Vail Daily column: Around the world, alone in a sailboat
Ryan Summerlin September 13, 2013
On July 8, three weeks shy of her 71st birthday, Jean Socrates, a retired British mathematics university professor, crossed the finish line and completed a nonstop solo journey around the world in her 38-foot sailboat, SV Nereida. Jean left Victoria, British Columbia, and 10 months later returned without ever touching land or getting any help from anyone during the entire 27,000-mile nonstop journey.
Two weeks later, her boat was tied up at our island dock and she was sitting on our porch telling some of our neighbors and friends about this remarkable achievement as we celebrated her 71st birthday together. Most of them could not believe that this lady could (or would try to) accomplish such a trip. Particularly the women because their husbands won’t even let them drive their small power boats. I think I was almost rude as I kept firing questions at her.
About Jean and her more than 25,000-mile nonstop sailing trip around the world alone: This was her fourth attempt at such a long journey. On the first trip, her husband developed prostate cancer and they flew back to London where unfortunately she lost him. She finished that one alone.
Jean’s second solo attempt to circle the world ended 60 miles short of completing the voyage when the boat’s self-steering gear malfunctioned in the middle of the night and she ran onto a sandbar.
Jean then returned to England and then to Sweden where she outfitted a new 38-foot sailboat and set out on the same journey once again.
On her third attempt, again alone, she and the boat suffered a knockdown off of Patagonia and some of her rigging was torn away and her boom was broken. However, she was able to make it to Ushuaia for some repairs then to the Falklands for more and finally limped to Cape Town, South Africa, to complete the repairs and return to the west coast of North America.
Somewhere in here, she again journeyed home to England and was deservedly feted by the queen!
Last October, this now-70-year-old senior citizen set off from Victoria, British Columbia, to try it once again. She sailed down the West Coast in October 2012 and lost her life raft off of Oregon somewhere, and the solo rule says that you cannot tie up to anything nor have any repairs made by anyone else. She was, however, allowed to replace that life raft in San Francisco, but no one was allowed to help her do it. She had to haul it aboard herself from another boat alongside. No docking, no buoy to tie up to, just do it. She amazes me every time we have a visit.
The journey then continued south to Cape Horn and then east to the Cape of Good Hope and then east below Australia and Tasmania then up between New Zealand and Australia. From South Africa to Tasmania, she had to stay far to the south to avoid the pirates and at the same time avoid the Antarctic icebergs drifting north which were more prevalent this particular trip. Then, she continued north through the Pacific. She experienced many days, becalmed and when she was working her way through different sets of islands, the worries she had looking out for atolls and seamounts was exhausting.
During that leg of the journey, this amazing lady lost the spinnaker halyard and she had to climb to the top of the almost 50-foot-high mast and retrieve it. Not an easy task for anyone, much less for a small lady all alone.
Plagued by light winds in the sails and growing barnacles on the bottom, she had to weave her way through the South Pacific and the thousands of islands and atolls that dot that part of the world. For a journey this long, she had to plan her three meals a day for more than 10 months, or roughly a thousand meals, on her boat.
Jean finally arrived in the straits of Juan de Fuca, where once again she was becalmed, but this time it was in the middle of the busy and narrow shipping lanes that lead from the Pacific Ocean to Victoria, Bellingham, Vancouver, Seattle and Tacoma.
Jeanne was the first women to circumnavigate the world alone, nonstop, from the North American continent. Her trip was a couple of thousand miles longer from where she left and returned than leaving from Los Angeles or San Francisco or the usual jumping-off sites in France.
After our dinner with Jeanne and our neighbors, it was over way too soon because I still had another thousand questions to ask her.
Where do you stow the thousand meals? How many fish did you catch? How complex was it when both of your computers died and you had to fall back on your daily reports by talking with someone in Florida who then sent out your daily log? How did it feel to always wear clothes you had to wash in salt water? How many gallons of water did your reverse osmosis machine make in an hour? Did the albatross that you saw really have a wing span of 12 feet?
When asked if she had a message for anyone else who is a senior citizen, she said simply, “This day is the only one of this date you will ever have, so you better enjoy it to its fullest.”
I am very lucky to have spent 20 years sailing, but it was only in Southern California. The longest journey I ever made was only 20-plus miles to Catalina on my catamaran. Lucky for her, that backpacking food is much tastier these days with more than a thousand meals of it on board.
However, with so many component parts of a sailing vessel that are inter-related, something as simple as a bolt or a shackle can cripple the entire vessel. Jean had to have the knowledge of repairing almost anything on the boat and the supplies to do it with. The fact that she was a college professor who taught mathematics probably helped her in diagnosing a problem and creating a simple solution to it.
Twenty-seven thousand miles at let’s say eight miles per hour is more than 3,000 hours of rocking and rolling. Several of the people at her birthday party asked her, “Why did you do it?” My answer to that question is very simple. “If you have to ask that question, you will not understand the answer.”
Actually, she had a much better answer: She did it to raise awareness and money for the Marie Curie Cancer/Hospice Care group, who give amazing care and help people stay in their homes instead of a hospital during their final days. Go to her website, svnereida.com, to learn more about her.
What a lady!
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto warrenmiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.