Fed up with the exclusionary treatment she experienced in the male-dominated sport of open-ocean yacht racing in the 1980s, British sailor Tracy Edwards bought a used boat and successfully skippered the first all-female crew in the brutal Whitbread Round the World Race. The rousing documentary “Maiden,” opening Friday at the Embarcadero, looks back at this shining testament to the capabilities of women at the helm.
Using archival materials and recent interviews, British TV director Alex Holmes revisits the history-making Whitbread race of 1989-90, and profiles Edwards, in this real-life adventure thriller, sports drama and self-discovery journey.
The 21st-century Edwards discusses her troubled adolescence, teenage rebelliousness and love of sailing. In 1985, her persistence landed her a spot, as a cook, on a boat in the virtually all-male Whitbread competition. “When they’d let me up on deck,” she says, she learned what she could about racing.
Refusing to let sexist mentalities prevent her from realizing her dream, Edwards assembled an all-female crew and purchased a secondhand boat, which she christened “Maiden.” She found sponsorship through Jordan’s King Hussein, and in September 1989, from Southampton, England, the women set sail in the world’s largest sailing event, the Whitbread race.
Not all went smoothly. A power struggle occurred between Edwards and her first mate. Forces of nature caused a leak in the boat. The women repaired it, but it cost them their lead in one leg of the race.
Sexist coverage from reporters who referred to Edwards, 26, and her similarly aged crewmembers as “girls,” was a frustration. One journalist called the women a “tinful of tarts.”
But they overcame obstacles, raced impressively and made fools of their detractors. Edwards received a Yachtsman of the Year Award.
Holmes’ skimpy account of Edwards’ rise is a weak point. How did a directionless teenage rebel mature into a skilled navigator and a savvy achiever able to secure sponsorship through King Hussein?
Overall, though, the film is a skillfully woven, constantly exhilarating, nonfiction thick-of-the-action adventure filled with feminist spirit.
(A product of her time, Edwards, in a TV clip, says she’s not a feminist. She later rethinks that statement.)
The race footage, some of it shot by the women themselves, vividly captures the sea’s ferocity and majesty. A passage in which the boat sails through wickedly choppy Antarctic waters is particularly compelling.
Edwards, whose insecurities as a leader the movie doesn’t ignore and whose mettle is inspiring, is a superb heroine.
Holmes’ interviewees, who include former crewmembers, supply a wealth of stories. We learn that a terrible accident killed a sailor from a nearby boat and left another man in need of urgent care. A woman on Edwards’ crew, a medic, assisted the male crew, helping the men resuscitate the sailor, via radio.
We also hear about, and witness, the fond reception that greeted Edwards and company in Southampton, where they finished the race after departing from there months earlier. It’s a stirring moment.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Tracy Edwards
Directed by: Alex Holmes
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes