Back in the Golden Age of Sail, the ships were of wood and the men made of iron. In those days, when Britannia Ruled the waves, women on a boat were regarded as bad luck.
It’s a notion that died hardest in yacht racing, especially in “The World’s Longest Race.”
They named the original round the world sailboat race for its original sponsor, Whitbread — a brewery. There’s nothing more butch than that.
But a British sailor, whose chief experience had been as a yacht steward and cook, set out to change that in the 1980s. Tracy Edwards was 24 years old, and she and her crew’s entry in the 1989-90 Whitbread (now called the Volvo) Race is the subject of BAFTA winning British filmmaker’s inspiring documentary, “Maiden.”
Edwards and her crew (Amanda Swan Neal), Mikaela Von Koskull, Claire Warren, Michele Paret, Tanja Visser, Sally Creaser, Dawn Riley, Nancy Hill, Jeni Mundy, Jo Gooding, Sarah Davies , Kristin Harris and Angela Farrell) had to overcome financial obstacles, a boat that required rebuilding, sexism and the formidable Southern Ocean in order to make history.
The Maiden’s crew heard “You’re not strong enough. You’re not skilled enough.” And when you see what sailors must endure on this months-long stage race, crawling out on the boom or bowsprit, hauled up the mast by bosun’s chair on a heaving, rolling and bucking 58 foot boat, you’re going to have your doubts.
And besides, everybody knows it’s bad luck to rename a yacht.
Holmes — he did “Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story” and cut his teeth on the British “World in Action” documentary TV series — interviews the crew, other sailors in the race and the journalists covering it, using lots of footage from the race itself to tell teh story of how the Maiden made her way into this ultimate sailing challenge.
Her mother was a rally driver and motorbike and go-cart racer, so there’s a daredevil strain in that gene pool. Edwards lost her father young, left home after her mother remarried and traveled and sailed as a stewardess and then a cook on assorted yachts cruising the Med and the Atlantic.
She didn’t decide to gather a crew, buy a boat and race around the world until she had a hard time signing on to a crew in a previous race.
“They didn’t want a woman on board.
Nobody wanted her, and when they gave in, it was only to hire her as a cook. She wasn’t allowed to do much outside of the galley.
But she was determined to get a boat, find a crew, line up sponsors and raise the £1,000,000 pounds it would take to enter the Whitbread.
A happy coincidence? One person she befriended in her gypsy yacht crewman days was the progressive-minded King Hussein of Jordan. He’d buy provide a big chunk of the backing that it took to buy and refit a ten year-old aluminum sloop and race it around the world.
Holmes’ film recounts how the crew Edwards rounded up did the rebuilding themselves to save money — Duchess Fergie christened it — how they bonded despite personality conflicted and early debacles, and how they faced the ultimate tests, racing through icebergs in the aptly-named aptly-named “Roaring 40s” of The Southern Ocean.
Journalists and sailors betting on how far as they’d get as they left port. One sexist, who owns up to it today, was journalist Bob Fisher, who referred to the aluminum yacht with an all woman crew as “a tin full of tarts.”
Edwards comes off as salty but sentimental, remembering the support she got from the crew and that the crew got from the world’s ports as they dashed from stop to stop — Uruguay, Australia, Auckland and Fort Lauderdale among them.
“Maiden” is a straightforward film in which the subjects look straight at the camera for interviews, where the emphasis is on British pluck and women who would never call themselves feminists — until after they realized they were. No sense spending too much time thinking of the big money it takes to partake in this sport, and the economic backgrounds of everybody on board to even get their feet wet in the sport.
Here’s a hint. Every time I talked to Disney scion and Disney heir Roy Disney over the years, the conversation would eventually turn to his ocean racing team and latest efforts to win the Trans Pac.
Yeah, it’s a rich man’s sport.
But “Maiden” still makes for an inspiring story about beating the odds and surviving an arduous and dangerous race, and a reminder that barriers facing women always seem insurmountable right up to the moment they surmount them.
MPAA Rating: PG for language, thematic elements, some suggestive content and brief smoking images
Cast: Tracy Edwards
Credits: Written and directed by Alex Holmes. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:37