In the 1980s, Tracy Edwards dreamed of racing a sailboat around the world. But at the time, open ocean sailboat racing was a male-dominated sport. She was only able to sign on as a cook for an all-male team in the 1985-86 Whitbread Round the World Race, a grueling 33,000 mile endeavor.
Afterward, when she still wasn’t able to crew, she decided to take matters into her own hands: “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.”
In 1989, Edwards, then 26-years-old, assembled an all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race. The idea was unthinkable to many of the men in the world of yacht-racing, and backlash was intense.
“We had so much obstruction and criticism and anger,” she says. “Guys used to say to us, with absolute certainty, ‘You’re going to die.'”
But Edwards didn’t back down: “We all became very aware, as a crew, as a team, that we were fighting for all women, and actually anyone who’s been told they can’t do anything,” she says.
Edwards and her 12-woman crew restored an old racing yacht, which they christened Maiden, and finished the nine-month race second in their class. Now, a new documentary, Maiden, retraces their voyage.
On restoring an old racing yacht while the male crews had new boats
We found an old, secondhand racing yacht with a pedigree. … She was in a terrible state, and we put her on a ship and we brought her back to the U.K. and then I gave the girls sledgehammers and I said, “Right, take her apart,” and we did. We stripped the inside of the boat. We stripped the deck. We took the mast out. We took everything apart. …
This was also a bit of a first, because people didn’t usually see women in shipyards. So that was an interesting situation. … All these other guys had a shore team. They had brand new boats. So they didn’t really need to do any work on them. And so they’d sit in a cafe and watch us as we were putting this boat together. …
Although, as I say, there was a very nice part of that sort of, being part of this big Whitbread family, is that if you did go and ask for help, 99.9 percent of the time you would get it. You know, you might get a bit of a snide, “Ugh, you know if you need help …,” kind of thing, but you know, beggars can’t be choosers.
But the great thing about doing what we did the way we did it was we learned everything we needed to know about the boat. We put every single item into that boat, onto that boat. We painted her. We put the rig in. We did the rigging. We did the electronics, the plumbing, the [navigation] station. … So when we put Maiden in the water, I would say that we, as a crew, knew our boat better than any other team in the race.
On the media’s reaction to an all-female crew
We weren’t surprised that there was resistance to an all-female crew in the race. Sailing is one of the last bastions of patriarchy. … It is so entrenched. We’re a maritime nation. It’s entrenched in our history, in our warfare, in our culture, and it is extremely male-dominated. … So I wasn’t surprised there was resistance, but I was shocked at the level of anger there was that we wanted to do this, because why is this making you angry? We’re only going out there and doing what we want to do.
On how at the time she didn’t think of herself as a feminist — and said so in an interview — and why she changed her mind
In the ’80s, “feminist” was an accusation. It wasn’t a nice title. 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, 24 … [and] I didn’t want people not to like me. You care very much, at that age, that people like you. …
But I do remember [after that interview] my mum said to me, “I am so surprised that you don’t think you’re a feminist, and I’m not going to tell you what you should say, but I think you need to have a bit of a think about that one.”
And then when we got to New Zealand and we won that leg [of the race] and we were getting the same stupid, crass, banal questions that we had on every other leg, I just thought, you know what? I think this is bigger than us, and 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 think I absolutely am! And 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.
On how her experience with a male crew was different than the female crew
[Male-run boats are] very smelly. It’s very messy. There’s a lot of swearing and then there are days when guys don’t talk to each other. What is that? So that was very weird. A lot of tension, testosterone, egos. I mean, it was an interesting experience, that nine months, [the] first time and last time I’d ever been with 17 men and sort of watching them in their environments, if you like, their natural habitat. …
Then, doing an all-female crew, then I noticed, wow, there’s a huge difference between a group of women and a group of men. … I prefer sailing around the world with an all-female crew. I prefer sailing with women anyway — much cleaner. We do tend to wash, even if it was in cold, salt water. More use of deodorant as well, I have noticed. But we were always chatting, always talking. … We did talk the whole way ’round the world. I don’t think there’s one subject that we didn’t cover in depth inside, outside and backwards.
Women are kinder to each other, and in a much more obvious way. We’re actually more nurturing and caring, I think. And if you saw someone scared or worried or anxious or a bit down, there’d always be someone that would put their arm around your shoulder and say, “Cuppa tea?”
On the conditions on the Southern Ocean near the South Pole
Your body starts to deteriorate as soon as you cross the start line. Pain and cold are the quickest ways to lose weight. You can get frostbite in your fingers and toes. It’s minus 20, minus 30 degrees below freezing. You are constantly damp because salt water doesn’t dry. So the girls up on deck would be miserable — cold, wet, miserable. Freezing fingers and toes. Tons of clothing on so you can barely move. The food’s revolting. So you just shovel it down your throat as quickly as possible and and try and get as much sleep as possible with this four [hour]-on/four-off watch system. It’s also a sensory deprivation. There’s no sun. There’s no blue sky, it’s gray, and the boat’s gray, and everything’s gray.
On Maiden’s second-place finish in the Whitbread Round the World Race
We came second in our class overall, which is the best result for British boat since 1977, and actually hasn’t been beaten yet, 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. Obviously if you’re winning it’s all happiness and wonderful and fantastic. 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 as Claire [Warren, the ship doctor] says in the film — and she’s very right — there was a bigger picture, and the bigger picture was what we had achieved.
On the reception when Maiden arrived in England
It was sunrise. There wasn’t really that much wind, and we were so close to … [the] final stretch, and as we were going up Southampton Water, hundreds of boats came out to meet us and they would come towards us, turn round, and start sailing with us. So the final two hours of the boat was two hours I will never forget as long as I live, surrounded by thousands of people on hundreds of boats throwing flowers and cheering. It was absolutely amazing. And crossing the finishing line we knew, OK, we hadn’t won, but we had sailed into the history books, and we are first, and you can’t beat being first to do something.
Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.