Last night I attended a screening of the wonderful new documentary MAIDEN by director Alex Holmes, which tells the stunning true story of Tracy Edwards, who pioneered putting together the first all-female crew in 1989-1990 to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Race (now known as The Ocean Race).
The Whitbread Round the World Race was no ordinary race: in the words of NPR, "It is called the longest race on Earth - 33,000 miles around the globe by yacht." It's a grueling survival marathon that puts every single athlete to the test. Conditions went all the way to "the most extreme, debilitating temperatures you've ever lived in; -20 with the windchill."
And women had never been allowed to compete in the event before.
So when Tracy Edwards began to champion the idea of the first all-female team to compete in the late 1980s, she was scoffed at, ignored by sponsors, and facing innumerable challenges. But she persevered. Her crew persevered.
This is the story told in this incredible documentary, with never-before-seen archival footage that brings this achievement to life. From the MAIDEN crew members themselves to their fellow sailors and sporting press skeptics of the day, the story is told in an incredibly vivid way that pulls you into their 167 days at sea, their triumphs and challenges.
Here's a bit of what was shared after the film, and I hope you make the journey to your local cinema to see it for yourself!
Kate: Alex, how did you find out about this story?
Alex: So I first heard Tracy tell this story 5 years ago. It was at my daughter’s elementary school. My daughter was 11 years old, about to move on, and the school that year had decided to mix things up, and they had invited along a guest speaker who lived nearby. And that woman was Tracy Edwards. And that evening changed my life, and maybe even my daughter’s life and other’s lives. Because I think as you can see from the film, Tracy’s a pretty remarkable character. And as soon as she stood up in front of this group of 11 year olds and their parents, we could all tell she was a charismatic and powerful individual, determined. And then she started to tell this story. And I thought THIS COULD BE A REALLY GOOD FILM! So much so that by the end of the time she was speaking to these 11 year olds, I thought “hmm this has to be a film already, this has got to be done, I just somehow missed it in some way.”
So I went up to her afterwards and said “Has this already been turned into a film?” And she said “No, not really, I had often thought it could be.” But actually, it wasn’t - the film that I saw unfolding in my head was a narrative feature. A lot of this story happens at sea, a long way from land, this was before the era of digital cameras or camera phones, so the chances of there being footage of any of this, I thought, were zero. And it wasn’t until a couple of days later when we met again that Tracy said that actually they had cameras on board, all the way around. And I thought “HALLELUJAH!” Because documentary making, storytelling, is my first love. And I couldn’t have thought of a better way to tell this story than in documentary form.
Tracy, on telling their story, and why she opted to have Alex be the filmmaker: I met this guy called Alex, he sent me this documentary called BUILDING JERUSALEM which is about rugby, and I’m a rugby fanatic, so I watched the film and told the girls “I really think we ought to let this guy tell our story.” The next question from them was “How honest are we going to be?” And I said “I think we should be completely honest. I think we need to tell the story, warts and all.”
I wanted it to be a true legacy, a true reflection, of how hard it was. But also, I give talks to a lot of girls schools, I speak to a lot of young women, and there’s such an unrealistic expectation of perfection towards young women - where you have to dress like this, speak like this, and act like this, and if you don't, you’re not worthy, or you’re judged. And I thought that if we tell our story in its essence, then they will see that it was messy, it was mucky, it was all over the place, but because we believed in our dreams and worked hard, we got there.
So that’s really why we made the decision to let Alex tell our story. And we’re all very pleased that we did.
Kate: I was going to ask how did you finally find the footage? You knew there was a lot of great footage out there, but it wasn't necessarily easy to pull together.
Alex: So after hearing that they had cameras on board, I asked “Where is the footage?” I expected Tracy to open a cupboard and there would be footage all labeled accurately, and that wasn’t the case. What happened during the race was as they got to the end of each leg, they had offloaded all of the footage that they’d filmed, given it to local news organizations who then passed it to international broadcasters who had cut it down to clips and segments for news and sports updates about the race. And then everybody’d just forgotten about it. So basically the material was literally scattered to the four corners of the earth. And we had one great advantage, which was that Tracy’s mum had recorded almost every off-air news report that Tracy was on. So we had this rather dodgy VHS kind of recordings of news reports from around the world, and that at least told us us where to go looking footage. But it was a massive detective job to go around and reassemble the reports so we knew what we had. But the thing was, everything they shot was so good.
One of the things that’s interesting about that is the person who did most of the camera work on the boat was Jo Gooding, Tracy’s childhood friend and the cook onboard. She’s a remarkable character too, I’m sure you’ll agree, and what’s remarkable about Jo is that she’s incredibly emotionally attuned to people. And that absolutely came through in the way she used that camera onboard. So there were other boats that had taken cameras aboard, and you can see some of the footage from those, particularly in the footage where they say “They were two miles behind us, and raised their spinnaker” - that was the footage from the mens’ boats, and you couldn’t make a movie out of that! But the stuff Jo filmed was amazing, just incredible cinema verite portraiture type stuff. So the more material we got in, the more excited we got about the possibilities.
Kate: I know tonight is the one year anniversary of the first time that you and the ladies saw it. And I love asking you this question, about how do you feel about the experience now, that you’ve been through this, and you’ve made this film, seen this film, met people, and how it’s maybe changed how you feel about this part of your life?
Tracy: I think that at the end of the race, you’re on this massive high. And you have not only your family of 12 women, but you also have, there’s 240 crew in this race, and you all get to know each other really well. Literally, by the time we finished, most of them had gone, the guys had flown out, so we couldn’t say goodbye to them. Everyone on our team had gone by a week. So all of us we’d been together for two years. I was left writing the book, being interviewed and everything else. And I didn’t deal with that very well. So I had a nervous breakdown. Which I probably wouldn’t have told you about even a year ago, but in the UK we’re having a lot of discussion bout mental health, asking for help, not pretending we’re all ok all the time, because it doesn’t do anyone any good. But at the time, thirty years ago, you just put up with it, said everything was fine, got on with it. And I didn’t. So the race for me ended on a high, but then disappeared into something different, and it wasn’t until I got back into sailing, started addressing these issues, and then I didn’t really, MAIDEN disappeared. What we did, I think, we kind of merged into something - it was very weird. And I spent a lot of years not really talking about it. And a few of the girls I saw recently said they didn’t talk about it either, which is very strange. So what the film has done for me is make me look at what we did in a whole new light. I’m Roman Catholic, I’m English, I’m female. I spent my whole life feeling guilty! I apologize for everything! My 19 year old daughter said to me once “Mum, can you stop doing this weird thing, where when someone comes up to you and says you’re amazing, you go no me whaaaaaaat? What you should say is “thank you very much, I’m proud of what we did.” And what Alex has done with this film is now we can say “Thank you very much, I’m proud of what we did.”
Kate: Where is Maiden the ship now?
Tracy: So we sold Maiden at the end of the race. We had no money at the beginning of the race, we had no money at the end of the race, and I had to pay the crew wages, because they get funny about that kind of thing. So I had to sell Maiden. She kind of disappeared. I’d hear bits and pieces about her over the years. And then 2 weeks before I met Alex, I got an email from the Seychelles, saying Maiden is sitting in a marina rotting away, she wasn’t even fit for scrap metal, they were going to take her out and sink her. And I said NOOOOOOO! So I did a fundraiser with the original crew, we raised the money to buy her, and then I met Alex - so Maiden burst back into my life! And then a woman called me and said she would help to fund the shipping, rescue, and restoration, and that woman was Princess Haya, who’s King Hussein’s daughter. And I just went “Really?!! Thank you very much!” So we rescued her - again - restored her, again - and in the months that Alex sent MAIDEN the film to the Toronto Film Festival, Maiden left the UK with a new all-female crew who are astonishingly brilliant, much more talented and together than we were, and she’s doing a two-year tour to raise funds and awareness of girls’ education, 130 million girls around the world currently don’t have an education, and that’s really where my heart lies, I threw away my education and I feel very embarrassed about that, and she will be in New York on July 4 of next year! So you can come and see her.
Audience Question (from me): so I feel you guys used food as subterfuge to infiltrate the sailing world. What did you eat day to day? How did you fit all that food on the boat?
Tracy: Oh God, food! That’s all we talked about. Food and men, haha!..The guys used to say to us “What do girls talk about at sea?” And we said “Nothing… that you’d be interested in.” We ate freeze-dried food. The type of food that was developed for the space programme, it was used by astronauts. It’s revolting. It’s nutritious and very good for you, but in the Southern Ocean, you’re trying to eat 5,000 calories a day, and for someone my size, that’s really hard to do. So you’re just shoveling this stuff down your thought. It’s not so much eating as surviving. It’s colored by judgement, my attitude to food now is fuel. It’s fuel. It’s not a nice meal, I just think I need fuel, and I take in fuel. So food is fuel to me.
Alex: You might mention the cheese?
Tracy: Funny story. So we get together this time last year to watch Alex’s film, we get together every so often, and we all fall into our roles within minutes. Sally’s the funny one, Angie’s doing the one liners, we’re all back to it, but there’s a little bit of a change, now we’re asking “Where are my glasses” or Nikki’s going “What? I haven’t got my hearing aid turned up?” A slight difference. So we’re all chatting away, and Jo’s looking at Tania and she says “Should we tell them about the cheese?” And I said “What cheese?” And she says “So don’t get angry. You remember the leg where you told us we shouldn’t take any extra weight? Just one bag?” And I say “Yeah…” And she responds with “Funny story, so I said to Tania we should take some cheese on the boat. And Tania’s Dutch, she comes back to the boat with a round of cheese THIS SIZE, and I say “Tania, we can’t take this much weight on the boat!” And she said in her accent “I think if we hide it around the boaaaat!” So we sailed for three weeks on this boat with cheese hidden all over the boat. And I kept going to Jo saying “Wow, this cheese is doing really well” and she said “Yeah, it’s incredible how you can make cheese stretch out!” They hid cheese in my nav station! So food is a very weird thing on the boat. You crave it. The last few days you just talk about fresh milk, crunchy vegetables, fresh fruit.