Yacht Racing's Debacle Down Under

By Bob Dowling


By G. Bruce Knecht

Little, Brown -- 295pp -- $24.95


By Rob Mundle

McGraw-Hill -- 272pp -- $12.95 paper


By Martin Dugard

Pocket Books -- 243pp -- $13.95 paper

Blue water sailing is as different from coastal sailing as a Himalayan expedition is from backpacking in the Rockies. That's easy to forget in a season like this past one, when some 95 climbers summitted Mt. Everest and when there were no catastrophic international sailing events. On a cloudless day, with a mild sea and a forgiving wind, a big offshore race can seem like a run across the bay. It's weather that makes the disasters and the best-sellers, from Into Thin Air to The Perfect Storm. In 1998, Australia offered the whole shebang.

Each year, starting the day after Christmas, fathers, sons, and grandsons compete in the classic Sydney-to-Hobart race, sometimes called the Everest of Australia. They cover a 630-nautical-mile course that leaves Sydney Harbor and ends in Hobart, a port on the island of Tasmania. Families fly in for the finish, everyone drinks a lot, and runners-up spend a year plotting how to edge out a friend or a neighbor.

In 1998, with the race in its 54th running, the start was auspicious. One hundred and fifteen yachts left Sydney Harbor under a strengthening northeasterly breeze. But just 44 would finish, 5 would sink, and 6 experienced sailors would drown. Sayonara, an 80-foot maxi boat owned by Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison, with Rupert Murdoch's son Lachlan onboard and America's Cup skipper Chris Dickson at the helm, finished first. But after the tragedy, there would be no awards ceremony. "This is not what racing is supposed to be," said a stunned and mournful Ellison, who promptly left.

There was one Cassandra even at the start. He was Roger "Clouds" Badham, a private meteorologist hired by some 20 boats to give them a competitive edge. Badham was already predicting one of the worst storms on record over the Bass Strait, a shallow, weather-whipped 140-mile-wide stretch of water before the finish. He called conditions "cyclonic" and predicted winds of 50 to 60 knots, capable of generating waves of up to 60 feet.

Three books tell what happened next. Fatal Storm by Rob Mundle, an Australian journalist and former TV weatherman, was written in just 16 weeks following the disaster and published in 1999. Knockdown, by California adventure writer Martin Dugard, was originally launched as an e-book, then also rushed into print in 1999. The Proving Ground, by G. Bruce Knecht, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, is just hitting stores. Focusing on the already much-covered Ellison, it's the smoothest read of the three, but it's mostly the same tale, recounted two years later.

Knecht's failure to produce fresh details or insights may just be because nautical disaster stories are intrinsically narratives of courage, heroism, and fatal screwups. Like the storms they often feature, such books get their energy from the supercharged immediacy of the event. Introspective, reflective types who might provide a more analytical account aren't usually aboard boats like these.

Mundle simply wants to tell the story, and he does it well. An Aussie who has sailed the Syd-Hob and covered it for three decades, he has the tactics, strategy, and weather down pat. He nails all of the leading skippers and many family members in the aftermath, and--a real plus--includes 33 pages of dramatic color photos of demasted, capsized, and sinking craft amid 60- to 80-foot waves. (The McGraw-Hill Companies, his publisher, is also the owner of BusinessWeek.)

Dugard concentrates on the Australian boat that won under handicap rules, the smallish 35-foot Midnight Rambler. He blames the Australian Bureau of Meteorology for underplaying the storm and the race organizers for failing to call the event off. Dugard's melodramatic style doesn't help, however, and he leaves you wondering how much anyone could have done once the boats were trapped in the storm.

All three writers grapple with the fatal attraction that led so many to believe they could beat the storm. In a word, it was their ultracompetitiveness. When boats were upended by monster waves and survivors learned a competitor was blown out, they often saw it as a better chance to win. Ellison, whose big boat was one of the safest, didn't come back the next year. But his maxi competitors, and most of the smaller ones, did.

Assistant Managing Editor Dowling is a coastal sailor.

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