Walking the Plank: Jeanne Socrates - Soundings Online

Walking the Plank: Jeanne Socrates

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Anyone who sails around the world solo and nonstop is a hero. Jeanne Socrates took it to another level by doing it for the first time at 71. That’s right, the first time. Socrates recently embarked on a second solo circumnavigation — if she makes it, she’ll be the oldest person to sail around the world nonstop.

Photo by Kevin Light.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that Socrates stumbled into dinghy sailing in her late 40s and didn’t venture aboard a larger boat until her 50s. She was a math teacher, and when a school trip aboard a boat that required five sailors was short two participants, she and her husband, George, agreed to fill in as the additional crewmembers. And the rest is history.

They bought a Najad 361 and enjoyed several years of sailing in early retirement. When George passed away, Socrates continued to sail, building her confidence with every cruise and obtaining Royal Yachting Association qualifications to Ocean Yachtmaster level. She has now made three attempts at sailing nonstop around the world, the first in 2007. Socrates endured major equipment failure, running aground, a knockdown and a snapped boom in the South Pacific along the way to her last, successful circumnavigation in 2013. She was awarded the Cruising Club of America’s Blue Water Medal in 2014.

First memory of being on a boat: Apart from many English Channel ferry crossings to France, a multiactivity water sports week in the South of France in 1990. I fell in love with windsurfing and took to it in a big way, enjoying some dinghy sailing, also.

First boat you owned: Nereida I, a Najad 361, a lovely 36-foot Swedish cruising boat, owned jointly with my husband from 1997.

Your current boat: Nereida II, a Najad 380, a 38-foot cruiser I’ve owned since 2009, following the loss of my first boat.

Favorite boat you’ve owned: Nereida I and II.

Your dream boat: Nereida!

Most rewarding sailing experience: Fast-tacking at night, north up the Belize coast, close to reef … best tack was toward reef, so the ploy was to keep going until the reef could be heard clearly, keeping a careful eye on depth, and then tack away a short distance before tacking back inshore. I was headed from Belize City toward Mexico (Isla Mujeres) and later had a great sail past Chinchorro Bank. This was one of my first long, overnight, solo sails, and it was exciting to realize I was coping in quite boisterous conditions, and Nereida was sailing beautifully. … I shot off emails to several friends to say what a marvelous sail I was having!

Scariest adventure aboard: Big storms are always a worry, although heaving-to is an option I frequently take up, especially overnight if I want to get a relaxed sleep. Deploying the Jordan series drogue is a good, reliable, safe option when conditions get really bad — as they did a week or so ago, with 30-plus-foot seas and frequent ?sustained winds over 50 knots. The JSD kept us (me and Nereida!) safe for over two days, despite several of its cones getting badly damaged and only one bridle arm functioning after a shackle came away quite early on.

The first time I met up with a Southern Ocean cold front was pretty bad. Overnight, of course! The northwest wind backed to 60 knots south-southwest in no time and backed the (prevented) main. Big seas came from both directions, and the main had to be gybed and a mess of lines dealt with before I could go back down below. I was shaking from head to toe as I did so. … Good, as always, to have plenty of sea room — well offshore and no other boats around to get in the way.

Worse than those incidents was recently climbing the mast at sea, hoping to replace the wind instrument at the top. In minimal seas, the mast was trying to throw me off as I climbed (I have mast steps, thank God!), so I needed to hold on tightly with both hands, which was clearly not possible when reaching for the next step. When I got back down, my forearms were a mess of bruises and my hands totally blistered. My body started? shaking with the release of the tension as I got close to stepping back on deck. It took three weeks or so for my arms and fingers to recover.

Most memorable experience aboard: Has to be the thrill of rounding Cape Horn in January 2011. Dolphins came to greet us, lots of black-browed albatross were flying close by, the sun was shining, no one else around, sailing under genoa alone (main and staysail both out of action). And this was having made it despite my bad knockdown and resulting damage two days before.

Longest time you’ve spent at sea: My last nonstop around-the-world sail, 259 days without setting foot on land.

Favorite destination so far: Too many great places to single any one of them out — even just being out on the ocean when sailing well under a sunny sky can be totally exhilarating! But cruising from Alaska to the Gulf Islands via lovely British Columbia islands and anchorages is tough to beat.

Favorite nautical book: Patrick O’Brian’s series about Capt. Jack Aubrey? and Dr. Stephen Maturin — I have the complete set now. I’m looking forward to rereading the 13 I already know and enjoying reading the rest.

Favorite nautical cause you support: The Royal National Lifeboat Institution, a U.K. charity. All-volunteer crews and support personnel are funded by public donations to provide equipment and training that enables them to save many lives at sea and around British shores. The RNLI (rnli.org) has no government funding, and its volunteers respond to calls at any time of night or day, in all weather — and then have ordinary day jobs to get to. They do an amazing job and deserve all the support we can give them!

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue.