A Sailor in the Tradition of Drake and Magellan, Naomi James Still Has Oceans to Conquer

My life has narrowed to a single theme,” wrote Naomi James in her log for March 8, 1978, “getting through each day till I round Cape Horn. The rest of the world has ceased to have any meaning. This is my entire life and there is nothing else.” Three months later, as sirens wailed and cannon boomed, she sailed into the harbor at Dartmouth, England. She had become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe single-handed, cutting two days off Sir Francis Chichester’s record time in the bargain. “There are so many things I want to do,” she said at the time. “The most important is to have a long, hot bath.”

Next came the painstaking chore of translating her log into Alone around the World, the recently published memoir of her 30,000-mile, 272-day voyage. At sea, she recalls, she scribbled in her notebooks to compensate for lack of companionship. “I wrote as if having a discussion,” she says. “It was a necessary form of communication.” Afterward, at work on her book, she had to be pushed by her husband, Rob, to keep typing. “He wouldn’t let me stop,” says Naomi, “unless I’d written my 2,500 words every day.”

The daughter of a New Zealand dairy farmer, James dropped out of school at 15, worked briefly as an apprentice hairdresser, then succumbed to the wanderlust that brought her to Europe. She met Rob in St.-Malo in 1975, when she stepped on his boat for a quick look around. An experienced ocean racer, he was skippering yachts between England and France; she was a landlubber with a yen for adventure. Lovers within two weeks, they were married 10 months later. Sailing fired her imagination, and soon she proposed her round-the-world voyage. “People ask me how I could have let her undertake such a journey,” says Rob. “Quite simply, I knew she would succeed.”

Sponsored by a London newspaper, Naomi set off Sept. 9, 1977 at the helm of the 53-foot Express Crusader. Though strong-willed and physically robust (5’9″ and 140 pounds), she was also prone to seasickness and blissfully lacking in technical knowledge. “I spent the first few months confusing latitude and longitude,” she confesses, “but by that time it didn’t matter because I’d already navigated halfway around the world.” A solitary personality (“I don’t miss people generally”), she passed the time by reading some 200 books, listening to Edith Piaf and Olivia Newton-John on her cassette player and nuzzling her cat Boris until he disappeared overboard off the coast of Africa.

More intimidating than the isolation were the storms. Once Crusader capsized in a howling Pacific gale, 2,000 miles from land. Moments later the yacht miraculously lurched upright again. Despite the danger, Naomi felt more at home on Crusader than she did five months later on a pleasure cruise to the West Indies. “The food and the wine were fabulous,” she admits, “but my unsociability began to show. Cruising with other people wasn’t nearly so enjoyable as doing it on my own.”

Last March Naomi was named a Dame Commander of the British Empire—an honor she finds faintly embarrassing. Today she and Rob live in a rented cottage in Ireland and look forward to sailing against each other in a transatlantic race next spring. Naomi will return to Crusader, while Rob will be at the helm of a 31-foot trimaran, a faster boat except in bad weather. “We’re pretty competitive,” says Mrs. James with a grin. “I’ll be hoping for heavy conditions all the way.”

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