In 1989, 24-year-old Tracy Edwards captained the first ever all-female crew and set sail around the world. It’s a remarkable story as she entered the Whitbread Round the World Race. This weekend, Alex Holmes brings her story to light in the captivating documentary, Maiden.
Through the film, we see her victory. We embark on her journey and watch her overcome obstacles. It’s an exhilarating watch, seeing her achievement, something Holmes captures through first-hand footage that Edwards and her crew had shot.
I caught up with Holmes and Edwards recently to talk about how the two met and how Holmes was inspired to tell the story of Edwards and her incredible achievement as she set out to break barriers and raise awareness for educating girls around the world.
When was the first time you got on a boat and what was that experience?
Tracy: I left home at the age of 16 and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had no exams and no qualifications. I ended up working in a bar in Greece. A guy had come in one night asking if I wanted to be a stewardess on his yacht. I said yes to that and it was a motorboat. I immediately fell in love with the crazy people that apparently worked on boats and felt like I really belonged in that kind of world.
A few years later, I got onto my first sailing yacht, and the first sailing trip I ever did was across the Indian Ocean from Sri Lanka to the Seychelles. I loved everything about it. I loved the environment. I loved the people. I loved the security of traveling and being able to unpack my stuff and having a little bunk was really important to me. I couldn’t believe that I had stumbled across the path that I was meant to be on, even if it took a while to get there.
Alex, when was the first time you heard about Tracy’s story?
Alex: I first heard Tracy’s story when my daughter was leaving elementary school and the school had organized a celebration evening. They had invited a guest speaker, and the guest speaker was Tracy. As soon as she started talking, I could tell she was a remarkable character. You could feel the energy and the focus; it was so fantastic. All the children were paying attention, and that’s not normally the case with eleven-year-olds. As she unfolded her story in front of us, everyone was rapt. I was hearing a movie. That’s what was unfolding in my head as I heard the obstacles and battles and how that led to this incredible transforming experience for her. What was playing in my head, was a dramatic movie with reconstructions. I couldn’t imagine for a moment that there would have been any footage of a lot of the events that she was describing because it happened in the middle of a salty sea on a boat. And, it was the era before the iPhone. It wasn’t until much later that Tracy said to me that they had two cameras on board the whole way around and they had filmed the whole thing.
Given that my background is in documentary, this was music to my ears. Cut to two years later, I was still trying to piece the footage together like some massive jigsaw puzzle.
Ultimately, we achieved that, so we could tell the story.
You drop us right in the ocean and it’s all systems go from there. The one thing that’s so striking is the aspect of sexism in the story and why your achievement is remarkable. How has sexism changed?
Tracy: No. [laughs] It’s both actually. It has changed. Things have changed in thirty years across the board in media, sports and politics, but it hasn’t changed enough. In sailing especially, every woman I speak to feels there is a long, long way to go. I’m not part of the racing world anymore, but I support and mentor a lot of women who are at the top of their game. These are phenomenal women sailors. If they were men, they’d be paid a fortune and snapped up for every single race, but every single one of these women still has a problem getting on a big ocean racing yacht.
Mark Turner came up with this idea of making it an advantage to have more crew, but they had to be women. A lot of guys took women on a boat and had a positive experience, but I know for a fact that if that rule wasn’t in place, it would go back to the way it was. It’s quite extraordinary that it’s dragging people to the inevitable change that is going to happen.
Yes, there have been changes, but there needs to be more.
Alex: One of the things that struck me was seeing my daughter who was eleven-years-old, and realizing that my daughter was going to face a lot of the same obstacles that Tracy had done all those years ago. That was a real shock to me to realize that time had passed but so little had changed. There would still be obstacles there, and she was going to have a tougher road through life to achieve her goals than would my son who I never had to persuade. To reach for the stars. I had to remind my daughters that they could try anything and they could pursue their dreams.
There is such amazing first-hand footage, but what was the greatest challenge in filming this?
Alex: It was how to tell the story. The race happens over nine months, but that’s only a portion of the story. The story spans Tracy’s entire life. The battle to have an all-female crew started from four years before the race even started. She found people who were skeptical and putting obstacles. She found the harder she tried and the closer she got, the bigger those obstacles became. Trying to tell a story that ranges over that length of time.
Those challenges, I think become your biggest strength. Trying to figure out how we could plot our way through these events and use the footage to illustrate what was going on beneath the story and what was happening to her as a person and woman, those were huge advantages in the end. We had a character who was growing up before our very eyes. What started as a challenge becomes one of the biggest pleasures of the film.
What was your biggest lesson and take away from making the film and sharing your experience?
Alex: I’ve been unbelievably lucky to have Tracy in my life. Not only has she provided me with an inspiring story to tell, but she’s also an inspiring character to have around. Her influence on me has gone way beyond making this film. It’s been an absolute joy in my life. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.
She has demonstrated, in the time I’ve known her and in the story, it takes resilience. It takes determination. It takes guts. It takes never saying no for an answer. It takes even if you’re feeling down to never let it take you down.
Not only has Tracy been on a journey with me. A few weeks before I heard Tracy tell her story, she had been contracted by a boatyard in the Seychelles, they said they had Maiden and it was rotting in their marina. They said they were going to take the boat and scuffle the boat. Tracy thought she wasn’t going to let that happen. She started to raise money and get funds together to buy the boat back. She had this small idea that if they got the boat back, they could give the girls some team bonding experience.
Over the course of four years, that kernel of an idea has transformed into a multi-million-pound charity that raises funds for girl’s education. This boat is doing a two-year world tour to raise money. It’s typical of Tracy. She does things to the absolute best expression. She doesn’t accept something staying small when it deserves to be shouted about. To see that unfold has been a joy.
Tracy: He’s learned all this stuff about the project. [laughs]. The journey has been amazing. I met Alex, Victoria and Sam. We had no idea. The past four years, our lives have been so parallel as Alex said. They were looking to make the film. We were looking for money to buy Maiden. They had spent two years finding the footage which we had scattered around the entire world. When New Black Films showed Maiden in Toronto, Maiden – the boat began her two-year world tour. The film and the boat are traveling around the world together. We’d love to say we orchestrated it, but it’s a complete coincidence. The journey for me has been absolutely fascinating.
I learned about documentaries, and for me, they are becoming such an amazing genre. To be a part of that has been fascinating and it’s been amazing learning how the whole thing works.