We all hope to be useful on board, but being unobtrusively and cheerfully useless is also a real skill, says Libby Purves


It was a particularly vile, early-season shakedown passage to Ostend. We crossed a North Sea which threw up its trademark jerky, irregular grey-brown chop: we hammered hard on the wind which defied a fairer forecast. For the first time in years I felt seriously sick: weak and tired and useless and gloomy. We were for once a strong crew, not just two-up but me plus a pair
of hunky blokes with stern and gritty resolve (though they both had a quick chunder too). So, finding myself even less necessary than usual, I hid for some twelve hours in the kennel-like confines of the quarterbunk.

And I mused, as I willingly downgraded myself to the usefulness of a sack of potatoes
or redundant sailbag, on something a skipper confided in me years ago in my small-ad sailing years. I was forever joining boats as an untried crew, and when after a few trips I asked what it was actually like taking on small-ad youth, he told me something fascinating.

He said that one of the most important things to assess on meeting a newcomer or guest
was not necessarily whether they’d be actually useful. You could wait to judge that in the first ten minutes of casting off, stowing warps and getting sails up; you could then verify it by handing over the helm and keeping an eye on the result. One skipper did this from below:

I remember seeing his white face peering anxiously through the galley porthole as I followed the buoys down from Lymington.

The point is, said this sage captain, before you assess positive competence you want to be sure that this individual will, if proven to be a mere lump of human cargo, be a ‘BUNT’, which stands for ‘Bloody Useless but No Trouble’.

He actually didn’t mind the occasional BUNT, being well able to do everything alone, and always hoped to turn the useless into the useful. What he dreaded was not incompetence but neediness: people who create work and worry, and become a human obstacle course. So, in my bunk off the Gabbard, bunting quietly through a horrid night while our brave lads took down reef after reef and furiously prodded the AIS, I reflected on the skills of BUNT-ing; of not being an obstacle course.

“I downgraded myself to the usefulness of a sack of potatoes”

The essence of it is self-care. A good BUNT has the right clothes, warm enough so as not to shiver alarmingly and moan like the wind itself. The seasick variety also knows to put on waterproofs without fuss when heading for the lee rail. If unable to reach the rail, he or she chooses a discreet supine position – quarterberth, pilot berth, tightly lee-clothed into a windward bunk so the working crew can sit or flop to leeward – and takes a bucket and a bottle of water. If offered the traditional dry biscuit, grateful acceptance is better than groans of, ‘Eerghhh… I couldn’t… noooo.’ A cheerful tone avoids the risk of milking it with unnecessary deathbed impressions.

If not sick but just useless, the good BUNT works out where in the cockpit to sit so as not
to get in the way, watches and learns, does not block the companionway or chart seat, and
asks questions only when the expression on the skipper’s face and body language denotes a calm, mentorly frame of mind. It is not helpful to raise arcane points of navigation in mid-tack, or in those moments when he or she has suddenly noticed that ‘shakedown’ means what it says because those bits rolling around on the deck are definitely, O God, rigging-pins.

The good BUNT only offers to make tea after careful study of where everything is, to avoid intrusive cries of ‘Ooh, silly me, where did you say the mugs were?’ When offered a tea by more active crew, he or she does not reply with a simpering ‘Any chance of decaff?’ or requests for oat milk. The BUNT, in short, is humble, smilingly unobtrusive, and silently appreciative. And, in port, buys the first round. Its a skill. I hope that on that foul night I got near it…