The Proving Ground

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Book Reviewed: The Proving Ground: The Inside Story of the 1998 Sidney to Hobart Race

Author: G. Bruce Knecht

Publisher: Little Brown, New York

Copyright Date: 2001

ISBN: 0-31649955-2

Type: Hardcover

Reviewed by: Yackman

Yackman’s Rating: 6 out of 10

My Review: This book focuses on the annual 630 mile Sidney (Australia) to Hobart (New Zealand) race of 1998 in which 115 boats competed.  What made this race stand out and gave the book its name was the disastrous surprise cyclone (hurricane) that struck the racing fleet at a most vulnerable point.  Of the 115, only 43 made it to the finish line.  Some boats turned back, many were damaged, some were lost, as were several sailors.  

While the men described in The Proving Ground share the same need for extreme adventure with those in Between a Rock and a Hard Place and A Voyage for Madmen, theirs was not so much an individual test.  It was if anything a contest between wealthy men who could bankroll the construction of specially designed racing machines and the crews to sail them.  While often super-competitive and extremely successful entrepreneurs, they were just as often not as skilled at sailboat racing as the crew they hired.  

To humanize the story the author selects several representative competitors to study in detail.  Most prominent among them is Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle and one of the wealthiest men in the world.  Ellison was able to have a super yacht designed and built, and hire a professional crew in an effort to win this and other ocean races.  He hoped that his boat, Sayonara, would smash the existing speed record for the race.  Ellison, known in business as a tough taskmaster, brought this characteristic to yacht racing also.  (I think it is instructive that Steve Jobs, Apple founder and another perfectionistic taskmaster, was Ellison’s best friend.)

Another yacht, Sword of Orion, was owned and skippered by a wealthy pharmacist, Rob Kothe, who jumped into high stakes ocean racing with little experience, but a willingness to spend money.  Kothe, known as “Kooky”, was poorly equipped to make decisions in the conditions that developed during this race and as a result lost a man overboard who could not be recovered.  

Richard Winning, another wealthy retired entrepreneur, skippered a third more traditional wooden yacht, Winston Churchill.  The boat’s traditional full-keeled design initially did well in the worsening conditions.  But finally the sometimes eighty food seas holed the Churchill and she went down.  

Bruce Knecht’s well researched narrative in engaging and dramatic.  It gives us a good feel for the interplay among the characters, both the wealthy owners and the more skilled crewmembers.  We can clearly see that most competitors were in way over their heads in this storm.  Survival was as much a matter of luck as skill.  The thing that places this story a bit lower in my ratings is that, for me, it lacks the element of the heroic quest; one man engaged in an impossible quest against all that nature and fate can throw at him.  For me, Adam Ralston (Between a Rock and a Hard Place) and Robin Knox Johnson (A Voyage for Madmen) met this criterion.  Larry Ellison did not. (For a better sailing tale see A Voyage for Madmen)


 © Don Yackel 2020