As is detailed in the fantastic, illuminating and inspirational new documentary Maiden, Tracy Edwards is the British sailor who captained the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race in 1989, after effectively rebuilding her vessel (named Maiden) and pulling together a crew of women that she didn’t really know well before setting out on this journey. It just so happens that Edwards and her team were given a camera to document the race, and when she met filmmaker Alex Holmes (Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story), the existence of this footage made piecing together this doc much more feasible.
Also using archival news footage, photographs and new interviews with the crew and other men who raced against the Maiden that year, the movie tells a tale of struggle, insurmountable odds, that old chestnut sexism, and a competition that is difficult in the best of circumstances. I sat down recently with Edwards (who also became the first woman to receive the Yachtsman of the Year trophy and has written two books about her experiences) in Chicago where we discussed her monumental achievement, her real goal in putting together an all-woman team, and the moments in her story/the movie that still move her to tears. Please enjoy my talk with Tracy Edwards…
In terms of the film itself, how did you and Alex connect initially?
It’s one of those great stories of chance. I’d been invited to give an inspirational talk at my local school, and I was at the end of a long day thinking “I really don’t want to do this,” but I knew I had to do it. And his third daughter was there, and he was thinking “Great, another evening of watching my children singing.” So we both ended up there, and after the talk, he said he’d been thinking this was a film and that someone else must have done and he just missed it. So he came up to me after and asked, “Has anyone made a film of this?” And I said, “No,” and he went “Alright, I’m a film director…” I was a little dubious because I’ve been battered around a bit in the years before that, so my trust levels were fairly low. And then he started talking about scripts…
Oh, so he was thinking about it as a feature.
He thought there wouldn’t be any footage. So I said, “I don’t know why you would do this because we have all of this footage.” And he went “What?!” because he’s a documentary maker, so he was like “Oh my god, you have footage?” And I said, “Yeah, we filmed everything.” Then the bad news. He wanted to know where it was, and I had no idea. [laughs] It was everywhere; they spent two years finding that stuff.
So where was it?
So none of it was with you.
No. Well, actually, when my mum died, I went through some boxes, and she had pilfered some tapes and she recorded everything. That’s where they started. And the news footage she had had taken footage from the boat, you see. They looked all over the world, news outlets. They trawled warehouses, archives; it was a labor of love.
Someone on the boat is filming a great deal. Who did that and whose idea was it to even film?
The Whitbread Committee got in touch with all of the boats and said, “We’d like to give some of the boats cameras to film this,” and of course, all of the guys went “Oh no, we’re far too important and we’re racing; this is man’s racing stuff, we don’t have time to film.” And we went, “We will!” Jo was the obvious choice to film because she didn’t have a watch [shift on the boat] because she was the cook. We sent her off for a four-day filming course with the BBC, and she came back with a camera. The real thing that we did that set us apart from the other boats, some of whom did film, Jo has this amazing eye and empathy with people and this emotional intelligence, and Alex said that if it wasn’t for that level of filming, this documentary would just be a series of interviews on the boats, which is what all the men’s boat were: “Here we are. It’s 26 knots. We’ve been sailing for three days. We’re in this position.” Boring. She filmed us and I think that was such a skill.
But the other thing we had that none of the other boats had was we practiced beforehand. They didn’t pick up the camera until they crossed the starting line. We were filming, trying things. When we had a bit catastrophe on deck, Jo came up with the camera, and I’d say “You can bloody well put that down right now.” And we wondered how we were going to solve this if we need all hands on deck, because that’s a great time to be filming. So we fixed the camera to the radar lines, and the last person out hit the panic button and it would start filming.
When you see yourself in that footage from then, what crosses your mind first? When you saw yourself for the first time in decades…
For the first time ever, in some cases. When I see that, I can’t believe I was so sensible. I remember myself as being a bit of an idiot, stumbling from one situation to the next. But I look at myself and think, “I was actually quite sensible and well organized,” and I don’t remember being like that at all. It’s all quite weird.
Even in the times when you’re being interviewed when you’re under the most amount of stress, you seem very together.
I have no idea how I did that, seriously [laughs]. I think, who are you?
Were you afraid of showing any signs of weakness because you knew how people would react?
Yeah, to a certain extent. But it’s easy to talk about stuff when you’re passionate about it, and we were, so I guess it just came out.
Even before you got out on the water, you didn’t just buy a boat. You got one, tore it apart, and basically rebuilt it in an amount of time that nobody should be able to do that. From a technical standpoint, why did you do that and what did you gain by doing it?
She’s a Bruce Farr-designed 58 [ft.-long], and when he designed her in 1979, she was state of the art and was the prototype for the open 60s that we see now. But when she was launched with that big, fat, wide bum, people laughed. But Bruce Farr stuck to his guns. He designed it for Pierre Fehlmann for the 1981 Whitbread Round the World Race, but then it had wooden cabins and varnished finish, because that’s how people used to race. So when we bought her, we knew that the hull needed work, and then we looked inside and knew we had to rip everything out and start again. So I literally gave the girls sledgehammers and said “Take it apart.” Scary for the other people in the yard watching these women with these great big tools running around with no health and safety [insurance] whatsoever. But we had help from people who gave us their time for free, because we had no money, and Duncan Walker was our refit manager, and he was just a dream. He never didn’t think we couldn’t do it; he would never belittle us; he would explain stuff; and then he’s say, “That’s how I would do it. How do you want to do it?” It was an extraordinary experience.
I read somewhere recently that you found the yacht again, in horrible condition.
And did it all again [laughs]. About two weeks before I met Alex—very weird—after not having thought about Maiden for quite a while, I got an email saying “Do you know who owns your boat because he’s left her here, and she’s rotting. She’s been here for two years, and she’s in such a bad state, that if no one claims her, we’re going to take her out and sink her.” I was looking for a project after just having finished a job—excellent. We did a big crowd-funding thing, bought her, then Princess Haya, King Hussein [of Jordan, one of the vessel’s original sponsors]’s daughter, happened to hear that we’d rescued Maiden and she reached out and said, “What can I do to help in honor of my father?” And I said, “We need a lot of money.” And she helped us ship the boat back and paid for the whole restoration.
So as Alex was finding the footage and the money, we were getting Maiden back. Then back in November, right after Maiden was shown at the Toronto Film Festival, Maiden started her two-year world tour to raise funds for girls’ education.
I know a lot of writers and critics who are seeing the film now are attaching words like feminist to you and your story. But at the time, that certainly wasn’t a word that got thrown around in a good way by people. Did you ever consider that that label fit you?
Oh my god, no. I didn’t want it to, because it was such an awful word at the time, like the kiss of death to be called a feminist. There’s an interview in the film where someone says to me “Are you a feminist?” And I go, “God no, no, no!” At the age of 23, you don’t want to be seen as something horrible; you wanted to be liked and loved. People had made it into such a dirty word, but we definitely, as we sailed around the world, redefined the word for ourselves as it means now—as it always did—fairness and equality for all. I don’t know about here, but in the UK, the word now has a good image, and you have men going “This is what a feminist looks like.” I would have to say that I started doing what I did for my own reasons, because I wanted to navigate an around-the-world race boat, and halfway around I thought “Yeah, I am actually a feminist. A big one.”
After you accomplished this, where did you take it from there, both personally and professionally?
Well, I fell off a bit of a cliff after Maiden. I spent two years really struggling with instant fame and way more interest in me than I was comfortable with at the time. I got married and divorced quite quickly after the race, which of course the press loved. So I ran away and hid for a couple of years, and what got me back into sailing was that I got invited to the Yachtsman of the Year Awards as a past winner, and it was Peter Blake and Robin Knox-Johnston, and they had just broken the Jules Verne Non-Stop Around-the-World record, and I was watching this footage and I remember thinking “Wow, I want to do that,” so I put together the first all-female crew to attempt the non-stop, around-the-world record. And we broke seven world records, we were the first British team really to sail a catamaran of that size. Then I did Maiden II, the first-ever, mixed-gender sailing team—six girls and six guys—the most successful record-breaking team in the UK. Then I did something stupid in the Middle East—I went and did a race down there that ended in disaster and tears [laughs], and spent the next 14 years recovering from that.
In 2019, how does the story told in this film resonate today?
I’m still having the same conversation today that I did 30 years ago. I think, yes things have changed, but not in my sport, maybe in the world in general, but in my sport, there’s still an entrenched male chauvinism. There are women in the younger generations coming up through the ranks, but it’s all men still at the top—some of the same guys up there that were there 30 years ago, seriously. They are 500 years old now. They don’t let go easily and they are convinced that women shouldn’t be out there on boats. So I think this film, and it’s funny because Alex really struggled to get the money to make this documentary and eventually they found an investor, now he’s really glad because he believes now is the time for this film. And I completely agree. Now we’re linking into the Women’s March, the #MeToo campaign, #TimesUp, #HeForShe—this is a really great coming together, and the things that I love that is so different from 30 years ago is that this is men and women working together for full equality. It’s not just us having this conversation with ourselves.
I was going to ask, because as much as you were able to pull together this entirely female crew, it feels like your mission was to have more mixed crews in sailing.
That was the whole point, and it’s still not happening. When we did Maiden II, we broke I can’t remember how many world records, and we were so successful, and it really proved that if you get the right girls and guys together, you’ve got the ultimate team because we have different strengths and skills, and when you pull them together, it’s amazing. And there have been no other mixed-gender teams since then. That’s crazy, I know. And it’s illogical. Why wouldn’t you? Ocean sailing is one of the few things where men and women can compete on a level playing field, and it’s still not happening, it’s still hard for girls to get on these boats.
Do you think much about your legacy and fame these days? You’re putting your name behind charities now and giving talks. Have you embraced your recognition these days?
Absolutely. What the documentary has done for me is remind me what did. I haven’t forgotten that, but I’m Roman-Catholic, I’m a woman, and I’m English, so I spend my life apologizing for everything. I have this huge imposter syndrome thing going on, where someone says to me “I think you’re amazing,” and I’m like “Oh, no.” So the film has got me to say two things: “Thank you so much for saying that” and “I’m very proud of what we’ve done,” and that’s taken 30 years. But that helps with what we’re doing with Maiden now, which is our legacy, and she’s now inspiring other women, making money for girls’ education.
It’s moving to see that even in the new interviews with your crew that everyone still gets very emotional about what you all accomplished. Is there a particular moment that never fails to trigger you to get that way?
I know! We were all quite surprised how the interviews affected us. I cried so many times, it was like being on a therapist’s couch. And all the girls said to Alex “I don’t really remember that much; it’s going to be a short interview.” Eight hours later…[laughs]. He very good at drawing things out of you. I remember so clearly the emotion I felt when all the horns in Southampton went off, looking around and being completely overwhelming and I burst into tears—I do cry a lot. But watching the film, watching Claire get emotional—Dr. Claire never got emotional about anything; your limbs could be hanging off and she be like “Oh for God’s sake, buck up! I’ll strap that back on.” So the end for us was terribly emotional, partly because some of them were leaving the next day and the rest would be gone soon, and I think that’s why I fell off a cliff.
Was there a particular moment when you were the most terrified during the race?
Nearly sinking going past the Falklands was the moment where I had the biggest reality check I’d ever had in my life, because I had to make the decision: do I get the life rafts out, which means I’m alerting everyone to being worried, or do I carry on saying “It’s fine. Get the water out. We’ll be fine, don’t worry about it.”? Thinking, if I get this wrong, twelve people are going to die, and it’s going to be my fault. I mean, I wouldn’t be around to say sorry because I’d be one of them, but that for me was the most horrifying moment, that sense of responsibility for eleven people’s lives. It’s overwhelming.
What do you want people thinking and talking about when they walk out of this movie?
I want people to think that if this runaway loser, this tortured teenager, can do that then anyone can do anything. The best Tweet I saw after one of the showing was “I bounced out of the cinema thinking ‘I’m going to sail around the world!’ and then I remembered that I can’t sail, I get seasick, and I don’t like water. But anyway!” [laughs]
Tracy, thank you so much. It was really wonderful to meet you.
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