Round-the-world sailor, 77, reaches Victoria finish line after 339 days

Jeanne Socrates crossed the finish line at Ogden Point Saturday to become the oldest person to sail around the world solo, non-stop and unassisted.

Sailors are calling it an incredible feat of bravery, fortitude and skill. She was at sea for 339 days.

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Socrates, 77, sailed past Victoria’s Ogden Point breakwater at 4:17:26 p.m.; she started her journey from Victoria on Oct. 3, 2018. It was her third attempt after weather foiled two prior efforts in 2016.

Throughout Saturday she tried to use every puff of wind to her advantage to bring her vessel home on a relatively windless sea.

At Ogden Point, on land and on the water, horns blasted and people cheered. Some who waited hours to watch this moment were emotional.

“She’s 77 years old. It’s amazing,” said Gord Berg, holding a large Canadian flag. “For someone to put their mind to such a task is awe-inspiring.

“How can you not be emotional,” said Berg. “What she endured, so many challenges, and the mental strength to pull through that — alone. Just mindboggling. At a human level it’s just amazing.”

David Kerr, a sailor, waited hours with his family to watch Socrates cross the finish line. He couldn’t fathom how Socrates mastered so much adversity and how she had such physical and mental agility. “It was incredible,” said Kerr, who has been following Socrates’ blog. “It’s a remarkable accomplishment.”

Socrates, a grandmother and retired university mathematics professor from England, started sailing at age 48.

She and her husband, George, bought their first sailboat in 1997 and continued sailing even after 2001, when George was diagnosed with terminal cancer. They were sailing off Venezuela in 2002 where George put ashore for a final bout of radiation treatment.

After the treatment, the couple left the boat and flew back to London for Christmas. He died in 2003 at age 65.

“He was able to stay on the boat for a good long time,” said Socrates. “Otherwise, he would have just been kicking his heels back in London.”

Socrates picked up the sailboat and continued sailing. She bought another sailboat, a 38-foot Najad 380 named Nereida.

Nereida is named for the mythical nereids, handmaidens of Poseidon.

Socrates tried a similar solo unassisted sail around the world in 2016, but was twice blocked by weather. She then had a bad fall from a ladder on her boat in 2017, suffering a broken neck, nine broken ribs and a concussion.

She faced further adversity during her 2018-2019 voyage.

Socrates dodged two cyclones, watched her sailboat tip far enough for the sail to touch the water, her main sail shredded, she survived eight-metre sea swells off southern Australia, her auto- pilot went down. There were a variety of other equipment failures, but she managed to make repairs. Because of those problems, she arrived home four months later than she expected.

“I had a few doubts a few times thinking, ‘was I going to manage to fix this’ … because when the autopilot goes down, and you have no instruments, and you’ve lost the wind steering and your batteries are going down — you’ve got a few problems,” Socrates said.

“I was thinking: ‘Am I going to be able to continue?’ ”

Socrates’ well-thought-out food supply saw her through her extended voyage.

She arrived home having eaten her last cookie last week. She said she’s now “skinny” and has lost a lot of muscle. She asked friend Pamela Bendall to bring her two per cent milk for her tea and cereal.

Socrates was also looking forward to a “crunchy” caesar salad, a hot bath with a glass of wine, and a bed that doesn’t move — all of which the Fairmont Empress Hotel on Victoria’s Inner Harbour is providing over two nights.

Mentally, Socrates said her survival rests in always believing when something breaks “there’s a way around it; if you can’t do it this way you’ll find another way to do it.” In the face of a life-threatening storm you have to think “it will pass,” she said. “If you just get through the moment it will be OK.”

Asked if it was all worth it, Socrates shrugged and said: “Ahhh, ya.”

Socrates said she is overwhelmed by the support she received from around the world from people who contacted her by radio, encouraging her or giving her information to help solve a problem. She plans to visit those radio friends.

Socrates only had two hours of sleep overnight into Saturday as a lack of wind and an ebb tide pushed her sailboat back several nautical miles. She was continually “calmed” throughout her journey, she said.

Supporters, who feared she might fall asleep on her approach, sailed out Friday night to accompany her in.

Then it was a long day of waiting. Winds and a current expected to bring her home didn’t materialize. Loyal admirers remained in boats and on the water’s edge waiting for her return.

Sailors who have sailed the world with crews are taken aback by what Socrates has accomplished alone, especially at her age, said Steve Illman of the Royal Victoria Yacht Club.

“It’s just insane,” said Illman. “Everyone is really excited. A lot of us thought we’d never see her again.

“I just completed a 10,000-mile voyage and the crew on the boat couldn’t understand how she could possibly do this alone,” said Illman. “They are in awe of her abilities.”

Considering the outrageous seas and all the things on the boat that have failed and broken — that Socrates was able to fix — Illman said her accomplishment is one for the history books. “Just having the fortitude to brave all that stress and anxiety,” said Illman.

The previous record-holder for the oldest person to do an around-the-world unassisted solo sail was held by Minoru Saito of Japan, who completed the journey in 2005 at the age of 71.

Socrates was already the oldest woman to accomplish the feat, after she made the arduous solo, non-stop, unassisted voyage in 2013 at the age of 70.

“Life is precious,” said Socrates. “You have one life and so many people lose it through cancer or whatever, early, and don’t really have a chance to enjoy it, especially when they stop work and they thought they were going to get to do really nice things and suddenly it’s taken away from them.

“So just make the most of your life whatever age you are,” said Socrates. “Do the best you can with it.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

— With Times Colonist files i

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