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1977/8 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race:
'Flyer' skippered by Cornelis van Rietschoten
Tom Luitweiler/PPL

1977-1978 / Overview

Portsmouth - Cape Town - Auckland - Rio de Janeiro - Portsmouth

Winner: Flyer

Four years on and already the Whitbread Trophy had become one of the most coveted titles in offshore racing. This time, 15 yachts with 168 crew representing 12 nations jostled for the best position on the Portsmouth start line, with 1973 winner Ramon Carlin, the Mexican washing machine millionaire, firing the gun to send them on their way. Their exit from the Solent was accompanied once more by thousands of spectator boats, including cross-Solent ferries, British warships and a vast fleet of yachts and dinghies.

Chay Blyth had surrendered his place at the helm of 23-metre ketch GBII to Rob James, a competitor in the first race, and new contenders included the much-fancied Flyer, skippered by Dutch industrialist Cornelis van Rietschoten, and Heath’s Condor, commissioned specially for the race by solo sailing pioneer Robin Knox-Johnston and Les Williams. They had fitted a revolutionary new carbon-fibre mast to maximise Heath’s Condor’s speed in the strong following winds that prevailed around the 27,000-mile race course. She was late on the water – her mast was stepped just weeks before the start – and there would be consequences. But the crew was impressive and included a tall, aggressive Kiwi called Peter Blake, who had sailed with Les on Burton Cutter in 1973 and who, at the age of 29, was already recognised as an extraordinary talent on any boat, in any waters.

For the first time, entries included a female skipper. Britain’s Clare Francis had captured people’s hearts during the 1976 Observer single-handed Transatlantic Race and her Swan 65 ketch ADC Accutrac, which featured two other women in her crew, was seen as a strong contender. Francis was the first in a distinguished line of petite Englishwomen, followed by Tracy Edwards and Ellen MacArthur, who over the next 30 years were to blaze remarkable new trails in international yacht racing.

Elsewhere, 33 Export were back and led by Alain Gabbay who, at just 23, was the youngest skipper in the race’s short history. He was out to make a point.

The scene was set for a fierce race between teams better prepared than their predecessors. But there was also a greater onus on safety in the wake of the three tragedies of the opening edition. Safety regulations had been published way back in May 1975 to allow teams greater opportunity to make changes, and it was made compulsory for boats to fit jackstays the length of each boat. It never going to be possible to entirely safeguard the sport from danger – as would be seen – but it was greeted as a positive step.

1977/8 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race:
'Flyer' skippered by Cornelis van Rietschoten
Tom Luitweiler/PPL

1977-1978 / Leg 1

Portsmouth to Cape Town

Within a few hours, crews on Heath’s Condor and ADC Accutrac were busy on the sewing machines, patching up spinnakers that had blown during their opening manoeuvres. It could have been worse for Flyer, who one night shortly after the start were forced to take evasive action when a small, unlit vessel appeared in their path.

The rest of the leg appeared to pass with less bother for Flyer, who negotiated a 200-mile wide section of the Doldrums in two days, but for the rest of the fleet it was the usual business of damages and repairs.

Some 20 days into the race, having encountered serious headwinds after emerging from the Doldrums, the problems on Heath’s Condor suddenly turned critical. With an ear-splitting crack, the new carbon-fibre mast snapped off just above the spreaders.

“For a moment the whole crew were stunned,” Knox-Johnston recalled in his book Last But Not Least. “As the watch below came up to see what was going on, they just gazed disbelievingly at the mess as the realisation of what this meant dawned. All the hard work to get the boat finished in time had been thrown away in a moment. Gone was any chance of getting to Cape Town first on handicap or even just getting there first. Gone perhaps were our chances in the whole race – they lay in a tangled heap on the deck.”

No one was hurt but Heath’s Condor retired from the leg and headed straight to the nearest port, Monrovia, some 400 miles away on the west coast of Africa.  They spent 10 days replacing the carbon-fibre mast with an aluminium version and sampling the local food, which two days after returning to the race track, took its revenge by wiping out almost every crewmember with a grisly bout of food poisoning.

Japy-Hermes also had their share of angst. The French yacht was forced to stop in Recife, Brazil because a crewmember needed urgent medical attention for kidney stones.

After escaping the Doldrums with a healthy lead, Flyer beat into Cape Town harbour to win the leg. Just two hours behind after 38 days of racing was King's Legend. Six days later, 12 boats were safely tied up at the Royal Cape Yacht Club with the other three, which had all made harbour calls, on their way.

1977/8 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race:
'Flyer' skippered by Cornelis van Rietschoten
Tom Luitweiler/PPL

1977-1978 / Leg 2

Cape Town to Auckland

Organisers scrapped Sydney as the second stopover in favour of Auckland, taking the boats further south and closer to the ice fields of the Southern Ocean. Within a week of starting, an iceberg warning was broadcast as temperatures plummeted and a thin coating of ice started to form on the rigging.

John Ridgeway on Debenhams surged south in a bid to gain the lead, but a few days later he was surrounded by pack ice and icebergs. His problems were compounded by a ferocious Force Nine gale. Debenhams gave up any hope of a podium place when Ridgeway issued an ‘all hands on deck’ command in an attempt to find a path out of danger, taking them off course.

On GBII, the heating failed when the gas stopped vaporising in the heater. John Deane used his motor bike helmet to keep his head warm and prevent injury as ice started to fall from the rigging. Also in the middle of the Southern Ocean, the crew on Kings Legend discovered a serious leak around the rudder post. Surrounding yachts were alerted and rescue plans were drafted, but after two days it was reported that all was well. The news was not so good for Gauloises II, who also suffered a rudder failure and returned to Port Elizabeth for a week of repairs. Upon returning to the track she was caught in stormier weather than the rest of the fleet and her late arrival in this one leg scuppered what turned out to be a serious tilt at the title.

Again, it was Heath’s Condor who became the leg two showstoppers with a drama that filled race followers with horror. Just after noon on 13 November, Bill Abram was tidying the foredeck following a gybe, when the spinnaker filled and the lazy guy tautened beneath him. He was flung into the air and hurled into the sea. Someone threw him a line, but it tangled, so someone else threw a lifebuoy that Bill was able to hang onto. The spinnaker came down and three crew were instructed to keep their eyes on Bill’s yellow oilskins while Blake turned on the engine to bring the boat round into the wind. But the propeller had seized and all the while Bill was drifting further from the boat, his position marked only by a cluster of seabirds circling above him. By cranking up the engine, Blake managed to unlock the blades and the Scotsman was ultimately hauled back on deck. Apart from suffering a cut hand he was pronounced fit by onboard medic, Dr David Dickson.

Dickson was back in action a few hours later, this time radioing advice to Nick Dunlop and Rob James on GBII who had both suffered injury when a line had jammed around their waist and legs, leading to burst blood vessels, severe pain and, in the case of Dunlop, unconsciousness.

It had been a torrid passage for Heath’s Condor so far, but as compensation the weather gods blessed the remainder of their trip to Auckland and, on November 25, they crossed the finish line first. Thirty-one hours behind, GBII came in second. King's Legend beat Flyer, while 33 Export came in fifth, winning the leg by eight hours on handicap.

1977/8 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race:
'Flyer' skippered by Cornelis van Rietschoten
Tom Luitweiler/PPL

1977-1978 / Leg 3

 Auckland to Rio de Janeiro

The fleet set off on Boxing Day for another savage dogfight in hostile waters and it wasn’t long before Alain Gabbay  and 33 Export was in trouble. It had been blowing around 45 knots when there was a ‘tremendous bang’ and the boat rolled.

All the contents of the chart table had emptied into the toilet. There were spanners, files and screwdrivers embedded in the deckhead of the galley, floorboards had come loose and battery boxes had smashed the floor of the saloon. They worked out the boat must have rolled 140 degrees.

On Adventure they had to start pumping when water came flooding in below deck, though with all the slamming and lurching it took four days to work out that it was coming through two cracks in the hull. “Although the condition never became critical it was very worrying not knowing how far the problem would deteriorate,” reported skipper Ian Bailey-Willmot. Even more worrying when they realised they were thousands of miles from the nearest port.

A row broke out over the airwaves when it was found that Pen Duick VI was ineligible because of her depleted uranium keel, though by the time the news reached Eric Tabarly the word ‘ineligible’ had been replaced by ‘disqualified’, which created confusion among the fleet and a rumpus in the French media, who thought their hero had been unfairly treated.

Back on the water, GBII was first round Cape Horn having had some skirmishes with icebergs and growlers on the approach. Flyer was next, rounding in a blinding snowstorm.

The drama continued when 33 Export broached while running under spinnaker in the South Atlantic. Water surged across her decks, slamming Eric Letrosne against the life-rails with such force it fractured his leg. It needed urgent attention so when the call for medical help went out, Dr Jean Louis Sabarly on Japy-Hermes reported they were preparing for a rendezvous. When a huge swell prevented a transfer, Dr Sarbarly jumped into the sea and swam to 33 Export, where he looked after his patient until the boat docked and a transfer to hospital was completed. This bravery earned Sabarly the trophy for outstanding seamanship, presented by the Shipwrecked Mariners Society.

On January 28, GBII crossed the line in Rio half an hour ahead of Heath's Condor. On corrected time, Gauloises II won the leg and Flyer was second. They had all been pipped to the post by Pen Duick VI, who arrived in Rio first by several days but was ineligible for honours. The committee invited Tabarly to carry on to Portsmouth and although he declined at first he later changed his mind.

1977/8 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race:
'Flyer' skippered by Cornelis van Rietschoten
Tom Luitweiler/PPL

1977-1978 / Leg 4

Rio de Janeiro to Portsmouth

There was plenty of dancing and carousing in Rio – tear gas was used to end one party attended by the sailors - but eventually it all had to stop and the crews once more had to prepare for the final push, a relatively short 5,500-mile hike across the Atlantic. The crew changes had been widespread as incompatibilities became irreparable though Clare Francis was unique in holding onto the same personnel all the way round the world.

In the early stages of the last leg, the heat proved a severe test and on Heath’s Condor there was a major egg crisis. Eggs bought in Rio were found to be infested with maggots and skipper Knox-Johnston ordered an immediate fumigation, which was duly launched with a match being applied to the polystyrene egg boxes, without much consideration for the crew’s effects and bedding, which were left blackened and reeking of barbecued resin.

Bad eggs apart, the final leg proved uneventful though the competition remained fierce as crews pulled out all the stops to maintain or improve their rankings.

“Life on board is very pleasant though a little dull,” reported Gerard Dijkstra on Flyer, which was so far ahead of the rest of the fleet on handicap that a risk-free strategy prevailed throughout the passage.

It was only when the fleet arrived in the English Channel that the conditions suddenly changed. The seas became steep and an angry storm, varying between Force Nine and 10, swept through the front-runners with an alarming brutality.

It was Flyer, lying in fifth place on the leg, that came off worse and suffered a uncontrolled gybe, the spinnaker being blown to pieces. Cornelis van Rietschoten was helming and recovered quickly to get back on track until they were struck by another 55-knot squall which pushed them sideways towards the shore. Witnessed by thousands of well-wishers who had turned out in a flotilla of yachts, the 11th hour action proved dramatic as Flyer headed for the rocks, with just 200 yards to go to the finish. Remarkably, a flurry of sail changes saw the boat veer away from danger and hurtle close-hauled over the line to give the Dutchman an emphatic 58-hour victory on handicap. Gauloises II had earlier won the leg on corrected time, her second of the event, but was left to rue her second-leg calamity as she finished sixth in the final standings.

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