Oh, to be 77 and Young Again
At 77 years old, most people are reminiscing about past personal feats while dusting off the frame capturing the story. But not Jeanne Socrates. This British yachtswoman now has three world records to claim as her own; the oldest woman to sail solo non-stop and unassisted around the world, the first woman to sail solo non-stop around the world from North America and now she is the oldest person to sail solo around the world non-stop.
Let that sink in. Seventy-seven years old. Solo. On a sailboat. Around the world.
Her journey on S/V Nereida began in Victoria, British Columbia, on October 3, 2018, and came full circle as she crossed the finish line there on September 7, 2019. I caught up with Jeanne Socrates a week after her finish and asked her many questions about her experience, especially what drives her to sail solo around the world.
“I have always been in awe of Ellen MacArthur,” Socrates explains, in reference to a fellow UK solo distance yachtwoman who broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation in 2005. “Seeing other women going around the world, I knew it was my challenge.”
Socrates took up yachting in 1994 following her early retirement from teaching. She and her husband acquired Nereida in Sweden in 1997 and sailed her back to England but she didn’t stay dormant long. For years they enjoyed cruising the waters of Europe, the Caribbean, Dominican Republic, USA, Cuba and more, until her husband’s fight with cancer took his life in 2003. Following her husband’s death, Socrates continued, but on her own this time.
Up until now, the oldest person to claim the world record was Minoru Saito, a Japanese yachtsmen who has circumnavigated the globe eight times.
After 339 days at sea on this successful attempt, she was elated by the warm welcome she received in Victoria. “It was so exciting and there was a lot of attention from so many supporters,” she explained. “I had left Victoria intent on getting this solo record done. After recovering from my injuries and getting the boat ready, I knew it was the right time to get away.”
To get away and sail around the world with a team of sailors is a challenge. But to go at it alone, one must truly confront the Mt. Everest of this sport.
Socrates blogged daily about her adventure at svnereida.com where she chronicled her journey in great detail. Included are all the essential nuggets that comprise a well-kept captain’s log including weather and water notes, route, navigation and compass notes, total distance travelled, etc.
But Socrates also included the personal side of the journey and included notes about the instrument repairs she tended to, the whales she spotted, the visiting birds who landed on her lifelines, the scrumptious meals she prepared and then devoured, the cocktail or glass of wine she enjoyed at sunset, or the warm cup of tea she drank to warm up the body and the soul. After a while, one feels totally immersed in her daily life at sea, making her adventure that much more interesting and compelling to follow.
For example, on her birthday (Day 319 / August 17, 2019) she blogs, “Warm enough to have a quick deck shower and hair wash in the sunshine – a birthday present to myself to add to the extra mango juice I just found stored away. Thought I had just two cartons left but found three!”
On another entry (Day 312 August 10, 2019) she notes, “Enjoying pancakes with Nutella and raspberry sauce – usual good combination! Before that, I mended my favorite can-opener. Fortunately, despite it falling apart unexpectedly, I managed to prevent any of the bits falling down into the sink plug-hole (a near thing!) so was able to put it back together, along with plenty of Kroil to ease the rusted/jammed parts. So now it’s working fine.”
Another critical instrument repair job now complete.
I asked Socrates if there was a question she gets asked over and over again about her solo sea adventures. With some laughter she answers, “Do you do a lot of fishing out there?” She explains that her food sources come from a collection of tins as fishing takes a lot of effort.
“To put out a fishing line is one thing. But then what happens when there is a fish on the other end? You need to reel a big fish in. Then, get it to the boat and on to the deck. You need to then kill it. Scale it. Clean it. Cut it into fillets. Package it. Refrigerate it. And eventually, prepare and then cook it,” she adds. “No, I don’t fish much in the ocean.”
When asked about her most memorable day on this journey, Socrates very quickly answered that it was Day 232 (May 22, 2019) when she finally rounded the fifth great cape of the Southern Ocean. The five great capes include South Cape (New Zealand), South East Cape (Australia), Cape Leeuwin (Australia), Cape Agulhas (South Africa), and Cape Horn (Chile).“It was Party Time!” she writes as she hugs the shoreline of Stewart Island, New Zealand, and started her journey north.
Her log for that day: “Gusty conditions under the occasional cloud in shower. A lovely rainbow shone as we were rounding the Cape – an omen of good luck? I could do with some! Enjoying a ‘special’ breakfast of dried fruit, nuts and seeds with delicious mango juice to start with. Thinking ahead to the warmer climates coming up soon, further N. Will celebrate later with a rum punch, mango juice and orange juice with some dark spiced rum. I’ve a little rum still left from my earlier four ‘Dark and Stormy’ Great Cape celebratory drinks!
Totally enjoyed the day, celebrating the ‘Fifth Great Cape Rounding.’ Feels really good and the weather is cooperating fantastically well! Found some delicious olive and sun-dried tomato tapenade (from Saltspring Island) to spread on crackers, opened a small tin of anchovy-stuffed green olives and had them with cashews to go with a long (weak!) G&T as sunset approached, and a glass of red wine with my meal later. Even managed to raise a toast to ‘The Fifth Cape’ with friends by satphone!”
Sponsored by Global Marine Networks/RedPort, she enjoyed unlimited free wi-fi and use of an Iridium satellite phone which allowed her to stay in touch with her family, friends, and the new friends she made along the way.
Going at it solo presents its own challenges and some of her biggest hurdles were repairing her failed auto pilot, avoiding large storms, and handling big seas. Sail repairs, instrument repairs, and paying close attention to navigation are a necessary part of the adventure.
“I often quote a sailing instructor from when I was starting out learning to sail: If you’re thinking of reefing, do it! If you’re thinking about letting out a reef, go have a cup of tea!” It’s better to have a reef tied in that turns out not to be needed, than to struggle to get one in when you’ve left it too late. “The toughest part is overcoming the issues – whether in big seas or calm ones. I have to fix stuff and keep going. And this takes time and effort.”
While sailing around the world, Socrates worked to build awareness and raise funds to help support the life-saving efforts of RNLI (Lifeboats) in Britain. As a non-profit, the agency is committed to helping people who are in distress on the water. Whether it’s a swimmer, surfer, a mariner on a small boat or big ship, whether it is night or day, summer or winter, RNLI’s intensive training and equipment saves lives.
Jeanne Socrates has had an extraordinary life. As her email signature is anchored with the reminder, “Life is precious, make the most of it,” my speculation is that this amazing life is by her own design. It will be thrilling to see her story unfold possibly on the big screen someday, but most assuredly in the book that will be coming. Evidently, she has been approached by four publishers already who are eager to help her share her story.
“It looks like I need to find an agent,” she adds at the close of our phone call.