Trail-blazing skipper Tracy Edwards is back, with her next big project: The Maiden Factor. We found out why...
Sportspeople – and sailors are no exception here – can be a little… one-dimensional. That single focus which makes competitive athletes so successful often comes with a very straightforward mentality.
Tracy Edwards is the polar opposite. She is wholly, entertainingly (no doubt sometimes maddeningly) human, in all its contradictions. She has learned to be tough, yet cries ‘at the drop of a hat’, she can be warm and easy to talk to, but at times has closed ranks entirely. She’s no-nonsense, with a dramatic streak.
She went from teen tearaway to national hero to near recluse before she was 30. She skippered a multi-million pound catamaran, and was spectacularly bankrupted.
Edwards and her Maiden teams achieved incredible things in sailing, and paved the way for others to achieve more. She inspires unwavering loyalty among some of her team, but has also fallen out with more people in the sport than most. She is not a woman whose life has ever followed a linear path and, aged 57, she still isn’t backing away from controversy.
A life lived to the full
Tracy Edwards was born in 1962. Her mother, Patricia, was a remarkable woman in her own right – a former ballet dancer who had toured the world, she was a go-kart driver in her spare time, a rarity in the 1960s.
After her father died when Tracy was 10, the family moved to Wales and her mother remarried. Badly bullied at secondary school, and subject to an abusive relationship with her volatile stepfather, Edwards became an archetypal teen rebel. Following years of bunking off school, underage drinking, and run-ins with the police, she was eventually expelled aged 15.
What followed next is well known sailing lore. The teenage Edwards ran away to Greece, worked in a bar in a marina, then joined a motoryacht crew as stewardess. Despite suffering crippling seasickness, she discovered a love of the ocean.
Edwards moved from motor to sailing yacht, sailing across the Atlantic on her first passage under canvas, learning to navigate on the return crossing. She worked on a yacht chartered for King Hussein of Jordan, who became a lifelong supporter. She bumped into Whitbread Round the World Race crews on her travels and became fascinated by the challenge.
She argued her way onto the crew of a 1985 Whitbread entry as cook. And then, famously, put together the first all-female Whitbread campaign with Maiden (sponsored by Royal Jordanian Airlines), coming 2nd in class and winning two legs in the 1989-90 race.
She was heralded as a national hero, and hounded by the press. Her private life became tabloid gossip fodder (Edwards has divorced twice), and she disappeared from the public eye for a couple of years, rearing horses on a smallholding in South Wales.
Then she bounced back, put together an all-female team to try and win the Jules Verne trophy with the maxi catamaran Royal & Sun Alliance in 1998, before being dismasted in the Southern Ocean. She had a daughter, and moved into campaign management with Maiden II. The team was skippered by Brian Thompson, Helena Darvelid and Adrienne Cahalan, and set multiple world records.
Australian navigator Cahalan joined the Jules Verne campaign without hesitation. “When Tracy got in touch with me I was on a plane in about two days!” she recalls.
“Tracy is a good leader and she doesn’t micromanage.
“I know she is controversial, but working within her team I’ve always found it really a fabulous opportunity, and she’s always surrounded by a great team of people who enjoy sailing with her. Look at the personalities she’s managed and the great success she’s had, getting the best out of them. That’s what she’s good at.”
Edwards then organised the first ever round the world race to start from the Middle East, the infamous Oryx Quest. Four giant multihulls took part in 2005 in a glitzy event, thanks to a £38million multi-race sponsorship deal from the state of Qatar.
But despite the huge sums promised (the $1million 1st prize was then the biggest ever cash award for a sailing race), legend has it that the golden envelopes handed out at the prizegiving were empty.
Qatar had refused to pay up. Edwards, who had already been in financial trouble following the purchase of Maiden II, was forced into bankruptcy with £8million personal debts. She disappeared from the public eye almost entirely. And now, she’s back.
The yacht Maiden is the reason why Tracy Edwards has invited me into her home – and current mission command – after a decade of exile from the sailing community. Immediately after the Whitbread, Maiden was sold – first to an owner who cherished her, and then, like poor Ginger the hackney carriage horse in Black Beauty, she was sold on, falling further and further into ignominy. Eventually the yacht was discovered, rusting and abandoned in the Seychelles, in 2014.
Edwards, with typical impetuosity, announced immediately that she would rescue and restore her. There was the small question, though, of what to do next. It was Mackenna, Edwards’ now adult daughter, who suggested using the boat as a vehicle to raise funds and awareness for girls’ education.
The ongoing costs of the yacht will be covered by sponsorship, paid-for crew berths, and hospitality. The fundraising element of the project is wholly separate, with all charitable funds raised going to The Maiden Foundation, which then partners with small charities working to improve girls’ access to education through focussing on literacy and mentoring.
The yacht has begun a two-year world tour, raising funds in different territories as she goes. It is a significant undertaking, and has attracted some seriously big names: Dee Caffari will skipper for a period, as will Wendy Tuck, the winner of the last Clipper Round the World Race.
A legacy project
For Edwards, the Maiden restoration and tour brings together many things she set out to achieve in sailing – and since – to do with female empowerment. It is also a rehabilitation of both herself and the vintage yacht.
“I’d never really seen this as a sailing project,” she tells me. “Which I know sounds a bit weird because we’re doing a two-year tour sailing around the world. But that’s almost superfluous for me: this is about girls’ education and Maiden’s legacy. And it’s also not letting Qatar be the last thing I ever did, if I’m brutally honest.”
The fallout from the Qatar debacle was savage. “I lost everything,” Edwards explains. After the race, she was held in the country for a month. “They took away my passport. I couldn’t get an exit visa. It was terrifying.
“So, they didn’t pay us and when I threatened legal action, things got very nasty, very quickly. I got everyone out of the country. Mack was five and she flew out with my cousin. I stayed behind to fight the legal battle and suddenly found out I couldn’t leave. They bugged my phones. I was followed, threatened.”
Edwards had borrowed heavily against the contract, and when the money failed to materialise, bankruptcy was inevitable. The order came through on her 43rd birthday, and she had to sell the family home immediately.
“The worse thing for me was putting my mum into a home, which I still find quite hard to talk about because she was living with us and she was disabled, and that’s where she died.” Edwards recalls with emotion. “But you know what, I had a disabled mother and a five-year-old daughter, so what do women do? They get on with it.”
She decided to move to London. “We literally stuck a pin in the map and it landed on the Duke’s Head in Putney. So, we rented a tiny, little terraced house just down the road.”
As a first priority Edwards, a single parent, needed to earn money. Since her sporting celebrity days she had been an ambassador for the NSPCC and was invited to visit the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. Edwards was fascinated by their work, and when offered a job running a project for them she jumped at the chance.
“Can you raise £500,000 to bring 120 teenagers to London for a conference?” she recalls. “I can do that. God, I loved it. I was part of helping to write the 2009 resolution on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. How awesome is that? I would never have done that if all the bad things hadn’t happened.”
Edwards, who had dropped out of secretarial college after just a couple of weeks, now found herself working a desk job. “I don’t take well to bureaucracy,” she admits, “So that was hard.”
Inspired to learn more, she went to university to study psychology. “I started when I was 47 and graduated when I was 50. My mother was delighted – finally, she said, you have an education!”
After graduating she worked on an internet safety scheme for children, but was starting to look for her next challenge. “Then, right in the middle of me going: ‘Oh, God, what am I going to do next?’ I had the email saying, do you know who owns your boat, Maiden?” She mimes thanking the heavens.
The approach came wholly out of the blue – Edwards had cut herself off from yacht racing, not even sailing for pleasure. “I get really seasick anyway,” she points out.
“I often get invited on day sails, but I say no, because for me it’s a day of misery.”
“And I was angry. I was angry with some people in the sailing world. I was angry that people hadn’t asked for my side of the story before judging me, and I didn’t have the energy to fight at the time. So I had literally walked away.”
Maiden eventually returned to Hamble on the south coast, where Edwards had originally refitted her before the 1989 Whitbread. It was both the natural place for the yacht to go and slightly uncomfortable for Tracy personally.
“Going back to Hamble was very strange because I don’t have hugely fond memories. But then [we were] actually welcomed back with open arms into the fold. That was quite special because I didn’t quite know what to expect.”
Edwards is also back to her characteristic pull-no-punches style of operating. There are several “Oh God, don’t print that” moments as we get drawn into discussing politics.
She still sees it as her place to call out sexism in sailing, and says she ‘cried with joy’ when Wendy Tuck and Nikki Henderson took 1st and 2nd in the last Clipper Race.
She was part of a group that objected to a video the Scallywag team made during the last Volvo (featuring puerile jokes about how to treat a male crew’s crotch rash), along with Dawn Riley and Emma Westmacott. The group took advice from Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson on the employment law implications.
“We formed a committee. What did they call us? Old has-been hags, that’s what we were called by some of the guys in the Volvo. The rumour was that we were doing it because we were pissed off to be out of sailing and had something to prove.
“I don’t care anymore. I so don’t care what people say.”
“Because we love our sport and we want to see it succeed and we want it to be diverse and wonderful. We don’t want it to be male, pale and stale, which is what it is.”
Cahalan, who was onboard with her when Royal & Sun Alliance dismasted, says: “Tracy never shies away from responsibility, it’s never anybody else’s fault.”
Edwards is currently writing the third instalment in her autobiography, and is also the subject of a revelatory new documentary film, Maiden (see below).
One comment leaps out from the documentary, when Edwards recalls what her mother said when she mooted the idea of an all-female campaign. “You could do it if you stuck to it,” Patricia Edwards had told her daughter, “But you’ve never stuck to anything.”
Maiden succeeded the first time around because Tracy Edwards had something to prove – not just that women could race around the world, but that the teen rebel who’d been told she’d never amount to anything could pull off something audacious.
There’s a definite sense that this new project is about proving the critics wrong once again.
It comes with its own risks (the refit proved complex, and teething problems saw the yacht put in a couple of unscheduled stops on her first leg). But Edwards says she is no more risk averse than she used to be.
“Someone has to take the risk. This stuff has got to be done and I have always felt very strongly that you have to stand up and be counted. And I have never been afraid of standing up and being counted.”
The Maiden documentary
The film opens with a painfully young and nervous Edwards introducing herself as the skipper of Maiden, and traces the arc of how the Whitbread campaign came together through the race itself to their final triumphant return to Southampton.
“[Before filming] the girls called me and said: ‘Is this truth time, or is this like the first documentary where we just go everything’s wonderful?’” recalls Edwards, “I went no, it’s the truth. So they were like well, you might not like some of the stuff we’re going to say.
“Time does soften the memories and the documentary reminded me how awful I’d been, how angry I’d been a lot of the time and how difficult I was to deal with, and the girls were very upfront about that. That was quite difficult to watch. But it needed to be on record.
“It’s a very raw account. There’s no gloss. It’s us telling it like it is and then some amazing old footage.”
The documentary is a thoroughly engaging watch. Although before the Whitbread the Maiden crew were at pains to disprove critics who said girls couldn’t form a cohesive crew, there were deep tensions in the team. It culminated with Edwards and watch leader Marie-Claude Kieffer (née Heys) explosively falling out, and Kieffer leaving. Not all the Maiden crew were involved in the documentary.
Dawn Riley joined the Maiden crew knowing ‘absolutely nothing’ about Edwards. At the time Riley was working as professional sailor and Edwards, who had no background in helming racing yachts, wasn’t remotely on her radar.
“To be fair, at that time I don’t think anybody else on the boat had the weather routing skills she had,”
In the film journalists also discuss the appallingly sexist things they wrote about the Maiden campaign, and how they were proved wrong as the female crew delivered back to back leg wins.
The Maiden documentary was released across the UK on March 8 – for showing times see www.maiden.film It has also been well-received at film festivals around the world.
This profile feature appeared in the March 2019 issue of Yachting World, which also includes an exclusive onboard look at the Maiden restoration.