It’s been almost 30 years since Tracy Edwards skippered Maiden and the first all-women’s round-the-world crew into Auckland. She tells Suzanne McFadden about her nervous breakdown, the help of Sir Peter Blake and her mission to give all girls an education.
A little jet-lagged, Tracy Edwards is standing in Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour next to her smartly spruced-up yacht, Maiden. Suddenly, she’s hypnotised by a large green parrot, perched on the shoulder of a woman walking by.
“I’ve never seen a parrot in real life,” she says, approaching the bird. Did she want to pat its feathers?
“Oh no, I’m not that brave.”
Which seems slightly crazy, coming from a woman who was the epitome of brave, sailing around the world twice, repeatedly dipping down into the iceberg-strewn Southern Ocean; who took on an armada of cynics and naysayers who thought she couldn’t get a women’s crew around the globe, let alone on the start-line – and proved them all wrong.
It’s the first time in three decades that Edwards, one of Britain’s greatest sailors, has returned to Auckland.
This arrival is definitely more low-key than the unforgettable heroes’ welcome she received in the 1989-90 Whitbread round-the-world race – when 14,000 fans lined Auckland’s waterfront at 1am to watch Edwards and her all-female crew on Maiden cross the finish-line.
When Grant Dalton’s Kiwi crew on Fisher & Paykel came out to greet them in the dark: “We could hear them singing ‘There she was just a-walking down the street, singing do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do’. It was just brilliant,” Edwards remembers.
And when the women on Maiden proved to the sailing fraternity they were serious contenders, taking line honours in their class. “We’d won the previous leg into Fremantle, but everyone thought that was just luck. We had to win the leg into Auckland to be taken seriously,” Edwards says.
Now Edwards is back in the City of Sails, reunited with her beloved boat at the halfway point of her latest circumnavigation. Only this time, 56-year-old Edwards is making the journey by plane.
In 2014, she rescued the derelict yacht from a watery grave in the Indian Ocean – “she was two months away from being sunk” – and spent two years raising money to have her shipped home to England, then undergo massive repairs.
Now she’s being sailed around the globe by a new female crew, on yet another voyage to inspire young women, and help in Edwards’ latest endeavour – to raise money and awareness for girls’ education globally.
Edwards doesn’t sail anymore. She gave up “dangerous pursuits” 19 years ago, when her daughter Mackenna, better known as ‘Mack’, was born. Mack also flies to each stopover (she says she was put off sailing when she was younger) as photographer for her mum’s foundation, the Maiden Factor.
Sitting in a cafe, Edwards says returning to New Zealand reminds her of how gender equality here is “so advanced”.
That was reinforced while Maiden was out of the water for the past month for a thorough refit at the Orams Marine boatyard. The 58ft aluminium sloop had been having problems, like leaks, since the initial restoration, and “limped” into Auckland.
“The amazing thing is these guys at the boatyard haven’t treated us like ‘girlies’; they’ve been respectful and asked us proper questions,” says Edwards. “In other places when we’ve had a problem, suppliers have said: ‘Is it the way the girls are sailing the boat?’”
“That shouldn’t even be a question. [Skipper] Wendy Tuck has just won the Clipper round the world race, and the other girls have sailed hundreds of thousands of ocean miles.”
This is nothing new for Edwards, who faced a barrage of chauvinism and narrow-mindedness when she decided, at 22, she wanted to enter the first all-women’s crew in a Whitbread race. The Maiden crew were told they weren’t strong enough, or smart enough, to compete; that women “didn’t get along”, and there would be cat-fights.
Renowned English sailing scribe Bob Fisher called them “a tin full of tarts”… but revised that to “a tin full of fast, smart tarts” when they reached Auckland as the leader in Class D. They finished the Whitbread second overall in their class, to the disbelief of many.
“I didn’t realise how angry it was going to make people,” Edwards says. “They asked ‘But what if you die?’ Well that would be my problem. That was when I realised I was engaged in a battle in the middle of a war I didn’t even know I was in.
“But that battle ultimately got us ready for the race. We were the strongest, most determined team to cross that start-line – even more than Grant Dalton, and that’s saying something. We turned a disadvantage into an advantage. And that was probably the best lesson I learned in my life.”
Before the race, Edwards sought advice from Sir Peter Blake, who would skipper Steinlager 2 to overall victory. “Peter was one of the first supporters of Maiden before it became fashionable,” Edwards says.
“He told me ‘you might struggle with strength, but you just need to adapt your boat’. He really helped me with navigation and weather charts. He was phenomenal, when most of the skippers were pretty scathing.”
He also told her to put together a team that would last “the whole way round”. Maiden’s crew of 12 stuck together for the 37,000 nautical mile journey, including Kiwi sailor and rigger Amanda Swan (known to her crew-mates as Mandi).
Five New Zealand women will sail Maiden in the next leg, from Auckland to Hawaii, starting on Sunday. Round the world veteran Sharon Ferris-Choat, who drove Maiden into Auckland, is joined by Natasha Fickling, Rebecca Gmuer Hornell, Jo Ivory and Natalie Bratkowski.
Part of this campaign is to help young women build up offshore sailing miles to help them break into other crews.
Edwards had to beg her way into her first circumnavigation, when she got the job of cook on board Atlantic Privateer in the 1985-86 Whitbread race. It was only after the boat won the first leg (again, into Auckland) that the crew warmed to Edwards, calling the only woman on board their “lucky charm”. But she’s not convinced there have been monumental strides ahead since then.
“I’m equally hopeful and horrified for women in sailing at the moment,” Edwards says. “It’s harder now for a woman to get on a race-boat than it was 30 years ago. And that’s crap.
“But what I feel hopeful about is the girls on the boat have an incredible confidence, and they’re powerful. I’m blown away by it.”
The girl expelled from high school at 15 who ran away to Greece and fell in love with boats (although she suffered seasickness), Edwards admits she didn’t possess the confidence shown by today’s yachtswomen in her own sailing career.
Edwards has faced many peaks and troughs since. Not long after finishing the race in the Solent as a hero, and the British Yachtsman of the Year (an award she’d never heard of), Edwards suffered a nervous breakdown.
She wasn’t prepared for the torrent of media interest. “The other girls went back to their jobs, but I was holding the fort, doing the talks, writing the book,” she says. “When I got divorced after an extremely short marriage, I discovered what it was to have bad press. To have people crawling all over your front lawn, and climbing into my mother’s back garden.
“I spent two years hiding in Wales; I became a recluse. I’d never really talked about my mental health until this year, I’d always seen it as a weakness. But now I think it’s important.”
It was the feats of Sir Peter Blake – and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston – breaking the non-stop round-the-world record on Enza in 1994, that lured her out of her solitude. “I watched the footage of that catamaran and I said ‘That’s what I want to do next’,” she says.
She bought the boat, and attempted to win the Jules Verne Trophy in 1998 with another first all-women’s crew; they broke world records, and then broke their mast in the Southern Ocean.
Edwards then became a single mum and a project manager – running the Maiden II non-stop circumnavigation with a mixed gender crew, then a round-the-world race out of the Middle East that forced her into bankruptcy (“I’ve been recovering from that ever since”).
Edwards disappeared off the sailing world radar – finishing a psychology degree and teaching internet safety to parents and school children – until she heard that Maiden, her “first-born” (it’s a family joke), was rotting away in the Seychelles. It was her “second-born” Mack’s idea to use the salvaged boat as a platform to raise awareness for girls’ access to education.
Funds raised from events at every stopover go towards the project – the brainchild of Edwards and Princess Haya bint Al Hussein of Jordan, whose father, King Hussein, helped to fund Maiden in the 1980s.
The Maiden Factor Foundation is working with a number of charities to help the 130 million girls worldwide UNESCO estimates are being denied an education, and also developing its own schools programme.
On board Maiden is a baton, filled with “messages of hope” written by kids at every port during the three-year journey.
“Some of the messages are fabulous. ‘To the girls in the world without an education, we are coming to show you that the pen is mightier than the sword, we’re coming to fight for your rights, don’t give up!’” Edwards chokes up when she talks about the project.
The messages of hope will then become a call to action, to be used as the finale in the Maiden feature-length documentary, which Edwards intends to screen at the United Nations and “invite world leaders to listen to the voices of the future”.
By the way, Edwards hasn’t given up on finding the mystery girl in the yellow spotted dress (first reported in LockerRoom), who she was photographed with during the January 1990 stopover. “I’d just really like to meet her again before I leave,” she says.
*The Maiden documentary will screen in New Zealand cinemas next month.