Why did Tracy Edwards MBE become the first woman to win Yachtsman of the Year?
PUBLISHED: 16:45 21 September 2020
The Maiden Factor
Thirty years since Maiden became the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round the World Race, find out where she is now
Expelled from school aged 15, the last thing record-breaking skipper Tracy Edwards MBE, ever expected was to shatter the glass ceiling. Little did she know that in a few short years, she would not only make history at the helm of the first all-female crew of the 1989-90 Whitbread Round the World race, but that she would help change the face of women in sport for future generations. Whilst Tracy makes light of the long list of accolades, the story of how she became the first woman in the history of the Whitbread Round the World Race to win the coveted Yachtsman of the Year trophy is nothing short of inspirational.
Tracy maintains she fell into sailing. Leaving home at 16, she backpacked around Europe and found herself in Greece working in a bar where a customer asked if she wanted a job on his charter boat. The first of many moments of synchronicity in Tracy’s life began with a stop in Martha’s Vineyard and a lasting encounter with King Hussein of Jordan. She learned how to navigate in two days and decided she needed to expand her horizons – the Whitbread Round the World Race.
She faced numerous knockbacks but finally enlisted as cook of Atlantic Privateer, sailing the 1985-86 race. Out of 230 crew members, she was one of only four women in the entire race. Crossing the finish line, she knew she had to do something to change things.
“It’s funny looking back on it now. I don’t know what I was thinking,” she laughs. “For me, the idea of Maiden was purely selfish. I remember thinking no man was ever going to let me go as a navigator on his boat. It was never going to happen. My mum was the one who said to me, ‘If you don’t like the way the world works, don’t moan about it - change it’.”
The fight to get funding was tough, as was the restoration of Maiden, a second-hand boat Tracy bought with her own money. But two things came together – finding a skilled all-female crew, and backing from none other than King Hussein. His confidence in Tracy resulted in sole sponsorship, offering the most profound mentorship of her life.
The Maiden team worked tirelessly mending the boat themselves, fearing she wouldn’t be seaworthy in time, amidst antagonism from press and public.
“There was no announcement we ever made that was taken seriously. What kept us going was the responsibility to the women who came after us. It’s one thing to hold your hand up and say I’m going to change the world but if you fail, the people who come after and say the same thing, not only have the same problems to overcome but they’ve also got your failure hanging round their neck. That was what really kept us all plugging away at it.”
Despite everything stacked against them, gruelling conditions and a hole in the hull on one of the legs, the crew proved their resilience. Maiden came second in her class overall and was welcomed back into Southampton to a rapturous crowd. Their record remains unbeaten today – it’s the best result for any British boat in seventeen years of the Race. Things have been far from plain sailing for Tracy. Bankruptcy, selling her home and Maiden, divorce, raising her daughter as a single parent whilst completing a degree; difficult times amongst the triumphs and trophies.
“I think we can learn resilience. I think that’s what I’ve learned - to be able to pick myself up and get on with things. We learn lessons from falling over. It’s how we get up again which shows us who we are,” she offers. “Maiden taught me so much about myself. I had no idea I was that competitive or that I had a need to succeed. I was given an amazing opportunity and have been so lucky to have met all these amazing people who have helped me to get to my next goal. If I haven’t done everything in my power to make life better for my daughter and her generation, then what exactly was the point?”
A call from the Seychelles in 2015 brought a bedraggled Maiden back into Tracy’s life. She couldn’t resist breathing life back into her and the opportunity to continue Maiden’s journey. With HRH Princess Haya bint Al Hussein funding the complete restoration in honour of her late father, The Maiden Factor Foundation was born. Its aim, to highlight the 130 million girls worldwide without access to education and help charities facilitate ways to empower and educate girls and young women.
“The idea was for a lap of honour, reminding people what girls can do. I was hearing a lot of sportswomen saying girls need more role models - girls can be it if they can see it. It was really powerful stuff. My daughter Mack came up with the idea of using the boat to raise awareness and Princess Haya could see women coming together to give girls a hand up,” shares Tracy.
When Maiden finally made it back to Hamble where her story began nearly three decades before, an expectant Tracy watched amidst a multitude of fans. There wasn’t a dry eye in the shipyard.
“I did think at one point only I could fall in love with a boat, but it isn’t just me. She represents so many people’s possibilities. Maiden has this extra thing that is unique – she is absolute proof of what a girl can do if just one person believes in them. She is a living story. A beautiful representation of what King Hussein first said to me – anything is possible.”
There’s never been a more important time to spread Maiden’s messages of hope. Tracy’s tenacity to secure vital funds to continue their work and World Tour despite the obstacles of a global pandemic has even seen her willing to auction off treasured items from her racing days.
“You can’t expect people to help you make things happen unless you are willing to put yourself on the line,” Tracy remarks.
Currently enjoying a rest over winter, Maiden’s next mission is a tour of the UK and Ireland in April 2021, starting at London’s St Katherine’s Dock where she will play host to fundraising and sponsorship events before setting sail once more.
With all of Maiden’s original crew still involved in one form or another, the magnitude of their efforts feels as heroic today as it was back in 1990. Tracy never tires of hearing from different generations who recount the impact Maiden has had on them. It proves that her legacy lives on. After all, the picture was always much bigger than navigating a way into history books, it was about spearheading a revolution, sharing that Maiden factor.