Film by Alex Holmes tells inspiring story of Tracy Edwards and her all-female yachting crew that defied doubters in dangerous around-the-world race
When an all-female yachting team dared enter the dangerous Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989, they faced a wall of doubters as high as a tidal wave.
They'll perish at sea, experts predicted. They'll never make it out of the harbor, others said. One writer dismissed them as a "tin full of tarts."
But British skipper and navigator Tracy Edwards would not be dissuaded. It was she who put the crew together, despite the perception that only men could truly compete in such a race.
"When I did the '85-86 [Whitbread] race on a boat called Atlantic Privateer with 17 guys, the only way you could get on a boat at that time [as a woman] was to be a cook," she recalls. "Out of that entire fleet of 230 [competitors] only four of us were girls."
You have to be in awe of the ocean, you have to be respectful of it.
The story of Edwards' daring bid to compete in the Whitbread race with a female crew is told in the documentary Maiden, which makes its debut today on DVD, Blu-ray and digital platforms. The film directed by Alex Holmes has become a box office hit for Sony Pictures Classics, earning $3,1 million in 14 weeks of release so far.
Maiden reveals how Edwards began a life of adventure when she left home as a teenager, not longer after being expelled from high school. By chance she picked up work on a luxury vessel, and later found out about the Whitbread competition.
"When I heard about the Whitbread Round the World Race it was just something I had to do," she says in the film.
After serving as a cook on a team in that 1985-'86 race, Edwards hatched a more ambitious plan.
"'I want to go around the [world] as a navigator,'" she remembers thinking. "If I put a team of guys together it'll still be awful.' So I thought, 'Well, 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 sort 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.'"
It was a struggle to find a viable yacht to race. Edwards found an old 58-footer called Prestige, in sore need of refurbishing. Funding was scarce -- companies that could have bankrolled the project did not want to back an all-women crew. An unlikely benefactor materialized in Jordan's King Hussein, who sponsored Edwards' yacht through Royal Jordanian Airlines. Edwards chose a new name for her boat: Maiden.
"I was so full of doubt and fear," Edwards says of embarking on the 33,000-mile race. "All I was thinking was, 'Am I the right person to do this?'"
Holmes constructed the documentary from fresh interviews with Edwards and her crew, as well as male competitors and observers from the time.
"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?" Holmes tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "And then Tracey 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 set sail on the Whitbread race in September 1989 from Southhampton, England. Peril lurked at sea for everyone in the race, male or female.
"It is life and death," Edwards confirms. "The ocean has moods so sometimes it can be happy and benign and gentle, but that's just lulling you into a false sense of security. That's just getting you to take your eye off the ball. You have to be in awe of the ocean, you have to be respectful of it."
The women completed the first leg of the race, surprising naysayers who had bet they wouldn't make it that far. Holmes says it was astounding to discover the level of sexism faced by Edwards and her crew.
"I was really shocked by that. I was around and becoming a grown up at the time . I lived in the world that that stuff came from, all those comments, and yet to see it stated boldly, the rank sexism, the extreme chauvinism just presented in a routine way as if it was perfectly acceptable to behave in that way... was a real shock to me," Holmes states. "It wasn't just the male journalists that were chauvinistic, it was so prevalent in the culture as a whole that even the women interviewers would adopt that perspective on this group of women."
Maiden faced its biggest challenge on the treacherous leg of the race that extended through frigid waters from Uruguay to Australia.
"There is a real sense in the southern ocean that it's coming for you and you've got these big following waves, these massive waves which sort of blot out the sky at some point and it feels like it's chasing you," Edwards tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "And as the sea builds and the winds builds the noise, the power, just the level of ferocity makes you feel very small and incredibly mortal all of a sudden."
The women of Maiden pulled off the unthinkable, winning that brutal leg. When they reached harbor in Freemantle, western Australia, they received a hero's welcome from thousands of fans.
"I can't describe how satisfying it was," Edwards admits, noting they finished 36 hours ahead of their nearest competitor. Yet plenty of observers dismissed that win was 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. But I think my favorite moment was opening Yachts and Yachting [magazine] and reading Bob Fisher's article -- because Bob had previously described us as a 'tin full of tarts' -- and opening up and reading, '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?' But immensely satisfying for all of us."
How did the Whitbread race turn out? Did Maiden win in the end? I wouldn't dare give that away. Suffice to say there were mountains to climb, the kind churned up by dangerous seas. Tracy Edwards and all of her crew lived to tell the tale, and to make history on the open sea.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.