A Chat With MAIDEN’s Tracy Edwards

The legendary sailor discusses her documentary.

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As far as underdog stories go, cinemas won’t see a more incredible champion than Tracy Edwards, the subject of Maiden. The film details how Edwards, along with twelve other women, became the first all-female sailing team to participate in the Whitbread Round the World Race. Through a combination of interviews and extensive archival footage, Maiden really gives a window into the challenges Edwards’ team faced on their way to making history.

Tracy Edwards sat down with me to talk about the documentary, her experiences after the Whitbread, and the importance of making the Maiden’s story known. This is our conversation.

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I was taken aback by the amount of great archival footage in this film. It’s almost like this movie was ready to be seen from day one. What made you decide to put it together now?

It’s interesting actually, because we didn’t quite know what we were doing with that footage. The Whitbread at the time wanted volunteers on different boats to film and no one was that enthusiastic, but we thought, “We need a record of this. We need to cover this.” So we volunteered. We got hidden cameras, and Jo went off to the BBC to learn how to use one. She did a four-day course or something. I think that is a really nice element of how it all seems very natural, and I think how she’s filmed it is great.

There was a kind of documentary made of the race, and all the footage went off to that. None of us really thought about it after that and we went off to do our other sailing projects and everything else and I did other things. And then five years ago, I went to a talk at a school, and the film director and his daughter were there. He listened to the story, he called me the next day, and he said, “Has anyone ever made a film of this?” So I said, “Well, a long time ago.” He said, “I would love to talk to you about doing that.” So we met the next day and he said, “I’m thinking: a drama.” I was like, “Why would you be doing a drama?” He said, “Well because it’s so long ago there’ll be no footage.” I went, “I’m not that bloody old, y’know. We did have cameras. We filmed everything.” He was like, “You have footage?” And I said, “Yeah! Days, months of footage!” And then we had to find it all because [the company] that had made the original documentary had gone bankrupt, and all the stuff was everywhere.

They spent two years finding that stuff. It was a labor of love, I think. It became a real challenge to find all that footage.

It seems like lately there’s been a wave of films about women doing incredible things many years ago and these stories are only now getting the recognition they deserve. How do you feel about Maiden contributing to this trend?

That’s a really interesting question, because I don’t think about the fact that people don’t know who I am. I know who I am. I know what I did. But [the Whitbread race] was thirty years ago, so, yes, there is a circle of people that don’t know about Maiden.

You know what film I watched that really made me think, “Wow there’s all these stories out there?” It was Hidden Figures. The film about the space race. I was like, how did I not know this story? And I realize there’s whole areas of history that have not been told.

It’s so interesting that you should say that because I think Alex, when he talked about making the documentary, he was like, “There are people who will be going, ‘How did I not know that?’” And there are. I meet people all the time now who are like, “I had no idea about Maiden.” So I love the timing of it, and I love the fact that this year is about women and our rights, and the battle. (laughs) It still goes on. But it’s nice to be part of that.

If someone wanted to enter the world of competitive yacht racing in 2019, what advice would you give them?

There are various routes. There’s still the route of going to work on boats. You know, you have to take risks.

There are places all over America where you can go find a job on a boat, and learn like that. Or—I mean I don’t know what the equivalent in America is—but in the UK we have the Royal Yachting Association. It’s not a governing body. They run all the yacht clubs. People think, “Hmm.. sailing is really expensive,” but it doesn’t have to be. If you join a small dinghy club, often you can learn to take part just in return for cleaning the boats.

There’s lots of different avenues in. I think my way in is probably closed off now because everyone needs qualifications now. I don’t have any qualifications because you didn’t need them then. So I think it’s probably a more formulaic route in, but start by calling your local yacht club.

It’s funny how you say it’s harder to get into sailing these days, because it seems like in one major respect, it has gotten much easier, and it’s partially thanks to you, of course. What are your thoughts on the Volvo Ocean race introducing crew combinations to encourage women’s involvement?

It’s brilliant. Such a positive way to do it. Because instead of saying “you’ve got to take women” and them going “Oh, we don’t like women”, Mark Turner—who brought the rule in—made it a positive thing. So if you want extra crew, which is an advantage, they have to be women.

There was one hold out, a dreadful man by the name of David Whitt, the skipper of Scallywag, who went, “I don’t want to be part of some social experiment.” So I tweeted back, “Umm, I did a mixed crew twenty years ago, David. It’s not a social experiment. You’re way behind the times now, mate.”

But it worked! They had two or three girls on each boat. Now, maybe, people see it not as something they have to do but something that should be natural. The whole point of Maiden was not to do all-female crews repeatedly. It was to get men and women to sail together, because that’s the best combination.

And it worked.

What was really brilliant—I have to tell this story—so, David Whitt of the Scalawag said, “Nope, not sailing with women.” Then he finally relents because he wants an extra crew member, and he takes a woman on board. But he really makes a big thing of it. God that poor girl—she must have had the patience of a saint.

Anyway, they come last on the first three legs. And then he takes on one of the greatest female navigators who ever lived, Libby Greenhalgh. This woman is bloody scary and formidable, and he takes her on, saying [dismissively] “Female navigator.” And they win the next leg because of her. (laughs) So cool! Everyone was like “Yes!”

In the film, King Hussein of Jordan plays a small but important role in Maiden’s launch. What more can you tell me about him?

He was just one of the greatest men who ever lived. He was way ahead of his time. The reason that Jordan is such a stable part of the Middle-East is because of him. And he died in 1999, so King Abdullah has picked up the mantle and runs with it. But I think what was so extraordinary about him was his love of people. He loved everyone. All people. His vision for all of us, the whole world, was that we were all equal. And Jordan, thirty years ago, women had the vote, they drove cars, they went to university, they wore western clothes.

In Jordan, you had a church, next to a mosque, next to a temple. You had a woman in a burka next to a woman in shorts. Y’know, that was his vision for the future, and that is what made him so amazing. When people say, “Why did an Arab king support an all-female crew?” that’s the answer I give them.

A few years ago, you recovered the Maiden, and now I understand you’re running the Maiden Factor with it. How is that project going?

It’s very fun. It’s still hard to raise money for women doing anything, but the Maiden Factor has restored Maiden. She’s now sailing all around the world with another all-female crew. Most of whom were inspired by Maiden the first time but were too young. Now they’re old enough, which is a great story.

We’re raising awareness and funds for girls’ education. What we’re trying to do is work with schools to get kids to think about their education beyond just reading, writing, and doing maths. Remember when all the kids went on strike to save the planet? That kind of social activism [is what Maiden Factor is aiming for]. Young people, not just learning within that arena, but to think outside the box and to think “What in the world do I want to change? And how can I do that?” We put different schools in touch with each other. We have young trainee sailors on the boat.

So for me, Maiden changed my life, and I would like her to work with the next generation to change their lives.

If you had to pick a crew of historical women to sail with, who would you pick?

Oh my god, do they have to be sailors?

No.

Rosa Parks, Florence Nightingale, Emily Wilding Davison, and Emmeline Pankhurst

What if I asked you to pick women and men?

Oh, well now that’s too many to count. (laughs)

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