Life in Salt: Jeanne Socrates, The Oldest Woman Ever to Complete a Solo, Non-Stop Global Circumnavigaton

by Owen James Burke

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Jeanne Socrates aboard Nereida after running aground and nearly being washed out to sea in Mexico, June 2008 (Photo courtesy of Jeanne Socrates)

People in the boating world are normally so friendly and helpful to each other; it’s how humanity should be but mostly isn’t, it seems. I think being on a boat is the best possible way to be living life…I can’t think that I’d be happy being anywhere but on the water. I think once you’re bitten by the bug, you’ve had it. It’s very difficult to give it up.”

British sea queen Jeanne Socrates, 71, is one of the hardiest, saltiest people you’re likely to meet. She and her husband only began sailing in 1992 and in 1997 took an early retirement. They bought and outfitted a Najad 361 (a 36-foot single-masted sloop), named her Nereida (“Sea Nymph,” of Greek and Spanish origin) and sailed from Sweden to the Caribbean. Sadly, while Nereida was being prepped for her next journey in 2003, Mr. Socrates lost a battle with cancer. This might have brought an end to the cruising spirit of many a widow or widower, but Mrs. Socrates had been badly bitten by the sailing bug, and her only rationale was to start sailing solo, around the globe.

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The first Nereida, swamped on Playa Michigan between Zihuatanejo and Acapulco.
Those waves out the back are huge.
(Photo: Yachting Monthly, courtesy of Jeanne Socrates)

Socrates’ first solo attempt at global circumnavigation came to an end when her autopilot instrument lost power and left her to drift into the surf. She awoke in the middle of the night with water rushing in through a cabin hatch, realizing she’d grounded on a remote Mexican beach just 60 miles off her mark. She’d lost nearly everything, and walked away with little more than her passport, a single debit card (her credit card washed away) and $300 US in her pocket. Still, she shored up the few pieces of Nereida she could and after selling the family home, put in an order for another, slightly larger Najad 380, also to be named Nereida.

Following attempts, which were intended to be officially recognized as solo single-handed circumnavigations, saw 8-meter waves, rigging and mechanical failures, a knock-down and a snapped boom in the south Pacific just 100 nautical miles shy of Cape Horn. She then limped into port for repairs and was able to make Cape Town, where she had started 14 months earlier. Still, she hadn’t made the trip nonstop, a technicality making for an entirely different voyage altogether.

At the spry age of 70, Socrates succeeded on her third attempt after 259 days and 25,000 miles logged at sea, claiming what has been called “a victory for the elderly”— but more importantly, mankind itself (and 70 years old is hardly elderly, especially for someone who so clearly doesn’t concern herself with age). We should all hope to be so passionately and actively engaged in such adventures at any point in our lives.


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Scut: So you became the oldest woman ever to circumnavigate single-handedly, but you only took up sailing in your forties. How on earth did that come about?

JS: Well, I was nearly fifty actually, to be honest. I was doing some teaching at an independent boys school in London and after the exams all finished…the tradition was for a week of activities that were anything but the academic work the students had been doing — whatever the teachers could think of that they fancied.

One of the activities was sailing, and I was lucky that the department I was in, mathematics, had the guy who was running that program. It wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise to have gone sailing, but I did like the water—I love swimming. But my family was very poor, so you just didn’t think about  things like sailing.

Then the offer came to do a competent crew yachting course—a basic, initial, five day course for beginners on yachts. There was a five-person minimum for the boys to do the course—only three had signed up—and I thought it would be a pity for them not to do it. I thought it was going to be terribly boring, actually. I’d seen these guys poncing about on their boats, coming in to tie up, and I thought they were always doing the “Look at me on my boat!” kind of thing, so I thought I didn’t really fancy it. But my husband and I made up the other two people to let the course run.

We went out and had a lovely five days of sunshine and wind. We were on a Sigma 33, and it was just such fabulous sailing. There was so much involved in it, and I hadn’t realized all the other things that you don’t think about when you’re dinghy sailing or windsurfing, like navigation, night lights, buoys—and living on board, of course, taking your turn cooking. I just got so taken.

We were about to go on holiday to Greece, because my husband’s family was from Cyprus, so we’d go down there in a camper van with windsurfers…I knew that there was a Sunsail yachting center near where we were going to go windsurfing, so I rang them up and said “Is there any chance there’s a cheap little one-week thing that wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg?”

We got ourselves a week in a Beneteau 25 with an outboard motor, which was good enough. We joined a flotilla—we had our competent crew qualification by then—and we took down with us our yacht master theory books, charts, instruments, and compasses to get ready for the theory exam…That one course that I did was enough to get me going on the yachting side of things and realize what it could involve, and it just took off from there.

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The first Nereida under sail

So had you actually had any other any other experiences with the sea prior to this?

No…there was no hint of anything water-wise, other than being interested in anything and everything, but when I started high school I was across the way from a couple of open-air swimming pools. So I got a season ticket there, and took a book out of the library to teach myself all these various swimming strokes—after having had someone help me to start swimming at around age nine or ten. It was all very much self-motivated. I was just keen to learn and do anything. I love the water.

I remember when I finally got onto Lasers [a popular make of small plastic sailboats for daysailing], which are great things to sail, I got a book out of the library to help myself become a better Laser sailor, and I didn’t read much of it, but enough to see something about falling out of the boat backwards. I thought, “What the hell is that all about?” And in fact, that very weekend, I found out. All of a sudden, a gust came, we zoomed over, and I just fell out the back.

So what ultimately drove you to attempt the non-stop single-handed circumnavigation? Did the interest in recognition to become the oldest woman to solo-circumnavigate push you at all?

No, not at all really. My husband and I had taken early retirement together, simultaneously, five years before he would have retired—which was just as well, because he died of cancer the year he would have retired. I was able to keep him on the water for the last year. We’d learned to sail together and done everything together—he had no more sailing experience than I did. . .

When he died and I was by myself, there was no question of not continuing on the boat. By then, anyway, I’d gotten into boating and made so many friends who were so supportive. At that point the boat was in Bonaire, in the Dutch Antilles, near Curaçao and Aruba. A friend had been looking after the boat for me while I wasn’t on it, and I came back to it after my husband had died.

There wasn’t any question of not continuing to sail—it was just too enjoyable. Then I started looking at the Vendée Globe [Race], and thought, “hang on, they’re doing exactly what I’m now thinking of doing, they’re coming down the Atlantic, they’re coming around South Africa, they’re going past Australia…” and I wondered what it would be like to do it non-stop. The only way to answer that question is to do it, so that was really why I ended up thinking in terms of not only a circumnavigation, but non-stop and around the world. It would be quite a challenge. I thought, “Let’s go and find out!”

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Small pelagic fish often land on deck and make for a welcomed diversion from the standard dried and canned table fare

So what were the more amazing moments during your circumnavigations?

Definitely the Southern Ocean—the albatrosses, the storm petrels, the little ones that are dangling their legs in the water and who almost look like they’re walking on it. Just being out there in the ocean and knowing that you’re the only person for thousands of miles, in the middle of this big ocean which you’ve got to respect. You’re stupid if you don’t. You’ve got to take care with what you’re doing. It’s so awe-inspiring to see these big seas coming. The cloudscapes, as well. There would be such a variety of clouds in the sky at one time, constantly amazing me.

The Southern Ocean is definitely addictive. I would like to be back out there in those big seas.

Can you share some frightening encounters?

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Nereida after breaking her boom on January 5th, 2011

Well, my most frightening one was the very first time I came down the Atlantic towards South Africa. I’d been cruising, by then, for quite a bit—I thought I knew what sailing was all about. And then I suddenly found myself getting clobbered by a cold front overnight. All hell broke loose, and it was horrendous. I had good sixty-knot gusts come through and back the main[sail] in the middle of the night with big seas. [(The mainsail is considered “backed” when the wind shifts, or the mainsail catches a backdraft from the jib and the sail and all its rigging begin blowing in the opposite direction, which, depending on the speed of the wind, can be quite a violent shift. Note: this is also an applied sailing tactic to stop forward movement)]

So the wind switches in no time from Northwest to South-Southwest. [The boat suddenly stopped dead, the rigging became tangled, and] my stanchions [(bars holding the protective lifeline in place around the outer edges of a boat)] were bent, so I had quite a mess to sort out. Conditions were strong, and now the sea was coming in two directions. The sea was still coming from the Northwest, but it was beginning to come from the South-Southwest as well. That was pretty horrible.

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This is what Nereida’s cabin looked like after she was knocked down off Cape Horn

I had to sort myself out,  but when I went back down below, my entire body was shaking. I was thinking, “Is this shaking with fear?” Since then I’ve thought it was probably just the effect of adrenalin pumping through you that makes you shake like that.

This last time going around, the worst thing was having to climb up the mast and then back down again to replace a faulty wind instrument. That was so bad and difficult. I had to force myself up, and then I couldn’t do what I had to do, and I went back down even more tired than I was going up. As I was about to step down to the deck, my whole body started shaking again. It’s interesting to see your body doing that.

That sounds terrifying. So what does the “non-stop” voyage entail? You must stop at some point.

It’s not so much non-stop as it is not setting foot on land. They actually stopped some of the Vendée Globe racers and made them hide behind one of the islands near Cape Horn a couple times back because there was the end of a cyclone coming their way and they were worried about them really getting clobbered. You’re allowed to anchor or pick up a buoy or make a repair if you have some kind of emergency. And of course if you get becalmed you’re going to be stopping, or at least drifting.

But you’re not allowed to have anyone on board, you’re not allowed to have anyone come and do any work for you or help you on the boat. They can talk to you on the radio, or if they’re nearby, to give advice, but you’ve got to do everything. That’s the unassisted part. The non-stop is simply not setting foot on land.

So when I stopped in San Francisco when my life raft went down, I was okay to take up a buoy [and tie off to a mooring] and I was okay to have them come and give me the life raft. That had been agreed with by the World Sailing Speed Record Council as an emergency situation. Keeping to the rules, no one was allowed to land on my boat, and no one was to do anything for me other than bring the life raft to me. I had to get it on board, and I had to fix it in place.

Food and water is the next obvious question. What did you do for that?

I’ve got a water maker and quite big (fresh water) tankage. You do need a water maker, actually. I was in the Southern Ocean for three months at a time. A lot of the time it’s very overcast there, but you don’t get much rain. I often thought to myself that if I were relying on rainwater, I would be in trouble. You can’t rely on it at all.

I’ve still got some of the food I had—tinned and dried stuff. I wrote out a two-week, varying menu of all the things I could possibly want. I worked out proportions and multiplied up from there—assuming eight months. And then I added on—I was always adding a bit more—so I think I ended up with about a year’s worth of supplies.

Did you fish at all?

Oh, I can’t catch things. But just the other day people out in the bay caught fresh dorado. I did enjoy it.

Did anyone ever bring you fresh fruit or anything like that?

You’re not allowed to! There I was in San Francisco Bay, after my life raft had been sorted out. I tried to get away and failed—I let go of the buoy thinking there was a bit of a light wind and that I’d catch the tide through the Golden Gate Bridge the right way, but the wind died and I ended up just drifting around. I had to anchor as it got a bit deep. I was stuck there with no wind over a sunny weekend in early November.

All these people in boats were coming by with barbecues and wine, offering me food and drink. I said, “I’d love to but I can’t! Anything I accept would ruin my unassisted attempt.”

And I have to ask. How do you battle loneliness?

You’ve got to remember that I was always in radio contact every day with someone or another. I’ve got a ham radio license, and I’ve always talked to the Pacific Seafarers Net. I know just about everyone on that, and they all know me—we’re all good friends on the radio. Then I got down passing South Africa one day, and I heard these guys in the States calling South Africans. I heard both the South Africans and the States guys quite clearly, so I joined in the conversation.

The guys in the States were amazed, because I’ve got a U.S. call sign.

You must have a lot of time to read. What are some of your favorite books on the sea?

I always recommend the Patrick O’Brian books (author of Master and Commander among others). He did such good research that everything is true-to-life. He took a few liberties to make his stories run, but a lot of what he talks about actually happened. Anything to do with the ship side of things is fascinating, especially as a sailor. He always has an appendix at the end of his books to explain all the terms he’s using. I think they’re really good—they come to mind as my preferred read.

I like to read books about places where I’ve been. There’s another one called Homelands: Kayaking the Inside Passage. That was about a couple that kayaked from Juneau to Seattle. It was very interesting because of all the places I knew between Juneau, British Columbia, and back down to Seattle. I also liked the history of things from the Native viewpoint in that area. They made food themselves, dehydrated it and left it with friends to send to them every two weeks of their journey. It was a really fascinating read.

There was another one, The Curve of Time, about a woman who had lost her husband but took her daughters and little son on a tiny little motorboat in the days before anyone went cruising around British Columbia.

What kind of technology or gear do you rely on most when making a crossing?

Well for me, the wind steering. I’ve got my wind vane–a Hydrovane. This time around, I found out what to do. I used it most of the time, even in storm conditions. I was really pleased with the way it worked.

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If you’re cruising in open water aboard a sailboat, a windvane is a must. The Hydrovane can maintain steerage in 1.5 knots of wind and up. (Photo: Jeanne Socrates)

It’s a no-brainer. If you’re going a long distance by sail, you really want wind steering.

The wind generator did me fine, until it came off its pole. I had a little genset (portable diesel generator) with me. I remember one time I was quite surprised that for thirteen days, coming down from the Canaries, I didn’t use my genset at all. I had enough solar power to keep everything going, even overnight.

What wind steering do you use?

Hydrovane. I lock off the main wheel, and it has an auxiliary rudder. It gives you an emergency rudder as well, which is a good thing. It has a bright red, lightweight, aluminum vane.

Of course, the other bit of kit I wouldn’t have been without was the Icom SSB radio. So many people think that the [satellite] telephone is the way to go, but it costs money, and if you have your ham radio license,  you can email free of charge through an SSB with Winlink. So there are lots of benefits, and you can have these chats with people if you want to. When you’ve got a phone, there’s one person at each end, and that’s it.

The other thing that was good for me to have had was my independent Furuno weather fax. When my computers went down, emailing stopped. So the only weather I could get—and I didn’t want other peoples’ views of weather, I wanted it from the horse’s mouth—was a weather fax machine with its own dedicated antenna. I could still download weather faxes from Honolulu, Point Reyes, New Zealand, or Australia to show me what the weather was right then.

What do you do when you’re not sailing, working on Nereida, or flying around the world accepting awards?

It’s been so different since I got down to Mexico at the end of February—I’ve been on the hard! I’m about to go up to British Columbia for two months and back to England for a month and get back down here in mid-October when things have cooled off. Hopefully I’ll finish getting work done on the boat and get sailing.

I haven’t skied for ages, but it’s very similar to being out in the middle of the ocean when you’re up on the top of a mountain. There’s this wide-open feeling, you can take deep breaths and feel free of the harassment of everyday life, and you’ve got big skies.

Going for walks, and going biking around is good exercise. It’s good to walk around if you can, as that gives you the leg exercise you need. I’d noticed how feeble my legs had become when I came back last July, nearly a year ago.

What’s next for you and Nereida?

Well, I could be going and giving talks—a lot of people have asked me to come and do that, but to be honest, I’d rather be out sailing. I enjoy going and giving talks because you have people that are interested and are sailors, or if they’re not sailors and they’re just interested in the fact that I’ve done what I’ve done. It’s always fun to do that and get questioned, but given the choice to give a talk somewhere or be on my boat somewhere, I think I’d rather be on my boat.

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Jeanne Socrates may not have been born sailing, but she’s certainly got the blood. She’s traveling now, but if you find yourself cruising the Sea of Cortez next spring, you can expect a friendly hail from Nereida.

All photographs courtesy of Jeanne Socrates’ library on her website, S/V Nereida. You can follow her travels here.

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