Most people who have enjoyed a day at the beach have experienced something like it: a crashing wave that blindsides you out of nowhere. One moment you're enjoying the sun and the surf; the next you're plunged into a disorienting vortex of green water, your mouth and nose filled with brine, leaving you unsure of even the way to the surface.
In a similar fashion, storm-spawned waves reaching the size of a 13-story building exerted the same effect on a fleet of racing sailboats during the 1998 run of one of Australia's more revered and prestigious races, wreaking havoc and costing lives. Martin Dugard's Knockdown vividly retells the story of these boats and their crews as they battle the tempest. (The title is derived from a term describing a sailboat driven near to capsizing by towering waves.)
The traditional race from Sydney to the Tasmanian port of Hobart began the day after Christmas in 1945 to test the friendly boasts of a group of avid sailors. By 1998, the race had attained a prestige in Australia surpassing the America's Cup. Its route threads the notorious Bass Strait, a vast expanse of relatively shallow water separating two mighty oceans. Strange tides, rogue waves, and sudden storms are common occurrences in the Strait. The 735-mile Hobart race is widely regarded for its difficulty, and each boat is required to number three race veterans among its crew.
Among the 1998 participants were expert sailors predicted to win the 2000 Olympics, middle-class workers for whom boating is a weekend passion, corporate honchos enjoying the perk of a ride on a company-sponsored yacht, and a painstakingly restored wooden boat that participated in the very first Hobart race. Whatever their background, these sailors expected a challenging race and intended to brave drenching waves, seasickness, and unpredictable currents. But as three storm systems combined to form what amounted to an instant hurricane, they found themselves in a common struggle for survival, with numerous opportunities to display heroism or cowardice.
Like Sebastian Junger in The Perfect Storm, Dugard renders complex weather patterns comprehensible to the lay person - indeed, as the reader understands what the sailors are approaching, suspense increases all the more. Dugard maintains suspense in two equally effective ways. Foreseeing the tragic fate of certain boats, the reader can only watch tensely as the sailors approach disaster. Other times, both tragic drownings and miraculous escapes come as surprises. In relating a story probably unknown to many, Dugard's book tells a thrilling tale of survival.
Gregory Harris is a writer and editor.