By Jim Slotek
There are times when a glimpse at the not-so-distant past seems like peering at another planet. Imagine today a mainstream sports writer sneering in print at a yachtful of trained female sailors, calling them “a tin-ful of tarts.”
The social media flames alone would cause wildfires.
But in 1989, that was just another day for Tracy Edwards, a remarkably stubborn and determined 24-year-old, who went from a delinquent Australian teen to an aimless youth hanging with stoned, drunk, and indigent bohemians in Greece to a young aspiring sailor imagining the impossible.
Maiden is a remarkably archive-filled documentary from Alex Holmes (Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story). It tells the story of Edwards’ unlikely statement in women’s sports, skippering not only the first-ever ship with an all-female crew in the Whitbread 32,000 nautical mile round-the-world challenge, but legitimately challenging to win it, winning two of six legs (over the braying of critics who considered their participation a joke).
It is a real-life Rocky for women, whose central figure’s arc seemed unlikely from the beginning. Odd jobs in Greece led to employment as a cook aboard a competitive yacht, where she was treated with disdain by the crew who considered any woman on board to be a handicap. But a chance meeting with a visiting King Hussein of Jordan led to a pep talk from the monarch and a determination to take charge.
The cook-to-captain journey is one of those real-life turns that wouldn’t be believed in fiction. How does someone with no direction or discernible ambition suddenly become laser focused? And how does she decide to not only be the first female skipper in the Whitbread Challenge, but to assemble the first female crew? (Her team amounted to pretty much every woman with yachting experience in existence, plus her childhood friend Joanna Gooding, who learned on the job).
There has likely never been a sporting effort so doggedly assailed from square one. Being a unicorn of a story meant plenty of press from the planning stage onward, every setback chronicled by media determined to write a sad last chapter to what they considered a gimmicky project.
But with financial assistance from King Hussein, an inexperienced crew and a captain with little navigational experience set out, in tears from not winning the first legs, amid cheers from growing throngs for them having finished each leg at all.
There is some very scary footage in this film (“The ocean is always trying to kill you,” Edwards says twice in the film). And what becomes clear is that, male or female, the recklessness of a teen whose own mother described her as “a horror,” comes in handy when you’re at war with the ocean.
It seems from Maiden that sheer physical strength is not the deciding factor in winning yacht races, although the women perform their work with lines and masts with impressive power. Edwards took chances the other racers would not, including sailing dangerously close to Antarctica in a leg from Uruguay to Australia, facing 30-to-40 metre waves and almost flash-freezing the crew.
And still they were asked cat fight–based “how does an all-woman crew get along” questions that were never asked of males. At one point, sailing in to Ft. Lauderdale, the crew decides to put on bathing suits to poke fun at the sexism, a decision they admit in retrospect somewhat backfired (though the photo was one of the most-reprinted sports pictures of the year).
Holmes breaks with a few conventions in Maiden. There is no text at the end that explains what happened to everybody in the years after their personal triumph. That is left to Google. Instead, Maiden stays in its own space and time (notwithstanding the talking-head memories of Edwards, Gooding and other principals today). It’s an inspiring chapter in history, beautifully conveyed on the screen.
Maiden. Directed by Alex Holmes. Starring Tracy Edwards and Joanna Gooding. Opens July 12 in Toronto and July 19 in Montreal and Vancouver.