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This Could Be You! – My Maiden Journey, by Deb Walter

Deb Walter raced Maiden through the Caribbean waters with Skipper Liz Wardley and the crew during the 40th Annual Heineken Regatta. Over the coming weeks, we are sharing a series of blogs from Deb as she details her sailing adventure, all the way from watching ‘Maiden’ for the first time and visiting on an Open Day, to crossing the finish line on Maiden herself after ‘racing with a team working in harmony’!

With only seconds separating the Russian boat and us, Skipper Liz Wardley had the “Maiden” fully keeled, rail under water, maximizing our propulsion to a spot on the race podium. Many of you might be wondering how in the world did I finagle my way onto the legendary “Maiden” and end up in the Caribbean racing in the 40th Annual Heineken Regatta. Well, I am excited to share how it all happened, lessons learned, a few salty sea tales, and some lasting reflections.​​

This story all began in October of 2019 when my fiancé (Kelsey) and I rented the documentary movie, “Maiden.” The film is an epic account of the first all-female ocean yacht racing team, skippered by 27-year-old Tracy Edwards, who entered the famous Whitbread 33,000 mile race around the world. Tracy and her hand-picked all-female crew crushed old stereotypes about women, proving they could not only compete, but placed 2nd in their class against the best sailors in the world. The story completely fascinated me and was one of the most inspiring movies I have seen in years. Before watching the movie “Maiden”, I had no idea what the Whitbread Race was all about, nor the dangers these sailors endured. Tracy and her all-women crew raced the Maiden for nine months, surviving monstrous waves through the Southern Ocean. These courageous women faced unbelievable odds and shocked the sailing world. They opened countless doors for women in a sport that had previously been an all-boys club.

Throwing yourself into the most demanding professional sailing scenario might not be the recommended approach for everyone. However, the ten days physical, mental, and spiritual exercises opened up an entirely new horizon for me. Secretly I craved a sample taste of professional sailing with the “big girls.”

About a week after watching the movie, Kelsey called me and said, “Deb, the Maiden is here in Santa Barbara Harbor.” I said, “Oh my goodness, we have to go see her!” We drove down to the harbor that afternoon and spotted the Maiden tied up next to the private owner’s section at the marina. We walked to the edge of the lifting boat ramp to get the best view of the Maiden. Kelsey and I spotted a couple of crew-mates on the deck, and like a couple of 13-year-old giggling girls yelled, “Hey Maiden, we love you”! It was exhilarating to see this legendary 58′ racing yacht in person. Wendy Tuck, who was the skipper at that time saw us jumping up and down on the pier and said, “Hey ladies hurry, and I will let you see her for a few minutes as we are just getting ready to close it down for the day.” We launched into a sprint to the other side of the harbor, where Tracy Edwards’ daughter (Mack Edwards-Mair) met us at the gate with a lanyard badge that said “Maiden Guest”. At that moment, I felt as if I was boarding Amelia Earhart’s “Lockheed Electra.” To me, these adventurous world sailors are the Amelia Earhart’s of the ocean. Wendy greeted Kelsey and me at the edge of the rail, as we both asked, “permission to board the Maiden?” Wendy said, “Welcome aboard. Shoes off please come and have a quick look around.

Kelsey snapped a picture of me at the helm as I grinned with delight, standing next to the giant pink wheel. We only had about ten minutes to look around, so I promptly crawled down the companionway and was awestruck by the navigation station neatly tucked away by the captain’s quarters. The galley was a horseshoe-shaped design with whitewashed cupboards. Walking through the interior of the Maiden, felt similar to the 150 sq ft tiny home that we live in full time.

Living a minimalist lifestyle, I appreciate that everything has a purpose and a place in small quarters, or it has to go. The crew bunks were neat, organized, and decorated with postcards and sweet family photos. There was a grey cleverly designed milk crate storage center for the crew’s foul weather gear and PFD’s. I recall standing by the middle hatch peering forward into the engine compartment and said to myself, “I want to sail on the Maiden someday.”

Those words continued to ring in my head for months to come. The Maiden departed Santa Barbara Harbor early the next morning, heading south to Los Angeles. The crew was halfway through their tour around the world with Maiden’s mission: supporting and working with community programs all over the world which empower and enable girls in education. They promote women’s equality, motivating and inspiring many to pursue their dreams.

In the 1990’s it was a harsh world for a woman in her 20’s to navigate lots of stereotypes and barriers to hurdle in the workplace. I was one of three females in a large maintenance shop at Chicago O’Hare with over 100 men, but thrived in the challenges and opportunities to learn.

I continued following the Maiden and her crew from that day forward via their Facebook site. As one of their Facebook “Top Fans”, I would check the website almost daily with updates on the Maiden and read fun stories from the team and their adventures. In early February 2020, The Maiden Factor posted a photo and link on their website that said, “This could be you!” The minute I saw the post, I said, “Yes, I want that to be me.” When Kelsey came home later that night, I immediately announced, “I have something incredible to ask you.” Kelsey looked at me and said, “What’s up?” I said, “I want to apply for an opportunity to sail on the Maiden. They are offering one amateur spot on the crew down in St Maarten for the 40th Annual Heineken Regatta. It is an expensive proposition, but all the money will go to support the Maiden Foundation.” Kelsey did not hesitate one second or question my motives. She looked at me with thumbs up and said, “Deb, I support you 100%, and you should apply.”

It was certainly worth a shot. I truly believe if you want something, then don’t fill your mind with excuses, just fill out the darn application. The answer may well be “no”, but it can’t be “yes” if you never apply. You can’t sit around and fret too much about how, what, when, or where.  I honestly had no idea what role or expectations the crew might have for me. I sat down that night and drafted my email of interest from my heart and emailed it the following morning. The deadline for interest was February 3rd, with notifications to be made by February 7th- if chosen. The entire week I was buzzing with positive energy around the house. I had a feeling that I would get a call. Call it a vision or just fate, but I had already visualized myself sailing the Maiden since standing on her deck in Santa Barbara.​​

On February 9th, I received an official invite from The Maiden Factor to join the crew down in St Maarten on March 1st to start crew training. When I first opened the email, I thought it was a “Dear John” letter thanking me for my interest. As my eyes focused on the first line of the email, I just held up the iPhone for Kelsey to read. She said, “You got it didn’t you?” I squeaked out, “Yes, baby, they picked me.” The email from Carol started with, “I am delighted to offer you one of the guest spots on the Maiden for the 40th Annual Heineken Regatta. If you could, please let me know as soon as you can.” Let’s just say they had my money within four hours.

You are never too old to learn new skills. When I am near the ocean and feel the wind propel a sailboat forward, I feel free and peaceful.

The next few weeks were quite a whirlwind as Kelsey and I were beginning our nine-month Santa Barbara County Park Host assignment at Lookout Park in Summerland, CA. We had less than two weeks to lay a new floor, install a kitchen, re-plumb the entire rig, and get our bathroom put back together. Not to mention fulfilling our business client contracts to pack and move two elderly couples into new homes, coordinate an estate sale, pack up our RV and drive it down the coast to Lookout Park for the summer.

Giddy up! Fortunately we are an excellent team and quickly accomplish tasks together.

I booked my flight and departed Santa Barbara for St. Maarten on March 1st.

When I first wrote my letter of interest to The Maiden Factor, I thought to myself, “Deb, why do you want to do this?” The reality is big girls have dreams too, and I had three reasons to grasp this opportunity. First of all, I found many similarities with Tracy Edwards’ story to my own experiences of busting down gender barriers working as an Airframe and Power Plant (A&P) Mechanic. In the 1990’s it was a harsh world for a woman in her 20’s to navigate lots of stereotypes and barriers to hurdle in the workplace. I was one of three females in a large maintenance shop at Chicago O’Hare with over 100 men, but thrived in the challenges and opportunities to learn. So I too had pulled up my bootstraps and plowed through a male-dominated world. After watching the documentary Maiden, I was inspired by these women’s GRIT to endure such arduous conditions. As an aside, as of 2017 only 2.3% of A&P Mechanics are female.

The second reason I wanted to apply for this position was to test myself and try new skills. If you’re going to learn a foreign language quickly, then spend time in that country. The desire to be pushed outside my comfort zone and accelerate my learning curve in sailing was strong. Therefore, I applied to join a world-class group of female sailors. This experience hurdled me from American Sailing Association 101 “Intro To Sailing”, to sailing in one of the most prestigious regattas in the world. 

Here I am, 51 years young and have only been sailing for about 18 months in semi mild conditions within 25 miles of Santa Barbara. Talk about raising your sailing game! Throwing yourself into the most demanding professional sailing scenario might not be the recommended approach for everyone. However, the ten days physical, mental, and spiritual exercises opened up an entirely new horizon for me. Secretly I craved a sample taste of professional sailing with the “big girls.” By working hard over the past three years, maintaining a healthy weight, nutritional balance, and remaining alcohol-free, I figured I could physically endure whatever they threw at me. 

The third reason I wanted to apply for this position was to expand my international sailing experiences. Now that I have discovered sailing, the wind now carries me onto new engaging places in my life. Moving to Santa Barbara two years ago was one of the unparalleled greatest decisions I have ever made in my life; it healed my broken soul. I dreamed of moving to Santa Barbara, CA for 25 years and desired to learn more about sailing. I knew sailing would be comparable to flying airplanes, as there are many crossover aspects between a wing and a sail. You are never too old to learn new skills. When I am near the ocean and feel the wind propel a sailboat forward, I feel free and peaceful.

So with little thought about what would be involved to join the Maiden as guest crew, I believed “Deb, this can be you. Apply!”

Can’t wait until the week after next to read more from Deb? Check out Deb’s blog here: https://www.debwaltertravel.com/

All photos unless stated otherwise courtesy of Deb Walter.

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