ON International Women’s Day (March 8), it is fitting that documentary Maiden sets sail.
A remarkable piece of work, directed by Alex Holmes and produced by Victoria Gregory, that charts the journey of the all-female crew that competed in the Fifth Whitbread Round The World Yacht Race in 1989 and 1990. A team led with gusto and steely determination by Tracy Edwards. A pocket dynamo of an individual who navigated Maiden and skippered the crew through mountainous seas and becalmed waters.
Two fingers well and truly stuck up the noses of those luddites who thought Edwards and her crew had no right to compete. Racing yachts, her opponents said, was for men only. Wrong then. Wrong now and wrong tomorrow.
Maiden, using film taken on board – and painstakingly hunted down by Holmes and Edwards – makes for compelling documentary watching. Like the seas, it’s unflinching in its scope, covering Edwards’ difficult upbringing (losing her entrepreneurial Dad at age 10, having a difficult and sometimes abusive relationship with her hard drinking step-father), her regular suspensions from school and drifting around the world in her teens in search of something that would give her life focus. She found it via a photograph in a book of individuals competing in the Whitbread Round The World Yacht Race. Straightaway, she wanted to take part.
Encouraged by the late King of Jordan whom she met while working on a boat, she ended up as a cook in the Fourth Whitbread where she was one of just four women competing across yachts comprising 230 crew members. But treated like a servant, she decided that she would aim high and compete in the Fifth on her own terms – with her own boat and an all-female crew. Her life journey had truly begun as she battled against all the odds to get a second hand boat fitted out and sea worthy, a crew assembled, and sponsorship secured (King Hussein came to her rescue). She came up trumps.
The film’s main anchors are Edwards’ battles with the seas and the establishment. Huge seas in the Southern Ocean where the temperature dropped to minus 20 degrees centigrade, on-board leaks that at one stage threatened Maiden’s continued participation in the race (a Hercules aircraft was scrambled from the Falkland Islands just in case they would have to abandon the yacht), and days when the seas were like a pond and Maiden would go nowhere.
As for the ‘establishment’, she had to fight it all of the way – with abuse and ridicule from male competitors and a hostile Press (one member describing Maiden as ‘full of tarts’).
Most thought Maiden would not last the first of the six legs. In fact, it went on to win two of the legs in its particular class. Yet even listening to those involved in the 1989 race (Press and male competitors, cleverly assembled by Holmes), you get the impression that any respect for Edwards and her crew is given grudgingly. Time has done little to eradicate their ingrained prejudices.
Rightly so, Tracy Edwards and her team come out of this fantastic documentary with heads held magnificently high. Yet Holmes doesn’t side-step any issues, highlighting Edwards’s moods, her long periods of introspection and her controversial decision to sack crew member Marie-Claude Heys (probably the best sailor among them) ahead of the race.
There are magical moments galore – the crew ending leg four in eye-catching swimming suits to distract the Press from their disappointing performance (photos of them swimming suit clad ended up on the front pages of newspapers across the world). Their arrival in Southampton after 33,000 nautical miles of gruelling racing is still spine tingling as they were greeted by a rapturous 250,000-strong crowd.
Maiden is a documentary that inspires. Remarkable women led by a remarkable leader who through meticulous teamwork, bonding and organisation showed they could compete against the very best. A documentary of the moment and for the moment.
Watch, get a little sea sick, and then go and fulfil your dreams.