“Just a bunch of girls with tools”

Tracy Edwards, I am not. It just took one sailing excursion with my father when I was 15, in which I ended up in the chilly (well, more like frigid) waters of the English Channel, to bring any potential future I may have had as a sailor to an abrupt end.

Not so for the determined Tracy Edwards, who did not understand the words “give up.” She was expelled from school at the age of 15 (after numerous suspensions for not following the rules) and headed off to discover the world. After spending time in Greece, working at jobs to pay for rent and good times, she took a job as a stewardess on a charter yacht and realized that she wanted to be a sailor. Not the sitting on the deck of a small sailboat cruising around the calm waters close to shore kind of sailor; Edwards wanted to sail in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race, a trek that covers approximately 33,000 nautical miles and takes nine months to complete.

She quickly learned that, in the mid-1980s, this was quite simply not something women did. The all-male crews did not want to have a woman on board; although eventually she found a yacht that would take her on as a chef, where she was subjected to sexual harassment on a regular basis. Unwilling to put up with this again, she decided to put together an all-women crew for the 1989-1990 Whitbread race.

As we learn in the gripping documentary “Maiden,” Edwards faced sexism and challenges every step of the way in her journey to enter her crew and boat into this race. She could not find corporate sponsors, so mortgaged her house to buy a used boat, which she and her crew rebuilt, square inch by square inch. Eventually, King Hussein of Jordan – whom Edwards had met during her days as a yacht stewardess and who had encouraged her to follow her dream — became the crew’s financial backer.

“A tin full of tarts”

The Maiden, with a crew of 12 women, crossed the start line of the race in Southampton, on September 2, 1989, surrounded by yachts crewed by men. Skepticism ran high among sailors, commentators and the media about the ability of the girls, as they were almost uniformly called, to even make it out of English waters. The prevailing opinion seemed to be that the women were not strong or smart enough and, especially, that they would not be able to get along with one another. The media peppered them with questions about this; questions that were never posed to the men’s crews.

While their race was not easy – like all the crews, they had to manage difficult weather conditions, icebergs, equipment malfunctions, injuries and the like – they got along just fine. Not only did they deal with the crises on their own yacht, they provided life-saving medical assistance, via radio, for a competitor’s crew member who had been washed overboard in the very cold southern seas.

They surprised everyone, including themselves, by winning two of the six legs and finishing second overall in their class (boats are classed according to their size). This was the best result for a British boat in 17 years and still stands as the best result for an all-women crew. As they re-entered Southampton harbour at the end of the race, they were greeted by dozens and dozens of smaller boats, cheering wildly for them. The skipper of the winning yacht noted drily that his crew had not received such an enthusiastic welcome when they had crossed the finish line.

By the time the race was over, journalist Bob Fisher, one of the biggest doubters of the women’s claim to space among the competitors, had to change his label for them to “A tin full of smart, fast tarts.”

“Such a dreadful word, then”

Was Tracy Edwards a feminist? By her own account at the time: “Oh god, no, no, no . . . . I hate the word feminist.”

Now? Again in her own words: “Yes, because I believe in equality.”

Edwards said in a recent interview:

“I look at my 19-year-old daughter’s generation and they don’t have the awful connotations that we remember from that word – they just see it as a positive.”

Her commitment to women’s equality has not diminished in the 30 years since her remarkable achievement: In 2014, she bought back the Maiden, which was slowly mouldering away in the Seychelles, and brought it to England to be repaired.

The Maiden is on the water again, committed to the empowerment of women and, with another all-women crew, has embarked on a three-year world tour to raise money and awareness for girls’ access to education.

(The Maiden left Vancouver in mid-August, headed to Seattle and then down the Pacific coast.)

As the project’s website declares: “empower a girl, change the world.”

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