As the curtains drew back and the theater went dark, Maiden opened with footage of meaty Southern Ocean waves, old boats with archaic Kevlar sails, dramatic, crescendoing music, and the movie’s protagonist, Tracy Edwards, whom we caught silent glimpses of in the many countenances that defined her groundbreaking roles throughout the movie: determined, joyous, fierce, deeply stressed, and, occasionally, in tears.
And yes, we teared up more than once during Maiden, which sank its hooks into us instantly and never let go. To be fair, we liked Maiden from the moment we first heard about it — a movie about a pioneering, underdog crew set in the big-hair and beamy-boated Whitbread Round the World Race in the late ’80s? Yes, please. Our objectivity was suspect from the get-go.
A documentary would never be considered a “period piece,” but Maiden’s characters and drama were set in a wonderfully bygone era of sailing and culture. Documentaries are also technically free from the three-act formula that fiction adheres to, but Maiden still went through several character-defining arcs, as if it were a drama. Edwards’ father died suddenly when she was a girl, and the years that carried her to Greece as a young woman — where she eventually became a stewardess on boats — seemed empty and listless. Edwards talked about being homesick and lonely in Greece.
But once she started working on boats, Edwards found family, and said some of the men she worked with were like father figures. She did passages and began to hone her seamanship. “They had to tie me to the wheel while I was steering, because it was so windy they were afraid I was going to fly away,” she said in the film. After learning about the Whitbread, Edwards was determined to be a part of the race. She walked the docks, trying to hire on as a cook, but the teams were skeptical of having a woman onboard. She was rejected, but she persisted — thus setting, it seemed, a pace for the rest of the movie. Edwards crewed on Atlantic Privateer in the1985-86 Whitbread.
Like so many good documentaries, Maiden has current interviews with former sailors and journalists; the interviews serve as narration during grainy archival footage. (Our newest editor, who is in his mid-40s, relished the big, sloppy, bright-neon ’80s-ness of it all, and in the tragically dated boats. It was like watching a movie set in the ’30s and marveling at the old cars.) In one voice-over, Edwards said simply and flat-out, I just want to sail myself. We need an all-women’s team. In an interview on Fresh Air, Edwards said: “My mom always told me, ‘If you don’t like the way the world looks, change it,'” she says. “So I thought, OK, I will.”
Edwards was rejected, but she persisted. She finally got her friend, King Hussein of Jordan — whom she’d met while working a charter — to finance the team. Maiden crossed the starting line in Southhampton, England, in September 1989. They were bound for Uruguay on the first of six legs. The sexism the all-female team faced was widespread amongst both other teams and the media. They were asked patronizing questions about their makeup and relationships.
In the same interview with Fresh Air, Edwards said, “We weren’t surprised that there was resistance to an all-female crew in the race. We’re a maritime nation. It’s entrenched in our history, in our culture, and it is extremely male-dominated. But I was shocked at the level of anger there was, because why is this making you angry?” At the time of the race, Edwards said she wasn’t pursuing any feminist cause. “We’re only going out there and doing what we want to do,” she said. “In the ’80s, ‘feminist’ was an accusation. It had all sorts of horrible connotations, and really, it had been made into a word that women should be ashamed of — I think with deliberate reason. I was very young — I was 23 and 24. I didn’t want people not to like me.”
Maiden had a mediocre first leg, but won her class on the 7,260 Southern Ocean leg from Uruguay to Australia. Then Maiden won leg three from Australia to New Zealand in a tight, tactical battle, a type of racing that Edwards admitted was not her strong suit.
And for Edwards, the larger picture of what she and her team were doing came into focus. “When we got to New Zealand and we won that leg and we were getting the same stupid, crass, banal questions that we had on every other leg, I just thought, this is bigger than us, bigger than Maiden, and bigger than anything we’ve been tackling. This is about equality. And I think I am a huge, fat feminist. I stood up for the first time in my life and I said something that might hurt me and might make me not likable, and I took pride in it, and it was an extraordinary experience.”
Maiden had a difficult leg four, and the film began to do a meta-close-up on Edwards — especially now that her team was the boat to beat. The race itself seemed to fall out of focus and gravitate toward the confounding stress on Edwards. We’re almost tempted to critique the film here. Maiden’s standing in the race became unclear. There were subtitles that said how many total days the crew had been at sea which were a little confusing.
As Maiden sailed back into Southhampton and into the film’s conclusion, we also found it a little unclear, at first, what point was being made, though it was obvious that it was less and less about the race — even though the race was everything to Edwards and the crew. In fact, Maiden would take second in her class overall, “Which is the best result for a British boat since 1977, and actually hasn’t been beaten yet,” Edwards told Fresh Air. “But that didn’t mean much to us at the time. When you finish a race like that, you go through a mixture of emotions. We hadn’t won; we’ve come second, and it took me a long time to come to terms with that, because second is nowhere in racing. [But] there was a bigger picture, and the bigger picture was what we had achieved.”
Ultimately, we think the film did well to shed the veneer of the Whitbread and to allow the crescendoing emotions to speak. Maiden received an epic reception sailing into Southampton, and one of the final scenes of the movie is of Sir Peter Blake presenting Edwards with the trophy for Yachtsman of the Year. Needless to say, she was the first woman to be bestowed with that honor.
Edwards said it was extremely difficult to say goodbye to the crew and figure out what was next.
“When you finish a race of that length, you realize this family of people that you have been with for three years is suddenly going to disappear,” Edwards told Fresh Air. “It’s quite shocking and can be depressing. I didn’t have any plans and it didn’t go well. I fell off a cliff really. Within nine months of the race finishing, I had a nervous breakdown.”
Maiden, the boat, is coming to San Francsisco. And so is Tracy Edwards
For roughly 10 days at the end of August, Maiden — the original 58-ft 1979 Bruce Farr-design Disque D’Or III — will be in the Bay Area as part of the Maiden Factor world tour, a fundraising event for the global education of young women. On Saturday, August 24, Tracy Edwards and crew will be onboard Maiden at Pier 40 in South Beach Harbor from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., followed by a reception at South Beach Yacht Club at 6 p.m.
We will have more information on ‘Lectronic Latitude and our Facebook page as the event draws near.
Maiden, the movie, is currently in a theater near you.