As recently as the late 1980s, the idea of an all-female sailing team in the Whitbread Round the World Race (the predecessor to the Volvo Ocean Race) seemed laughable to many. How could women handle the competition? They weren’t strong enough. They wouldn’t be able to take the mental challenges of the race. They’d never get along. And who would finance such a project?
After begging her way to a spot as cook on Atlantic Privateer, one of the maxis competing in the 1985-86 race, 23-year-old Tracy Edwards was hooked. Though the male crew barely let her on deck, she absorbed as much as possible and soon began dreaming up improvements for the boat design. She set her sights on the 1989 race, but next time she wanted to be the skipper. Having been around the world once, Tracy knew she could do it again.
She returned home with plans for a new boat and started assembling her all-female crew, including American Dawn Riley, who would also go on to sailing fame. Though she wasn’t the strongest sailor in the group, Tracy was exceptional at selecting people who would complement each other and work well together. Her strident and headstrong personality made her a great leader, but also difficult to work with, and the project would be an uphill battle from the get-go.
Ultimately, despite having designs for an improved boat that would be more suitable for her needs, Tracy didn’t have the funding to build it. (Few sponsors would consider putting their name on a project that might result in the untimely deaths of a score of young women.) So instead, she purchased the Whitbread veteran Disque D’Or (later Prestige) and renamed her Maiden. The crew completed the refit on their own to save money, which provided them the added benefit of knowing the boat inside out by the time they were done. Eventually, Tracy managed to secure the patronage of Jordan’s King Hussein, and the boat was painted the colors of Royal Jordanian Airlines.
The press viewed them as something of an oddity, a sideshow to the real competition. Maiden’s crew was also subjected to an array of gender criticism, including the claim that they weren’t strong enough to handle a boat of this size and power; that mentally it would be too much for women; and that a group of women would fight too much and never be able to work together as a team. “My mum used to say to me, don’t give up today because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Tracy recalls. “It was a bit of a curse, really, because then I could never give up. I always had to wait for tomorrow.”
Despite being at the helm of the most ambitious all-female sailing endeavor to date, Tracy rejected the label of feminist. “Growing up in England in the 1970s, it wasn’t a nice word,” she remembers. She adds that working in the charter industry before the Whitbread, she’d never strayed from the acceptable female rolls of cook or stewardess and that had insulated her from much of the sailing world’s sexism. “I didn’t consider myself someone who had to fight for something, because I’d never had to,” Tracy says. “It was only during the process of doing Maiden that I realized, yes I do have to fight.”
With the start of the first leg of the Whitbread, Tracy, now 26, and her all-female crew shocked the cynics who’d thought they would never complete even that much of the race. Then, as the race went on, everyone was also forced to admit that Maiden was a formidable competitor, winning two legs of the race and coming in second in her class. In 1990, in the wake of her Whitbread success, Tracy became the first woman to win Britain’s Yachtsman of the Year award.
Fast forward a quarter century to an evening in 2014 when filmmaker Alex Holmes was attending his daughter’s elementary school graduation. By now, he’d been to enough of these events to expect “a lot of applause and certificate handing out and not very good singing, but this time they mixed it up and had a guest speaker, and the guest speaker was Tracy.” The minute she began, Alex says, he knew her story was special.
“I was really struck by how I never really felt I had to tell my son that he could aim high, because it would come naturally to him in the world we live in,” Alex says, “but I still felt like I had to tell my daughters that because the world tells them otherwise. That kind of shocked me. Thirty years on from when Tracy had to break down barriers, the same kinds of obstacles were still in place. Maybe they’ve changed their form, but those obstacles are still there for women.”
After the presentation, Alex approached Tracy with the idea for a film. “I imagined we’d be talking about a narrative, a dramatized version,” he says, “but Tracy told me they’d had a camera on board the whole way around and suddenly there was the possibility of making a documentary.”
Though the crew of Maiden had been recording its journey, plans for the footage were vague at best. The day-to-day struggles of financing the project, refitting Maiden and actually sailing the race meant there was little time to dream of being a movie star. Worse yet, by the time Alex started looking into it, the footage was strewn across the world, in various attics, archives and basements.
“There was some material that was held by Volvo, but all that showed us was how little of the big picture we had,” he remembers. They took out advertisements and reached out to friends and scoured archives to fill in the gaps. As Alex puts it: “You want to feel like you have all the pieces on the table when you start putting together the jigsaw puzzle,” but gathering all the pieces took two years.
Alex was fortunate enough to work with a talented editor by the name of Katie Bryer, who helped him organize the countless hours of footage into a cohesive storyline. But their first cut was four hours long, which meant, among other things, having to cut scenes from celebrations in port—a tough decision because the 1989-90 edition was one of the last ones before true professionalism took over, and to these sailors, the parties in port were as much a part of the experience as the actual sailing.
Still, any nostalgia for whatever may have been left on the cutting room floor paled in comparison to the inspiring tale of struggle and perseverance they were able to bring to the forefront of the narrative. “A big part of the story is that Tracy is all too aware that she is not always the easiest person to be around, but with the help of the crew, she overcame those internal challenges,” Alex recalls. “You can be the best sailor in the world, but if you can’t build team spirit, then you’re never going to succeed. For me, that’s the real lesson of the film.”
Finally, in 2018 the film was finished, and the crew of Maiden (minus one member who was sailing the Northwest Passage “a pathetic excuse” according to the rest), reunited for a private screening. “It was just like we’d never been apart, a real reminder of what we had together and what we still have,” Tracy remembers.
“There’s a bit of nervousness that goes into allowing someone to take your life and something that you’ve done and present it their way,” she adds. “But we absolutely love what they’ve done. We feel it tells our story in an incredibly honest way.”
As for Alex, he credits the success of the film to the fact that Tracy and the rest of the crew were so candid in their interviews. “We decided at the onset that this would only work if we trusted each other absolutely,” he explains. “I trusted her to tell me the whole truth, warts and all, which she did. I asked her to trust me to be respectful of her story and to tell it as completely as possible.”
Upon its release, the film was accepted into the 2019 Sundance Film Festival where it had its American premiere. At the end of the screening, Alex went up stage amidst rapturous applause and asked Tracy to come join him. “I watched her walk down the side aisle of the theater, and as I turned back to the audience I realized that they had all stood as one to give her a standing ovation. It was a very moving moment,” Alex recalls.
Since then, he says, reception of the film has been overwhelmingly positive. As Tracy puts it, “It’s been amazing. Listening to the feedback from everyone has been extraordinary, just overwhelming.”
Concurrently with Alex’s making the film, Tracy was working on her own echo of the Maiden story after she found the boat rotting away in a marina in the Indian Ocean and decided to set about restoring it. As with the first time, she had help from Jordan’s royal family.
“King Hussein’s daughter called us up and said ‘I’ve heard you’re rescuing Maiden, and my father would be turning in his grave if I didn’t help you. What help do you need?’” Tracy remembers. Better still, this financial backing also enabled Tracy to launch The Maiden Factor, an awareness-raising mission for 130 million girls who don’t have access to education.
Maiden is currently on a two-year world tour with a power team of guest skippers, including Dee Caffari, skipper of the Turn the Tide on Plastic boat in the 2017–18 Volvo Ocean Race, and Wendy Tuck, winning skipper in the 2017-18 Clipper Round-the-World Race. Not surprisingly, the project remains near and dear to Tracy, who says, “Maiden had to have a second journey. She made us who we were, and we wanted her to help other women.” In addition to a full-time crew and the star-studded line-up of guest skippers, Maiden is also hosting paying sailor to help raise money for the foundation. And yes, they are allowing men.
For more information on The Maiden Factor, visit themaidenfactor.org Maiden will be in select theaters starting June 28.