Thursday, 15 December 2011

"The best bilge pump of all is a bucket in the hands of a frightened man".

Butch Dalrymple-Smith at the helm

A Guest Post from Theo Rye

I must have quoted this a hundred times; it's a great example of a near perfect aphorism for sailors. It contains enough truth and humour to bear repeating to the novice as well as the experienced, and at worst you'll get a wry smile.

If you Google it, you'll get a lot of similar quotes, usually prefixed by something along the lines of "Someone once said..." and "It's an old sailing tradition that...". I must admit I'd always assumed it was a traditional saying, dating back into the distant past; Nelson had surely heard it as a midshipman. It really should be as old as sailing itself, shouldn't it? Or, at least, as old as bilge pumps and buckets.

Re-reading Adlard Coles' "Heavy Weather Sailing" the other day though, I came across the expression in print. For those of you who don't know Coles' treatise, it is dedicated to a series of studies of yachts in heavy weather, their tactics, the metrology and outcomes. His style is as serious as the subject; it's not totally without humour, but it is decidedly not frivolous. It's rather like reading an Admiralty pilot; it makes you wonder why you ever go sailing at all. The chapter headings give you a good clue; "Pooped for the First Time", "Twice Rolled Over", "Survival Storms"; it's not a light read. The photos are black and white and often rather out of focus, (and these days can easily be eclipsed by two minutes searching You-Tube), but are still fascinating (and occasionally horrifying.)

In the chapter "Heavy Weather Conclusions", Coles discusses tactics in the Southern Ocean, and relates the story of the capsize of Sayula II in the Roaring Forties in November 1973 during the Whitbread Race. One of the crew, Butch Dalrymple-Smith, wrote an article for Yachts & Yachting and Adlard Coles subsequently made contact and got more information from him. In the conclusion to the article, Butch says "the best bilge pump of all is a bucket in the hands of a frightened man". Coles does not appear to be a writer who would bother to repeat a truism, and in quoting this he seems to be passing the comment on in all seriousness.

Sayula II

Butch happens to be a friend of mine and, intrigued by the story, I gave him a call. To the best of his recollection, he was relating the incident to Bob Fisher in Sydney after the leg, and in the course of the interview just came out with the unforgettable phrase. Again, as far as he can recall, he wasn't repeating anything he'd heard previously, but he does allow that it was a long time ago and it is possible that (perhaps subconsciously) he was. It certainly wasn't a well known phrase to him or Bob Fisher, and nor (it seems) Adlard Coles. (Sayula II, you may be interested to know, was a standard Swan 65, and went on to win the race despite her capsize. Butch recently wrote two amusing articles about it all for the Volvo website, accessible here:-

So, there is the question; did Butch Dalrymple-Smith coin this immortal phrase? It wouldn't surprise anyone who knows him if he did, but if you know of an earlier use or reference, I'd be very interested to hear.


  1. first time I saw this sentence was in a book by David Lawis, about his circumnavigation of antarctica, in .. 1972 ?

  2. Thanks for that Eric; I assume you are referring to "Ice Bird" by David H Lewis? I'll have to re-read it, it's a great book.

  3. Yes, lEwis, of course... #§&¤£ keyboard (or fingers ?) But it was exactly at the same period, I wouldn't bet
    Terrible journey ...
    Eric (from France)


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