It’s surely a good sign if, when a film ends, your first thought as the credits roll is that you wish there were more. Such is the case with what may just end up being a personal contender for best documentary of the year, Maiden, the wildly inspiring, ambitious and heartfelt story of Tracy Edwards and the first all-female crew to compete in Britain’s massively challenging Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989. Sure enough, as the credits began, I found myself unready to part company with these women who’d done the seemingly impossible, wanting to know more of their stories and to keep their can-do-anything vibe in my life as long as possible.
Yachting and sailing are a notoriously male activity (sport? past time?), as filmmaker Alex Holmes explains early in the film; alongside Edwards and the women on her crew, interviews with male sailors and (admittedly sexist) journalists edify those viewers who may not be well-versed in this world to this fact and more. For one, it’s quickly understood just how big a deal the Whitbread, as it’s called, is in sailing. Comprised of thousands of nautical miles and taking months to complete, this round-the-world race is a test of will, stamina and skill. Needless to say, the meek need not apply.
Enter Tracy Edwards. A misfit in her youth, Edwards never liked school and found herself running in the wrong crowd as she bounced from job to job in her teens and twenties. When she stumbled into a gig as a server on a private yacht, the world of sailing opened up to her. To hear her recount the series of events that followed—serving as cook (and the only female crew member) on a team sailing the race in 1985; meeting King Hussein I of Jordan, who’d become a close friend and financier; collecting a crew of fellow women with something to prove; finding and restoring a used boat in order to enter the 1989 race as the first all-female crew to compete—is like sitting down with a dear friend over a cuppa, hearing all about what you’ve missed since the last time you spoke. They don’t come more genuine than Edwards (and if you don’t believe me, read my colleague Steve Prokopy’s wonderful interview with her and be convinced).
Between all the interviews with Edwards and the crew, the film is bolstered by (in fact, can only exist because of) archival footage from the race itself. Turns out that the race organizers decided to take advantage of the fledgling portable video technology of the time and asked crews to take cameras on their journey. To hear Edwards tell it, many of the other (all male) crews felt much too important to bother with cinematography on top of the race itself; but with nothing to lose (as the sailing world didn’t expect much of them anyways, including that they would even survive), the women of Maiden, as their rehabbed boat was christened, gladly took on the challenge. The footage captured by cook Joanna Gooding is far from point-and-shoot home movies; she trains her camera on moments and emotions on board even a skilled filmmaker might have missed.
Holmes expands on Gooding’s footage with press coverage of the time, a device that beautifully balances the very personal story shared by the crew who lived it with the broader impact of their journey on the world that was watching from their living rooms and the various the ports of call. It’s this fine cinematic alchemy that adds up to an exceptional film; Edwards, Gooding, First Mate Marie-Claude Kieffer Heys, Watch Captain Dawn Riley and the rest of the crew are candid and vulnerable in their interviews, as if at a therapy session speaking about and processing these experiences for the first time. No one shies away from sharing some of the less-attractive realities of the journey, from personality clashes to injuries to regrettable decisions, a fact that makes these women all the more relatable. They are ordinary human beings who attempted something beyond what any of them had ever done before or thought they could do, and if that’s not the distillation of what it is to truly live, I don’t know what is.
That the film layers in themes around feminism (what it looked like thirty years ago, what it looks like today), female friendship and collaboration (and what it has to offer a world beyond sailing), and redemption (from misfit to Yachtsman of the Year, for one) only further elevates the film, making every one of its 97 minutes a joy to experience. More than ever, women are rightfully being added to the conversation around who young people (and really, anyone who needs a little encouragement) can look up to. If after watching Maiden Tracy Edwards isn’t added to your list, as she has been mine, your compass for inspiration may be in need of repair.
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