British grandmother completes solo non-stop circumnavigation

Stranded in Acapulco. Beset by rigging problems in Cape Town. Knocked down near Cape Horn. Jeanne Socrates endured her fair share of setbacks in her quest to sail around the world alone without any stops and outside assistance. But in the end, she persevered.

It was Monday at 2:26 a.m. Pacific time when Socrates and her 38-foot cutter Nereida ghosted across the finish line just outside the harbor of Victoria, British Columbia, to the blaring of air horns and hardy spectators applauding and waving glow sticks on the breakwater. After nearly 260 days and more than 25,000 miles she had accomplished what she set out to do twice before. She is now the only woman to sail solo and non-stop around the five great capes and the only one who started and finished in a North American port.

The fact that this grandmother from London, England, soon will celebrate her 71st birthday only magnifies her achievement. Although no age-related records are being kept, the World Sailing Speed Record Council monitored the trip for ratification.

Jeanne Socrates aboard Nereida July 7th 2013

“I’m a very happy person, on a definite high,” Socrates said at an impromptu press conference on her boat, which was tied up at the dock in front of the Empress hotel in downtown Victoria. “Just go for it,” she said, advising the gathering to follow their dreams even if the going might be tough.

Her inspiration, she said, is Dame Ellen MacArthur, who set a record sailing around the world solo and nonstop and whom she met during a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

Judging from the appearance of her boat, the going for her was tough at times. Even on the third attempt, a solo trip around the planet with no stops or outside help doesn’t get easier: The radome and wind generator were secured to the cockpit arch with lines after they broke off their pedestals during a knockdown in the Indian Ocean. Her satellite phone quit on Christmas Day and the monitors of her computer quit a few weeks ago, so she could not use any digital communication.

She found a workaround with numerous ham radio operators who transcribed and relayed e-mail communications to and from her and maintained her blog entries. “She’s very strong, very independent and very focused,” said Rick Williams, one of the radio operators who worked with her during the later stages of the trip, having picked up her signal by chance as she was trying to hail a colleague. “Despite being retired, she’s still a teacher. That’s why she corrected my misspelling of seabirds and nautical terms.”

There were serious heroics, too. She had to climb the mast in an attempt to replace the defective wind instruments at the top. “I made it all the way up, but could not quite reach it,” she said. “Even though it was a calm day I was getting thrown around and bruised pretty badly.” She abandoned the effort and tried to jury-rig a spare set on the cockpit arch.

Approaching Cape Horn, she was following the Vendee Globe sailors, she said, and received their reports about icebergs that were drifting north, which helped her maintain a safe course. And the Horn? The cape that threw a storm at her in January of 2011 during her previous attempt, knocking Nereida on her side, forcing her to put into Ushuaia, Argentina, for badly needed repairs and effectively ending her solo challenge?

“I was becalmed,” she said. Ironically, between weather systems she sat in glassy seas.

Socrates, who lost her husband to cancer before she became a solo sailor, also raises funds for Marie Curie Cancer Care, a non-profit in the U.K. that operates hospices for terminally ill patients.

She plans to stay in Victoria for now to recover from her trip and do repairs and upgrades on her boat before continuing with bluewater sailing, although in a more relaxed fashion to visit with friends who helped her in myriad ways during her adventures.

— Dieter Loibner


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