'Maiden' Sails to Victory

Prepare to board the first all-female sailing vessel to be raced around the world.

The Whitbread Round the World Race is a 32,000 nautical mile sailing sprint from Southampton, England, to Southampton, England, split into six legs. To enter in 1989, you would have needed at least 10 highly professional sailors who were confident enough in their abilities to be comfortable with the threat of death out in the deep blue for eight months, a competitive sailing vessel, and a minimum of $1.6 million in funding for the boat, accompanying equipment, and all basic survival needs from September 1989 to May 1990. If you were a woman, you would have needed—on top of everything else I’ve mentioned—the gall of a Greek god, which is exactly what Tracy Edwards possessed.

Maiden is the story of the Maiden, the first all-female sailing yacht to be competitively raced around the world in the famous Whitbread race. But Maiden is not a documentary about a boat. No, it is about the women who manned it, or more properly, “womanned” it: Sally Hunter (neé Creaser), Jeni Mundy, Sarah Davies, Mandy Swan Neal, Mikaela Von Koskull, Angela Heath (neé Farrell), Dawn Riley, Jo Gooding, Tanja Visser, Claire Warren, and their skipper, Edwards.

Born to a ballet dancer and a well-to-do entrepreneur in an idyllic English home in 1962, Edwards was raised with the inspiration of go-getters. But everything came to a screeching halt with the death of her father when she was 10. After getting suspended from high school 26 times, she was expelled, and she ran away at 16 only to end up a stewardess on a sailing yacht in Greece where she uncovered the strange familial nature at the heart of a sailing crew and the liberation of the ocean. “For me, sailing was about freedom. It was leaving everything behind,” Edwards tells the camera.

Eight years later, she would return home from her first race around the world as an exasperated cook for a crew of primal, chauvinistic men (the average sailing crew at the time)—that brutish breed of sailors that originally scoffed at her request to join, spouting, “Girls are for screwing when you get into port.” Three months later, she announced—three years in advance, without any funding or personnel—the entry of the first all-female sailing team to race in the Whitbread.

From 1986 to 1989 Edwards worked tirelessly to find a crew and acquire the necessary funding for the race to no avail. Not only did potential sponsors lack interest in her pioneering effort, but they scorned her enthusiasm to accomplish something they considered bullheaded and foolish—in other words, something they knew had never been accomplished. Two and a half years later and finally within the calendar year of the daunting Whitbread race’s launch, Edwards had a motley crew of women she’d met in bars, on docks, and through friends, but she had yet to receive a dime in her campaigning effort. Months prior, she had taken out another mortgage on her home in order to purchase a secondhand boat that she and her crew planned on fixing up.

Footage of the women rebuilding the vessel shows that what they could afford was less of a boat, more like a large yacht-shaped structure explicitly made for puncturing head-sized holes into. But they transformed it by hand into the Maiden that would carry them confidently across the planet. After Edwards’ close friend King Hussein of Jordan, fully funded them in one fell swoop only months prior to the race, the Maiden was set for the seas to much excitement.

The rest of director Alex Holmesaward-winning film is a riveting romp around the ocean that draws every single one of the Maiden’s female sailors seemingly bent on insanity. It is edited in a yo-yo fashion. We witness remarkable footage of the women sailing through the rolling hills of stormy waters almost entirely parallel to its jagged surface at times, and suddenly we cut back to excerpts from interviews with each of them as they reflect on the journey. Vintage ’80s home video footage for every leg of the race is abundant, but don’t get distracted by the smooth, soothing sound of the word “sailing.” There is nothing remotely soothing about racing around the world.

“The ocean is always trying to kill you. It doesn’t take a break,” Edwards chillingly informs us. Unless you’ve raced around the world or braved brutalizing sections of the ocean for the sake of speed in some other context, you have never seen oceans like these before. Who even knew the ocean had so many forms, so many moods? At one moment its thick, gelatinous, startlingly dark waters roll as they threaten the very existence of anyone who dares inch closer. At another, the waters transform into a morning-orange, sunrise-reflecting, glass-like surface that brings the viewer relief just opposite of the windless frustrations faced by the sailors.

No matter the case, the women were working at the call of their fearless leader in Edwards. “Four hours on, four hours off,” the women say repeatedly in interviews with the filmmaker as they recall their iconic race. You never get a moment to truly settle down unless your idea of relaxing consists of cramming yourself into a suspended cot that only allows you to lay prostrate as the waters rock you back and forth violently. The crew members provide wonderful commentary and context, but the focus is always on Edwards as she fights with vigor in the racing arena.

Edwards and the ocean are two mightily complex characters whose relationship is nothing short of extraordinary. As the ocean becomes darker, Edwards grows more excitedly anxious, inciting her crew to intense action. As it lightens, she broods over geographical data without a lick of sleep for days. As it freezes in the Southern Ocean, she prepares to harden in return, ready for whatever might come. On the waters’ most mysterious days, Edwards is an enigma, too—catching uncomfortable naps in her skipper’s chair, distancing herself from the crew in impossibly tight quarters, peering deep into the infinite horizon for answers. Yet, in all of this, she longs ever-deeply for its openness, its freedom. It is her time spent off the water that crew members remember least fondly. She was a violent drunk, the product of an abusive step-father. On land, she yearned to be back where she belonged, in her element of the open seas.

Maiden is a genuinely important story in 2018. It achieves triumph and intrigue without fabricating a Hollywood version of itself. The very nature of the story is pure exhilaration. Our heroine is not painted with broad strokes in the same way film has oft-painted its focal women throughout history. If anything, Edwards is so richly developed, she is nearly popping out of the screen in 3D. Its characters are rich, its innate feminism is authoritatively commanding, its passion is boundless. What unfolds in the cross-planet Whitbread race I will leave for you to discover. And you would be remiss not to.