Every three years since 1973, there’s a worldwide yacht race. Now known as the Volvo Ocean Race, it was originally called the Whitbread Round the World Race. The grueling ordeal takes about nine months to complete, divided into multiple legs. The elements and the rough seas can take their toll on the yacht crews. In the South Seas leg, the temperatures dip well below zero due to windchill, and the presence of ice floes and choppy waves like hillsides can make the already unpleasant route deadly. Experienced sailors have lost their lives competing in the race.
Up until 1989, the Whitbread yacht crews were almost exclusively men, save for the stray cook here and there. Tracy Edwards changed that.
In Maiden, director Alex Holmes chronicles Edwards’ years-long odyssey to assemble an all-female yacht crew and compete in this 33,000-mile race around the world. It’s thrilling and inspiring even 30 years after the eponymous yacht set sail from Southampton. Maiden does many things well, but I think what it does best is situate its viewers in different times, places, and mindsets. We can look back and consider this moment right before 90s feminism came into being, as if examining this vessel ride the trough and crest of the nascent third-wave.
Director: Alex Holmes
Release Date: June 28, 2019
Before putting together an all-female crew, Edwards competed in her first Whitbread in 1985 at age 23. Despite her experience as a sailor, she was put to work as a cook. Edwards wanted to work on the deck, but instead felt treated like a maid. This is the first of many instances of traditional gender roles and gender barriers being imposed on Edwards and the women on the Maiden. The boating press treat them as spectacle bound to fail, and the other yachtsmen take a similar condescending tone. Are they strong enough to man a ship? Are they capable enough to finish any leg of the Whitbread? Can an all-female crew get along okay—I mean, you know how women are, don’t you? Even in the present, a few of the men interviewed for the documentary refer to Edwards back then as “a slip of a girl.” Given, she was a 26-year-old skipper in a field dominated by older men. At every turn she was doubted and underestimated, though she was also legitimately in over her head.
A certain amount of young ambition is fueled by defiance. Tell someone they can’t do something and you may give them the gumption to prove you wrong. It’s that little bit of punk rock in Maiden that makes the crew and the endeavor so easy to get behind. Prior to Anita Hill speaking out, before riot grrrl sent girls to the front, and before riot grrrl’s pop cousin in the guise of girl power, here’s some women rocking the boat and finding their feminist sea legs.
Maiden could have existed just fine as a series of broadcast news clips and talking head interviews, but it’s the on-board camcorder footage of the Whitbread race that makes the film. The boat tilts and jutters as it’s forced up and down the waves, with cold spray and wind striking the blurry lens. All the while, the women lean for balance and wait for moments of relative calm as they proceed across the deck. Whenever the wind is still, we witness the crew’s antsiness; sometimes we can see one of the rival yachts just at the horizon. How frustrating, the lack of wind. That’s just a few minutes of the exhausting work they faced over several months, but it’s expertly deployed. Edwards in the present day looks back at some of her choices as skipper with regret. All these years later, and she is still second guessing herself because it still means so much.
It makes sense for Edwards to linger so long on the events of the race. Before hitting the high seas, the crew of the Maiden struggled to find a yacht and to find sponsorships to enter the expensive race. Years of exhausting work simply to secure the money, only to face months of grueling toil at sea to make those difficult last few years worthwhile. This isn’t to say that the men had it easy, but they at least had it easier than the Maiden crew in the lead up to the race. Ginger Rogers did it backwards and in heels; the all-female Whitbread crew did it with a second-hand boat they had to fix themselves and against the prevailing chauvinistic social climate.
There’s a 1980s interview with Edwards in Maiden that I keep thinking about. A journalist asks her if she considers herself a feminist. No, she says, and she adds that she hates the word feminism. Yet she says she wants women to be treated equally, and to be considered capable sailors just like men. That sounds like feminism, which brings attention to her disavowal of the word at that particular time. Identifying herself as a feminist in 1989 would have made her an even greater target for scorn. She wouldn’t just be a young female skipper, but a young feminist female skipper. What a time to have lived through, and what a feeling it must have been to hide your beliefs—deny them publicly—simply to carry on.
But that’s one mindset at a particular time and a particular place. In passing later in the film, present-day Edwards supposes that she was a feminist all along. It was a struggle for gender equality, so what else could she have been? Years of her life were implicitly dedicated to that cause, and now it is okay to admit it. I think about the two Tracy Edwards: the young woman who disavowed feminism because she felt she had to (or because the patriarchy had so thoroughly demonized the word), and the older woman who is allowed to call feminism feminism. They’re the same woman at different times, on separate legs of the same long journey.
I’m reminded of the story of Theseus’ ship. The Greek hero Theseus returns from a journey at sea and changes the worn planks of his boat for new ones. After many journeys and returns, Theseus eventually swaps out all of the original wood for new planks. If someone were to reconstruct the boat with all the old planks, which ship is the original? In some ways Maiden might be considered a look at the old sexist planks of the world that have been replaced, and a reminder that while we may be better off, this ship we’re on still needs a lot of work.