Barry Pickthall went aboard Flyer, winner of the 1977/78 Whitbread Round the World Race, now restored by a Dutch charity
One name dominated ocean racing in the late 1970s and early 80s: Dutch round the world racer Cornelis van Riestchoten, who owned two yachts named Flyer. This great sailor died in December 2013, but a group of Dutch enthusiasts have restored the first of his yachts and rechristened her at his memorial service at the Royal Maas Yacht Club in Rotterdam in September before sailing her to Alicante to take pride of place in the spectator fleet of the Volvo Ocean Race.
Inspired by stories from the first Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973/4, Conny, as he was called, had retired from day-to-day business and, at the age of 45, was looking for new challenges. Fiercely competitive – he was a scratch amateur golfer and a crack shot – he decided to take on the world’s greatest yachting challenge. He entered the 1977/8 Whitbread despite not having sailed competitively since racing his yacht Maze in the 1957 Fastnet Race.
His first step in planning his Whitbread campaign was to call on Sparkman & Stephens to produce a successor to their Swan 65 Sayula II, winner of the first Whitbread Race.
Flyer was a great improvement on the earlier S&S-designed Swan 65. Some 2ft 9in longer on the waterline and 1 ton lighter, she carried more sail area, yet rated exactly the same canvas as King’s Legend, her sloop- rigged Swan 65 rival in the 1977/8 race.
Van Riestchoten picked an international team and set out on an intensive programme to test boat and crew during two Atlantic crossings and a Fastnet Race. No other competitor did anything like this amount of preparation and, in retrospect, it showed from the start.
Flyer won the first leg, not only on handicap, but overall. Great Britain II, the 77-footer in which Chay Blyth had won line honours in the previous Whitbread, was 3rd. Van Rietschoten’s crew went on to enjoy a tremendous match race against Skip Novak and his crew on King’s Legend on the next leg to Auckland, but then extended their lead on the third leg to Rio de Janiero,and had only to cover King’s Legend on the final stage back to Portsmouth to secure overall honours by a 59-hour margin.
The yacht, renamed Flying Wilma, went on under Gerard Dykstra’s leadership, to win line and handicap honours in the Nedlloyd Spice Race from Jakarta to Rotterdam, and was then bought by Neil Bergt, the head of Alaska Airlines to race under the Alaska Eagle name in the 1981/2 Whitbread.
Bergt called on Dykstra for advice to improve the design, but instead of adding 2ft to the height of the mizzen mast, as he prescribed, went for a much more expensive option put forward by Bill Langhan, then head of S&S. This involved changing her rig from ketch to sloop, remodelling her stern and removing the doghouse.
Quite why cutting sail area and increasing both wetted area and rating did not ring alarm bells is unclear, but the modifications hammered her performance and she finished well down the order on the first leg. Bergt left the crew to their own devices for the rest of the race, then donated the boat to Orange Coast College, California, where she has been sailing 10,000 miles a year training students for the past 30 years.
Enter Diedreick Nolten, a successful Volvo truck dealer from the Netherlands, and Gerard Schoostra, who has been skippering Flyer’s old rival King’s Legend in the Caribbean. Nolten was just 11 when Van Rietschoten returned to a hero’s welcome at the Royal Maas Yacht Club in 1978, an event that remained etched on his memory. The pair got talking about where the Flyer yachts are now.
It didn’t take long to find Alaska Eagle. She had been listed in brokerage ads for the previous six months without a nibble. The pair flew over to San Francisco, gave the yacht the once over and decided to bring her back to the Netherlands to be restored for posterity by Royal Huisman Shipyard.
Restored to her ketch rig
Once back in the Netherlands, the yacht, still in Alaska Eagle guise, took pride of place at last year’s HISWA Boat Show where 1,000 visitors visited her each day. That cemented the project in sailors’ minds and support began to roll in. Work began in March 2014 to shot-blast the hull and deck, restore her doghouse and change her back to a ketch. That required two Sparcraft masts and a new North sail wardrobe. Winches were overhauled, and blocks and running rigging replaced. Everything came together in time for her relaunch on 21 August.
By comparison with today’s stripped out Volvo racers, Flyer is very comfortable, with enclosed cabins for the crew. Four crew hot-bunked from each cabin and there were exclusive cabins for skipper and navigator on opposite sides of a central walkway near the aft companionway. The large galley had a 400lt deep freeze with plenty of stowage to feed a crew of 12 for six weeks at a time, and there was an open plan saloon opposite.
The forecabin and foc’s’le are devoted to sail stowage, but also have four cot berths for use when in port.
Flyer has a large engine room, part of which is devoted to dry oilskins and clothing during a voyage with heat from the engine backed up by a Webasto diesel heater. There is an enclosed heads next to the engine, but Flyer’s crew were ‘encouraged’ to perform their natural functions while standing or crouching on the triangular bumpkin mounted on the transom.
Mizzen rigs are now a thing of the past on racing yachts, but back in the days of racing under IOR, twin-masted boats gained a significant benefit from ‘untaxed’ sail area. This came into play whenever the wind was abaft the beam and a mizzen staysail or mizzen spinnaker could be set. The rig also gave assurance to van Rietschoten as if one mast broke, there was a second to sail home under and from which to build a jury rig.
Her alloy dodger protecting the stern cockpit (lost during her Alaska Eagle conversion) afforded great protection in the Southern Ocean and was so popular that van Rietschoten was forced to issue an edict, “No dodger dwellers!” for those on watch.
Her central cockpit housing the main coffee grinders and where main mast control lines are led, had only a wave breaker around the forward end to give protection during the 1977/8 Whitbread race. Alaska Eagle fitted a fold-down canvas sprayhood for the 1981/2 race and this has been retained during the recent restoration.
At the beginning of September 2014 she was fittingly used to scatter Conny van Rietschoten’s ashes, as he had asked, over the North Sea waters he so loved.
The yacht is now managed by a charity called the Foundation for the Preservation of Flyer, formed by Nolten, Schoostra and others. It aims to inspire young people and provide opportunities for those with terminal cancer to go sailing, while also preserving the yacht for the next generation.
LOA 19.86m/65ft 2in
LWL 15.16m/49ft 9in
Displacement 26.6 tons
Designed by Sparkman & Stephens
Built by Royal Huisman Shipyard
1st 1977 Transatlantic Race
Handicap honours in the 1977/8 Whitbread Race
1st Nedlloyd Spice Race