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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For most of its history, sailing had proudly resisted the move to professionalism that had transformed many sports. But even Sir Thomas Lipton -- whose five spirited but unsuccessful America's Cup campaigns, which stretched from 1899 through 1930, earned him an almost saintlike reputation -- understood the value of sponsorship. The publicity engendered by his prolonged pursuit of the Cup did much to make his tea a popular brand in the United States.

Since then, the level of competition has steadily risen, requiring increasing amounts of time and money. In 1977, Ted Turner spent six months and $1.7 million preparing his winning America's Cup campaign. The only compensation he gave his crew was room and board. In 2000, five American contenders for the Cup planned to spend the better part of three years and more than $120 million preparing for the contest. Patrizio Bertelli, the head of the Italian fashion house Prada, provided the syndicate representing his country with a $50 million budget.

Ellison, who planned to compete for the America's Cup in 2003, expected to spend at least $80 million. He would pay many members of his crew upwards of $200,000 a year for the more than two years they would train together. Ellison, who intended to sail on the boat--at least some of the time as its helmsman-- would also take advantage of computer-based performance analyses and boatbuilding technologies that had been unthinkable even a few years earlier.

Turner, who had sailed on Sayonara for several races, was of two minds about what has happened to the sport he once dominated. During one race, he told Gary Jobson, his longtime tactician, "There are so many computers. Whatever happened to sailing by feel?"

As one of the computer industry's pioneers, Ellison had no such qualms.


Ellison, who won the Hobart in 1995, had two goals for the 1998 race. First and foremost, he wanted to take the record away from Plattner. After Bill Gates, Plattner was Ellison's most important competitor in the software business, and sailing had intensified their rivalry and added a deeply personal dimension. "It's a blood duel," Ellison would say, without the slightest suggestion that he was anything but deadly serious. He boasted that his yacht Sayonara, which didn't race in the Hobart the year the record was set, had never lost to Plattner's Morning Glory. Ellison and Plattner were not on speaking terms, but they had found other ways to express themselves. During one regatta, Plattner -- incensed by what he felt was unsportsmanlike behavior by Ellison -- dropped his pants and "mooned" Sayonara's crew. Ellison's other goal was to beat George Snow.

Snow, a charismatic Australian who had won the Hobart in 1997, and Ellison could hardly have been more different from each other. The crew on Snow's yacht, Brindabella, was almost all amateur. On Sayonara, with the exception of two guests -- one of them Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert's eldest son and heir apparent -- everyone was a professional. Ten of Ellison's twenty-three crewmen were members of Team New Zealand, which had won the America's Cup in 1995 and planned to defend it in 2000.

Ellison had always been upsetting traditions and bucking the odds. After his mother decided she couldn't take care of him, he was adopted by an aunt and uncle. Ellison never got along with his adoptive father, Louis Ellison, a Russian immigrant who took his name from Ellis Island and worked as an auditor. Growing up in a small apartment on the South Side of Chicago, Ellison wasn't interested in school or organized sports or anyone telling him what to do. "I always had problems with authority," Ellison would explain. "My father thought that if someone was in a position of authority that he knew more than you did. I never thought that. I thought if someone couldn't explain himself, I shouldn't blindly do what I was told."

Copyright © 2001 by G. Bruce Knechtht

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