Monday, June 17, 2024

Navigating Grief: How A Victoria Woman Went From Widow To Becoming The Oldest Person to Sail Solo Around the World

On the day she turned 77, Jeanne Socrates spent time maintaining the steering gear of her sailboat, Nereida, a Najad 380, and then soaked in the sunshine on deck, dabbed on some perfume, and settled in with cake and tea to read her birthday messages.

It was day 319 of a voyage that had already taken her over 26,693 nautical miles (49, 435 kilometers) from her starting point in Victoria, BC. Along the ways she’d sailed past the three great capes – South America’s Cape Horn, Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and Australia’s Cape Leeuwin; recorded gorgeous sunrises and sunsets; had encounters with whales; and interacted by email and radio with supporters around the world.

Despite some serious mishaps, Jeanne Socrates never stopped sailing.
Photo: Jeanne Socratets.

Her vessel had also been violently knocked down in a storm and she was constantly dogged by gear failures including shredded sails, broken radar and non-functioning communication equipment. Yet somehow, after each setback, the self-described optimist found a balance between projects, navigation, weather, eating, sleeping and gratitude. And if the trip continues as planned, and she holds off on using her engine or setting foot on land, Socrates will soon be the oldest person to have sailed solo and unassisted around the world.

Socrates took up sailing later when she was almost 50 years old. She had been teaching at an independent boy’s school in London when she and her husband had the chance to join some of the boys on a five-day beginners yachting course. “We went out and had a lovely five days of sunshine and wind,” Socrates recalls. “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.”

“One major reason for wanting to do a solo circumnavigation was definitely the challenge of all it involves. In the back of my mind was the thought of several good friends who had recently succumbed to cancer or been diagnosed with it….
Maybe they’d be able to  enjoy the sailing through me?” 

From there she and her husband were bitten by the sailing bug. Together they began learning the sport in earnest, preparing for an adventurous early retirement sailing the world. Sadly, just a few years after buying and outfitting the first Nereida, a Najad 361 (a slightly smaller version of her current boat) and sailing from Sweden to the Caribbean, tragedy struck. In March 2003, George Socrates lost his battle with cancer.

For some, this might have been the end of her sailing passion. But for Socrates leaving the life and home she and her husband had grown to love seemed too painful. Instead she searched for a way to stay aboard: “Fortunately boat friends (then, as nowadays) came to my rescue with helpful advice, useful tools, perhaps some muscle… and lots of moral support!”

She realized though it wasn’t sustainable to rely on friends for her day to day needs. To persevere with sailing and living onboard Nereida, practical problem-solving was something I had to learn to manage. She opted to take on a young crew member for the journey from Curacao to Colon. Her husband had been gone less than a year and having someone onboard helped her sharpen up her rusty sailing skills.

Socrates overcame cyclones, choppy water and mechanical problems to set many sailing records. Photo: Copyright: Michael Robertson.,

The journey was a success. From Colon, she set off on her first solo sail. “I was by myself  for several extended passages and several major learning curves! But Nereida stood up pluckily to all my mismanagement and I gradually gained in confidence as we headed up towards Providencia, the Honduras Bay Islands, and the Yucatan, past Cuba and into Key West… What a happy landfall!” She wrote of the time.

Socrates then had her boat shipped to the West Coast where she would spent the next few years sailing her boat in Mexico and Alaska until a new challenge presented itself. “I began to hear of a single-handed TransPac race due to start on June 24, 2006 from San Francisco to Hawaii.”

Once she’d conquered that race and the Pacific loop, she began to dream about something bigger. “I gained in confidence tremendously and set my sights on sailing around the world.”

This first solo trip included several stops and avoided the toughest capes. She reached Cairns, Australia, in July 2007, then Richards Bay, South Africa in November 2007, and transited the Panama Canal in May 2008. Then, just 100 nautical miles short of the conclusion of her voyage, an autopilot failure resulted in Nereida and Socrates being washed up on a beach where the boat was destroyed. After her rescue, she noted how difficult it was to come to terms with the situation and “feeling only half here — the other half still being with the beloved Nereida I knew.”

On day 340 of her journey, she became the oldest woman to circumnavigate the world solo. Photo: Copyright: Michael Robertson.

Socrates didn’t give up.

She bought and outfitted her new Nereida, a slightly larger, updated version of her first boat. This time she planned a different type of solo sail – a much more demanding one. After two attempts, one cut short by gear failures and the other by a serious knockdown, Socrates’ completed her first successful solo sail around the globe in 259 days at the age of 70.

This trip earned her the world record for being the oldest woman to sail solo ​​nonstop​ ​unassisted around the world. But she wanted more. “If I had waited just one year, I would have been the oldest person and not just the oldest woman,” Socrates said during an interview at the time. (The record is held by yachtsman Minoru Saito of Japan, who completed a successful sail around the globe in June, 2005 at the age of 71.)

Now her record breaking journey is over. She completed her journey on day 340. It was more challenging than her first successful effort, has taken longer and taken more out of both Socrates and her beloved, Nereida. Both are tired. She credits friends and supporters for giving her strength and keeping her moving through her toughest days; like when the knock down tossed the entire contents of her boat and soaked them with water, or when she was forced to spend her birthday alone at sea because dodging hurricanes had delayed her arrival home.

In turn, her supporters credit her for being an inspiration. One fan named Lynn said it well in a Facebook post: “I admire your ability to overcome challenges again and again. You are an inspiration to all your readers and ham radio listeners. Sending you hopes for fair winds and safe harbours.”

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Diane Selkirk
Diane Selkirk
After spending much of the past decade circumnavigating the globe with her husband, daughter and Charlie the boat cat aboard a 40’ sailboat, Diane Selkirk has put her roots back down in Vancouver. Her writing has appeared in publications including BBC Travel, Conde Nast Traveler, Cosmopolitan, Men’s Journal, Pacific Standard, Saveur and The Globe and Mail and has been recognized with numerous awards.