Tracy Edwards was in her 20s, didn’t go to college, had no financial backing or reputation to draw supporters, and says she wasn’t the greatest sailor. So, of course she decided to lead the first-ever all-female crew in the dangerous Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989 — and serve as navigator as well.
“My passion, really, was navigation,” said Edwards, now 57. “So on my second transatlantic, I had this amazing skipper [who asked] ‘Can you navigate?’ And I went — how old was I? I was 19. 19! ‘Of course I can’t navigate; I was expelled before long division.’ He said, ‘What happens if I fall off the side?’ I said, ‘Well, there’s other people on the boat’ — ‘They can’t navigate.’ And I went, ‘Well, there’s that electronic thing there.’ ‘What if the battery goes?’
“So he said, ‘Why are you being a bystander in your own life? Why are you watching your life, why aren’t you taking part?’ One of the best, amazing pieces of advice I’ve ever had in my life.
“I thought, ‘That’s a bit bloody profound for just two days out into the Atlantic, good grief.’ Then I thought, ‘Why don’t I know how to do one of the most essential jobs on a boat when I’m taking my life in my hands and sailing across the Atlantic?’ So I learned how to navigate in two days. It was the first time in my life I realized I wasn’t an idiot.”
Edwards’ relentless drive to compete in the Whitbread years later (now known as “The Ocean Race”) is captured in Alex Holmes’ documentary, “Maiden.” The director and his now-famous subject were on hand for an Envelope Live Screening Series Q&A at the Montalbán in Hollywood on Oct. 29.
Apart from her desire to serve as navigator in the ballyhooed race, she said, “The second reason that I would never give up was I thought, ‘If we give up, the next all-female crew that comes after us, they’re not just going to have to fight against all the things we’ve had to fight against; they’re going to have to fight against our failure.’ And I couldn’t let that happen.”
Holmes, who won a BAFTA for his 2004 documentary “Dunkirk,” said the story fell into his lap when Edwards came to speak at his daughter’s class as she was about to graduate from primary school.
“I was gripped, and so was my daughter. And I thought, ‘Gosh, it’s not often we can enjoy a story together.’ These 11-year-old kids were gripped. The adults were gripped,” he said, when asked how he knew he had to make a film of Edwards’ pioneering adventure.
“There was another reason as well: I was really shocked that evening because it really brought home to me that all of these barriers that Tracy had dismantled all these years ago had slowly, over time, been re-erected and put back in place. Probably pretty quickly after Tracy had gone through them, I imagine. And they would be faced by my daughter in whatever she would want to do ... And it really shocked me that, actually, maybe they would be in subtler, more insidious form, but there would be so many barriers that she would face just as Tracy had done. And for me, that was a good reason to make the film.”
Audiences may be surprised just how much footage of the crew during the race is in the documentary. It turned out the Maiden had a secret weapon the other crews didn’t when it came to documenting their adventure on film: They actually wanted to do it.
“The Whitbread race committee asked people to take cameras on the boat,” said Edwards. “ ‘Cameras on the boat, quite revolutionary!’ All the men’s boats went, ‘We’re far too serious, ocean-racing sailors to be filming ourselves while we’re racing around the world.’ And we went, ‘We’ll film! We’ll film! We will!’
Edwards’ longtime friend and new crewmember Jo Gooding was picked by the team to go to the BBC for four days of filmmaking lessons.
“The thing that we did that no one else did was, we practiced,” said Edwards, explaining how they ended up with an extra camera the other boats didn’t have. It was a stationary camera placed up high because they realized they needed to capture the action when the sailors were too busy to shoot it themselves.
Without revealing any secrets of the story, the boat did make it to the end of the race. For reasons that are clear in the documentary, their arrival was a surprising one.
Edwards said, “You know what my thought was at that point? If I’m ever going to crash the boat — it’s going to be now. Thirty-three thousand miles and not a ding; I’m going to do it right now.
“It was life-affirming, it was extraordinary. It restored my faith in pretty much everything, I have to say.”
Warning: The clip below contains spoilers regarding the outcome of the race.
To see more Envelope Live videos, go to latimes.com/screenings.