Walking the Camino de Santiago changed my life
Jeanne Socrates, 80, became the oldest person to sail solo, nonstop and unassisted, around the world, aged 77.
I gasped in shock. I had fallen asleep and was woken by water coming through the hatch of my 38-foot yacht, Nereida. It was 2008 and I was in Mexico, finishing my first solo circumnavigation, and heading to port to celebrate.
It was a beautiful tropical night, and I had gone down to my cabin for a quick nap. I was using the autopilot device, but it ran out of power and my boat ran ashore. Huge surf waves pushed my boat up the beach.
As dawn was breaking, I tried to get myself off the boat but the waves took my legs from beneath me and nearly washed me out to sea. Luckily, I caught my arm around the anchor chain I had lowered, and saved myself. A nearby fisherman came to help me but I couldn’t save my boat.
Nereida had run aground on a beach north of Acapulco in Mexico, less than 60 miles short of the finish at the port of Zihuatanejo. Once she was washed into the shallow water and on to the beach, there was no way I could get her back into deeper water.
All I could do was wade to shore and watch as my boat was battered by the waves.
Over the next few days, I was helpless as I watched her slowly sink into the sand and start to fill with water. The fishermen couldn’t help and the Mexican Navy wouldn’t help. I was devastated when I realised I was going to have to leave my boat on a deserted beach in Mexico.
At that point, I’d been on the journey around the world for over 400 days. I had sailed to Cairns, Australia and Richards Bay in South Africa, passing through the Panama canal and was heading up to San Francisco.
It was truly awful to lose my boat on the final leg. I had to wait for a boat that was two weeks behind me. I had met the owner when we were coming through the Panama Canal, and he helped me take the stuff I had salvaged off my boat. I then hitched a lift with him up to San Francisco.
I got a little bit of insurance for the first boat, sold my house in London and commissioned the building of another boat – a Najad 380. I also named her Nereida. She was built in Sweden and two years later I started my first nonstop attempt around the world. I never thought of giving up. I enjoy the sailing life too much.
I learned to be resilient when I was young. My father was an Australian air pilot who died when I was five weeks old. My mum put me in an orphanage, and I was there until I was nine, when my mum married again and came to get me.
Those early years taught me how to be self-reliant. I learned that if you wanted to make things happen, you had to do it for yourself.
I had never sailed until I was 48 and did what’s called a competent crew practical course, which gives you an introduction to yachting. I spent five days on the Solent. There was sun, blue skies, a good wind, and a great instructor, and I thought: ‘Wow, this is the life for me!’ I’d caught the sailing bug.
My husband, George, loved sailing too, and it was wonderful to learn something new together. The social life was great – people from all walks of life with a passion for sailing.
It was fun, but it also challenged your brain. I like to master new things, to wonder ‘is this possible for me?’ I liked pushing myself, and George, out of our comfort zones.
As we improved and learnt new sailing skills on various courses, George and I bought a boat and sailed to Norway, Sweden and Holland, then went cruising down to Portugal and the Algarve.
As we built our confidence, we decided to sail to the Caribbean across the Atlantic, where I finally qualified with my Ocean Yachtmaster certificate. But it was when we were sailing over there that George got his cancer diagnosis.
After a short battle, my husband died of cancer in 2003. Not long after, a very good friend of ours who had bowel cancer also died. It was almost as if they wanted me to keep sailing for them. I felt like they were with me in spirit.
We had worked hard all our lives, so it’s a privilege to enjoy these later years. After George died, I adopted the motto: ‘Life is precious, make the most of it.’
Cancer can take people and suddenly they no longer have life to enjoy as they thought they would. We’re lucky to have life. We should make the most of it.
That’s why I decided to take part in a single-handed race across the Pacific from San Francisco to Hawaii. It was 2006 and it was my first big solo trip. Despite facing scary seas, I started to build my confidence.
The biggest challenge when you’re sailing solo is when the equipment breaks and you have to be creative about finding ways to fix it. But you have to be careful. When my instrument for measuring the strength and direction of the wind broke, I climbed to the top of the mast, but it was too dangerous to hang on with one hand to do the job. So I had to do without and just estimate wind speeds and direction. It wasn’t ideal, but I did it.
In my last circumnavigation, I was at sea for 11 months and I became close friends with people I never met via my ham radio, which is an amateur radio community that works without phones or internet.
I didn’t feel lonely, I felt connected to people all over the world. I had emails and comments on my blogs from complete strangers giving me advice if I was struggling with a piece of equipment that failed. I felt very loved and cared for.
These trips have taught me that there are good and kind people in the world. The sailing community is humanity at its best.
In 2013 I was awarded a Guinness World Record for becoming the oldest woman to sail alone both nonstop and unassisted around the world. I did it again in 2019.
I have had a few hairy moments when the seas were rough and there were enormous waves.
I would think to myself: ‘I just need to hang on, just survive this moment and I’ll be OK.’
I’d give the same advice about life as I would about navigating the globe. Just do what you need to do in the moment to get yourself as safe as you can, and keep calm. Nothing is gained by panicking. Stay in control of your emotions, even if you can’t control the situation. I often use the metaphor of letting things ‘wash over me’ and then the fear can’t take hold – and I’ve used this advice literally.
When I was sailing in rough weather in January 2011 around Cape Horn, in wild seas off the southern tip of South America where the Pacific and Atlantic meet, I was hit by a storm and it knocked my boat over in the water. My boom had broken and I had one small sail up but it was flapping around and I could feel the rigging shaking.
I tied myself on to the railing to keep myself safe, but there were huge waves crashing over me and I just kept telling myself: ‘Don’t panic, prioritise the next thing and let the worry and the waves wash over me!’
Where next for me? I’ve just hit 80 and I’ve decided to head back to Mexico, then across the Pacific to Australia and New Zealand.
Age is just a number.
It’s something you can’t avoid – the numbers go on getting bigger and bigger. You’re no different a person mentally than you were at 37 or 57– so if you want to do something and you have your health, why not?
Written by Jeanne Socrates