Jenny Simpson: Passion for sailing and the Royal Navy’s first woman skipper

Jenny Simpson

Jenny Simpson - Credit: Archant

A passion for sailing on the Norfolk Broads and the Atlantic led to Jenny Simpson, who has died aged 68 after a long illness, becoming the first woman skipper of a Royal Navy warship.

Six years after joining the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service, the Stalham housewife and later Great Yarmouth magistrate became only the second woman to gain her skipper's certificate in June 1986.

As it happened, the first qualifier never took up a command. She commanded several ships including 110ft inshore minesweepers and 20-metre patrol vessels until 1991, when she received the Lord Lieutenant's Award for Service and Devotion to Duty.

Born on February 25, 1945, she was the oldest of four children, and was brought up on the shores of the Menai Straits in North Wales. She left home in Anglesey to train as a physiotherapist in Liverpool, partly because her father did not want her to WRNS (Women's Royal Naval Service). She qualified in 1968 and in the same year went to the south of France to find work on yachts.

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She became the skipper of the ocean racer Gulvain in 1969 and skippered her across the Atlantic to the Virgin Islands where she met Pat Simpson in 1970. They joined forces, cruising and racing yachts throughout the Caribbean and the east coast of the United States before returning to Norfolk, where he had grown up on his father's boatyard, Stalham Yacht Station. They married in 1973.

They ran the yard, which also had a hire fleet of more than 20 boats, successfully for many years while enjoying Broads life and racing their River Cruiser, Evening Flight.

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She had also resumed her professional career and worked as a remedial physiotherapist helping the elderly and with the Nancy Oldfield Trust, helping disabled children to learn to sail.

Her yearning for the sea never faded however, and in 1980 she joined the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service (RNXS). After a six-week induction course at Yarmouth, she became an ordinary seaman and took a series of examinations before finally gaining her skipper's certificate. 'I have been connected with boats all my life and got my yacht master's certificate when I was 22,' she told the EDP in 1986.

She gained her first taste of command on board a 78ft fleet tender in that year.

She was appointed to the Great Yarmouth Bench and served for more than seven years. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, she and her husband then rented out the boatyard to spend more time sailing their yacht Muscavado in the Mediterranean. They cruised the Greek Islands and made even more friends among the

sailing community there. Despite relapses she fought on against the cancer and her courage against the odds enabled her to continue to lead a remarkably full and happy family life almost right to the end. She is survived by Pat, sons Shannon and Ben, and five grandchildren.

A service of thanksgiving will be held at St Mary's church, Happisburgh, on Tuesday, June 18 at 11.30am.

Michael Pollitt

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