Sail On Conny van Rietschoten

Conny van Rietschoten, who died Tuesday at the age of 87, was Holland’s most famous yachtsman, winning the Whitbread Round the World Race, not once but twice in 1978 and 1982 with yachts both named Flyer. He and his crew so dominated the second race with their 76ft Frers designed maxi, that they captured both line and handicap honors – another first. In doing so, the Dutchman and his crew also set two world records: The fastest Noon to Noon run of 327 miles, and the fastest circumnavigation of 120 days.

Conny was introduced to sailing at the age of 3, joining his Father Jan Jacob aboard the family’s 12-metre yacht Copeja, in races run by the Royal Maas Yacht Club in Rotterdam, but it was not until 1977 that the world at large got to know about this shy, but fiercely competitive Dutchman. Then 45, he had retired from active business looking for fresh challenges. Intrigued by newspaper reports about the first Whitbread Race in 1973, he saw it as the opportunity of a lifetime, and grabbed it with both hands.

The first Flyer was a modern version of the Swan 65 production yacht Sayula II,which had carried Mexican Ramon Carlin and his crew to victory in the first Whitbread race back in 1974. The new Flyer was also 65ft and ketch rigged likeSayula, but had a longer waterline and more sail area.

Conny’s greatest competition came from the sloop rigged Swan 65 Kings Legend led by Skip Novak, and by Auckland the half way stage, less than an hour divided the two. Kings Legend suffered a major wipeout during the next leg around Cape Horn and the Dutchman and his crew had only to shadow Kings Legend back to Portsmouth to win the race on handicap by 59 hours.

Van Rietschoten returned for the 1981/2  Whitbread with the second of his Flyer yachts, this time a 76ft maxi sloop purpose built to win line honors. She was matched against Peter Blake’s 68ft Ceramco New Zealand, a lightweight down-wind flyer designed to excel in the Southern Ocean. The Kiwi yacht was dismasted during the first leg, handing Flyer a run-away leg victory but from there on, the two yachts raced neck-and-neck around the rest of the world.

It was at the height of this competition that Conny displayed to his crew at least, the steely side of his character. He suffered a heart attack and swore his crew to secrecy, even though Ceramco had a cardiologist within her crew and was just a few miles behind. “The critical period after a heart attack is always the first 24-36 hours, and the nearest port (Fremantle, Australia) was 10 days away”, Conny recounted later. “Ceramco was already breathing down our necks. If they had known that I had a health problem, they would have pushed their boat even harder. When you die at sea, you are buried over the side. If that happened, the Ceramco boys might then have spotted me drifting by… and that, I was determined would be the only thing they would see or hear from Flyer on the matter!”

Flyer’s crew went on to win that stage by 9 hours, From there the race was one of constantly swapping places. Half way across the Pacific the two yachts were within sight of each other, and the two crews also rounded Cape Horn together before Flyer edged ahead on the windward leg up to Mar del Plata.

Conny and his crew finished first again back at Portsmouth, to take line honours for the Race, and when Charles Heidsieck III, their nearest rival on handicap fell into calms near the Azores, they became the first in the history of the race to scoop handicap honours too.

Conny’s death follows the announcement that his first Flyer, is to return to Holland to be restored to her former glory as a lasting legacy for future generations to sail on. There are even plans to race her again against Kings Legend, and that pleased him very much.

Detailed models of the two Flyer yachts have been bequeathed to the Maritime Museum, Rotterdam and all Conny’s trophies and memorabilia from the two races are destined to go on display at the Royal Maas YC.

Barry Pickthall

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