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Remembering Nelson Roltsch
Team McLube


The Publisher

Feb 28, 2012, 2:48 PM

Post #1 of 3 (14645 views)
Remembering Nelson Roltsch Log-In to Post/Reply

When Tulane University recently hosted their Nelson Roltsch Intersectional regatta at Southern Yacht Club in New Orleans (Feb. 18-20), it brought back memories for Mike Johnson of a person and the accident that took his life nearly thirty years ago. Here is Mike's story:
Not sure if you know the story of Nelson. He was a good friend of mine and a student at Tulane while I was at the University of Florida (Class of '85). I am a subscriber to the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association email list, and every time I see a report for this regatta it brings up strong emotions from my memories with Nelson.

Nelson came to Pensacola from the Midwest as a youth in about 1978. His dad was in technical sales and could live anywhere so they chose Florida specifically to allow his kids to sail. Before moving south, Nelson had just won the Butterfly (kind of like a Sunfish) National Championships and was a keen sailor. I was the same age as Nelson and we met though the sailing scene in NW Florida.

Upon moving south, he had given up the Butterfly and taken on the Laser in a big way. I was primarily racing Windsurfers and Hobie Cats so he was always trying to get me to sail Lasers. Nelson and I decided to try our hand at some keel boat offshore racing and I had a gig on an IOR 3/4 ton boat. Nelson came with us for a few offshore races and we had a great time making the boat go fast. Because of his natural ability and warm personality, he was sought by many of the big boat crowd in Pensacola. Here is the story of his last race.

Nelson had entered Tulane in 1981, and in 1983 he was racing on a brand new J/29 (outboard version) in the Gulf Ocean Racing Circuit off the Mississippi coast. Back in those days we raced big boats offshore around the oil platforms in races anywhere from 100 to 250 miles length. This was the 200 nm Lightship Race and the wind was fresh (35 - 45 kt range) with really big seas. I was not on the boat but have heard the story from several people that were.

It was night time and they had a reefed main and a storm jib up. Everyone except Nelson and Bert were down below resting. Nelson and Bert decided they were overpowered and Nelson volunteered to go up and douse the storm jib. While on the foredeck the details are sketchy but Nelson was in the process of gathering up the jib, when a big wave washed him overboard. Needless to say he was not connected, even though I think he was wearing a harness.

Once Bert realized Nelson was overboard, he alerted the crew down below and they began the process of moving the motor from down inside the cabin to the little mount on the transom. Mounting a heavy outboard engine while leaning over a stern pulpit is a tricky evolution even when tied to the pier. After about 30 minutes they got the motor mounted, fuel line attached, and the motor started. During all this, someone got the jib gathered up and stowed down below.

So there they were - at night, in huge seas, big breeze, everyone a little queasy, and 30 minutes into a man overboard with no sight of the man. It was like finding a needle in a haystack and was basically deemed hopeless after an exhaustive search. The USCG went out and did SAR with a helo the next day, but also never found a body. As far as I know the body was never recovered.

We had a memorial service at the Roltsches house just east of Pensacola, FL and it was a very sad day for his family (mom & dad - Cliff and Peggy; bro & sis - Jeff and Laurie). Nelson was the oldest and his younger siblings really looked up to him. It was a tragic loss. I wish that I had a photo of Nelson. He was big strapping red head who could grind down just about anyone going upwind on a Laser, always with a big grin on his somewhat freckled face.

Thanks for keeping the memory of Nelson alive and feel free to fwd this to others on the Tulane Sailing team. Nelson was a big fan of Tulane and I'm sure he was looking down on the scene last weekend and would approve of the decisions made by the YC & RC to cancel racing for safety reasons.
Tulane University is proud to continue to remember Nelson by having renamed the annual Windjammer Regatta to the Nelson Roltsch Regatta.


Feb 29, 2012, 7:58 AM

Post #2 of 3 (13621 views)
Re: [The Publisher] Remembering Nelson Roltsch [In reply to] Log-In to Post/Reply

I also sailed in the "200 mile race" that year on a 37' Heritage One Ton. The race started inside the Mississippi sound off Gulfport, out through Ship Island pass staying east of the Chandeleur Islands to a sea buoy off the mouth of the Mississippi River then east to Mobile (AL) Sea buoy then back to Ship Island Pass and to Gulfport (actually 180 nm but we rounded up).

I can confirm just how bad the weather was; about every third wave went completely over the boat. We tacked around the "jibe" mark at Mobile and even that took two tries as the seas were so large. After breaking our forestay we were motoring toward a pass between the barrier islands and were turned upside down by a wave breaking over the spreaders. A Soverel 30 was flipped 360 twice. A N/M 68 was washed up onto the beach of a barrier island. Not mentioned in the above post, the owners of the J/29 were two former Olympians so they were very goood sailors, it was just a very nasty storm.

Back in those days no one (or at least very few) wore harnesses and/or PFD's. If there is a lasting legacy to Nelson it is that his tragedy began a concerted effort toward better safety offshore in the Gulf Yachting Association. I watched the search plane go back and forth all day the next day looking for Nelson, hoping he had made it safely to one of the islands. It was a sight Id prefer not to see again.

Several years after his death I was invited by a friend to stay with friends of his for a windsurfing event. It was Nelson's family; they could not have been nicer. As an alumni advisor to Tulane Sailing Team I contacted Mrs. Roltsch years later to get some background on Nelson and she sent me a very nice letter, if I can put my hands on it I will try to post it.


Feb 29, 2012, 9:05 PM

Post #3 of 3 (13174 views)
Re: [The Publisher] Remembering Nelson Roltsch [In reply to] Log-In to Post/Reply

As a freshman on the Tulane Sailing Team when Nelson died, I vividly remember the stark realization that a fellow sailor - one that we'd just seen at practice a day ago - was lost at sea. As college students, most of us had a youthful lack of realization about the fragility of life. We got a heavy dose of reality when vivacious Nelson did not return from that race. It was natural to rename the regatta in his honor, and it's great to see him memory still alive, in the spirit of great racing. I'd like to think that he has helped a whole bunch of his college team-mates - many of us active racers and/or involved in the boating industry around the country 25 years later - understand the value of having fun every day. Thank you Nelson! Margaret Bonds Podlich

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