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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cornelis van Rietschoten 1926-2013 - Memories of a Great Man

Cornelis van Rietschoten 1926-2013
Cornelis van Rietschoten, skipper of Dutch yacht Flyer 1977-78 Photo: Volvo Ocean Race / By Agathe Armand Onne van der Wal/PPL
Journalist Barry Pickthall knew very well Conny van Rietschoten, who died on Tuesday aged 87, and watched him finish triumphant in successive Whitbread Round the World Races in 1973-74 and 1981-82. Here he pays a tribute to the man who changed the face of the event for good.
Photo: Bob Fisher
Cornelis van Rietschoten (Conny) was Holland’s most famous yachtsman, dominating ocean racing during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Photo: Barry Pickthall-PPL ©
He made his mark in the Whitbread Round the World yacht race, winning the event as skipper in 1977-78 and 1981-82 and setting two world records: the fastest Noon-to-Noon run of 327 miles and the fastest circumnavigation of 120 days.

Conny was first introduced to sailing aged 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.

After the 2nd World War he moved to England to study engineering. A win on the football pools funded the purchase of a Dragon class keelboat Gerda and with a friend aboard, he developed a taste for long-distance sailing.

One of the earliest journeys was from Cowes, UK to Arendal, Norway, to compete in the 1948 Dragon Gold Cup world championship. They didn’t get anywhere near to winning, but Crown Prince Olaf of Norway proclaimed the two Gerda crew the best sailors at the regatta for sailing by far the furthest distance.

Conny continued to sail while focusing on developing a successful business career and went on to compete in several Fastnet and Santander races.

But it was not until 1977 that the world of sailing really got to know about this shy, private, fiercely competitive Dutchman. Retired by age 45, he had been intrigued by newspaper reports about the first Whitbread Race in 1973. A circumnavigation was something his father had always wanted to do and seeing it as the opportunity of a lifetime, the determined Conny grabbed it with both hands.

With enough money to fund a full-on campaign, Conny was ahead of the established sailing names at the time. But just as importantly, he brought a degree of professional management far above the level of the amateur gung-ho ocean racing entries, changing the sport forever.

It’s now standard procedure but in 1977, Van Rietschoten was the first skipper to undertake extensive trialling and crew training before the race and funded research to improve crew clothing, rigs and the first computerised forecasting techniques.

Out on the course their greatest rival was Skip Novak’s Kings Legend. Racing was so close in the first leg from Portsmouth to Cape Town that the two crews cross-tacked within sight of each other 1,000 miles from the finish until Flyer pulled ahead to win by just 2 hours.

But leaks and wipeouts thwarted King’s Legend’s chances and it was all over by the time the fleet rounded Cape Horn on Leg 3, giving victory on handicap to the Dutchman and his crew.

Van Rietschoten returned for the 1981-82 Whitbread with a new Flyer and was matched against Peter Blake’s Ceramco New Zealand. The Kiwi yacht dismasted during the first leg, handing Flyer a run-away victory on this first stage to Cape Town, 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 the steely side of his character. He suffered a heart attack and swore his crew to secrecy, even though Ceramco had a cardiologist onboard 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!”

Ceramco won that stage on handicap but the race from there was one of constantly swapping places. Half way across the Pacific the two yachts were within sight of each other, and 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, taking both line and handicap honours for the race, to date still the only crew to achieve this.

In 2011, seventeen of Flyer’s crew came from all corners of the globe to celebrate with their rivals on Kings Legend and Ceramco at the 30th anniversary of Conny’s second victory during the Legends Regatta at Alicante. Sadly, the great man was too ill to join them, but sent his best wishes.

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

Barry Pickthall

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