The Whitbread is a brutal, 33,000-nautical-mile, nine-month sailing yacht race. It kicks off in Southampton, England, races around the world, and returns to Southampton.
Up until 1989, the prestigious Whitbread Round-the-World Race had been the exclusive territory of all-male crews.
And so, rudely disrespecting the first all-female boat crew ever to compete, one grizzled British sportswriter dubbed the Maiden (the women’s boat) “a tin of tarts.”
At first, my response was: Nice. Classy. Way to go you old sod; that’s the welcome you extend? Now, I can’t wait for these women to put some dead crow on your plate and make you eat it!
However, after getting to know these exceptional women (not a man-hater among them) and 24-year-old skipper Tracy Edwards, who loathed the term “feminist,” I realized the film was framed in such a way as to incite righteous indignation. It wasn’t necessary to do that.
These women just loved sailing. They burned for it with immense passion. Talk about a Hero’s Journey fraught with danger. You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen deadly storms out on the freezing black Southern Ocean near Antarctica, with 500-foot-high water geysers from gargantuan waves caroming off ghostly icebergs in the mist. There’s no hope of a rescue down there, should things go, er, south.
What makes this documentary so riveting is that this was no crew of wannabes. These women were world-class sailors. Not only that, they’re warriors: seafaring warrioresses, with a formidable opponent. Not men. The Ocean. As Edwards says at the outset, “The ocean is always trying to kill you.” She wasn’t joking.
Men Against Women in Sports
What’s weird is why it’s taken exactly 30 years to bring “Maiden” to the world. This is the Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs of boating, and two crew members videotaped the entire trip. Why did it take this long to get it out there?
I enjoy when these stereotypes get doused with gasoline and set on fire. My favorite example of “girls aren’t as good as boys” was when diminutive rock climber Lynn Hill free-climbed, solo, the hardest route ever at the time—“The Nose” on El Capitan—in 1993. It had never been done by a man. It absolutely stunned the climbing world. Hill aced The Nose and joked, “It goes, boys.”
“Maiden” focuses largely on spitfire Tracy Edwards, the 24-year-old British captain. When she was 10 years old, her stereo-speaker salesman dad died. Tracy’s mom, trying to hold down the fort, was eventually forced to quit by her deceased husband’s business cronies. This went a long way toward firing up an inner flame in Tracy, to be as independent and self-reliant as possible.
No woman had heretofore ever been allowed to captain a crew in the Whitbread, so Tracy worked her way up from the bottom, starting as a deckhand and charter boat cook. Even then, she had to break down many barriers.
Edwards is a powerful presence: fierce cat-eyes in a chiseled yet somehow teenage face, looking like a much prettier version of Captain Ahab, hell-bent on taming the ocean with a yacht full of powerhouse women.
Planet Earth is a big place, and in its far reaches, one’s bound to find people who are into every conceivable thing humans can get up to. And while the world is big, the community of sailing, like any community of specialists, is small. One by one, her crew of top-notch female sailors gathers.
However, sponsorship is a tricky business. Either the sponsors think an all-female crew is outright doomed, or they’re enthusiastic about the concept but don’t think it’s realistic to expect a return on their investment. This is exactly the kind of situation Saudi kings were created for.
The last tricky thing is finding a seaworthy vessel. They buy an affordable boat, and it’s a serious hunk of junk, looking like it’ll spring a hundred leaks the minute they cast off. However, there’s a wealth of shared boat-building, carpentry, restoration, and can-do attitude among the ladies, and they set to and make do.
And They’re Off!
September 1989, to be exact. As Tracy’s voiceover informs us at the outset, “What it takes to sail around the world is, first of all, you have to be a bit crazy. You have to be different than the normal bloke.” So it is with all extreme sports—mountaineering without oxygen, fighter-jet piloting, Formula One racing, ultrarunning, and so on.
These are all warrior types, drawn to the death-defying edge where adrenaline runs high, and massive endurance is called upon for a variety of reasons. Like being strapped to the front of the boat as a sacrificial human ice-floe bumper, with the subzero winds flaking bits of your face off as you grit through the freezing spray of mountainous black waves in the sunless, eternal night of the Antarctic Ocean.
The talking-head interviews demonstrate this passion to an amusing degree. Especially one crew member who, with a slightly manic gleam in her eye, recalls how while surfing the great valley of a monstrous wave, the bow of the boat appears suspended in air just before it comes crashing down. “I luvvvvved that!!” she says.
Well, alrighty then. This is why we love a good documentary—I’ll take my monster-ice-wave surfing vicariously, thank you very much.
Loss and Gain
They win some legs of the race, and they lose some. I won’t say which. But here’s how you can tell the crew aren’t true feminists: They aren’t above using a bit of humor and feminine wiles to distract the awaiting press in the harbor from the fact that they lost a race-leg. They show up wearing sexy one-piece bathing suits, garnering headlines such as “British Boat Babes” and the like.
Regarding the menfolk, particularly skippers Skip Novak and Bruno Dubois, who talk about the perceived weaknesses of the Maiden’s crew, they clearly don’t expect a threat and start off with a friendly disdain that slowly morphs into a very satisfying, grudging admiration.
Aforementioned journalists Barry Pickthall and Bob Fisher are of that generation of men who clearly felt a woman’s place was to be a cook in the kitchen, a lady in the parlor, and, er, compliant in the bedroom.
All the more satisfying to see these two divested of the burden of their misconceptions, and their faces light up with smiles at the wonders of the gifts the Creator gave to female humans. So nice to witness all these male athletes and journalists grow in their awareness.
Yet, in terms of the reporters, the questions reflect the perceptions of the day: They talk sailing shop with the men, and Edwards and crew get the questions about hair and makeup and the inability of females to get along.
One of the greatest takeaways of the film is to see one of women’s talents that normally outstrips that of menfolk—intuition—eventually kick in. The Maiden crew, on this maiden voyage, barely talked to each other toward the end. Why? Because of rampant catfighting? No. Because they didn’t need to. Each knew exactly what the others were thinking, without having to speak a word. Highly efficient.
Director: Alex Holmes
Starring: Tracy Edwards, Jeni Mundy, Mikaela Von Koskull
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Release Date: June 28
Rated: 4 stars out of 5