Helpless crew can do nothing except watch as one of their own, swept overboard during a capsize, drifts away in a storm

Along with the 1979 Fastnet Race, the 1998 Sydney Hobart has become a byword for disaster at sea. Unless a writer was actually on board one of the boats and recounts personal experience, reporting on such events is notoriously difficult.

G Bruce Knecht, sometime foreign correspondent of The Wall Street Journal, has risen nobly to this challenge in his book The Proving Ground. Originally published in 2001 in the aftermath of the tragedy, the book is now available via Amazon – and it should be required reading for all who go offshore to compete.

Within a framework of the race in general, Knecht has concentrated mainly on the events surrounding four boats. Sword of Orion is ultimately abandoned in the direst distress, Winston Churchill is lost, but Sayonara and Brindabella finish.

From meticulous research and endless interviewing of those involved, Knecht has produced a book that is hard to put down. Not only does he describe the events accurately, he takes the bold step of looking critically into the characters and motivations of the dramatis personae.

The book is skilfully crafted by a master and not written as a linear time line, but this has made it difficult to find an extract of suitable length for publication in Yachting World. I have eventually centred on the loss of Glyn Charles, an Olympic sailor from Britain, one of the crew of Sword. Charles joined the crew late in the day as a ‘rock star’ helmsman.

What went wrong and why, as described below, brings us right on board the yacht and it makes for harrowing reading.

From The Proving Ground by G Bruce Knecht

At about 1600, the owner Kooky’s requirement for giving up the race was surpassed as the wind reached close to 70 knots. By then, the yacht was 90 miles from the safe haven of Eden. In racing terms, Sword of Orion was still doing well, but even so he told his shipmate Kulmar he was prepared to give up. ‘It’s up to the helmsmen. If they want to go back, we’ll go back.’

Kulmar already knew what Brownie and Glyn would say, but he quickly checked with both of them before telling Kooky it was unanimous. ‘Fine, let’s do it,’ Kooky said.

‘But where are we going to go?’ Dags the permanent hand interjected. ‘We can’t head directly to Eden. That would put the waves behind us.’

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Hunched over a map, Kooky suggested that they head west, roughly in the direction of Melbourne, until it was safe to turn toward Eden. At 1644 Kooky announced Sword’s retirement over the radio, Brownie got out of his bunk and told Kooky, ‘I’ll take the helm when we turn around.’ Kooky said no. ‘Glyn’s on the wheel; he can do it.’

Glyn already had a plan. ‘I’ll wait for a big wave,’ he said. ‘As soon as we’re over the top, I’ll turn the wheel hard as we go down the other side. There’ll be less wind between the waves, and we should be able to get around pretty fast.’

Being on deck was painful. The wind was ripping through the rigging, producing a constant high-pitched shriek. And having created the waves, the wind had gone into battle with them, shaving off the foam at their peaks and creating a jet stream of moisture that looked like smoke. The droplets slapped Glyn and Dags with skin-stinging speed.

All the waves were huge, but after letting several pass Glyn judged one to be larger than the others. ‘This is the one,’ he shouted. The angle increased dramatically as Sword climbed the 35ft wave. Just before it reached the top, Glyn pulled at the wheel, hand over hand.

As Sword passed over the crest and began to tilt forward, the rudder came out of the water. When it resubmerged a couple of seconds later, the Sword carved a tight arc as it skidded down the wave. By the time it reached the valley, it was on a new course.

‘Great job,’ Dags shouted, but he had already begun to worry about Glyn’s ability to drive the boat. Rather than steering the westerly course they had talked about, he was heading north.

‘How are you feeling?’ Dags asked. Glyn, who had a stomach bug and was prone to seasickness, admitted to feeling terrible and then went on to say how bad he felt about not putting in more time at the wheel. ‘I haven’t done my job. I’ve let the team down.’

‘No, that’s not true. Shit happens. If you’re not feeling well, it’s not your fault.’


AFR Midnight Rambler, skippered by Ed Psaltis, battles through the atrocious conditions

The waves were no larger than before Sword changed course, but now they were far more dangerous. The almost northerly course Glyn was steering would take them directly to Eden, but it meant the waves were coming astern. That meant Sword was doing exactly what Dags had desperately wanted to avoid – surfing, vastly increasing the chances of going out of control and rolling over.

Glyn wasn’t really looking at the waves. Having cinched the cord in his hood so tightly around his face that he looked as if he were wearing blinkers, he seemed to be paying more attention to the instruments.

Dags, not sure what to do, shouted over the wind, ‘Do you want me to steer?’ With his eyes focused on the compass, Glyn replied, ‘No, I can do it. It makes me feel better.’ Almost pleading, Dags said, ‘But you can’t steer this way. We have to go into the waves.’

Glyn was obviously miserable. His jacket was equipped with rubber seals around his neck and wrists, which were supposed to keep water out, but a steady stream was trickling down his back and chest, causing him to tremble with cold. ‘This gear is worthless,’ he said bitterly. ‘I’m completely wet. I wish we could just get out of here.’

‘You have to stop surfing,’ Dags insisted. ‘Why don’t you let someone else steer?’ Glyn said nothing.

Dags wasn’t the only crewman who was worried about Glyn’s steering. Clipping his harness onto the safety line, the experienced Carl Watson made his way to the back of the boat. ‘Glyn, your course is too low — you have to come up so we can keep heading into the waves.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Glyn replied without making eye contact. ‘I had friends who died in the Fastnet Race. I know what to do.’

  1. 1. From The Proving Ground by G Bruce Knecht
  2. 2. Below decks
  3. 3. Drowning
  4. 4. The right response?
  5. 5. Dry land
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