She Broke A Glass Ceiling

In this age of female empowerment, Tracy Edwards is a shining role model.

Thirty years ago, Edwards had the distinction of being the first women to skipper a boat in the gruelling Whitbread Round-the-World Yacht Race (which has since been renamed the Volvo Ocean Race).

She was 26, a slip of a girl, when she achieved this objective, thereby breaking a glass ceiling that had always seemed impenetrable. Alex Holmes documents it in his exhilarating movie, Maiden, which opens in Canada on July 12.

Tracy Edwards, left, and a member of the Maiden crew

Edwards, born and raised in Britain, had an idyllic childhood until she was 10, when her beloved father died. Eventually, she dropped out of school, but learned how to sail. This experience gave her a sense of freedom. On a voyage around the world on a racing yacht, where she worked as a cook, Edwards was irresistibly drawn to competing in the 33,000-mile Whitbread Round-the-World Yacht Race. “It wasn’t a choice,” she says. “It was something I had to do.”

Through sheer determination, she assembled an all-female crew of 12 to compete in the race, all the while trying to raise funds for the arduous trip. Potential donors feared that women were not up to the task and declined to fund Edwards. “We were bashing our head against a brick wall,” she says.

Remortgaging her home, she bought a second-hand yacht, the Maiden, which had to be overhauled. King Hussein of Jordan, whom she had previously met, agreed to sponsor her through Royal Jordanian Airlines.

Her competitors, all males, were skeptical that she would even finish the first leg of the race from Britain to Uruguay. Surprising the skeptics, the Maiden finished in third place.

The second leg, from Uruguay to Australia, was the most treacherous part, and Holmes distills the essence of it through evocative cinematography. Braving severe weather, high crashing waves and icebergs, they won this portion of the race, much to the amazement of  their male competitors.

The challenge of navigating the southern Atlantic Ocean was great. As Edwards says, “The ocean is always trying to kill you. It doesn’t take a break. You’re on your own if anything happens.”

Edwards and her crew also sailed to victory in the third and shortest leg from Australia to New Zealand. “They were regarded as men by this time,” says a British journalist in a backhanded compliment.

Tracy Edwards today

During the fourth leg, from New Zealand to Florida, the Maiden cracked its hull, losing 18 precious hours as the crew repaired the damage. As a result, the Maiden was unable to catch up, devastating Edwards. But the tumultuous reception she and her crew received at the finish line in Southampton some eight months later lifted their spirits and convinced them they had made an important contribution to achieving male/female parity.

In honor of her role as captain and navigator, Edwards was named Britain’s yachtsman of the year, the first time a woman had won this coveted award.

Maiden makes it clear beyond any doubt that Edwards richly deserved this prize.