Late-comers are more persistent. British sailor Jeanne Socrates first took up sailing as an early retiree. But then she didn’t miss a single degree of longitude on her trips around the world. At 77, she earned the title of oldest person to sail singlehanded, unassisted and nonstop around the five major capes.
In her 80th year, she suffers from nothing that a little fish oil and vitamin D can’t cure. Her next plan is already set: have dinner with friends in Vancouver, then sail from Mexico to Australia.
We spoke with Jeanne Socrates by phone on the occasion of her 80th birthday to hear which new cruise she is currently preparing for.
Jeanne, you were in Australia during the lockdown, right?
Yes. I arrived in 2020 on Valentine’s Day and lived there until March 2022. The boat was in Canada during that time, in Victoria Harbor. It wasn’t moved, which is never good for a boat … friends kept an eye on it.
Have you sailed any longer distances since you’ve been back in Victoria?
Not at all … I’ve been back several months and have been busy every day repairing my boat.
You are getting Nereida ready for the next trip, aren’t you?
Yes, I need to do some work on it. The cabin windows were damaged, instruments need to be replaced, the batteries renewed. I have to go to Vancouver for that now. I’m also putting in new solar panels. When that’s all done, she’ll be wonderful. But until then, it’s still a lot of work.
You’ll be 80 years old on August 17, 2022. What do you have planned?
Almost all my friends live here on Vancouver Island in the Victoria area. Since I have to go to Vancouver for the boat, I’ll have dinner with some friends there.
Next destination: around New Zealand
And then? What is your next goal?
I want to start in Mexico and from there over to New Zealand and Australia. I’ve never sailed around New Zealand. I’ve passed Cook Strait between the North and South Island, but I haven’t been north. So on my way to Australia I want to cruise there a bit.
In Australia, I now know some beautiful corners. I’m sure it will be great to sail around there. When I’m there, I’ll decide where I want to continue sailing …
How do you feel physically?
I’m doing this cruise mainly to see how I get along. Before my last circumnavigation in 2017, I broke my neck and rib cage. If I look at the mast, it’s fine, but let’s see what happens when the boat heels over.
Actually, I don’t look at age. But now I have to say 80 is „quite a big number“. So it will be a test cruise. But I don’t completely rule out another circumnavigation. I want to go west. You sail most of the time with the wind and the current towards the tropics.
How long have you been sailing?
I’ve been sailing for a total of 32 years and on a yacht for 28 years, since I was 52.
You are the oldest person to sail around the world (German), at 77, nonstop, solo and unassisted, around all five major capes. Bill Hatfield may have been older in 2020 at 81 when he completed his circumnavigation. But he only circumnavigated three capes. That means you still hold the record.
Loneliness doesn’t scare me. I love being on the water and sailing. I also like to sail with friends, enjoy fellowship on board, I am a very social person. But the friends don’t always have time and the trips are then difficult to coordinate.
If I wanted to go on longer trips, I had to sail alone, that was the first lesson. That’s how I became a solo sailor.
There was no advantage in continuing to work
You had a life before sailing, but then retired early. Did you start sailing only when you retired?
No, I started before I retired with my husband. I had the opportunity to learn sailing and he accompanied me. He was 60 and I was 55 when we realized that there would be no financial benefit to us if we kept working.
So we quit at the same time and bought a yacht. We sailed to Sweden and further north, without autopilots and GPS, just by our observations and with charts. Later we went from England down to France to Portugal and further to the Caribbean.
And since when do you sail alone?
My husband died of cancer in 2003. The year before he died, he could no longer help physically in sailing the boat. But he enjoyed being on board and I sailed the boat. The boat was in the Caribbean.
Important to have my own boat
You as a woman – what do you think about women sailing? Do you see anything special in it?
The situation has improved a lot. So many women’s groups have been formed in recent years … There are still a lot of problems for women, because it’s mainly men who sail. Often women are not taken fully, but I want to sail actively, want to be involved. I have had very good experiences with women sailing. Men often think they can do things better than women. That’s a problem.
It’s great that sailors like Sam Davies and Dee Caffari and other women are showing that they are just as good at the Vendée Globe. They are good role models for women.
For me, it was important to have my own boat. When I did my sailing courses it was good that husbands, wives, partners were separated so that the men weren’t able to „help“ their partner. That’s how I learned to sail independently.
What did you do for the two years in Australia?
I was very active in Facebook groups where sailing women organise themselves and was lucky to be invited sometimes to join a boat racing or for a day or so cruising. While in Australia, I saw a lot of the country by travelling in a camper van.
Three times off Cape Horn
What was the most impressive cruise you have done. What was the greatest and most important experience?
I’ve been asked over and over what the best part of sailing around the world was for me. It’s the complete package: I enjoy the planning, the routing, the sailing, it’s all part of it.
One of my best experiences was sailing around Cape Horn. I’ve done it three times, but the last time was the most impressive. When I got there I had had a wonderful day of sailing, the wind was perfect, I could see the coastline.
At night there was a beautiful twilight. It was 19th of December and it was almost summer solstice there, so it didn’t get completely dark. But no sooner had I sailed around than a boat came right towards me, the wind and wave picked up abruptly and it got really hairy. That was a violent contrast.
Another significant moment was when I rounded the fifth cape at New Zealand after the disastrous knockdown – in glorious sailing weather. The first and fifth capes were very dramatic in very different ways.
How many knockdowns you had to suffer?
There were several. In 2011 I had a severe knockdown at Cape Horn with a lot of damage to the boat. I had to abort my non-stop circumnavigation because of that. Then I had some minor ones until the big knockdown off New Zealand in 2019. But the rig remained intact.
Ocean crossings are no big deal for Jeanne Socrates
Tough Lady. How do you manage to handle these situations?
I’ve sailed an extreme amount, around the world, up and down from Mexico to Alaska, across the Atlantic several times. For me, ocean crossings are no big deal (laughs). My boat is stable, I know it very well. I talk to friends and family on the radio, I make sure the boat is well prepared and I’m prepared.
Then you just have to keep an eye on the weather and try to sail as safely as possible. If it gets bad, I heave to and if it gets really bad, I have my Jordan Series Drogue.
„Age is not a factor“
How do you keep fit? Do you do any special sports? Do you do yoga, a certain diet, what do you do to stay healthy?
I don’t do enough sports and I’ve been sitting to much at the computer. I take some food supplements such as magnesium, calcium, fish oil, beet and vitamin D. I have been doing this for years. Whether it really helps, I don’t know. (laughs)