Forty years ago today, Dame Naomi James sailed out of Dartmouth, England, on her way to becoming the first woman to sail solo around the world via Cape Horn.

A record 272 days later, on June 8, 1978, she completed a navigation of the clipper route aboard her 53-foot home. As a result, James remains the youngest New Zealander to receive a damehood at age 29.

By way of comparison, Valerie Adams was 32, Edmund Hillary 33, Susan Devoy 34 and Richard Hadlee 38 when they achieved the equivalent honour.

James was last known to be living in a village at the entrance to Cork Harbour, Ireland. The Herald on Sunday has struggled to make contact, but her achievement still resonates.

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James, then Naomi Power, had no sailing experience when she met her future husband Rob in St Malo during the summer of 1975. She began her circumnavigation just over two years later on a borrowed boat, renamed Express Crusader by newspaper sponsor the Daily Express.

James has suffered hardship since.

She stopped sailing after winning the Round Britain race with Rob in 1982. He was killed in a nautical accident the following year, 10 days before their daughter's birth.

In her last published interview, with Offshore Yachting magazine in 2008, James said: "I have asked myself several times why I did it," James told that publication of her adventure.

"But I insist on saying 'I do not know, it just felt right.' I think it's a mistake when people try to figure out why they do certain things."

James suffered radio silence for 8000 miles heading south in the Atlantic, lost her kitten Boris overboard and was forced to stopover in Cape Town when her self-steering failed.

Three months into the voyage, a radio cross with Rob helped her realise she was miscalculating latitude with longitude on her distance chart.

Later, a near fatal slip saw her break a deck railing trying to hold on. James hadn't realised that she had unclipped her safety harness.

That was followed by a broken mast and, three days later, a capsize in the Southern Ocean. She contemplated turning back for Auckland rather than venturing past Cape Horn.

Positive news kept James going. She chatted to her husband regularly as he simultaneously sailed the Whitbread; her sister Juliet instructed her to open a parcel of DH Lawrence short stories and a lollipop when she crossed the equator; she was gifted a random basket of goods from an elderly Dutchman on the pier at Cape Town after her repairs; she cherished a conversation with home as she approached New Zealand; her mum passing on a family scone recipe and her dad worriing about a lack of rain and low wool prices.

James grew up landlocked on a remote Hawke's Bay dairy farm until she was 12, before moving with her family to Rotorua where she went to secondary school. She taught herself to swim off a beach in the then-Yugoslavia, aged 23.

The final paragraph of her 1979 autobiography, At One With The Sea, summed up what her achievement meant.

"In attempting this voyage I risked losing a life that had at last become fulfilling; but in carrying it out I experienced a second life, a life so separate and complete it appeared to have little relation to the old one that went before.

"I feel I am still much the same person now, but I know that the total accumulation of hours and days of this voyage have enriched my life immeasurably."