At age 15, British teenager Tracy Edwards got expelled from school and ran away from home. She started working on sailboats, fell in love with sailing, and got a job as a cook on a boat participating in the Whitbread Round the World Race, which, at 33,000 miles, is the world's longest sailing race. Determined to sail the race herself, she put together an all-female crew—the only way for a woman to break through a sport that was overwhelmingly male—mortgaged her house to buy a second-hand racing yacht, worked assiduously with her crew to get the boat in shape, and, after obtaining the needed funding last minute from King Hussein (who'd she met while crewing on a chartered boat in Martha's Vineyard), set sail from Southampton on September 2, 1989.
The all-female crew of Maiden, as the boat was christened, was widely ridiculed. The press and sailing establishment predicted the yacht would fail to complete the race's first leg. Instead, it won two legs in its class, including the treacherous, 7,650-mile portion from Punta del Este, Uruguay, to Freemantle, Australia, and came in second overall, the best a British boat had done since 1977. As the 2019 documentary film Maiden reveals in its dramatic climax, Edwards was bitterly disappointed not to come in first place. However, the 26-year-old first-time skipper was somewhat mollified when the yacht was unexpectedly greeted by thousands of celebrants in a vast flotilla upon its return to Southampton 167 days later, clearly making history.
Following the race, Edwards was awarded Member of the British Empire and named yachtsman of the year. In 1998, she put together the first all-female crew to race nonstop around the world in a multihull (forced to drop out when the mast of the 92-foot catamaran was destroyed after smashing into a wave 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile). In 2002, she created the first mixed-gender sailing crew, which broke four major world sailing records. Through her positions at an NGO and a foundation she started, Edwards became a powerful advocate for ending child exploitation and online bullying and sexting of young people. She earned a degree in psychology, wrote two memoirs—she is finalizing her third book—and now travels around the world as a motivational speaker.
In recent years, she has been focused on a special passion: restoring her old boat Maiden, which she discovered was in bad repair in the Indian Ocean, and relaunching it on a world tour with an all-female crew to raise funds in support of charities dedicated to girls' education programs. The Maiden Factor, as the nonprofit is called, had scheduled a stop for the boat at Kingston's Hudson River Maritime Museum (HRMM) midway through its two-year world tour in late April. Unfortunately, the outbreak of COVID-19 has scuttled the boat's plans to sail to the East Coast, postponing the trip, and, presumably, the planned visit to the museum, to spring 2021.
In the meantime, an excellent way to get up to speed on Edwards's inspiring story while we are all cooped up at home is to view the film, which was shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature at last year's Oscars and can be streamed on Amazon. Extensive period footage (all the crews in the 1989-90 Whitbread race were given film cameras); a narration by Edwards that's by turns humorous, heartbreaking, and matter of fact; and multiple interviews with Maiden's crew and other participants in the race make for a riveting story of psychological tension and high adventure. The life-or-death context is established at the outset, with opening shots of the roiling ocean and Edwards's description of what it's like sailing in the most inhospitable waters on Earth: "The probability is high of not making it. You're on your own, and there's no hope if anything happens."
Edwards is portrayed as an exceedingly focused and ambitious young woman whose determination to win was fueled by her anger at the obstacles that stood in her way. The challenges and rewards of the relationship with her crew, which was essential to Maiden's success, is a complex subject told through multiple sources, including the boat's project manager and various crew members. One was Jo Gooding, a childhood friend, and another was the boat's skipper, who was fired by Edwards three weeks before the start of the race, forcing Edwards, who had never skippered a boat before, much less one embarking on a race around the world, to take the helm. Also appearing on-screen are several of the men who were skeptical of Maiden's success, including Bob Fisher, a journalist who covered the Whitbread race for The Guardian and ruefully recalled his description of Maiden as "a tinful of tarts."
The film vividly conveys the dangers as well as the farcical aspects of the race: We see Edwards in the cabin in the middle of the Southern Ocean responding to a mayday call from a competing yacht in which two crewmen had been swept overboard, and we see Maiden's crew arriving in Fort Lauderdale wearing bathing suits in a ploy to deflect media criticism of the boat's failure to place first in the fifth leg of the race, following its former success. (It apparently worked: A photo that appeared in a local newspaper, accompanied by the headline "British Babes Make a Splash in US," became one of the most syndicated sports photos).
Thirty years later, Edwards's commitment to fighting for equal opportunities for women continues to inspire. "Tracy is very focused on education for women, and so are we," says Lisa Cline, HRMM's executive director. Doubtless key to Edward's agreeing to have Maiden visit the museum was its commitment to such a cause as well. The HRMM recently started a sailing school for youth and adults. Director Jody Taffet Sterling is also a member of the board of the Kingston Sailing Club, which has a women's crew volunteer program. Before the virus scuttled plans, Sterling had organized a women's sailing conference at the museum for late March, which was to feature Dawn Riley, a member of the original Maiden crew, as keynote speaker.
Such initiatives are much needed. When Edwards was asked, in a recent interview by phone, whether women sailors are now accepted as equal competitors, she responded, "things have not changed nearly enough" and explained: "An insidious casual sexism exists in sailing. We need to get our act together, as so many other sports have, because there's still this attitude." One bright spot: Team SCA, an all-female crew that competed in the Whitbread (at that time called the Volvo Ocean Race) in 2014-15 and started the Magenta Project, which trains, networks, promotes, and supports professional women sailors. "It's an extraordinary group of women who get girls on boats," said Edwards. "There's a lot of collaboration between women's groups and sport organizations, which is the best that's happened in 30 years."
Maiden is available to watch on multiple streaming platforms.