The Incredible Saga of Tracy Edwards: A Real-Life Female Superhero Who Sailed Around the World
Tracy Edwards led the first all-female sailing team around the world. Now, the subject of the new doc ‘Maiden’ opens up about making history and silencing all the male haters.
In 1989, the first-ever all-female team entered the Whitbread Race to sail around the world. Everyone, from the (male) sailors who scoffed at their efforts to the (male) journalists who took bets on how far they’d make it, was convinced that they would never finish. But the Maiden team, led by the indefatigable Tracy Edwards, not only completed the race but won two legs of it.
On paper, the story of the Maiden yacht reads like documentary catnip. On screen, reanimated through old media clips and exclusive on-board footage, salty shots of the ship pummeling the water and a deck full of women the moment when they realize that they’ve taken the lead, it somehow manages to exceed expectations. Alex Holmes’ Maiden is fun to watch on so many different levels, whether it’s witnessing world-class athletes push their bodies past what even they thought possible or listening to a bunch of old men admit, on the record, that they were wrong to ridicule and underestimate them. At 22, Tracy Edwards decided to put together an all-female crew to sail around the world. Thirty years later, she’s a delight as chief narrator, insightfully and humorously ushering viewers along through the stages of that historic journey.
While the bulk of the film focuses on the race, with all of its built-in drama and visual majesty, we start by getting to know Edwards. It takes a special kind of twentysomething to dedicate her entire life to a project that no one thinks she is capable of, and Edwards is certainly that. Rebellious, stubborn, and adventurous, the teenage Edwards took her school expulsion as an opportunity to travel around the world. By chance, she was offered a position working on a charter yacht. As she became increasingly involved in the sailing world, Edwards learned about the Whitbread Round the World Race, and liked the sound of it. She convinced an entrant to take her on as a cook during the 1985-1986 race. Of the 230 crew members taking part in the race, only four were women.
During a recent interview Edwards, as candid and entertaining in person as she is on film, told The Daily Beast that Whitbread started as just the latest in a string of nomadic adventures.
“I just thought, sailing around the world, how awesome would that be? And then as it often happens in my life, an idea then becomes an obsession and then it’s I have to do it and nothing else exists—but it didn’t start out like that.”
The documentary juxtaposes Edwards’ recollections of male crew members making her life hell during her first Whitbread race with brief television interviews in which she exudes gratitude for being given the opportunity to tag along. “Lying through my teeth, because I had to get back on the boat,” she laughed. Being the only woman on board meant being treated as a joke, not a teammate—at one point, having “for sale for one case of beer” scrawled on her underwear. Edwards told The Daily Beast that while the situation eventually became manageable (“after we won coming into New Zealand I then became the lucky charm on the boat”), she knew that if she continued sailing with men she would continue to be underestimated. “I think I started to think about an all-female crew probably on the last leg, and I was just thinking, I want to sail around the world as a sailor. Because even on the next race, I’m not going to get on as anything other than cook, even with having done the 37,000 miles that I’ve just done on the Whitbread, going through the worst conditions, learning everything I’ve learned—I still haven’t gotten any further forward.”
“How do I get further forward?” she remembered thinking. “The only way that’s ever going to prove to men that women can do this is if we do an all-female crew, because then they can’t say she only won because she was with the guys.”
Edwards knew that she was doing something unprecedented, but she didn’t see it as deliberately history-altering, or as some sort of grand feminist stand. “It wasn’t a holy grail moment, it was just a I don’t see how it’s going to change unless we do this. I mean, maybe we’ll fail,” she remembered thinking, “but I don’t think we will. I think we’ll succeed.”
Of course, what started as a daring idea would take untold amounts of effort, not to mention money, to see to fruition. The documentary does a fantastic job of showing just how trying of a time it was for Edwards, who felt the weight of seeing her vision through not just for herself, but for the accomplished all-female crew that she enlisted to sail around the world. Together, the crew took a beaten-down, used yacht and rebuilt it themselves. Edwards mortgaged her own home in order to afford it. “Nobody had ever seen a bunch of girls working in a boatyard so there was a lot of ‘do you want help with that love?’” Edwards explained in a previous interview.
Maiden struggled to find financial backing, with executives either disdainful of the endeavor or terrified that their names would forever be attached to a fatal disaster. As Edwards fought to keep the project on track, she was met with a chorus of discouragement and doubt. The sailing world treated Maiden like a foolish pipe dream, and the media covered it like a stunt.
“It just became a battle of wills,” Edwards recalled, positing that if her efforts hadn’t faced such resounding, sexist backlash, she might not have seen the project through: “Yeah, that helped.”
In interview clips from the time, questions range from patronizing to all-out sexist. Edwards and her crew were rarely asked about sailing, underlining the fact that the world didn’t see them as sailors at all—more like an all-female sideshow act. “It gave us great direction, if nothing else. It really focused our minds. Whereas before we were a bit like, you know, let’s just give it a go. This sounds so weird, but it wasn't about women sailing. We just wanted to race around the world on an equal playing field. Then it became about women.”
While Edwards isn’t shy about labeling many of the journalists that covered the Maiden as hardened “male chauvinists,” she’s quick to give credit where credit is due. While she’s grateful toward all of the men, even the “vile” ones, who agreed to participate in the documentary, she’s particularly effusive toward journalist Bob Fisher. “The difference with Bob Fisher is that he began changing his mind almost from day one,” Edwards enthused. “He was never entrenched in his ideas. So yes, he called us a tinful of tarts. But when we won coming into New Zealand he wrote, dear reader, I’m putting salt and pepper on my hat as I write this article. He said, they’re not just a tinful of tarts. They’re a tinful of smart, fast tarts. So not much better! But that was a massive step forward, so we took it.”
Laughing, she added, “He allowed himself to be educated. Now that’s a great journalist.”
While many expected Maiden to hit disaster almost immediately, they came in third out of four in their class for the first leg before pulling ahead and winning two legs in a row. After losing their lead Maiden ultimately finished second—the best performance by a British competitor in 17 years. Incredible footage shows the Maiden coming in to huge fanfare, with the all-female crew that had been so thoroughly dismissed returning as bona fide celebrities.
According to Edwards, the other entries in their class took their success quite poorly. “The guys in our class hated the fact that we were winning. They always were a bit like, Oh it’s just luck.” But the other sailors, who had less of a personal stake in their victory, began to begrudgingly admit early on that “the girls aren’t doing too bad.”
She continued, “They didn’t really have an ax to grind, so they were like, okay, you’re in the race—and still, a lot of journalists didn’t like it. I find it so weird still. The male journalists who loved the sport were very easily persuaded because they want what’s best for the sport. The male chauvinists who were entrenched in their doctrine, they would never change their minds—even if every other boat dropped out and we were the only boat that finished.” Shaking her head, Edwards offered that she’s not sure how much has changed in thirty years, saying, “I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we need to be.”
Edwards pointed out two moments in the documentary that were particularly hard for her to watch. The first is an interview in which she is quick to insist that she is not a feminist. “I do watch it and I go, Oh God, please don't say…Oh, you’ve said it,” she told The Daily Beast. “Men had made it into a terrible word. No one would be caught dead being called a feminist. My mom was there when I was being interviewed, and she said that’s not a very good thing to say. And I said, mom, it’s just a horrible word and I hate it, and she said, but it’s everything you are and what you’re fighting for.”
Later on in the film, Edwards explains how her feminist consciousness was nurtured in large part by the bitter Maiden backlash. “I was having a battle that I didn’t know I was having until I started having it,” she told The Daily Beast. “I just thought people would go, you can’t do it, and then leave us alone. But it didn’t go quite like that.”
The second difficult moment is when Edwards and the crew, disappointed by their performance in a leg, decide to don their bathing suits at the finish to distract from their results. Edwards’ embarrassment speaks to a possible generational gap; whereas some viewers will applaud the crew members turning the male gaze to their advantage, Edwards worries that she “let other women down” with the stunt. She recalled, “When we first did it, I thought, great, we look brilliant. You know, we needed to cheer ourselves up cause I was so depressed like, oh, I was almost suicidal. But as we’ve gone through the years…we all winced when we watched that part of the documentary.”
Thirty years later, Edwards is able to easily joke about the massive amount of stress that she was under. But at the time, as Maiden makes clear, she struggled with feelings of guilt and isolation onboard. Edwards determined the navigation of the boat, which made her largely responsible both for their successes and their failures. She barely slept, poring over tactical decisions and putting herself under immense pressure.
At that point in her life, Edwards was not always pleasant to be around, and was not the most temperate of leaders—something that she’s well aware of. Once Holmes began reaching out to the other Maiden crew members for the film, Edwards started getting calls asking “how honest” they should be with him. “And I went, let’s just do it, warts and all,” Edwards recalled. “A couple of the girls said to me, you said to be honest, I was a little bit more honest than I thought I was going to be, and you may not like it. I’m like, Oh no, I know, I know how awful I was. Please don't apologize!” She laughed. “I didn’t want to ever watch this film and go, Ah, that’s not strictly true. No matter how uncomfortable—and it was uncomfortable for me!”
Shortly after the Maiden’s historic Whitbread finish, the crew participated in their first documentary. At the time, Edwards explained, “We were in protective mode of us and Maiden and we couldn’t have anyone saying anything like, Oh, they didn’t get on, or anything like that. So it was very positive and upbeat and it was a bit schmaltzy.”
Telling the true story of the Maiden, without having conflicts reduced to catfights or struggles glossed over, strikes Edwards as an opportunity to show young women what success really looks like. “What I find so sickening about what girls have to deal with today is how perfect they have to be to do anything. How you look, how you dress. And I wanted to show them that women’s success is not pretty. Sometimes it’s hard and difficult. And you can only say that afterwards. We could never have said that as we were going through it, we would have been annihilated.”
Post-Maiden, Edwards has lived many lives, showing a penchant for reinvention. In addition to the documentary, she’s recently spearheaded the restoration of Maiden, which is now being put to use raising money and awareness for girls’ access to education. “It became really about Maiden inspiring the next generation,” she said. “We don’t say the words ‘we’re creating social activists’ because teachers tend to get a little bit funny about that, but what we hope we’re doing is teaching girls to understand that other girls don’t have an education, and to think about the world and how they can change it.”
All of these efforts are very much connected to Maiden’s legacy, and what Edwards and her crew accomplished at Whitbread. But Edwards, who has expressed disillusionment with the sport in past interviews, insisted that she doesn’t see the Maiden Factor as a “sailing project.”
“I’m not part of that world anymore,” she maintained. “I still love the ocean. I’m not too enamored with being part of the racing world, with sailing, I find it not a pleasant place to be a lot of the time. I think I can fight battles that will help women in sailing, but I don’t have to be in that environment.” The fact that the first woman to ever be awarded the Yachtsman of the Year trophy has actively chosen to maintain her outsider status speaks for itself. Maiden may have made history, but the rest of the racing world is still catching up.