Sailor Tracy Edwards on Leading an All-Female Yacht Crew Around the World and the New Documentary “Maiden”

Maiden, which hits theaters today, tells the story of Tracy Edwards who, in 1989 at age 24, became the skipper of the first-ever all female crew to compete in the Whitbred Round the World sailing race. Beyond being a thrilling tale of adventure and triumph, the documentary highlights the complete lack of faith and support that these women received from the sailing community at large. Read my conversation with Tracy below and find out how she reacted to her boat being dubbed “a tin full of tarts,” why she thinks girls today don’t need to feel perfect, and what sailing around the world with a group of women for nine months taught her about friendship.

Katie Couric: “Maiden,” which was named after the boat that you and your crew raced in, is more than just a documentary about a group of women who decide to compete in a sailing race around the world. This is a story about teamwork and friendship and triumph against all odds. How did the film come to be?
Tracy Edwards:
Alex Holmes, who directed the film, heard me give a talk about my life at his daughter’s school, and he came up to me afterwards and said “I’m a film director, and I’ve got to make this into a film.” And I didn’t really jump at it. I’d been battered about by the media and my trust in people was at a bit of a low, but he sent me the documentary he’d made called Building Jerusalem, which happened to be about my second passion, which is rugby. And I watched it, and I just thought, “wow. If he can do that for us that would be amazing.” So I called all the girls, because our story belongs to all of us. And Maiden’s legacy is all of ours. Once we’d all agreed to do it, the next question was “well how honest are we going to be?” And I think we all agreed straightaway that this needed to be raw, honest, warts and all… because there was no point in telling the story unless we were going to be completely honest. I give a lot of talks to young girls, and I think girls feel like they need to achieve an unattainable level of perfection. And I think what Maiden demonstrates is that you don’t have to be perfect. We weren’t perfect. You don’t even have to be good at first! You just have to have a dream, and work really hard, and keep going, and then maybe you’ll get there. And I think Alex has done that so beautifully-he took our honest accounts, and he wove them into an extraordinary story.

Katie: One of the most glaring things the film highlights is how you were treated by the press back in the 1980’s- journalist Bob Fisher published a story at the time calling you a “tin full of tarts.” Did any of these journalists change their tune once they saw how talented you were?
Tracy:
Bob Fisher is definitely a special case! Bless him, I love Bob Fisher to bits and we’re quite good friends now. But he did say that! And this didn’t make it into the documentary, but when we sailed into New Zealand in first place, Bob Fisher was the only journalist that changed his mind about us. And in his next article, he wrote: “Not just a tin full of tarts. A tin full of fast, smart tarts.” And we loved it! Until someone pointed out that he was still calling us tarts. And we were like “ah, yes, right, well maybe there’s still a ways to go.”

In 2017 when we restored Maiden and she sailed into Southampton, Bob, who’s about 83 now with two new hips and two new knees, he came to see Maiden in. And he had his Sunday best suit on, and he asked if he could interview me, and of course I said yes. And he started the interview by saying to me “So, tell me about girls’ education.” And I looked at him and I said “Bob you have come a long way!” And he looked at me and he said “Well, I had a great teacher.”

Katie: You managed to stay extremely composed during interviews when reporters-who asked your male counterparts about their sailing strategies and tactics-only asked you about what you did if your mascara started running, or what your romantic life was like, or whether the women on the boat were fighting. How did you keep your cool when answering these questions, and what were you really thinking?
Tracy:
I was a bit like a lamb to the slaughter! As I watch back that interview where the reporter asked me about my makeup, the first thing I think now is “wow I can’t believe I didn’t punch her.” But the second thing I think is that I was conditioned to answer questions like that. So there was a part of me that was just being a good girl, and doing as I was told. I wasn’t old enough to know how to point out a sexist question without being rude. I learned when I was older how to turn a question around, or point out the flaws in the reasoning, but that took a long time. But the woman who did that interview interviewed me about twenty years later, and she said “I still think about that interview and I am so sorry that I asked you such stupid questions!”

I think we have come a long way, but I still see stories in the press all the time about women that are casually sexist, or that try to pit women against each other.

Katie: Like all the tabloids that try to create drama between Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle…
Tracy
: Yes! I hate that! I hope that as the next generation comes through, the sexism is getting diluted and filtered. I look forward to the day when a woman wins the footballer of the year award, and the first question to her isn’t, “so, are you good at twerking?”

Katie: Watching the documentary, you can’t help but think “these women are incredibly talented sailors, but they’re also damn funny, and fun, and they seem like the type of people that I would want to hang out on a boat with for nine months.” Do you stay in touch? Do you still sail together?
Tracy
: We have smaller groups that come together and sail together, and we’ve had many reunions over the years. We just have an amazing friendship that transcends everything. Maybe we’ll spend a few years not seeing each other, but then we’ll come back together and we’re straight back into the silliness and the laughter, and we sort of fall back into our roles which I find quite amusing because none of us have changed that much. It’s a very special thing.

Being that close to other people on a boat, and working with them and living with them and having to trust and rely on them- you see how hard everyone else’s job is. So anything you can do to make that job easier, or help or lend support, you will do that. And I saw that time and time again on the boat with the girls, and I still see it with them now.

Katie: I don’t know if you’ve been following the American Women’s soccer team. They’ve been killing it, but they still aren’t being paid the same amount as the men’s team. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Tracy:
It’s just unbelievable. I think it’s a disgrace. In Britain we still have a gender pay gap in every single walk of life. In the UK there was a law that came out in the 70’s where everyone would be paid equally for the same job, and then you find out that there are women and men doing the same job, but they’ll give the women a slightly different title so they don’t have to pay them as much. It made me so, so bloody angry. In Britain now, women’s rugby has really taken off, and cricket as well. The England women’s cricket and rugby teams are top in the world, and the men are not, but the women are still paid less! I do not understand the logic behind it at all.

Katie: I don’t either, but hopefully things will continue to change for the better. Thanks so much for sharing your story with us, Tracy!

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