with air horns and low-flying helicopters.

No place is busier than the source of all the excitement, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia. The club was founded in 1945, the same year it sponsored the first Sydney to Hobart Race. The CYC's home is an undistinguished, two-story brick building on the bank of Rushcutters Bay, just a couple of miles east of downtown Sydney. Its pretensions, to the extent it has any, are related to "the Hobart," as the race is usually called, rather than to social distinctions. Sailing has always played an important role in Australian life. It's not surprising to hear policemen and taxi drivers describe themselves as yachtsmen. On an island as big as the United States but with a population of less than 19 million, access to the waterfront has never been limited to the rich. The CYC's founders wanted to make sure it stayed that way, and in 1998 its 2,500 members paid annual dues of just $250, a tenth of what they were at some yacht clubs in the United States and Europe.

But although the CYC was modest in dues, it was not so when it came to its race. The main bar, which opens onto a large deck and a network of docks, is adorned with photographs of evocatively named Hobart-winning yachts: Assassin, Love & War, Ragamuffin, Rampage, Sagacious, Scallywag, Screw Loose, and Ultimate Challenge. In the slightly more formal bar on the second floor, a plaque carries the names of forty-three men who had completed at least twenty-five Hobarts. Although women had been competing regularly since 1946, none had yet earned a place on the plaque.

The CYC's race draws the biggest names in sailing as well as prominent figures from other fields. Rupert Murdoch competed in six races, and his fifty-nine-foot yacht Ilina, a classic wooden ketch, came in second in 1964. Sir Edward Heath, the former British prime minister, won in 1969. Three years later, Ted Turner shocked other skippers by brazenly steering his American Eagle through the spectator boats after the start of the race -- and then going on to win it. In 1996, Hasso Plattner, the multibillionaire cofounder of SAP AG, the German computer software giant, won in record-breaking time.

The very first race took place after Captain John Illingworth, a British naval officer who was stationed in Sydney during World War II, was invited to join a pleasure cruise from Sydney to Hobart, Australia's second-oldest city and at one time an important maritime center. Only if it's a race, he is said to have responded. It was agreed, and Illingworth's thirty-nine-foot sloop Rani beat eight other yachts to win the first Hobart in six and a half days. Until the 1960s it usually took four or five days to complete the course. In the following decades, the average time required shrank to three or four. Plattner's Morning Glory took just over two and a half days in 1996. The quickening pace reflected two of the biggest changes in competitive sailing: first, the move away from wooden boats, which were constructed according to instinct and tradition, to ones designed with the help of computers and built from fiberglass, aluminum, and space-age composite materials, and second, the transformation of what had been a purely amateur sport to one with an expanding number of full-time professionals.

Copyright © 2001 by G. Bruce Knechtht

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