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The sea was so vast, and the ship was so small.
At the outset, let me just say that the Brothers Judd full disclosure policy requires me to acknowledge that Mr. Knecht is a fraternity brother of mine and if the book stunk, I'd not say so. In fact, the first few pages had me a little worried because there's some rather pedestrian prose and one of the yachts in the race was owned and skippered by Larry Ellison, of Oracle, who seems early on like he's going to be the center of attention in the book. This would be unfortunate because he's a difficult man to root for, at least as presented here, often in his own words. Actually, most of the yachtsmen seem fairly unlikable. It sometimes seems like every one of them thinks he's the only competent guy on board. But any initial concerns disappear once the storm hits and as the action at sea picks up so too does Mr. Knecht's writing.
The Sydney to Hobart race is apparently quite a big deal in Australia; from the sound of it, nearly the whole nation stops to watch the start on Boxing Day (December 26th). In 1998, 115 unsuspecting boats set out but only 43 made it to Hobart (Tasmania). Seven boats were abandoned and another five actually sank. 55 men were rescued. Six men died. The race had run into hurricane conditions, a cyclone sporting 80 mile per hour winds, and the sleek, ultra-engineered boats seem to have been particularly unsuited to such weather. In short order men were in the water and it is mostly them that Mr. Knecht follows and it is there that the book becomes genuinely thrilling, and terrifying.
The crew of the Winston Churchill, which was capsized by a 60 foot wall of water that broke over it, ended up in two life rafts. The other crew whose ordeal Mr. Knecht chronicles had been aboard the Sword of Orion. The hours, even days, these men spent in the water make for painful reading. One of the indelible images from the book is that of survivors recalling the sight of the bobbing heads of crewmates just a hundred yards away and knowing there's no way to get to them. The stories of these men and, as in The Perfect Storm, of the rescuers, make for a substantial portion of the book and it's outstanding.
A shorter concluding portion, featuring various courtroom hearings, unfortunately serves to remind us that, with some exceptions, these sailors just aren't a terribly sympathetic lot. Mr. Knecht presumably chose to write about Larry Ellison because he's a well known figure and a major businessman (Mr. Knecht writes for the Wall Street Journal), but he becomes kind of emblematic of the hubris that plagues them all :
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.
Note he's characterizing himself not just as any old player but as the shortstop. Likewise, Lachlan Murdoch, son of Rupert, who sailed on Ellison's boat, Sayanora, has this to say :
There are people who in their makeup need to take
risks. [...] Every once in a while I just have to do things
that require me to make
It takes a nearly superhuman effort on the part of the reader not to wish that it had been their boat that foundered. In this regard the book has a significant structural weakness in common with The Perfect Storm in that we spend too much time with people we don't care about and not enough time with some of the most compelling people in the book, the rescue workers who risk their own lives to save such men.
On balance then, Mr. Knecht has written a book that's well worth reading and is truly gripping throughout the bulk of the action. That less might have been better does not diminish the quality of what's best here and at its best the book is very good.
-ESSAY : The Proving Ground (G. Bruce Knecht '80, May 2001, The Colgate Scene)
-EXCERPT : Prologue of The Proving Ground
-CNN Presents : The Proving Ground (Cable News Network)
-ESSAY : TRAVEL: AN OTTOMAN ODYSSEY : A sailboat and the Turkish coast make a magical combination (G. Bruce Knecht)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW : The Proving Ground (Only a Game, June 23, 2001)
-ARTICLE : Yacht sailors, family and friends bid farewell to six killed in race (AP, January 2, 1999)
-ARCHIVES : "g. bruce knecht" (Find Articles)
-REVIEW : of The Proving Ground (Kate Hensler Fogarty, Washington Post)
-REVIEW : of The Proving Ground (Stephen Venables, booksonline uk)
-REVIEW : of The Proving Ground (Bob Dowling, Business Week)
-REVIEW : of The Proving Ground (John Burnham, Sailing World)
-REVIEW : of The Proving Ground (PATRICK MACALISTER, Law Society Journal)
-REVIEW : of The Proving Ground (Marla Abramson, Book)
-REVIEW : of The Proving Ground (Linda Anne Chancler, Dockwalk)