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Solo sailor Jeanne Socrates - new 'oldest ever' record on the way

by Nancy Knudsen on 26 Jun 2012
Jeanne Socrates on Nereida after becoming the oldest woman to solo circumnavigate .. .
She just keeps breaking 'oldest ever' records, and she's on her way to another. British solo sailor Jeanne Socrates, already the oldest ever female solo circumnavigator after finishing her last circumnavigation in Cape Town, has just left Tahiti on her way across the Pacific to Victoria in Canada. On arrival she will have become the 'oldest ever' woman to circumnavigate via the Five Great Capes - Capes Horn, Aghulas (Good Hope) Leeuwin (West Australia), and the southern tips of Tasmania and New Zealand.

While Jeanne sailed her solo journeys around the world she attracted little attention, but in recent months the accolades have been pouring in. She was invited to meet Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip last year, The Royal Yachting Association did a feature story on her and she was awarded the Duchess of Kent Trophy by The Cruising Association for her mammoth achievements to date.

Since then, she's made two long passages: from Cape Town to Hobart (56 days of often-stormy S. Ocean passage!) and Hobart to Tahiti (37 days -another difficult passage, just managing to lay Tahiti eventually, although originally making for Hawaii).

She is now on passage to Hawaii, for brief stop to replace her AP pump, and then north to Victoria, British Columbia. That's when she will have completed her solo circumnavigation via the Five Great Capes. She is hoping to arrive Victoria by the end of July, where she left on 25th October, 2010.

That circumnavigation was intended to be non-stop but after her knockdown causing major damage to her boat while hove-to during a storm on 5th January 2011, she was forced to stop at Ushuaia for repairs, after rounding Cape Horn under a jury rig.

So, because of that stop, Jeanne, getting close to her 70th birthday, has decided that she wants to do it all again, THIS time non-stop.


As she explained recently in an email, 'I felt decidedly cheated when I was knocked down in January last year while trying to play safe in bad weather before rounding Cape Horn...!! If that hadn't happened, I'm convinced I'd have completed my nonstop attempt by May/June of last year.... so I'm going to give it one last try - If that doesn't work out, it clearly wasn't meant to be & I'll go back to relaxed cruising...! '

But at the age of seventy, isn't that pushing her luck? 'No way,' she said, 'So-called 'rogue waves' apart, it's mostly a matter of boat gear surviving the time in the Southern Ocean conditions, not so much the person, in trying to achieve a nonstop RTW success. That's where the racers win out - by taking under half the time I spend at sea to get around!'

October is her planned starting date. Sail-World will be following her story, but you can follow her day-to-day progress at www.svnereida.com

How did she start?

But you might be asking, how did all this happen? Was she a solo sailor from childhood? Did she grow up on a boat? No, not so. Jeanne, as she has related over the years, was simply a cruising sailor, with her husband, when fate made some changes..

Jeanne and her late husband, George, had been keen boaters for years, spending summer holidays on their carefully handcrafted boat Nereida, which was built in Sweden. They spent the best part of five years, from 1997, sailing around the Mediterranean, and over to the tropical Caribbean islands for some very memorable vacations.

They were living the dream of an ideal, relaxed retirement until her husband’s body finally gave up following a long fight against cancer – while they were anchored in Bonaire.

Even though Jeanne had experience in dinghy sailing, captaining an ocean-going yacht alone is something completely different. But she was not interested in sitting around feeling sorry for herself, and decided that her passion for sailing should continue.

Socrates says, 'Firstly, my husband died of cancer while we were on a cruise in the Caribbean. I was already enjoying the boating experience with many friends because they understand what you’re doing and what you’re all about – the show must go on.

'I didn’t want to stop what I was doing. If I get keen on something, I really go for it!

'Every time I went back to London to visit my family, I’d be hit with a year’s worth of mail, and it wouldn’t be long before I wanted to get back out to sea. I’d done all these courses and kept watch overnight while George was around, but it’s simply keeping watch,' she says. 'Later that year, The Ocean Cruising Club – which I’m a member of and have a lot of good friends there – was having a rally in British Columbia. I thought that would be a great idea, and I started looking for somebody to help sail with me. I eventually found a good Dutch guy called Daan.

'But as it worked out, he did not pitch up at departure time: nowhere to be found. So I thought, ‘If I have to wait around for somebody to sail with, this is never going to happen.’ So off I went, leaving Bonaire, heading for Miami,' Socrates relates.

'But when I was leaving Bonaire, I got a VHF call, saying Daan was looking for me. I was not going to turn around, and told him to meet me at the next island in the Caribbean. Daan joined for the first part of the trip, helping me get familiar with my new role as captain.'

She would continue to grow in confidence following a successful first semi-solo sail to British Columbia, taking in some of the breathtaking vistas along the way.

The more Socrates sailed, the more she had to learn how to fix important instruments and equipment on the boat. Her background as a science and maths teacher would stand her in good stead, trying to fix things – often only with e-mail advice from manufacturers and fellow sailors.

Finally she found that she preferred sailing solo, had the competence to do it and - you know the rest of the story!

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