On December 26, 1998, 115 boats sailed out of Sydney Harbor at the start of the Sydney-to-Hobart race. The Syd-Hob is a grueling 735-mile race down the east coast of Australia, across the Bass Strait, and down the length of Tasmania. Known as the toughest blue-water (open-ocean) race on earth, it is also something of a rite of passage for sailors around the world--especially Australians. Aussie landlubbers also follow the race closely, greeting the winning boat with fireworks and a city-wide celebration.
But the 1998 Syd-Hob was no party. Before the race, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology issued a warning for 55-mile winds in Bass Strait, later upping the severity and describing approaching weather conditions as "atrocious." Atrocious proved an understatement. The first storm hit the fleet around midnight, causing many boats to turn and sail for home. At 2 p.m. on December 27, a rare phenomenon called a weather bomb hit Bass Strait, as three massive systems collided. Over the next 24 hours, mammoth waves of 90 feet and higher combined with 100 mph winds to batter the remaining boats. By the end of the day on December 29, the results were in: six lives lost, five boats sunk, many more boats--and sailors--seriously damaged.
In Knockdown, Martin Dugard captures the excitement--and horror--of the doomed race and its participants, though he does indulge in melodramatic foreshadowing at times. Dugard is quick to name heroes; he lays honors at the feet of the men and women of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority for their valiant efforts in rescuing more than 50 sailors. He also praises Iain Moray and the crew of the Siena, who turned around to help save the crew of Stand Aside. Explaining his actions afterward, Moray said simply, "I certainly hope someone would do the same for me if I were in trouble."
Though Dugard raises important questions--Why are sailors willing to take such risks? Why didn't more turn back as the storm hit? Why didn't the race organizers call it off when the weather reports came in? Should the public be responsible for paying the $650,000 price tag for the sea rescues?--he provides few answers beyond platitudes, such as "The history of Syd-Hob is about storms as much as sailing" and the "brotherhood of the honor" of finishing the race. That said, Knockdown is compelling reading for those who like their adventure stories served raw. --Sunny Delaney
From Kirkus Reviews
Adventurer Dugard (Surviving the Toughest Race on Earth, 1998) tells the story of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, a sailing event with the appeal of playing Russian roulette with all the chambers loaded. The Sydney to Hobart challenge, which crosses Bass Strait, a notoriously unpredictable piece of water, is one of those hellacious blue-water yacht races that have found fashion in the past few years, though the Syd-Hob is now 50 years old and has already known tragedy. In 1998, the freaky weather that characterizes the Bass Strait was at its freakiest, with three thuggish weather systems converging just as the race got underway the day after Christmas. Rumors were flying before the sailors left Sydney that a bad storm was brewing. The contestants sailed anyway, suggests Dugard, because they were cut from a different cloth: ``It's a gift to be born a natural adventurer. It's genetic, with one brother getting the adventure gene and another bestowed philately.'' When the storm finally overtook the racers out in the strait, tending a stamp collection ashore must have looked like a happy alternative. Ninety-foot waves knocked down boat after boat, great green rogues that sprang willy-nilly from the bottom, slamming sailors face-first into the woodwork, throwing them overboard, drowning them. Dugard is not a pretty writer, but the storm is an ugly customer too, and the bluster of one seems to feed on the bluster of the other, keeping the action at a pitch. Australian search-and-rescue squads eventually pull scores of sailors from the drink, and Dugard quietly conveys the heroism he had draped on the shoulders of the sailors to those of the seamen who have a more noble approach to risk. A thirst for adventure simply doesn't explain the madness of sailing into a forewarned gale on one of Earth's most potentially raging seas. Dugard, an aficiando of bravado, can't explain swagger when it goes pathological, even if it unfolds into a spell of a tale. (color photos, not seen) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.