the proving ground book cover
I recently finished the book The Proving Ground by G. Bruce Knecht and it’s a fantastic read. In the same class as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, it’s a harrowing retelling of the disastrous 630 mile Sydney to Hobart race of 1998, one of the most challenging yacht races in the world. Colliding with hurricane-force winds and waves upwards of 80 ft, of the 115 boats that started the race in Sydney, only 43 made it to the finish line in the Tasmanian city of Hobart. Seven boats were abandoned. Five sank. Six lives were lost.

While reading this book I couldn’t help but be in awe of the passion and determination of the yachtsmen who choose to test their mettle in such races. Like surfing, the love for the sport is propelled by the magnificence and unpredictability of the ocean. It’s a difficult passion to understand if you don’t do it and nearly impossible to explain if you do. This is especially true when one is talking about the extreme end of either sport.

But why would somebody willingly put themselves in a position where they could be hurt or even lose their lives?

The answer lies both in respect and fear. Respect for the skills you’ve attained and the understanding that the element you love so much is completely unpredictable. And fear for knowing that, despite your skills and the confidence you have in them, you’ve pushed yourself right up to the edge where things can go either way — good or bad. Of course, it’s not the bad one is seeking, but the fact that it’s out there makes everything that much more electric.

The yachtsmen who participate in the Hobart race are some of the best and most prepared athletes in their sport. Yet, the race of 1998 broke many of them. The extreme weather was literally too much for the type of vessels that were out on the water that year and so the yachtsmen’s skills were tested in ways they never had before. In the end it was those skills that saved lives. Even still, when things were all said and done many of these athletes questioned what it was about the sport they loved so much and was anything worth putting themselves in such devastating conditions. For some the answer was never again, while others were back in the race the following year. What makes the story so compelling is that neither choice seemed incorrect.

I told my friend’s brother in law — who’s a sailor — about the book and he said, though it sounds fascinating he’s unable to bring himself to read such stories as they only make trips out on the water more nerve-racking. It reminds him, and reinforces the idea, that when you’re sailing there’s a lot of stuff out of your hands.

For myself, such stories don’t bother me. Maybe it’s because I’m not a sailor and I’ve never experienced scary weather out in the open ocean, but I don’t think so. Before I got into the book I wondered whether reading about such a disastrous event in a part of the world where I want to sail would be a good idea. Or would it only serve to plant seeds of fear and doubt in what I want to do? Fortunately for me the answer was no. Despite the fact that the book largely retells what went wrong in this race, what I took away from it and what affected me most deeply were the things that were done right and the skill and passion of the sailors who both perished and came through it.

Don’t get me wrong, I hope that when this trip happens I have nothing but stellar weather and smooth sailing. I want nothing to do with any weather that even remotely approaches the type of conditions they had for that Hobart race. But I’m not going to be deterred by the possibility that things could get uncomfortable or perhaps even a little scary. As I said above, what makes the ocean so alluring is the fact that it’s unpredictable nature provides for rich, challenging experiences. This is true in surfing, as it is in sailing.

I found this book accidentally after a keyword search for “sailing” on audible.com. I wanted something that described the experience of blue water sailing warts and all. The Proving Ground delivered what I was looking for and then some. Never feeling journalistic in style or tone, the book works as a tale of survival and will completely hold your attention. But more than this, it’ll give you insight into what draws one into the ocean and keeps them there despite the risks and the potential for tragedy.

2 comments on “the proving ground

  • At the risk of sounding, I don’t know, serious or poetical or something, I’ll pass on my thoughts about this.

    Most of human “civilization” is an effort to insulate ourselves from natural forces and deep feelings. (Think about it.) This is understandable, but it isn’t entirely right.

    Our psyches are not too selective. When we insulate ourselves from deep fear, we also lose touch with deep joy. When we’re too removed from the wind and the rain, sunshine is nothing special. Grief seasons love. And so on.

    I’m certain that sports with elemental connections, the ones that put us right up against irresistible forces — motorcycling. sailing, scuba diving, sky diving, spelunking — bring us back to our deep selves. We are dancing with the laws of physics. We must pay attention. We must be honest. And with that, life becomes more real.

    I find that very rewarding.

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