It doesn’t get much more inspiring than the incredible story of Maiden, the first yacht crewed entirely by women to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Race.
With meticulous detail and sensitivity, the documentary “Maiden” chronicles the fight the women faced just to get onto the water. Compared with the sexism and obstacles they faced on land, the grueling challenges of the high seas were a walk in the park.
At the center of the story is Maiden’s skipper, the fierce and determined Tracy Edwards, who first dreamed of competing in the race as a crew member and found herself a pioneering woman in the sport of sailing when she decided to place an all-female team in the 1989 race.
Edwards, who struggled with problems at home before being kicked out of high school and leaving her small hometown in Wales to backpack across Europe, ended up tending bar in Greece. She made her way onto a yacht as a stewardess, learning to sail and having her aspirations come into focus, aided by a friendly charter guest, King Hussein of Jordan.
Edwards begged her way onto a yacht in the 1985 Whitbread race as a cook, although she would have preferred to be on deck. In 1986 she came up with the plan to captain her own ship, with a crew of women (or “girls,” as they’re continually referred to). By taking out multiple loans and getting additional funding from Royal Jordanian Airlines (arranged by Hussein), she was able to buy a used 58-foot yacht, which she refurbished and renamed Maiden.
The news media treated her like a joke, while macho male skippers never took her seriously. But she assembled an international crew of accomplished female sailors. When the boats took off from Southampton, England, in 1989, the reporters took bets on how far they’d make it. None guessed that they’d even complete the first leg of the race.
“Maiden” is a grand adventure the likes of which we don’t see often anymore. The film is primarily about the women battling a patriarchal sport culture and bloodthirsty media to prove themselves as equals in the intense and dangerous endeavor.
But it’s also a fantastic education in the world of yacht racing, a sport that requires tremendous skill, bravery and a bit of madness. As a young woman, Edwards had all that in spades, although her intensity in archival footage contrasts with her good-natured warmth in present-day interviews.
The film was directed by Alex Holmes, who also directed 2014’s “Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story.” He seems drawn to tales about the kind of dogged determination that drives people to achieve their greatest, most unbelievable goals, thought impossible by everyone else.
In the case of “Maiden,” it’s to triumphant, world-changing ends, rather than the depths of hubris in which the Armstrong story ended. But Holmes never shies away from addressing the dark parts of dream chasing, with Edwards finding herself at odds with her crew and her own demons while pushing Maiden as far as it could go. (She found more than vindication. After the race, she returned to school and got a college degree in psychology and, now 56, works for the International Youth Advisory Congress, focusing on child exploitation.)
“Maiden” shows that you have to embrace despair and doubt while chasing the highs that come from victory and achievement, and just go out and do the thing that people have said you can’t do again and again and again. With stunning archival footage and interviews with the amazing Maiden crew, Holmes captures that high in this stirring documentary that recounts not just the feminist achievement, but triumph of the human spirit.