The Proving Ground

It was the day after Christmas when 115 sailboats crossed the starting line in what would become the worst disaster in recent sailing history. They had gathered for a famous 630-mile race that would take them from Sydney and across one of the world’s most treacherous bodies of water and then on to Hobart, on Tasmania’s rugged east coast. Less than 24 hours after the start, the fleet was shredded by hurricane-force winds and battered by 80-foot waves. What began as a race for glory suddenly became a fight for survival. When it was over, several men would be dead, boats would be lost, and the survivors would be forever changed.

The Proving Ground provides a gripping account of what happened, focusing on three yachts, with a cast of characters straight out of a novel. There is Larry Ellison, one of the world’s richest men and a restless soul with an almost pathological need to win. After the race, he vowed that he would continue to race but never again in open ocean—which led him to refocus his ambitions on the America’s Cup, which he later won. In the Hobart, Ellison’s crew included Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert’s favorite son, a 27-year-old with an inexplicable taste for danger.

On the Sword of Orion, a pharmacist-entrepreneur hoped to fulfill a childhood dream, even though it would require him to make a sudden leap from sailing novice to grand prix yachtsman—a leap that would end in disaster. On the Winston Churchill, a classic wooden yacht that had competed in the very first Sydney to Hobart Race 53 years earlier, the crew included a 19-year-old who friends called him Beaver, an investment banker and a garbage collector. Before the race was over, the Winston Churchill and three members of its crew would be no more.

The Proving Ground delves deeply into its characters, describing how they responded to extraordinary challenges, and it offers an incisive look at why people who have triumphed on land continue to risk everything at sea.