The Colgate Scene
May 2001
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The Proving Ground
by G. Bruce Knecht '80
When I was covering the publishing industry for The Wall Street Journal, I frequently said that I would never write a book. I had seen too many writers work too hard to produce books that no one seemed to read. A few months after I became a Hong Kong-based foreign correspondent for the Journal, I changed my mind.

     During the last days of 1998, the Sydney to Hobart Race, one of the world's most challenging yacht races, collided with hurricane-force winds and waves that were as tall as eight-story buildings. Of the 115 boats that started in Sydney, only 43 made it to the Tasmanian city of Hobart. Seven boats were abandoned. Five sank. Several men died.

     A few days later, two friends of mine -- a literary agent and a senior editor at Little Brown & Company -- asked me if I would be interested in writing a book about what happened. Even then, the project seemed propelled by fate. I had already been planning to spend the following week at another friend's house on Whale Beach, an idyllic hideaway just an hour north of Sydney, and I used the week to explore the possibility of a book.

     First, I visited Richard Winning, the owner of the Winston Churchill, a classic wooden yacht that had twice circumnavigated the globe and raced in 17 Hobarts, including the first one back in 1945. Winning told me how the Churchill was confronted by an almost vertical wall of water in the 1998 race. From his perspective at the helm, he judged it to be 60 feet high. It began to break well before the Churchill reached the peak, and the churning piles of water hurled the yacht onto its side and down the face of the wave. The boat sank less than an hour later -- so quickly that Winning was unable to transmit an accurate position by radio.

Why, I wanted to know, did someone who had accomplished so much want to win a notoriously difficult race so badly that he shipped his boat all the way to Australia and hired an all-star crew of America's Cup veterans?
     My next interview was with John Stanley, a 51-year-old boatyard foreman who was the Churchill's most experienced sailor. Stanley described how the crew spent almost 30 hours on two flimsy life rafts. Sometime after midnight, an enormous wave, which was almost silent as it approached, lifted the raft before it began to break. The water was like a tidal wave, Stanley recalled, pushing his body forward, but also twisting it, as if he were inside a giant washing machine. Most of the ride was underwater, but he said it also felt as if he had fallen off a cliff. There was enormous pressure against his body, all of it, Stanley thought, intended to tear him away from the raft.

     As he told me what happened after the wave passed, Stanley's eyes filled with tears. "I was still holding on to the raft, and I called out, `Is everyone here?' There was only one response."

     The surface of the water suddenly calmed, and it was covered by a foamy whiteness that made it possible for Stanley to see the heads of two men bobbing close together about 100 feet away. A third man was also missing. And since the wind was pushing the raft much faster than the men in the water, the gap grew rapidly. Stanley never saw his friends again.

     I listened to his story with open-mouthed amazement, by then convinced that this was a book that I had to write. Once I returned to Hong Kong, I quickly negotiated a contract with Little Brown and persuaded the Journal to give me a two-year sabbatical.

     From the very beginning, I decided that I would focus on just three boats -- the Churchill being one of them -- so that I could develop rich portraits of some of the sailors and highly detailed accounts of what had happened to them. During the ten trips I made to Australia, I asked everyone I interviewed not only to describe the race but to explain why they entered it and how it had changed them.

     Sometimes I felt as if I were a therapist. When I first met the Churchill's youngest crewman, 19-year-old Matthew Rynan, he was reluctant to talk about his emotions. He clearly thought that to do so would be unmanly, so I told him about another young sailor, who had nightmare-like flashbacks whenever he heard a crashing wave, a helicopter or even wind rustling through a tree. With that, the floodgates opened. "He told you that?" Rynan blurted. "The same thing happens to me." The interview with Rynan lasted almost four hours, and it was the first of many.

     Not wanting to limit the book to boats on which people died, I decided that one of my three yachts would be Sayonara, a 79-foot "maxi-yacht" that completed the race and did so in less time than the others. Its owner is Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle Corporation and the world's second-richest man. Why, I wanted to know, did someone who had accomplished so much want to win a notoriously difficult race so badly that he shipped his boat all the way to Australia and hired an all-star crew of America's Cup veterans?

     Ellison may be best known for his towering ego, but during my first interview with him, a three-hour conversation which took place over lunch in the backyard of his home, I was also struck by his willingness to talk about his psychological composition and what it was like to grow up knowing that he was born to an unwed mother who gave him up for adoption. No one, I quickly learned, is more driven than Larry Ellison. He views all of life as a contest, one with a singular purpose -- proving that he is better than everyone else. Going fast is one of the ways he keeps score.

     "There are two aspects of speed," he told me. "There's the absolute notion of speed. Then there's the relative notion -- trying to go faster than the next guy. I think it's the latter that is much more interesting. It's an expression of our primal being. Ever since we were living in villages as hunter-gatherers, great rewards went to people who were stronger, faster."

     One of the two non-professional members of Ellison's 23-man crew was Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert's 27-year-old son and heir apparent. Like Ellison, Lachlan races for the challenge -- but his particular motivation is a bit different than Ellison's. Lachlan seems to like danger for its own sake. Sitting in his sprawling office in downtown Sydney, he told me, "Every once in a while I just have to do things that require me to make judgements about how far I can go. It's not that it's dangerous as much as it's unprotected, if you know what I mean."

     Every yachtsman had an interesting story to tell, and the job of weav-ing them together into a book was the best professional experience I've ever had. I had never written a book before or anything nearly as long, and the writing and revising sometimes seemed as if it would never end. But I looked forward to every day's work. In fact, while most authors reach a point where they just want to be done, I'm sorry it's over.

The Proving Ground, G. Bruce Knecht '80's gripping account of the deadly 1998 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, is already receiving rave reviews. "Knecht has turned out a sailing masterpiece," says Walter Cronkite, himself an accomplished yachtsman. "The book is in the `can't put it down' category. It is The Perfect Storm of blue-water sailboat racing."

     Knecht, a lifelong sailor who has served on Colgate's Alumni Corporation Board of Directors, earned an MBA from Harvard before he joined The Wall Street Journal, which has nominated him for two Pulitzer Prizes. The Proving Ground will arrive in bookstores in early June.

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