Englishman Butch Dalrymple-Smith was a crewmember aboard the Mexican entry, Sayula II, the winner of the very first Whitbread in 1973-74. In the Volvo Ocean Race's 'Legends Look Back' series ahead of next year's first official reunion in Alicante, Butch remembers the good and bad.
When we set out, we really knew little about what was in store for us. The only information available came from the clipper ships of yesteryear, and from Sir Francis Chichester's book about his solo navigation in 1967.
I remember telling one journalist before the start, that the race could be considered a success if all yachts had been accounted for by the finish. There were no tracking beacons, and radios were unreliable, so any of the yachts could have simply disappeared, like many of the clipper ships had done before. By the end, I felt we had been let off lightly by losing only three men in the whole fleet.
Racing around the world in a sailing boat is uncomfortable enough, so you might as well do it in the least disagreeable way possible. We certainly tried our best to achieve that aboard Sayula II. Take food: we had plenty and we ate well. Our full-time cook served us steaks, chicken and hamburgers all the way round. We even caught a fish for dinner once. The freezer was a godsend and when a group of journalists visited Sayula in Cape Town, they were amazed to find we still had 11 jars of caviar left after 45 days at sea. They could only guess what we started out with.
And then there was drink. Not just the free beer from the sponsor (of which we consumed around 250 cans per leg), but we averaged six bottles of wine per day.
Spirits also went down well. After each day's six-hour watch, those coming off the deck would be handed a rum tonic or a vodka or gin as they stepped down the companionway.
Our watch system was special, with four hours on, four hours off by night and a six-hour stint during the day. That way we got enough sleep and a chance to read, write letters or wash our clothes.
There were 12 of us onboard, with the owner and the cook working at their own rhythm and two watches of five. By running the boat with four on deck, each of the sailing crew could get one day off in every five. The day off was spent helping with sail changes, washing up, serving cocktails, and doing a ‘special duty', like repairing sails or topping up the batteries - but it really felt like a break.
We couldn't communicate much and we were blissfully free of responsibilities to sponsors. Sayula only finished two legs with a working radio, and thankfully, the organisers were not alarmed by our silences. Although we could rarely participate, there was a daily radio ‘sked' among the competitors. We called it ‘children's hour'. It was mainly monopolised by other crews boringly complaining about how little fun they were having, but the medical problems radioed in to Dr Robin Leach on Second Life were worth a few giggles.
Some boats had their share of personal dramas: at least three boats had mutinies, usually in the form of a refusal to go on deck or a refusal to stay below and cook. On an Italian boat, a crewmember had to be disarmed as he threatened the skipper with a knife. And on Burton Cutter, the paying members of the crew refused to wash up, thinking it should be done by those being paid, or at least going free.
By today's standards, navigation was difficult using a sextant. There were times when we would go weeks without a decent fix, but that never really concerned us. The weather was all ours. There were no weather maps, no outside routers, no satellite photos, just our barograph and a look at the sky and the sea.
Our central heating was wonderful in the Southern Ocean: being able to step below into a warm cosy glow was special. Our only mistake was having the thermostat mounted too close to the companionway entry, so every time the hatch was opened, a blast of cold air caused the thermostat to fire up the boiler, turning the interior into a sauna. Later, the unit was swamped when we capsized. Sadly, the damage was terminal and the central heating never worked again.
In 1973 watermakers had yet to be invented, so onboard Sayula, we had to carry enough fresh water to last until the next stopover. Sayula's owner monitored consumption very carefully and when our thriftiness meant we were carrying more than enough, we had the much-appreciated luxury of a shower in hot, fresh water.
A private bunk in a private cabin with a door to shut out the world: racing has progressed a lot since then, but for the better? We hot-bunked of course, but everyone had the peace of his own little corner. We little realised that later participants would only dream of what we took for granted.
Memory is selective. I've almost forgotten how cold it was. How wet we became as our 1970s foul-weather gear failed to keep out the water that gives even today's gear a bit of a struggle. There is an enormous divide between the PVC and wool we used then and the specialist materials used today. But I easily remember those evenings when Quique quietly strummed his guitar (how many Volvo Open 70s take a guitar with them?) and sang soft Mexican folk songs as the sun went down, while we enjoyed cocktails and the yacht glided serenely on through the wine-dark sea.
Beneath the languid luxury that this may conjure, we were, nevertheless, racing. Half of the crew may have been the owner's family, but the rest of us were dedicated boat racers with match racing, world championship and offshore race winds on our various CVs. Unlike the other boats that excitedly boasted of the speed they had reached, we were never satisfied with how fast we were going. In fact, in one three-day period our log recorded no less than 150 sail changes. If we couldn't go fast, at least we tried to avoid going slowly.
Although Sayula was well built, and survived the rigours of the race rather better than the others, she only just made it - the standing rigging was in tatters by the end. We approached the finish line off Portsmouth on Easter Sunday, with tens of thousands of people on Southsea Beach watching us come in, the tide sweeping us towards the finish.
Finally, when we were certain of winning, I asked the owner, Ramon Carlin, if he would allow me to over-crank a runner and bring the mast down. That way we would finish sideways with the rig over the side, make headlines all over the world, and give the spectators something to tell their grandchildren. He actually thought about it for a long time before reluctantly saying ‘no... because the yacht is not insured.'
On Sayula we were fortunate to strike a happy compromise between the pure adventurers, whose pioneering spirit was not matched by their expertise in sailing, and others who were gung-ho racing crews without the hardware to stand the pace. Masts fell, boats capsized and men died, and, somehow, a production yacht with a motley crew managed to win the only round-the-world race that people could sail like gentlemen.