Tracy Edwards was an aimless 21-year-old British woman wandering through Greece when she met the love of her life: Sailing. That their love affair was tumultuous had nothing to do with the storms she’d later encounter at sea. The world of sailing, you see, didn’t love Edwards back — because she was a woman attempting odysseys of her own.
Maiden, a triumphant documentary, chronicles Edwards’ pioneering efforts to prove, once and for all, that women could sail just as well as men.
In 1985, Edwards fought her way into becoming a cook aboard a yacht in the Whitbread, a round-the-world race held three every three years. Of the 240 participants, only four were women. While Edwards earned the respect of her male colleagues by the second leg, tolerance of women on a case-by-case basis wasn’t enough for her. And neither was being a cook; she wanted to be a navigator.
After coming ashore, Edwards latched onto a simple yet paradigm-shifting idea: She would gather an all-female crew for the next 32,000-mile Whitbread race in 1989. ”I lived in a world that wouldn’t allow me to be a navigator on a round-the-world race, so I needed to change that world. I realised we had to have an all female crew to prove women can do this. Enough is enough,” Edwards told Refinery29.
But that world wasn’t ready to change, let alone encourage one woman’s proposition to change it, by supplying her with resources. Edwards said the hardest part of the entire journey took place before Maiden actually set sail. Facing skepticism from funders who feared they’d die at sea, Edwards took out a loan on her own house and refurbished a shabby old boat. Then, unable to secure a necessary sponsorship, Edwards called on an old friend she met in Greece, who urged her to sail the Whitbread in the first place: the late King Hussein I of Jordan, who provided a deux ex machina that made their ensuing victories possible.
Rarely do films crystallise how society perceives women as clearly as Maiden. When the boats launched at Southampton in 1989, skeptics (including a journalist that deemed Maiden a “tinful of tarts”) just wanted the 14 women aboard the Maiden to survive. But the vessel's crew wanted to win. While they ultimately placed second, they ended up setting the record for the best result for a British boat and best result for an all-female crew. Edwards was the first woman to win the Britain's Yachtsman of the Year award.
Maiden blends the crew’s deliciously dishy present-day interviews with actual footage from their voyage — there’s a sequence during their tumultuous South Sea passage that might tempt you to stay land-bound forever. Put it all together, and what results is an enthralling documentary propelled by an infectious spirit of youth — and what happens when you refuse to accept the long-accepted definition of "impossible."
We spoke to Edwards about her experiences reflecting on this life-and-industry-changing journey.
Refinery29: What’s your relationship to your younger self like? How did you feel about her while you were watching her go through highs and lows of this journey?
Tracy Edwards: I’m surprisingly proud of myself at that age. I remember myself as being a bit of an idiot. Stumbling from one thing to another. But as I was watching it I thought, Blimey, you really had your act together. But it's weird looking at yourself on screen all those years ago saying the things that you said.
Right. At one point during the race, you scoff when an interviewer asks if you're a feminist.
'Feminism' had been made into a nasty word by men. It had been turned into something to be ashamed of. I was 23 and didn't want people to not like me. But as Maiden achieved more and more and we still found it hard to be taken seriously, halfway around the world I thought, Yes I am a bloody feminist and I’m a big fat one, and I can’t believe I thought I wasn’t. I'm really glad that it was allowed to develop like that as we went around the world so that I did end up understanding who I was.
Coverage of your trip ranged from cynical to sensational. When you fired Mary Claude two weeks before the trip, response was gleeful — like everyone was waiting for the women Maiden to break out into a cat fight.
It’s so funny, because there were lots of comings and goings with crews on different boats. Sackings, people being taken on at the last minute. When they wrote about the men’s boats they said, ‘So and so made smart tactical decision here to get rid of this person.’ When it came to us, it was the bitches having the cat fights. I hadn’t made the decision for any other reason than I’m a bitch. You just go, ‘Really?’
"Halfway around the world I thought, ‘Yes I am a bloody feminist and I’m a big fat one, and I can’t believe I thought I wasn’t.’"
Did you all talk about this when you were on the boat?
No, we didn’t. It’s so weird. What’s shocking to me as I watched the documentary is remembering how much we just accepted it. When Bob Fisher called us a 'tinful of tarts,' we just went, 'Oh yeah, there you go.' When we go to New Zealand and he improved his description of us to, ‘They're not just the tinful of tarts. They’re a tinful of smart, fast tarts,' we were like, ‘Yay that’s fantastic!’ Even though the word ‘tarts’ was still attached there. We didn’t talk about it. Our main focus was winning the race, and that meant focusing on teamwork and weather conditions and sailing the boat fast.
Let’s talk about the ending. You came in second place, but were greeted by this enormous adoring crowd. How do you feel about the end at this point?
Well, I'm still very frustrated that we didn’t win. That will never, ever ever leave me. It’s so funny to think that while we wanted to win the around-the-world race, everyone else just wanted us to get around to get around without dying. When we came up around Southampton water, we knew we were second. But we'd achieved so much. At that moment, we allowed our disappointment at not winning to just fall away. I cry every time I watch it because I’m thrust back in the moment of being so overwhelmed with how kind people are and how much effort to come see us in. It was just extraordinary.
They were there for you. Why do people show up in such support for your team?
Maiden touched something in people. She still does. She’s sailing around the world today. It wasn’t just women that flocked to Maiden. It was anyone who felt disillusioned or told they couldn't do something when they thought they could. It was such an inspiration to so many people. For a brief moment there was this shining light which made people think, "Bloody hell, I need to get out there and do what I keep meaning to do. I can’t waste anymore time." She touched a nerve.
What do you hope young women take away from what you managed to do at a young age?
I give a lot of talks at girls’ schools. Girls are expected to have this level of perfection. To look good, sound good, to be good. To dress a certain way. To behave a certain way. It’s unattainable. I despair that they have that to contend with that while they’re also pursuing their dreams and doing everything else. I want them to know it’s okay not to be perfect. It’s okay for your life to be a bit messy, to not know what direction you’re in, to have to fight your way. And to not make those things into demons. That's what I want them to take away. Give it a go, just give it a go.
Just out of curiosity, what does being in the middle of a storm actually feel like?
The build-up to the storm is the worst. The knowledge of what’s coming. So you're waiting for this monster. By the time it hits, you go into automatic survival mode, which almost dissipates your fear. It numbs you. You don’t have time to look around and go, ‘This is scary!’ Often the storms happen at night. The best part of any storm is when you see the gray chink of the light of dawn and you think, Wow. So we survived that, then. It starts to get light. You get back on track. That’s when you feel it again. There’s a slightly giggly hysteria on the boat when you all sort of realise what you’ve been through. But when you’re going through it, you just get on with it.
Maiden will be available to stream in the UK from 30th September