“The best bilge pump of all is a bucket in the hands of a frightened man”

I must have quoted this phrase a hundred times over the years, because it’s such 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 were to Google the phrase, you’d get a lot of similar quotes, usually prefixed by something along the lines, “Someone once said…” and “It’s an old sailing tradition that…“. And I must admit that I’d always assumed it to be a traditional saying, dating back into the distant past: Nelson 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 or, perhaps, buckets.

Heavy Weather Sailing
Heavy Weather Sailing: a seminal work, but a scarey read

But, re-reading Adlard Coles’ seminal work: Heavy Weather Sailing the other day, I came across the expression in recent 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, importantly, the outcomes. His style – not totally without humour, but decidedly not frivolous either – is as serious as the subject. It’s rather like reading an Admiralty pilot, in that 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 (in my edition) are all black and white and often rather out of focus, and these days, better can easily be found by searching online for two minutes, but they are still fascinating (and occasionally horrifying).

Sayula II

In the chapter entitled Heavy Weather Conclusions, Coles discusses tactics for the Southern Ocean, in which he relates the story of the capsize of Sayula II in the Roaring Forties during the Whitbread Race in November 1973. One of Sayula‘s crew, Butch Dalrymple-Smith, subsequently wrote an article for Yachts & Yachting and Adlard Coles made contact to get 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 blithely to repeat a truism, and so in quoting this he seems to be passing on the comment in all seriousness.

Butch Dalrymple-Smith

It happens that Butch is a friend of mine and so, intrigued when I read the story, I gave him a call. To the best of his recollection, he was relating the capsize incident to Bob Fisher in Sydney after the leg had concluded, 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 phrase well known to him or Bob Fisher, and nor (it seems) to Adlard Coles. (Sayula II, you may be interested to know, was a standard Swan 65, and went on to win the race around the world despite her capsize). Butch recently wrote two amusing articles about it all for the Volvo Ocean Race website.

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, then again, perhaps it’s a phrase that enters the mind of everyone when confronted with a wall of water and only a simple bucket with which to defend themselves – just hope never to have the chance to get THAT creative.


With great thanks to the Scottishboating blog and yacht historian, Theo Rye.

Sandeman Yacht Company

Brokerage of Classic & Vintage Yachts