British sailor Tracy Edwards has faced some major obstacles in her time, like ocean swells of stunning size.
“You’ve got these big following waves,” she says of the southern ocean, “these massive waves which sort of blot out the sky at some point and it feels like it’s chasing you.”
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Edwards faced obstacles of a different sort in 1989 when she formed the first all-female crew to compete in the dangerous Whitbread Round the World yachting race. Doubters predicted the team would fail to complete a single leg. One sailing journalist, Bob Fisher, dismissed them as a “tin full of tarts.”
“I realized very quickly that people didn’t think women could do it,” she tells Deadline. “That’s when I thought I’m doing this for everyone. I’m doing this for every woman everywhere.”
The dramatic story of how Edwards got into the race and defied expectations on the open seas is told in the documentary Maiden, directed by Alex Holmes. The film has earned more than $3 million since its theatrical release in June and won multiple prizes including audience awards at film festivals from the Hamptons to Dublin, Ireland. This weekend it competes in three categories at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, including Best Documentary.
Holmes drew from sunken treasure for his film, a wealth of archival material that had disappeared from view.
“The fact that this stuff existed was absolutely the most wonderful news,” Holmes recalls. “When I heard Tracy tell her story I had imagined it as a narrative feature, as a dramatic representation because I just thought how else can you tell this story? And then Tracy said, ‘Well, we did have two cameras on board the whole way round.’ And that’s what started the search for this footage and it was a real piece of detective work, tracking down any lead of where stuff might come from.”
Maiden dials back to Edwards’ youth in the U.K. After she was expelled from school at age 15 she decided to travel the world, and learned to sail while working on charter yachts in Greece. Edwards got her first—unsatisfying—taste of Whitbread competition aboard the Atlantic Privateer in the 1985-86 race.
“The only way you could get on a [Whitbread] boat at that time as a woman was to be a cook and out of that entire fleet of 230 people only four of us were girls,” she remembers. “So I got to the end of the race and I thought, ‘This is crazy. Why aren’t more women doing this?’”
That’s when she set about making history.
“I thought, ‘If I put a team of guys together it’ll still be awful,’” Edwards reveals. “I decided, ‘If I put a team of girls together and then we prove we can do it, I can navigate, I’ll find a skipper—I was never going to skipper the boat—and then instead of living in a world I don’t want to live in, I’ll just change the world that I’m living in and make it suit me.’”
Edwards found a suitable boat, albeit in need of repair, and dubbed it Maiden.
“I was so full of doubt and fear,” Edwards says of embarking on the 33,000-mile competition. “All I was thinking was, ‘Am I the right person to do this?’”
The crew set sail from Southhampton in September 1989, surprising ‘experts’ by completing the first leg. But a bigger challenge loomed, on a treacherous stretch of the race through frigid waters from Uruguay to Australia. With Edwards as both skipper and navigator Maiden pulled off the unthinkable, winning that brutal leg. When the team reached harbor in Freemantle, western Australia, thousands of fans cheered them into port.
“I can’t describe how satisfying it was,” Edwards admits. But plenty of observers called it a fluke. “Everyone sort of said, ‘Oh, they’ve won that leg. Oh, that’s luck.’ Then we had to win the next leg to sort of cement it.”
Which the Maiden crew promptly did, forcing doubters to eat crow.
“I think my favorite moment was opening Yachts and Yachting magazine and reading Bob Fisher’s article,” Edwards shares. “[He wrote], ‘I’m now putting salt and pepper on my hat as we speak, dear reader. They’re not just a tin full of tarts. They’re a tin full of smart, fast tarts.’ At the time we thought, ‘Yay! We’ve arrived!’ We didn’t think, ‘Would he stop using that word?’”
“It wasn’t just the male journalists that were chauvinistic,” Holmes notes of the press coverage. “It was so prevalent in the culture as a whole that even the women interviewers would adopt that perspective on this group of women. The raw sexism…just presented in a routine way as it was perfectly acceptable to behave in that way was a real shock to me.”
The director says, as a father of two girls, he appreciates what Edwards and her crew achieved.
“That’s why it struck me as not just a beautiful story to tell and an inspiring to tell,” he notes, “but a really important story to tell now.”
For her valor, in 1990 Edwards was named an MBE—Member of the British Empire. She continues to sail today, navigating a world that’s not free of retrograde attitudes.
“There are still men in existence in sailing that think it’s bad luck to have a woman on a boat,” she tells Deadline. “So there’s a long way to go, a long way to go.”