MAIDEN • An All-Female Crew Unties the Knots of Sexism on the Sail of the Century

    icon Oct 31, 2019
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The opening night film at this year’s 13th Annual Riverside Saginaw Film Festival will feature the compelling documentary Maiden - a film by Alex Holmes about Tracy Edwards and the crew of the Maiden as they compete as the first all-woman crew in the 1989-90 Whitbread Round the World Race.

Introduced at The Toronto Film Festival in 2018 and winner of numerous festivals since, Edwards is a 24-year-old cook in charter boats who became skipper of The Maiden to sail 33,000 miles around the world in 1989. To get there she remortgaged her home, bought a secondhand boat, battled chauvinism from her competitors and the press, and secured warry sponsors.

When we first see the boat that gives “Maiden” its title, she is both Webster’s definitions of scrappy: she’s in an advanced state of disrepair due to use, yet there’s a feistiness about her, an unwillingness to give up the ghost just yet. Though Edwards chose Maiden for budgetary reasons, she and her crew set about to restore the ship to her former glory, then attempt to etch upon her an even greater victory. No woman had ever led a ship to win the Whitbread simply because no women skippers had been allowed to enter it. The best they could do was to serve as the vessel’s cook, a job Edwards held during the prior Whitbread. and even then, that idea was met with severe reservations and pushback.

Edwards has no problem finding a crew of women who share her passion and skillset for sailing, proving that there’s a market and an interest her male counterparts refuse to acknowledge. Thanks to an unusual benefactor, the Maiden enters the nine month race in September, 1989.

Edwards is the first face we see in “Maiden,” and the first voice we hear. “The ocean is always trying to kill you,” she narrates over a series of terrifying waves that would give even the Beach Boys pause. “It doesn’t take a break.”

When the current incarnation of Edwards appears soon after, it’s a bit jarring not because she’s clearly older, but because that same youthful spark is present, its intensity unblemished by the passage of time. We see this spark in all the women who are interviewed in the present day—the back and forth editing constantly swaps boat footage shot by Edwards’ childhood friend and crewmate, Jo Gooding in 1989 with Holmes’ present-day talking heads, as if the two versions of the Maiden crew are conversing across time.  This method is not only effective, it’s inspiring. When the elder Edwards chokes up at one point over a memory we’ve just witnessed, we can’t help but be pulled into the same emotions.

While Maiden is far more concerned with depicting the Maiden crew’s strengths and accomplishments, it can’t help but see male ego issues every time it looks to the horizon. Edwards and her crew are asked completely different questions than their male counterparts. With Novak and Dubois, the reporters talk shop. With Edwards, Gooding and company, the questions are about makeup, fashion, gossip and the possibility of catfights. Even after the Maiden exceeds expectations, it’s written up as pure luck; only failure yields skill-based discussions. Thirty years on, little has changed in this regard.

The Maiden crew not only completed the daunting journey — sailing farther south in the dangerously freezing, iceberg-riddled South Ocean than any other boat — but won two out of six legs of the race, finishing second in their class overall, and came in first among the British competitors. Edwards took home not only the Yachtsman of the Year Trophy and an MBE honor, but a nasty nervous breakdown.

“Each of us went falling off cliff when we finished the race,” Edwards said. “We had been together, for some of us, three years. We bonded, so close, way closer than we realized. Everyone I cared about for all that time was suddenly gone. It was a massive wrench at the end of the race. I had mental health issues. It took two years to get back into sailing.”

The film’s director Alex Holmes didn’t do any pre-interviews with the Maiden crew. He told them that nearly three decades after the event was a good time to tell the truth. “And did they ever!” said Edwards, who was carrying an enormous burden at the time and did not always behave well.

When she called her crew, they agreed to go for the legacy of the unvarnished truth. “We all watched the film together at BAFTA,” Edwards said. “We all cried and laughed. What Alex wanted was raw, unabridged, unedited. I’m really glad he got us to do that. He dragged stuff out of us we didn’t know we had. I can’t believe I know that much about what we did.”

Holmes pushed and pulled as many memories out of the women as he could. “I wanted them to remember for the first time when they were telling me,” he said. “We knew the pinch points, but went into the interviews with an open mind. We put aside a little time for each of the interviews. We took them to a studio with no distractions. Once we had them in the seat there was nowhere for them to go.”

He added, “They unburdened themselves and reached back into the depths of their minds, and kept finding more stuff they remembered. You can see people remembering things in the moment, they hadn’t been living this stuff for 30 years. Suddenly it was coming to them fresh.”

This is one film that should be experienced in a theater; and thankfully, Riverside Saginaw Film Festival will afford you that experience on Opening Night.

‘Maiden’ will open the 13th Annual Riverside Saginaw Film Festival on Thursday, November 7th at 7 PM.  This will be its only showing. Additionally, experienced yachtsman Peter Sulfridge will be speaking at the opening night showing.




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