Article by Danny Buckland
She’s had her nerves shredded by roaring gales and the oceans at their most malevolent but nothing could prepare inspirational yachtswoman Tracy Edwards for the short walk down a luxury marinas pontoon.
At the end, forlorn in workshop grey paint with tattered rigging, lies the once resplendent Maiden, the boat she has not seen for 27 years.
Tears come easily at the arresting sight of the battered 58 foot yacht that took her and an all-female crew on a triumphant round the world race that changed the perception of women and what they could achieve.
“My poor baby, she’s such a mess,” she says, placing a comforting hand on the vessel’s side. “I had no idea she was in such bad shape. It is such a sad and gruesome sight. We have to get her home and fast.”
Maiden has been through a procession of owners since Edwards and 11 female sailors took on the yachting establishment and confounded popular opinion by finishing 2nd in the gruelling Whitbread Round the World Race in 1990. The boat was abandoned three years ago and left to rot on the quayside on an Indian Ocean island.
“I’d heard she was in a poor state but not this bad,” she adds. “I’ve been raising funds to bring her home for the last three years but it stopped me almost dead when I saw her.
“There was a physical pain in my heart at the sight. I guess it must have been building up. I didn’t think it would be this emotional. I cried, tears of delight at seeing her after so long but also distress at what she has become.
“The boat was the 13th member of the crew and she looked after us, made sure we got home safely so the bond is immense. She is like an old friend and it is distressing to see this neglect. When I first heard she’d been abandoned I was surprised how heartbroken I was. It was like losing a member of the family.
“But we can rebuild her. She is like me, a fighter and a survivor.”
Edwards, who was a 22-year-old with limited sailing experience when she put together the Maiden team, now plans for boat to be a figurehead of the Maiden Factor charity, dedicated to empowering girls through education.
But the ship, once a distinctive grey and red with the Royal Jordanian livery, has become a tattered shell.
The paint job is functional, the boat’s life lines are broken, slack and held together in places by tape and elasticated string, the hand holds have come loose and one of the helm wheels has disappeared. The mast and boom are tarnished but it is below decks where the fall from grace is shocking.
“I’m almost speechless. It is an horrific sight; who could let this happen?” she says, surveying the stripped down interior that was a pulsating crucible of female endeavour.
The carbon flooring, shaped in the garage of Edwards’ home in Hamble, near Southampton, has been removed to reveal bilges full of water. Key internal fittings have gone, exposing the foam insulation that protected the aluminium mono-hull from the elements. Mould is rampant, the crew bunks, some with original names written on in magic marker, have been forced back at awkward angles and the four-ringer gas cooker in the galley is grimy and rusting.
It is a good ten minutes before Edwards can comprehend the scene. Evidence of a glorious past remains; a notice titled ‘Maiden Water Maker’ is still taped to the watertight bulk head and the radio system is the original.
It is an ignominious state for a boat that generated headlines around the globe, her exploits occupying a special section in maritime and social history.
Edwards, who had been expelled from school at 15 and started life out as a self-confessed ‘boat bum’ cruising the Greek Islands, seized on the idea of an all-female crew after competing in the 1985 Whitbread Round the World Race as a cook, one of only four women among 235 crew members on the 22 boats taking part.
Her efforts to raise funds to buy, kit out a boat and sustain a six-month voyage were rebuffed by 350 different corporations, many with a sneer of contempt.
Some yachting press afforded them scant credibility and but for a few supporters – notably the Daily Mail and its award-winning sports journalist Ian Wooldridge who described her as ‘the second most determined woman after Maggie Thatcher that I have ever met’ – the venture seemed doomed to not even get down the slipway.
Edwards, who now lives in south-west London with her 17-year-old daughter Mackenna, says:
“We were turned down by virtually everyone and the really dispiriting thing was that the few women who were CEOs were worse than the men. The guys were at least honest and said they didn’t think we’d make it but I felt that women CEOs, who maybe had had to become very male in their outlook to survive at the top, were even harder on us. They didn’t want to know.
“It is hard to imagine attitudes like that today and my daughter has said ‘wasn’t Maiden just a group of girls sailing round the world?’ If you weren’t around in those days you cannot imagine the level of sexism that was commonplace. I experienced no sexism or misogyny when I was a cook or stewardess on a boat because I was in ‘my place’. But there was a different reaction when I put the team together.
“Yachting journalists were taking bets on whether we would even make it to The Needles or the first stop. Maybe that was a good thing because it made us think we had more to do, had more to prove, needed to work harder with more commitment – we had to be better than the guys.
“But we didn’t set out to change the world. We just wanted to compete with men on a level playing field.”
Edwards remortgaged her house to buy Maiden – a former Round the World competitor yacht called Prestige that was languishing in Cape Town’s commercial docks – for £110,000. She then re-mortgaged the boat to pay for its refit but was down to the breadline and potential ruin when a former charter client stepped in. Not just any client but King Hussein of Jordan who had one hired the boat on which she was cook, a chance meeting that sparked a lifelong friendship.
What followed was a challenge that transcended sport to become, arguably, a societal tipping point. Women were regarded as unsuitable for such a gruelling physical event without male supervision.
Edwards, still a relative novice and reluctant captain, and the crew blew their critics out of the water, winning three legs and finishing second overall, the best British performance in almost 20 years.
“We just got on with it and weren’t really aware of the effect we were having,” she adds. “But coming into Australia in 1st place on that leg was the best thing that has happened in my life part from the birth of my daughter. What we achieved spoke louder than words. I remember listening to a debate on the BBC’s World Service as we neared port and this woman was saying women like us were ripping the heart out of families and destroying communities.
” It was a bit disconcerting but then a flotilla of boats came out to see us and were throwing roses and carnations on the boat, which they wouldn’t have done for a male crew. Then there were 50,000 people on the quayside chanting Maiden as we came in and it still gives me goosebumps now. It took us an hour to get from the dock to the yacht club because people wanted to touch us and give us flowers. We were just girls who enjoyed sailing but we started to realise something else was happening.”
The enduring public image of Maiden is of super-fit young women dressed in swimsuits or figure hugging team skirts and shorts, not the obvious approach of an effort to smooth out the gender landscape.
“Coming into port looking our best was an easy decision because we weren’t girls trying to be boys.” says Edwards. “Arriving at Fort Lauderdale all in swimsuits was our way of saying we can do this race and look like this. It was different time and everyone loved and it was the most syndicated sports photo of the year.”
Few could have predicted the success from her tempestuous background. Uprooted from an idyllic childhood near Reading after the death of her father when she was ten-years-old, she was planted in a new life in South Wales with a step-father she grew to detest. She rebelled and a litany of smoking, drinking and truanting followed.
Edwards was expelled from school at 15 before she could take any exams, spent a summer living in a tent on a hillside, worked in a tubing factory then fell into sailing by accident. The carefree, itinerant lifestyle appealed but she admits to falling in love quickly and often too deeply as she strived to find her identity.
She made the tough graduation from cook to deckhand, learnt her trade in a uncompromising male environment before triumphing with Maiden, which led her to the Yachtswoman of the Year award – the first time it was given to a woman – and an MBE.
She had to sell Maiden at the end of the race and moved onto other sailing projects including breaking seven world records with another all-female crew sailing around the globe non-stop.
Edwards has been content to live without sailing since she retired but the fire was ignited when she discovered that Maiden had been abandoned at the Eden Island Marina, on Mahe, in the Seychelles. She launched a fund-raising campaign to rescue the boat home and make it the focal point of an inspirational not-for-profit organisation that will raise money for girls’ educational projects.
“Maiden is known round the world and can be used for a range of sponsored events. I don’t want it to be a charity with its hand permanently out so the aim is to use her to raise funds for different projects; anything that will help girls’ education,” she says.
The Maiden Factor campaign has won backing from Sir Richard Branson and pop star and yachtsman Simon Le Bon and the Jordanian Royal family once again stepped in with King Hussein’s daughter, Princess Haya, pledging help.
“We first met when she was 12-years-old and I was 22 and it was very emotional to get a phone call out of the blue from her. She is a phenomenal woman. She has been an Olympic show jumper, has an HGV licence and works tirelessly for humanitarian causes. She represents everything her father believed in,” says Edwards.
“She remembered her father talking about me and how much he believed in me so she wanted to help Maiden this time round. She says its part of the King’s legacy and the world should remember him as a visionary.
“He was a rock to me and believed in me when others wouldn’t and I feel very honoured to have Princess Haya involved now. She is also passionate about girls education and it is fantastic to have person of her calibre on board.
“The last three years have been really hard and I felt like giving up. I was thinking ‘Is this just an over-emotional dream?’ and a lot of people were saying why not just buy a new boat and take girls sailing, which is not the point. It’s about rescuing Maiden and using everything she stands for.
“It will help empower young girls so that they can go out and achieve their dreams. My daughter and her generation cannot imagine what it was like back then and I’m glad they can’t because that is a sign of what we’ve achieved. Maiden was one step and there were others and but we have to keep on doing that.
“My daughter can’t wait to meet her. We’ve spoken a lot about Maiden throughout our lives and more recently what she means because I want her to have that spirit and independence.
“I feel very proud of what we are doing and can do with Maiden now. We’ve had fantastic support from people around the world writing in to say how much they were inspired by Maiden and how they want her to inspire another generation.”
Maiden needs to be lifted out of the water soon to stop further hull damage and will then be transported back to the UK on a cargo ship because she is unfit to be sailed. Extensive re-fitting will take most of next year with a re-launch planned to coincide with the finish of the 2017-18 Volvo Round the World Yacht Race.
“There’s a lot to be done and we still need to raise money to keep the project rolling but I’m excited about what we can achieve,” says Edwards. “When I started sailing, most of the world questioned whether women could do it; now it is accepted. We still have many challenges to improve women’s rights and the prospects for young girls.
“If there had been a Maiden when I was growing up, it would have given me something to fight for rather than fight against. She is an icon and has proved what women can do. She showed me that we are all able to do much more than we think, providing we just have someone to show us the way – and Maiden is just the woman for the job.”