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When Tracey Edwards and her all-woman crew showed up with a boat for the start of the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Race, the ocean sailing world took their femaleness as an affront, and bet on how far the “girls” would get.
The Whitbread series was the first fully crewed round-the-world race, born in the early 1970s of an alliance between the British Royal Naval Sailing Association and Whitbread Brewery. Peter Blake, skipper of the New Zealand boat, Steinlager 2, which won the 1989 Whitbread race, said “You’ll be probably frightened at times, scared, worried. You’ll hate it, you’ll absolutely despise the fact that you’re involved and when you get to the finish, you’ll know why: because there’s nothing like it. It gets in the blood and you can’t get rid of it.”
In the era of the biopic film which dramatizes a story and casts actors in the roles of real people, Maiden stands out as a gutsy, visceral documentary of how these women changed ocean racing, made with video shot by hand, of Tracey as a child and of during her time as crew on other boats. There is lots of real-time race footage from her boat (named Maiden), and present-day interviews with Maiden’s crew and the journalists and others who figured in the original drama.
At the time, men didn’t take Tracey or her enthusiasm for ocean racing seriously. She sailed as cook in the previous Whitbread and, like many sailors who get a taste of ocean racing, she became hooked. But she swore she’d never go again with a bunch of men and she’d never go unless she could sail, which meant she needed her own boat. With a limited sailing network, she leaned on the one huge connection she had to drum up sponsorship: the King of Jordan. And she made history.
As a female skipper who started out cruising in the early 1990s, I know a bit of what Tracey went through. When I’d bring the boat up to fuel docks or into slips or circle waiting for bridges to open (while my husband stood on deck), I got lots of comments. Most were complimentary, but with that edge which indicated the individual thought it was a one-off accomplishment. And when I taught boatloads of women to sail, men felt compelled to give advice and comment on our work when we anchored the boat.
Yet, I loved sailing just as much as my male peers, and the documentary shows so well the same excitement and drive of Maiden’s crew, who thrived even in the extreme conditions of a round-the-world race. The documentary blows up the attitude that they wouldn’t make it far, that they’d drop out, that they couldn’t stomach the Southern Ocean (if they even got that far), that they were, in fact, to quote one journalist, a “tinful of tarts.” Maiden’s crew learned on the go, rebuilding a used boat rather than buying a new one, and they were still learning and coming together when the race started, yet they went on to win two legs, to be the first British boat to win a Whitbread leg in 12 years, and to have a credible chance at winning their division overall. (That they didn’t doesn’t take away from their accomplishment.) Twenty years later, Maiden’s crew still speak with fire in their eyes of the excitement of surfing on huge waves.
It’s not often we are invited into ocean racing so intimately, through so much live footage. Maiden might not still be playing at a theater near you, but check it out on your favorite streaming service. This is one you want to see.
Maiden: a documentary, directed by Alex Holmes (PG, 1hr 37min)