Cornelis van Rietschoten, 87, the “Flying Dutchman”, who was the only skipper to win the Whitbread Round the World Race twice, died of a stroke on December 17th.

Conny van Rietschoten

Conny van Rietschoten is the only skipper to win the Whitbread Round the World Race twice. Photo: Onne van der Wal/

It was the second edition of the Whitbread Race in 1977/78 when van Rietschoten skippered Flyer, a Sparkman & Stephens designed 65-foot ketch (a modified Swan 65) to victory on corrected time. In doing so he beat the odds-on favorite Robin Knox Johnston who was at the helm of Condor, which suffered a broken mast on the first leg.

In the next edition, 1981/82 van Rietschoten upped his game with a new and larger boat. Flyer II, a purpose-built 76-foot sloop, was designed by German Frers, then a relative newcomer to the scene of offshore racing. Van Rietschoten’s big nemesis in this race was a certain Peter Blake from New Zealand who sailed Ceramco New Zealand, a boat that matched Flyer II nearly stride for stride. However Blake lost his rig on the first leg, so he had to play catch-up the rest of the way, giving the Dutch a run for their money.

On the second leg 10 days out from the finish at Fremantle, van Rietschoten suffered a heart attack, but swore the crew to secrecy. They were not allowed to contact Ceramco, which had a physician on board. “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,” van Rietschoten later said. “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, by the way, won the leg by nine hours and the overall race as well.

However, the “Flying Dutchman” didn’t become a legend through his victories alone. His meticulous style pushed the race and offshore sailing forward into an era of professionalism. For the second campaign, van Rietschoten recruited professional sailors from around the world, including future Kiwi greats like Grant Dalton, Joey Allen and Erle Williams. “The Flyer crew are saddened to hear of the passing of our great friend Conny,” commented Dalton, who won the race as a skipper in 1993/94 and now manages 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.”

Also among the crew of Flyer II was sailing photographer Onne van der Wal, who documented the journey in this gallery. “Conny was the ultimate sailor, adventurer and skipper. He was fun to sail with and appreciated the hard work that you put in,” van der Wal said.

But van Rietschoten also knew how to keep his crew disciplined and focused. “I made a set of rules,” he explained many years later. “No shouting, no swearing and they weren’t allowed to complain about food.” If that might sound queer to some, the sailors certainly didn’t mind. There was too much good that came out of these two campaigns. “He gave me the opportunity to sail the Whitbread race with him and it set me on a very successful track that I am still on today,” van der Wal added.

Conny left his mark on the race, on the sport and on the people. But what about Flyer, the magic carpet he rode to his inaugural victory? Soon after the race the boat embarked on a second career as a training vessel with the Orange Coast College in Newport Beach, Calif., where she stayed for thirty years and racked up nearly 300,000 nautical miles under the name Alaska Eagle. She went to far-flung places on both sides of the equator and served as the radio vessel during several Transpac races from Los Angeles to Hawaii. The boat, which is listed for sale on YachtWorld, is headed back to the Netherlands for a complete refit and to be returned to her original configuration.

To see what a fast ocean racer looked like back in the 1970s, watch this video with YachtWorld’s Tim Claxton.