This exhilarating documentary captures the highs and lows of a pioneering all-female around-the-world yacht race.
"Her name is Tracy Edwards, and her dream is to compete in the world's toughest yacht race with the world's first all-women crew." They're the words of a British television presenter in the mid-80s and, as seen in documentary Maiden, they're dripping with condescension. Edwards decided to enter an entirely female team into the prestigious Whitbread Round the World yachting race after first taking part in 1985–86, when she was the cook to an all-male group. During that initial voyage, she was treated poorly — unsurprisingly given the era and the sport's male bias at the time. But those patronising, dismissive, chauvinistic attitudes and insults were like a red rag to a bull, motivating the passionate lover of the open sea to compete again on her own terms.
The only way for Edwards to truly sail the 33,000 nautical miles from Southampton, England, and back — via Uruguay, Western Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay again and then America — was to recruit 11 other women to make the journey with her. The 27-year-old knew she'd be instantly mocked, and mocked she was. She assembled a committed crew of women for the 1989–90 contest, and found a boat called Maiden, but no one would sponsor them, support them or even take them seriously. In the media, they were mercilessly made fun of ("tin full of tarts," one journalist called them). In the yachting realm, their male peers bet that they wouldn't finish the race's first leg, let alone all six over its eight-month duration. At every turn, they were belittled, underestimated and considered a sideshow (and when they dared to be seen in swimsuits at one point on their watery trek, they were also shamelessly objectified).
With this chapter of sporting history now sailing across the cinema screen 30 years later, one thing should be obvious: Maiden's voyage through the Whitbread race is a story worth telling. It's the ultimate underdog tale, as well as a rallying cry against sexism that's no less relevant today than when the fearless skipper and her dedicated crew hit the seas. As chronicled via archival clips and contemporary interviews by filmmaker Alex Holmes, his doco makes all of the above plain, giving this plucky story and the gutsy gals who made it happen the treatment and respect that both deserve. Holmes' task is a relatively easy one, admittedly; with real-life events this gripping, this tale almost tells itself.
Recognising this fact, the director steps through the specifics in a linear, unfussy but deftly edited fashion, deploying the formidable Edwards as his anchor. He starts with her backstory, explores how teenage rebellion led her to the freedom of venturing across the world's oceans, and then follows her Whitbread efforts — from her initial inspiration to the white-knuckle on-the-boat reality in the team's secondhand vessel once the race began. Even when the film leans heavily on talking heads, the details are riveting; however the documentary steps up a gear once it weaves grainy home-video footage from Maiden's journey into the mix. Candid and unfettered as it captures women doing battle with the water ("the ocean is always trying to kill you; it doesn't take a break," Edwards notes, looking back), it puts viewers right there on the yacht with the all-female crew.
The fist-pumping, cheer-worthy highs and tense, dangerous lows of Maiden's trek are best discovered by watching, with the yacht's trip serving up the kinds of thrills usually penned by Hollywood. Indeed, it's incredibly surprising that a dramatisation hasn't hit the big screen already. Never forgetting or downplaying just how appallingly Edwards and company were treated three decades ago, Holmes' doco does more than simply relive or revel in their tale. Crucially, it also gives the film's subjects a voice, letting them relay the nitty gritty of their experiences in their own way. Back in the 80s, they were asked about squabbles, surviving without makeup and whether a round-the-world yacht race was the best place for the fairer sex, all while the men were were asked about strategies, tactics, skills and accomplishments. Redressing that egregious wrong — and showing the determined sparks still gleaming in these women's eyes — this rousing and exhilarating documentary proves a stellar snapshot of an inspiring feat, a rebuke against gender stereotypes and misogynistic attitudes, and a fierce portrait of persistent ladies telling the world that they'll do whatever they damn well like wherever they damn well like.
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