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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When they met on Sayonara's deck in Alameda, across the bay from downtown San Francisco, the newly assembled crew-men were impressed by what they saw. Everything on the boat was black or white except for the red that filled the o in Sayonara's name painted on the side of the hull. White hulls typically have a dull finish, but Sayonara's reflected the shimmering water like a mirror. The 100-foot mast, which bent slightly toward the stern and tapered near the top, was black, as were the sail covers, winches, and instruments. Like most modern racers, Sayonara had a wide stern and a broad cockpit, on which stood a pair of large side-by-side steering wheels. Sayonara was narrower than most other maxis and, at twenty-three tons, lighter than most of its peers. The unpainted interior was carbon-fiber black. While there is nothing pleasant about a windowless black cabin, paint has weight, and the lack of it only emphasized the commitment to speed.

The front third of Sayonara was an empty black hole except for long bags of sails. There was a similar-looking black cavern in the back of the boat. Only the center section was designed to be inhabited by sailors, and even there the accommodations were spartan. Pipes, wires, and mechanical devices protruded from the walls, and nothing was done to cover them. Just as David Thomson had promised, Sayonara was a pure racing machine.

Within three years, Sayonara had become virtually invincible, winning three straight maxi-class world championships as well as the Newport to Bermuda Race, America's most prestigious offshore race. Ellison couldn't have been more pleased. "I could have bought the New York Yankees, but I couldn't be the team's shortstop. With the boat, I actually get to play on the team."

Getting to know the crew was part of the fun. Ellison discovered that many of them shared his interests in planes and fast cars, and he enjoyed being with men who were driven and competitive but wanted nothing from him beyond the chance to sail on Sayonara. Ellison was so pleased by his crew and so confident of their abilities that in 1997 he arrived at the maxi championship regatta, which was held in Sardinia, with Rolex watches for every crewman. They had been engraved Sayonara. MAXI WORLD CHAMPIONS. SARDINIA 1997 long before the racing began.

During that regatta's penultimate race, Hasso Plattner's Morning Glory was winning until the halyard that held its mainsail broke and the sail collapsed. Seizing on the opportunity, Sayonara, which had been in second place, took over the lead. For the rest of the race, it "covered" Morning Glory: whenever Morning Glory tacked, Sayonara also turned so that it always stood between its opponent and the finish line, making it virtually impossible for Plattner to regain the lead, even after his crew rigged a new halyard. Covering is standard racing procedure, but it infuriated Plattner. Even worse, by winning that day's race, Sayonara clinched the championship. Ellison didn't have to sail on the last day to win the regatta, and he decided not to. Plattner considered Ellison's behavior unsportsmanlike. "I have only the worst English words to provide for them," Plattner said later.


Ellison and his girlfriend, Melanie Craft, a romance novelist, had arrived in Sydney a week before the 1998 Hobart. After Melanie heard that a major storm might coincide with the race, she thought the Hobart was one challenge Ellison could live without. Just hours before the start, she and Ellison walked from their hotel along the perimeter of the harbor and into the lush Royal Botanic Garden. There she tried, as she had several times before, to talk Ellison out of going on the race.

"It's idiotic," she said just before they got into a car that would take them to Sayonara's dock. "There's no reason you have to do it. It's much too dangerous."

Copyright © 2001 by G. Bruce Knechtht

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