"For me sailing was about freedom...freedom from everything."
For my inaugural story of Captains at the Helm, I could not think of anyone more appropriate than Tracy Edwards. A captain in every sense of the word, Edwards was catapulted into the international spotlight when she lead the first all women crew in the Whibread Sail Around the World Race in 1989-90. The recently released documentary film, Maiden, chronicles her life and experience via interviews and actual footage and media coverage from the historic event. Her passion and grit just to compete in the race was remarkable. Woman, for the most part, were unwelcome participants and never seen as strong enough to sail the deadly course of the Whitbread.
To gain experience, Edward's tenacity landed her the position of cook on board the all-male vessel “Atlantic Privateer” in the 85-86 race. One of her skippers taught her to navigate. There she cemented her desire to put together the first all woman’s team. Gathering capable sailors was not too difficult but what proved almost insurmountable was raising the funds and sponsorship for the vessel. No one seemed to take her seriously. She mortgaged her home to buy a second hand boat that competed in a past Whitbread Race, but it was in a terrible state and needed extensive refurbishment. She eventually found her main sponsor. One fateful day, a yacht she worked on as a stewardess was chartered by King Hussain of Jordan. They struck up a friendly conversation and he took an interest in her story about wanting to compete. He gave her his contact information and that began a lifelong friendship between them. When she did not receive backing or sponsorship from Britain, King Hussain stepped up and Royal Jordanian Airways became Maiden’s primary sponsor.
With their financing secured, the lady crew got to work refurbishing every inch of the boat themselves. Edwards is brutally honest about the fears and doubts she possessed over those three years preparing. As pressure increased, tempers were fragile and she suffered from panic attacks. Edwards had an immature and rebellious nature, having left home when she was 16. She questioned whether she was the right person to undertake this. The yachting world had serious doubts as well. Women were not seen as professional sailors. With the encouragement of King Hussain, her mother and Howard Gibbons, Maiden’s Project Manager, she stayed the course and in December of 1988, Maiden won her first race, the Route of Discovery Race from Cadiz to Santo Domingo beating all the other Whitbread boats. It was a great encouragement on this trail run before the Whitbread and yet, still, the racing world was skeptical. Add to that was problems within her crew. Before the major race, Edward’s had to fire her captain for not adhering to medical protocol and putting her crew at risk. Instead of replacing the captain, Edwards took over double duty as skipper and navigator and the crew had to adjust to this new leadership.
On September 2, 1989, Maiden was one of 22 boats on the shores of Southampton, England, ready to commence the most challenging sailing race in the world. It would span 33,000 miles and undertake nine months. There was much excitement for the crew of Maiden getting to this point! They were about to take hold of the dream they had shared for years. Could they prove themselves and finish? The cannon blasted and they were off! There were six legs total. Leg one to Uruguay took them 36 days. The crew got along well and they worked as a team to gain speed and meet the challenges the seas brought forth. They finished the first leg respectably, third in their class but Edwards was disappointed. Still, not many believed they would even finish! In fact, the media was unkind to them calling them “a tinful of tarts”. Edwards took it in stride however, “the press galvanized me and focused me,” she said, “never have I felt so ready in my life to take this on!”
The second leg, traversing 7,300 miles on the Southern Ocean to Australia, would be the most treacherous. To gain time, Edwards and the crew went further south than their competitors. The conditions of this leg were brutal - icebergs, 30 degree below freezing temperatures, frostbite, contaminated gas and no satellite signal for 9 days tested their resolve. The fact that the women refurbished the boat themselves served them well in identifying and fixing problems as they arose. Two men on a competing boat fell overboard. One perished but the other survived with the assistance of Maiden’s own doctor who stayed on the radio with them to assist. When they reached Australia they were 24 hours ahead of their competitors and won the leg for their class! The sailing world could not believe it! Edwards and her crew proudly received the Beefeater Trophy! They faced further challenges on the remaining legs such as a near sinking around Cape Horn, a tornado and going without food for five days but the women continued to sail on. I won’t give away the rest of the story, just watch it! You will be on the edge of your seat!
Edwards has also written books of her journey that details her personal daily journals with photos. You will cheer for these women as they fight to take the lead and prove themselves capable in the male dominated sport of sailing. An inspiration for women and daughters everywhere. A story of grit, courage and teamwork and how women can rise above expectations and become some of the most capable adventurists of our time. Currently, Tracy Edwards is the founder of “The Maiden Factor.” In 2017, she found her old sailing yacht in terrible disrepair. She rescued and lovingly refurbished it once again. Through Maiden she hopes to bring awareness and funding to assist local charities that help girls around the world who are denied a basic right to education. Expelled at the age of 15, Edwards understands the impact of this. She hopes this platform will be Maiden’s legacy. Through this foundation, she also pays tribute to her friend and benefactor, the late King Hussein I, whose vision of equality of women through the education of girls was something they both shared.
Maiden is currently on a world tour! Follow her and learn more about Tracy Edwards and her foundation at The Maiden Factor.