"Maiden," a documentary released on June 28, tells the story of Tracy Edwards navigating the male-dominated world of sailing, and in the process becoming a history-making athlete, role model and advocate for women’s education.
But if you had asked teenage Edwards about her future, creating and skippering the first female crew to compete in the longest race on Earth would not have been an answer.
“I was useless, I was expelled from school, I don’t know what I was heading for,” Edwards told NBC.
After running away from home at the age of 16, Edwards began her sailing career as a cook, the only woman allowed on board South African boat Atlantic Privateer during the 1985-86 Whitbread Around the World Race: a 30,000 nautical mile traverse spanning six legs. It was then that she realized sailing was a men’s sport.
“To have the men saying ‘you can’t be a part of this’ just annoyed me so much," she said. “And I just thought, ‘if this is the way the world looks, then I need to change it because I don’t like it very much.’ “
While aboard, Edwards fell in love with the sport. She knew if she wanted to join the next Whitbread as a sailor, she had to find a female crew to take on the challenge with her. The biggest hurdle wasn’t competing in the race itself, but getting to the starting line.
“I’ve never wanted anything so much in my life as to fit in with those guys,” Edwards said. “My parents instilled in me a sense of determination. If you want something, you have to persevere. You can’t give up.”
Edwards didn’t just persevere. For four years, she worked to establish Maiden, the 58-foot boat she named, as a contender for the 1989-90 Whitbread, now known as the Volvo Ocean Race. She secured funding, organized a crew of 12 women that spent months redesigning the yacht from scratch, and took on the role as both skipper and navigator for the race.
Yet, the world continued to believe Maiden wouldn’t finish the first leg.
“We were living in this parallel universe where everyone else thought we were going to die and we thought we were going to win,” Edwards said.
Despite being seen as a human interest story, the Maiden crew defied expectations to arrive third in Uruguay. Then, they won the second leg to become the first British boat in a decade to win a leg.
“I think we all, in a way, started to understand this is bigger than us,” Edwards said. “I’m not just here for me. The next women that come along are going to have this thrust down their throats [if we don’t finish]. And they’re never going to get past it.”
At first, Edwards did not identify as a feminist because of its negative connotations at that time. Her perspective changed once Maiden won their second leg.
“When we [were asked] the same stupid bloody questions instead of ‘what was it like racing down neck and neck down the coast of New Zealand?’ I just thought, you know what?” Edwards said. “I have jumped the first few stages of feminism and now I’m a big fat feminist.”
After 167 total days at sea, the Maiden crew crossed the finish line second in their class. Their result was the best finish for a British boat in 17 years, and remains the top placement for an all-female crew.
Edwards was awarded the 1990 Yachtsman of the Year Award, the first woman in history to receive that accolade, and was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire.
“The experience of sailing around the world with this amazing crew of women just took everything to a whole new level in my life,” Edwards said. “They taught me so much about myself, they allowed me to be who I was.”
After their historic finish, the crew received hundreds of letters and praise from children around the world, though the press and sailing world still treated them like a “one-hit wonder.”
“When I got a letter saying ‘Tracy Maiden England,’ I thought, we’ve made it,” Edwards said. “We got the women out there, whether they tried or failed, and now they’re doing amazing things. [But], are they allowed on men’s boats? No, that’s still the same.”
Now, through Edwards’ nonprofit The Maiden Foundation, Maiden sails around the world raising money for charity and Edwards visits local schools to share her story with female students.
“What I tell them is ‘because someone [King Hussein, who provided Maiden's funding] believed in me, I was able to do these things,’ ” Edwards said. “If girls have an education and these lifetime opportunities, they rise to the occasion. It’s quite extraordinary.”
Maiden will retire after she completes her tour around the world with the foundation, but that doesn’t mean Edwards is done with sailing.
“I don’t see sailing as a sport,” she said. “I see it as a way of life because it has been my whole working life. It was the first time someone looked at me and thought I might be worth something. The first time I’d been a part of something bigger than me.”
Her love for sailing goes beyond Maiden, the Whitbread, and the recognition. The most rewarding part, Edwards, and crew members Sally Hunter and Claire Russell agree, is the friendship.
“Because it still exists,” Edwards said.