Skip to main content

‘If I die, just throw me over the side’

Cornelis “Conny” van Rietschoten, the “Flying Dutchman,” was the sole skipper to win the Whitbread Round the World Race twice. He also transformed around-the-world racing from a wild and romantic adventure into a serious business and groomed a generation of young sailors — men such as America’s Cup veteran Grant Dalton, yachting photographer Onne van der Wal, and ocean racer and weather router Bill Biewenga — for standout careers.

Conny van Rietschoten ran a tight ship and was respected by those who sailed for him.

Van Rietschoten died Dec. 17 at his home in Algarve, Portugal. He was 87 and suffered a stroke.

“He ran [his campaign] like a business,” says van der Wal, who crewed as engineer on van Rietschoten’s Flyer II, which won the 1981-82 Whitbread with line honors and on corrected time. “He ran it like a business but in military fashion.”

Van Rietschoten didn’t allow swearing on the boat, or discussion of religion or politics. If you sailed aboard Flyer, you didn’t complain about the food. Everyone spoke English to allay suspicions that someone might be talking about you behind your back in another language. Crewmembers could bring friends aboard, but they had to meet van Rietschoten first. He required watchstanders to report on deck fully dressed and on time, not a minute late nor with a cup of coffee in hand. Everyone, including van Rietschoten and even female reporters who came aboard, used a head rigged off the stern instead of one below that was bolted shut to control the odor in the living quarters. He posted daily bulletins, including the dress code — usually blazers, ties, shoes — for port events.

“He was relentless in his respect for the rules,” Biewenga says. The rules promoted mutual respect, morale and efficiency, and they were for everyone, including himself.

Some prospective crewmembers couldn’t stomach the discipline and dropped out before the racing started, but those who stayed with him were glad they did. He ran a taut ship that was sharply focused on winning, and he knew how to win. He won the 27,000-mile Whitbread race twice in a row, in 1978-79 and in 1981-82.

“The race is won long before the starting gun sounds,” Biewenga says. Van Rietschoten prepared his boat and crews with military precision. Nothing was left to chance.

He commissioned Olin and Rod Stephens to design his first Flyer, an updated version of the Swan 65 Sayula II that self-made Mexican millionaire Ramon Carlin raced to victory in the 1973-74 Whitbread. Built of aluminum by the Dutch Royal Huisman Shipyard, Flyer was ketch-rigged like Sayula but carried more sail area and had a longer waterline length. Van Rietschoten trialed the boat extensively while training his crew to sail her, an approach to raceboat management that today is de rigueur in round-the-world racing but was a new stratagem then. He sailed Flyer 10,000 miles before the Whitbread, crossed the Atlantic twice, replaced several crewmen and made more than 100 changes to the boat, according to a biography on the website for the Conny Rietschoten Trophy (, awarded annually to the best Dutch sailor.

Van Rietschoten was born into a wealthy Dutch maritime trades family that paid a heavy price in World War II. Two of his older brothers died fighting for the Dutch resistance. He spent much of the war hidden away in an attic in the family home, often with no food.

Van Rietschoten started sailing with his father, Jan Jacob, aboard the family’s 12 Meter Copeja when he was 3 years old, and he raced out of the Royal Maas Yacht Club in Rotterdam. After the war, he went to England to study engineering. While there, a 22-year-old van Rietschoten won a football pool and with a friend bought a Dragon — a 29-foot open one design — which they sailed from Cowes to Arendal, Norway, to compete in the 1948 Dragon Gold Cup world championship.

Image placeholder title

Their boat and bodies beaten up badly by the voyage, they won no races, but Crown Prince Olaf of Norway awarded them a special prize for best navigators and for sailing the farthest distance to race.

Van Rietschoten ran the family business, Van Rietschoten & Houwens — a mechanical and electrical engineering firm that developed automatic systems for ships and other modes of transportation — until he was 45, when he sold it to seek new challenges. The Whitbread caught his eye, and he brought to it the same fierce intensity, organization and acumen that he exercised in business. “He was a master of preparation — logistics, organization, crew training,” Biewenga recalls.

He was a very good listener, picked his crew carefully and shaped them into a compatible, competitive team. Biewenga remembers him as a man who promoted mutual respect and teamwork, required hard and sincere work, and repeatedly advised his men to help each other and seek help when needed during the arduous six-month race. “This was sports like it’s supposed to be,” Biewenga says. “It’s a metaphor for life. In its purest form you’re supposed to learn lessons.” Van Rietschoten taught the men who crewed for him many lessons.

“The Flyer crew are saddened to hear of the passing of our great friend Conny,” says Dalton, now manager of America’s Cup syndicate Team New Zealand. “Nearly all of us can track our careers to Conny. We were all young, restless, most of us totally unproven, and yet Conny took a chance on us. He allowed us to be ourselves, sometimes guiding us, sometimes coming down hard on us. He taught us how it was going to be done in the future, and he introduced a professional business approach to offshore sailing.”

Dalton describes van Rietschoten as a “pioneer,” a game-changer.

Flyer won the 1978-79 race on handicap, its chief rival a Swan 65 named Kings Legend skippered by a young American named Skip Novak. Kings Legend fell back in the third leg after broaching and losing its radio and, thus, access to weather forecasts.

Flyer won the race in a dramatic finale in which a flurry of sail changes prevented a surprise 55-knot squall from driving her onto the rocks just 200 yards from the finish.

A 55-year-old van Rietschoten raised his sights for the 1981-82 Whitbread, aiming to win line honors on every leg and take home the overall trophy for both elapsed and corrected times. He commissioned German Frers to design a 72-foot maxi, Flyer II, also built at the Huisman yard. Van der Wal remembers Flyer II racing in two Transatlantic Races, the Newport-Annapolis race, the Fastnet and others before starting the Whitbread. The boat to beat this time was a 68-foot Farr, New Zealand Ceramco, skippered by the legendary Kiwi Sir Peter Blake, who put up a hard fight despite Ceramco’s dismasting on the first leg.

Van Rietschoten showed his grit on the Southern Ocean leg from Cape Town to Auckland when he suffered a heart attack and kept pressing forward. The seas were big, the wind was big, and van Rietschoten was feeling the weight of responsibility for his 16 crewmembers as he tried to maintain speed without losing Flyer’s rig against a relentlessly attacking Ceramco. “It was stressful for him,” van der Wal says. “On my off-watch the doctor [Julian Fuller] came racing through. He said, ‘The old man’s had a heart attack.’ ”

Later, word came to the crew: “Anyone who talks about this [with friends, family or other boat crews] is immediately relieved of his position,” van der Wal recalls, even though there was a cardiologist sailing on Ceramco. “No one is to know about it until the end of the race.” Van der Wal says van Rietschoten didn’t want to give Blake anything he could use to his advantage to press harder, including news of his heart condition.

After that, van der Wal says, van Rietschoten did agree to stand down and turn over more responsibilities to his watch captains. “He did most of the rest of the race sitting at the back,” van der Wal says. “He said, ‘If I die, just throw me over the side. Don’t divert. Keep racing.’ ”

Flyer II would go on to win the leg and the race with line honors and on handicap, and she posted records for the fastest noon-to-noon run (327 miles) and the fastest circumnavigation (120 days) — nearly two weeks faster than the previous record.

“He was a unique and special guy,” Biewenga says. “He influenced all of our lives.”

April 2014 issue