The World’s Most Persistent Grandmother

Septuagenarian Jeanne Socrates is 150 days in to a non-stop, solo circumnavigation of the globe aboard a Najad 380.

Sailing World

Jeanne Socrates


In sailing, as in life, determination and persistence deliver. No great voyage was ever achieved without hardship and adversity (any voyage without those two monsters is called a "milk run"). It's no coincidence that the paragon of persistence himself, Ernest Shackleton, adopted the Latin "FORTITUDINE VINCIMUS" as his family motto. It means "by endurance we conquer," which pretty much sums up the Shackleton experience. It was good enough for Matt Rutherford, too, the quixotic Annapolitan who became the first sailor to solo circumnavigate the Americas.

It is not the official motto of Jeanne Socrates, a near or recent septuagenarian (it's hard to pin down) who is currently circumnavigating the globe solo and non-stop aboard a Najad 380. But it easily could be. For if Socrates succeeds--she is almost 150 days in and approaching Australia, after setting out from British Columbia--she will become the oldest woman ever to sail the globe on her own without stopping (Minoru Saito appears to be the only older solo, non-stop circumnavigator, and he was 71, so not by much), as well as the first woman to solo circumnavigate from a North American start. And, here is where her Shackleton Award credibility comes in: This is her third try.

Now, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, and crown Socrates for her incredible voyage yet. Her first attempt, which started November 2009, ended in Cape Town with engine problems. Her second attempt, which started October 2010, ended some 100 miles west of Cape Horn with a severe knockdown and damage. The interesting thing, though, is that after both these setbacks, Socrates pulled herself and her boat together and sailed on. In fact, after repairs near Cape Horn she completed a 5 Great Cape Southern Ocean circumnavigation. And I should mention that even before she embarked on her two solo, non-stop attempts she (almost) completed a solo circumnavigation (with stops), after departing from Mexico in March 2008. I include a parenthetical “almost” because she had the misfortune to be driven ashore just 60 miles short of completing the voyage. Still, how many sailors would still be at it, after all that? So no matter how you look at it, this is one persistent lady. Fortitudine Vincimus.

Of course, she is not there yet, and has some more Southern Ocean, and the whole of the Pacific Ocean to traverse. Regarding her prospects for completing this current voyage, you could take the skeptical view that Socrates is a magnet for misfortune, or the optimistic view that her third time will be lucky. I, for one, sincerely hope she makes it, not least because that would be the right thing for the Sailing Gods to gift her, having heaped so much abuse and bad luck upon her to date. Also, if she succeeds it would be a remarkable voyage. The woman is a grandmother, after all. And older than Sir Francis Chichester when he became the toast of the world after a voyage that wasn't even non-stop. Sure, he sailed in a different yachting age. But it is not ridiculous to mention both voyages (in terms of physical challenge, not global hype, which Chichester wins hands down) in the same paragraph.

Socrates does not have many sponsors and is entirely unassuming, so her so-called "web presence" is a bit scattered (which only makes her bid more appealing). You can read about how she came to start sailing (only in the 1990s) and why she sails solo, on her website. And you can follow her voyage, and regular log entries, via her blog. As for self-shot videos of raging storms and Southern Ocean surfing, forget it. Twitter? Nah (she has an account with one tweet). Socrates is just sailing along for the reward and challenge of sailing along, in the hopes of completing an epic voyage. That's the essence of hard adventure. She also is setting a notable example: If a diminutive 70-year old can sail the world solo and non-stop, then the sailing window for all of us is being extended deep into life. Good to know.