You can't help getting older, but you don't have to get old. - George Burns.
For many, age is just a number and a state of mind. Jane Rhodes Martin recently proved this by doing a dive with us in celebration of her 95th birthday and becoming the world's oldest active diver. When congratulated for getting in the Guinness Book of Records, she said, "Well, it just came naturally. I mean, I just grew to this age; I didn't do anything to start it or stop it, and here I am".
Jane Rhodes Martin, a humble, petite 5'1'' great-grandmother, started scuba diving with her husband when she retired. They agreed that if she worked as a teacher for 20 years, he would retire at 55. When the time came, he had doubts, but Jane convinced him to quit, and they never looked back. He left his office, and his colleagues wished him "Happy sailings."
The couple had lived in New York for 25 years, raised their four children there, and worked busy jobs. Within a week of retiring, they had bought a condo in Florida, moved their belongings there, and then went to Hawaii to sail on a charter boat on which they sailed the South Pacific for a year.
Jane and her husband had decided that they wanted to learn scuba diving before they went sailing on the charter. They trained with a PADI instructor in a swimming pool in Wintertime New York, and she took them to the open water portion of their course under a bridge in that cold city. Jane understatedly recounts, "We froze to death that day! And from then on, we were just, we were Scuba divers."
They went on to explore dive sites throughout the South Pacific but never returned to dive in New York. Although it was a significant lifestyle shift from their former careers as an executive and a teacher in the city, they never looked back.
They sailed from Hawaii for 28 days without seeing land and with a regular crew that included the owner, a young college student, and a lawyer. They did not have their own boat before: " We never had time to own a boat in New York. We were busy people", but after chartering the Pacific for a year, they returned to Florida and bought their boat, Capella.
Julia Martin (affectionately known as Juls to those of us who live in Isla Mujeres), Jane's granddaughter, remembers sailing with them when she was 11 years old. It was her first time alone overnight with her grandparents on their boat. However, a huge storm hit them that night, and the boat swayed back and forth. Juls recalls seeing the lightning strike the water; then she saw manta rays or stingrays jumping out of the water above the waves. Jane was barking orders at her husband left and right. She told Jules to "hold on and don't fall off." Juls remembers being tied to something to avoid falling off the boat. Jane said, "Well, you can't go around losing your grandkids. I mean, after all, they don't forgive things like that."
Jane can share many memories about the years she spent on the water with her family and husband or working on the charter. One of her most beautiful memories was when she was sailing at night in the South Pacific. It was around 2 am, and she was the only one awake on the boat. Suddenly, she heard a sound that resembled a waterfall, which was quite unusual to hear in the open ocean: "Ya don't have many waterfalls in the ocean". The sound kept getting closer, initially frightening her, but her curiosity got the better of her, and she went to investigate. Thanks to a full moon, Jane witnessed a breathtaking sight that no one else soundly sleeping on the boat could. She saw thousands of dolphins swimming and dancing around the boat for about an hour. It was an incredible experience that she will always cherish.
While sailing, Jane and her husband fell in love with St Tomas, one of the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. They purchased a small condo to use as a base and spent a lot of time diving there. Jane has a vibrant personality that draws people to her, and one such person is a Master Diver named Andre. He took them to every unique place in and around St. Thomas, places that are not available to everyone. She has fond memories of him and their time diving together.
When asked where her favourite place to dive is, she says, "All around the South Pacific" (because of the water temperature and clarity), but one place in particular sticks with her "around Papeete". This is the capital of French Polynesia, located in Tahiti.
Jane’s husband was undoubtedly courageous, but his fear of diving with sharks quickly became apparent when they had some close encounters. "He just never pretended to be brave and would just disappear when he saw a shark". In fact, he was so efficient at getting out of the water that he outpaced everyone else, "He could quickly climb on the boat faster than anybody when he saw a shark'.
Juls recounted a story about her grandmother's encounter with a shark that got too close for comfort. In the heat of the moment, her grandmother "bopped" the shark on its nose. However, when she turned around, she found that her husband had already fled the scene and returned to the boat.
Jane wasn't afraid of sharks, but we were curious to know more. When asked about her favourite marine animals, she sweetly replied, "Oh, otters are cute, even ducks."
Jane spent about 20 years travelling the world with her husband after retirement: "And I never regretted one minute of having retired", living life to the fullest. Often, they would travel on a whim to a place just for its strange name. She has been from Catmandu to the Pyramids, down the Amazon, Yangtze and the Nile, but "still not the Mississippi which is right here". Is there anywhere she hasn't been to that she would like to go to? "Well, no place in particular. I mean, I'd like to even go back to places. Switzerland is such a beautiful place, and you just remember it, but I've done an awful lot, and I'm happy."
Jane sold her boat, Capella, after her husband passed away. She found it challenging to maintain it alone, so she sold it to someone who kept it at the complex where she lived. However, the new owner initially didn't intend to use it; she just wanted to keep the boat slip, and there it remained for five years. One day, when Jane went outside, she noticed the boat was gone and assumed she would never see it again. It turned out that they had sold it and the woman who had bought Capella had gone sailing, and everywhere she went, people recognised it and wanted to know if Jane was on board and what she was doing with Jane's boat. Jane had become somewhat of a legend in her sailing days, and people from all over would share stories about her.
After hearing all these fantastic stories about Jane, the boat's new owner decided to track her down, and they met at the yacht club where Jane was hanging out with her friends, the "Salty Sisters", a group of women of the Saint Petersburg Yacht Club. There she introduced herself as Kris, the new owner of Capella (Jane's old boat) and offered to take Jane sailing. Jane was delighted, emphatically stating. "and of course"! So she went out sailing with her new friend Kris Self.
It was Kris's first boat, and she was new to sailing. Jane knew all the ins and outs of the boat that used to be hers, and they quickly became best friends. Jane got to go sailing all the time and captain her old boat without worrying about maintaining it. It was a win-win situation for both of them.
So, who are the "Salty Sisters"? "Well," Jane explains, "every yacht club has their group of women that race". They have different names in different places, and her daughter is in one on another coast doing the same thing. The Salty Sisters took her out on a regatta sailing boat, and she got to sail the tall ships. Kris made her a folder with all the photos as a keepsake.
Kris has now sold Capella and bought a bigger and better boat. But this fortuitous friendship has not finished with the sale of the boat. It was Kris who put together and did all the work to get Jane into the World Guinness Book of Records.
Jane is still part of a sailing group. The Women Who Sail Tampa Bay. She claims to be an honorary member through Kris and still gets invited to sail all the time. There are a couple of thousand women there, many of whom she greatly admires. She states, "A lot of them have done a lot of really hard sailing", mentioning one that "Single-handed sailed her boat from New Jersey to go to college in Tampa". "It's amazing how many women do sail." They have formed a group of women who love sailing, and she has met many friends through that group.
When we asked her if she had always been an adrenaline junkie, she gave us a solid "YES". She learned to swim when she was five or six and calls herself a "very cantankerous and very headstrong" child. She tells us a story about when she was six and her brother was twelve. She was on a boat with her parents, and her brother would jump out and swim in a river about 60 feet deep, but her parents would not let her. She got so mad, "I screamed and stormed, and I would have turned the boat over," that her father finally gave in. "He was scared to death, but I could swim as good as anybody, so it was alright."
Jane's family has taken after her. Three of her four children are divers, and all thirteen grandchildren have been out sailing and diving. She even has the next generation of six great-grandchildren and another on the way, ready to follow in the family's footsteps.
So, how experienced is Jane that she can keep diving at the grand age of 96? Well, she is PADI Open Water certified but has a lot of experience. Just how much experience? "I would guess I have probably done 300", she says. "I have over 200 in the little books that we kept when we first started diving", but "I haven't kept any records for years". She recommends getting on a liveaboard that takes you for a week or two, where you meet like-minded people who love diving.
During our conversation, we asked Jane about her first visit to Mexico. She shared that she was 17 years old and in college around 1943. She came as a college delegate to a UN meeting and has since returned to Mexico many times. She loves it here. Her son currently lives in Playa del Carmen, but he used to reside in Manzanilla, Colima, where Jane spent much time. She owns a condo there and can visit anytime. Additionally, her granddaughter, Juls, lives in Isla Mujeres.
Jane's family had planned a grand birthday party for her 90th, but she had different plans. She declared, "I don't care what y'all are doing; I'm going to Mexico to go diving with Julia." So, the entire family went to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, to scuba dive and sail. To celebrate Jane's diving trip, her grandson Isaac Martin, who had worked at Pocna Dive Center for many years as a dive instructor, took them all out to MUSA and The Manchones Reef. This was in 2017, years before her record-breaking dive. They followed it with a big party for her birthday celebrations. Since the whole family was there, they decided to have another celebration and witnessed Juls's wedding, a beautiful event that the locals of Isla Mujeres still talk about today. In Jane's words, "We are a party family."
For her 95th birthday, Jane again decided she was ready to return to Isla Mujeres, but this dive would be even more special than the last. This is when she completed her record-breaking dive. Three generations of women were on the boat that day, including herself, her daughters, Juls, and Juls's sister. They all went on a private tour with Pocna Dive Center, where some went diving, and some went snorkelling, but everyone celebrated together on the same boat. Captain Chico Malo was concerned about the logistics of how Jane would get on and off the boat, as well as her equipment. However, Jane wasn't worried at all. Her grandson-in-law and instructor, Eduardo (Lalo) Martin del Rio del Campo, was there to assist her. Lalo had never dived with Jane before, so she went ahead and did a backward roll into the water; Lalo said it nearly gave him a heart attack, but she was in as gracefully as ever.
Jane has no problem with diving equipment; she is a fit, strong lady who does 25 laps in her swimming pool daily. She did have some help getting her equipment on and off in the water, but that is about it. She is only 5'1'', so that is a lot of gear for anyone of a diminutive stature.
On that eventful day, most of her family on the boat had a GoPro camera, but they encountered Abdel Malek Bouheunoun, better known professionally as Malek Bee Productions. He was taking photos with customers from our other dive boat, and the two groups happened to cross paths. This fantastic coincidence meant they met a professional photographer with excellent equipment who could capture this special moment. He later sent the photos to her as a birthday present.
Has Jane dived since her world record? Apparently so. She has been out several times in the Florida Keys. Does she plan to do more? "Yes, I will do some more."
And what are her plans for the future? Well, she would like to go into outer space. Of course! Why not! For a woman who has done as much as she in her lifetime, I think she deserves to explore "The Final Frontier". Kris, her friend who helped qualify her for the Guinness Book of Records, is working on this. "I figure I could be the oldest lady in Space!" What will it involve? She has no idea; her friend is doing it all for her. She states," I think if I've been that high up and that low down, I will have done pretty much what I could", which is surely more than most people will do in a lifetime.