Conny van Rietschoten: 1926 – 2013
AMSTERDAM _ Although a sailor from the age of 3, Cornelis (Conny) van Rietschoten was unheralded in his native Netherlands when he enrolled in the 1977-78 Whitbread Round the World. A 45-year-old retired industrialist looking for new frontiers, he won that Whitbread in Flyer. And also the next one, in 1981-82. The “Flying Dutchman” died of a stroke Dec. 17 in Portugal where he lived. He is the only skipper to have twice won the Whitbread, today known as the Volvo Ocean Race. He was a true pioneer, leading the way into the modern day era of professional ocean racing.
“The Flyer crew are saddened to hear of the passing of our great friend Conny,” said Grant Dalton, manager of Team New Zealand in the America’s Cup. He was part of the crew on Van Rietschoten’s Flyer II.
“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 added.
An intensely competitive sailor, Van Rietschoten took a professional business approach to his campaigns. He called a racing yacht a sea-borne company. He was its CEO _ sober, calm and stern. He forbade his crew to drink alcohol, have political discussions, curse or shout. He saw racing as a mission for which he picked his crews carefully. They were international professionals. Van Rietschoten submitted their handwriting to a graphologist to see if they could handle stress. He introduced freeze-dried food, cut back on unnecessary weight. He also had video tapes made of his exploits. That was a novelty back then but one that served to greatly increase interest in blue water racing.
Van Rietschoten was introduced to sailing at the age of 3 on his father’s yacht. As a student in England, he and a friend steered a day sailer to Norway and always drowned. The two made it to Cuxhaven, just in time. A successful business man (his family owned an electro-engineering firm), Van Rietschoten asked American designers Olin and Rod Stephens to draw a yacht for his first Whitbread. Flyer was a ketch built in aluminum by Royal Huisman Shipyard. He raced the 1981-82 Whitbread in a maxi sloop. He suffered a heart attack deep into the Southern Ocean, en route to Auckland, New Zealand but swore his crew to secrecy and kept going.
Since the 1980s, the annual Conny van Rietschoten Trophy has been awarded to the best Dutch competitive sailor. Volvo Ocean Race competitor and America’s Cup winner Simeon Tienpont was the 2013 recipient. “The Netherlands are very fond of the race and that’s all because of Van Rietschoten,” said Tienpont. “He brought the event to an entirely new level. His campaigns have had an effect on how we are growing as a professional sport right now.”