On Tuesday, December 17, at the age of 87, one of the legends of ocean sailing, Conny Van Rietschoten, passed away from a heart attack. Born March 23, 1926, Van Rietschoten grew up in the Netherlands. He built his fortune by running the family business, Van Rietschoten & Houwens active in electrical components, before taking on a new challenge.
Challenge the businessman found in the second Whitbread Round the World Race as skipper of Flyer I in the 1977/78 edition, which he won over main rival Kings Legend in corrected time. Van Rietschoten returned in the 1981/82 edition to win a second time aboard Flyer II at the end of an epic battle with the New Zealanders of Ceramco (on which Sir Peter Blake was also embarked). Van Rietschoten is still the only sailor to have won two editions of the regatta, a record to this day unbeaten, and the first to win in both corrected and actual time. Not only that, he is also the only Dutch skipper on the round-the-world roll of honor.
“Winning two Whitbreads in a row was the result of Conny’s incredible planning, management and leadership work,” said Erle Williams, who was a member of the Flyer II crew. “Conny was an extraordinary man to sail with, he had confidence and gave courage to his men, he pushed to race to the maximum and, at the same time, he knew when to take his foot off the accelerator.”
However, it is not only victories that have made the Flying Dutchman a true legend of international sailing. His meticulous style was an important part of his and sailing’s success because it led to a new level of professionalism. For the second campaign aboard Flyer II, instead of deciding on an amateur crew Van Rietschoten relied on professional sailors from around the world, choosing the likes of New Zealand stars Williams, Joey Allen and Grant Dalton.
“The Flyer crew is saddened to learn of the passing of our very great friend Conny,” commented Grant Dalton, now head of Team New Zealand. “Practically all of us started our careers with Conny. We were young, full of energy, many of us had no experience, and yet Conny bet on us. He allowed us to be ourselves, sometimes guiding us, sometimes being tough. He taught us and made us understand what the future would look like and introduced the concept of professionalism to the world of ocean sailing. He was undoubtedly a pioneer. By losing him, we lost a man we looked up to with respect and gratitude. His image remains, alongside that of Peter Blake, in an important place in my heart and will remain there forever. Goodbye Conny, you are gone but it will not be possible to forget you and thank you for trying.”
THE HEART ATTACK KEPT HIDDEN SO AS NOT TO LOSE THE WHITBREAD
With Flyer II, the 55-year-old Van Rietschoten proved to be a strong fighter, in fact a very strong one: despite a heart attack in the middle of the ocean, the skipper swore his crew to secrecy and did not allow the ship’s medical officer to contact a cardiologist aboard Ceramco for suggestions. “The New Zealanders were breathing down our necks,” he later said, “if they had known about my health problems, they would have pushed even harder. The nearest port was ten days away, and the critical period is always the first 24 to 36 hours. When you die at sea, you are thrown overboard. Maybe the crew of Ceramco could have seen my body. I was determined to make sure it was the only thing they could see of Flyer!”
THE VIDEO OF THE LEGENDARY BATTLE BETWEEN FLYER II AND CERAMCO
THE LEGACY OF RIETSCHOTEN
Thirty years have passed, but the death of the great Dutch sailor leaves a huge legacy. Since the 1980s, in fact, the Dutch sailing federation has awarded the nation’s best sailor the prestigious Conny Van Rietschoten Trophy. In 2013, the prize was awarded to America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race sailor Simeon Tienpont. “If Holland is so fond of round-the-world sailing, it owes it to Van Rietschoten,” Tienpont said. “He took racing to a level hitherto unknown. His campaigns had a major effect on how professional sailing is conceived today.”