Setting sail in a storm of sexism - Maiden documentary tells story of first all-female round the world crew
In September 1989 – two months before the Berlin Wall fell – a group of young women set sail from Southampton to much ridicule. They were on board the ‘Maiden’ and were the first all-female crew to attempt the gruelling Whitbread Round the World race.
Thirty years later isn’t a lifetime ago, but the idea of mainstream media derision of ‘girls’ attempting the same challenge as ‘men’ is publicly, at least, not possible. But if you want to see what British sailor Tracy Edwards and the crew of the ‘Maiden’ faced back in the 1980s then you must see ‘Maiden’, directed by Alex Holmes -which along with ‘Free Solo’ is one of the best documentaries of the last few months.
“Women were for shagging in port.”
At the centre of it all is Tracy Edwards, who was 27 when she embarked on that race, who, having dropped out from high school, had ended up working on yachts. On discovering yacht racing, she says now she was “completely hooked” but had to beg for a job as a cook on a boat where she would be the only woman. “Women were for shagging in port,” she remembers. “No one wanted me.”
After her experiences with an all-male crew – “basically, just get me back to land as soon as possible”- she became determined to put together an all-female crew to enter the toughest race possible – the Whitbread round the world challenge, with four legs – from Britain to Uruguay, round the South Pole to Australia and New Zealand, up to Florida and then home.
“I was simultaneously convinced that I had to do it, and at the same time, full of self-doubt,” remembers Tracy.
There was plenty of doubt too from friends, neighbours, the public, and the male-dominated sports media. No one wanted to sponsor her until King Hussein of Jordan came forward. Even the female presenters on TV eyed her dubiously and sized her up as ‘a pretty girl’. One suggested a big issue would be having to cope with ‘chapped lips.’
“One journalist called us a ‘tin full of tarts’ …then when we won a leg he called us ‘a tin full of smart, fast tarts.’ “
“It was completely normal at the time,” says Tracy. “If you wanted to do something, you had to fight your way to it. I have actually had to re-evaluate all my memories of the time. I wasn’t shocked by it at all, what is shocking is that it was completely normal at the time and you had to jump through hoops and prove yourself.”
One journalist at the time, Tracy recalls, Bob Fisher (at The Guardian of all places) “called us ‘a tin full of tarts.’ Then when we won one of the legs coming into New Zealand, he called us ‘a tin full of smart, fast tarts’ and you know what? At the time we thought that was great! But it was of the time and you can’t change that.”
We proved we could raise money and get a boat. We were then told we weren’t strong enough. We won our first race. Then they all said, ‘you’ll kill each other.’
The interview questions they got too, adds Tracy, would never have been asked to a man in the race.
“They would ask us, are you all lesbians? Everyone was fascinated by that. Or were we simply there to try and get guys? I’d think ‘oh I can think of easier ways to get a guy than sailing around the world.’ The other one was, do you have all your periods at the same time? And then, finally it was, you’ll all hate each other and fight all the time. Where did that come from? It was the final thing. We proved we could raise money and get a boat. We were then told we weren’t strong enough. We won our first race. Then they all said, ‘you’ll kill each other.’ The funny thing was on one leg a few of us turned up in port with black eyes because you get banged about by the sails on a boat – and they asked us ‘are you beating each other up?’ When we were quiet they’d say, ‘oh, are you not speaking to each other?’
The Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex are the latest example of this belief that if women aren’t overt friends, they must absolutely hate each other.
“I think it’s a safety net for some men, to perpetuate the idea that women don’t get on. The idea of lots of women getting together and talking is scary to some,” Tracy replies.
The over-sexualisation and objectification of a woman’s body was so normal –and still is – that when the crew changed into swimsuits coming into Florida the photo became the most syndicated sports picture of 1990. The reason they wore swimsuits? They had done badly in that leg and knew the only thing that would delay the scorn was distraction (they acknowledge with hindsight that was naïve.) Tracy Edwards told an interviewer at the time of her joy in going a straight month without having to change her clothes or worry what she looked like, because girls had to look perfect in real life.
The wonder is that all this footage existed at all to make Maiden, says Victoria Gregory, its producer, who explains that Alex Holmes decided this would make a great watch after he accompanied his young daughter to a school talk in London that Tracy was giving. ‘I think Alex was thinking that it would have to be recreated as a film and then Tracy said, ’we filmed it all.’ The thing is no one knew who had the footage and so we spent the next two years tracking it down, in the UK and elsewhere.”
Would Maiden have the same weight before October 2017 and a suddenly ‘woke’ media to the sexism women were still facing? “I think it’s a good thing it took a while to find the footage, and also get all the crew together from all over the world. I think the time it took to get the film together got it to the place where it needed to be. It wouldn’t have had the same impact two years ago,” Victoria replies.
Maiden is a total joy to watch – a real warts and all documentary which doesn’t try to make Tracy out to be a heroine. Nevertheless, she is – a three-dimensional heroine of her story. She was the first woman to be awarded Yachtsman of the Year trophy – the world yachtsman is a massive clue to what she achieved with that voyage. And Maiden, the boat itself, which for some years lay rotting in the Seychelles, has been lovingly restored - again with the help of the kingdom of Jordan – and is now being used by Tracy to raise funds for charities supporting girls’ education, 130 million of whom are still going without any kind of one.
Times have changed, says Tracy Edwards, “and most men I know are totally on board with the changes that have occurred in attitudes towards women. They think it’s fantastic. Where the documentary resonates so much this year it really feels that women are coming together and supporting each other. It feels so powerful.”
Maiden is being released in UK cinemas on Friday 8th March (International Women's Day).
For more information on screenings and Q and As - https://www.maiden.film/