One of sailing’s greatest pioneers talks exclusively to Luxury Locations Magazine about the epic voyage that made her name 30 years ago, her love for Antigua and why her educational programme to help young girls worldwide is her most important venture to date
It was a feat most thought could never be achieved. The notion of an all-female crew battling the 33,000-mile Whitbread Round the World Race was deemed risible at best, a sure-fire disaster at worst.
Indeed, one fellow sailor famously quipped that captain Tracy Edwards and her 12-woman team would be “acknowledged for nothing but failure”.
In 1989, sailing was still staunchly a male-dominated arena – and the Whitbread, now called the Ocean Race, considered the toughest sporting event on Earth.
For Tracy, then 26, mastering the peaks and troughs of four oceans in the multi-leg nine-month sprint represented “ultimate freedom”, she tells Luxury Locations Magazine.
Not only did the tenacious trailblazers complete the gruelling contest, they won two of the six legs and seized second overall place aboard 58ft vessel ‘Maiden’, sailing into Southampton on May 28 1990 as record-breakers, and changing the perception of women in ocean racing forever.
“The thing that kept me going was the thought that if we gave up or failed, the next all-female crew would not only have what we had to deal with, but they would also have our failure hanging around their neck like an albatross and I just couldn’t bear the thought of that,” Tracy recalls.
“At the very least, we had to take women’s sailing one step forward. That’s what kept me going up to the start line; once we crossed the start line there was the absolutely overwhelming need to win,” she grins.
Thirty years on from that epic adventure – immortalised in the critically-acclaimed 2019 movie ‘Maiden’ – Tracy is continuing to make waves worldwide.
In 2015, the iconic boat, which was sold at the end of the race, was discovered in disrepair in the Seychelles. Tracy raised the funds to buy her back and ship her to the UK.
HRH Princess Haya bint Al Hussein graciously funded Maiden’s restoration, in tribute to her father King Hussein of Jordan who had sponsored Tracy’s Whitbread team through Royal Jordanian Airlines.
In November 2018, Maiden embarked on perhaps her most important voyage yet – a three-year, 90,000-mile world tour to highlight the plight of the 130 million girls globally who are not afforded an education, while raising funds to help them access that basic human right.
Tracy’s passion for the Maiden Factor Foundation is palpable. The route, which includes a stop in Antigua, may have been disrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic but the Eastern Caribbean island is scheduled for a visit in 2022.
The charitable venture, Tracy continues, “is everything for me right now”.
“I have never enjoyed a project as much as I am enjoying this one. It combines my love of sailing with my love of Maiden; my daughter calls Maiden my ‘first born’. The honour of being able to help girls in education and to empower women is extraordinary.
“When Maiden sails into ports now she has her own fan club,” Tracy beams.
In scenes reminiscent of the moment the yacht crossed the finishing line 30 years ago, thousands of people still line docks across the globe chanting Maiden’s name and flocking on board during her open days.
“I love seeing girls come down to see her because she is proof of what girls can do,” Tracy says.
“The best conversation I ever heard on Maiden was between two six or seven-year-olds; a girl and a boy both sitting at the wheel. The little boy turned to the little girl and said, is it only girls that can sail around the world? And she looked at him and said, I suppose boys can do it as well.
“It’s the moment I’ve waited my entire life for,” Tracy laughs.
Like many sailors, Antigua, with its famous trade winds, laidback lifestyle and warm, genial inhabitants is a destination close to the 58-year-old’s heart.
Her first visit was at the culmination of her inaugural transatlantic crossing which departed from Majorca four decades ago.
“I have never forgotten sailing into Antigua for the first time; it was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Everyone else on board had been there before, so for them it was like coming home,” she says.
Back then, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Nelson’s Dockyard was still “partly in ruins”, the now paved road was a “dusty path” and the area was frequented by rock stars, Tracy smiles.
“I just fell in love with Antigua, the people are so nice and it’s such a lovely feeling and has all that history. I am a history buff so I was in seventh heaven seeing places like the Admiral’s Inn where Nelson would have been; I loved all that.”
The jaw-dropping panorama from Horsford Hill is one of Tracy’s “favourite views in the world”.
“Coming round the corner and down that hill towards Falmouth where the whole thing just opens up in front of you is so beautiful. My favourite place would be Monk’s Hill which directly overlooks Falmouth,” she continues.
“It’s a hike to get up there but the view is absolutely amazing. With the old fort there, you can’t help imagining the history and Nelson’s men and what awful lives they must have had with that heat and those uniforms on.”
A heart-wrenching spot for Tracy is the little-known graveyard for the wives and children of those 18th century officers.
Asked where her preferred place is to sail, she says “every ocean has its own personality”.
“You could drop me into the middle of any ocean and I would know instantly which one I am in; they have different feels to them, the water has different colours, the wildlife is different,” she explains.
“I do love doing transatlantics. To me, the Atlantic is a yomping ocean; it’s like a Great Dane with long gangly legs. It’s happy, it can be quite scary, the waves can be very big but if you’re going in the right place at the right time you’ve got the waves with you.”
In 1990, Tracy, from Berkshire in England, became the first woman to receive the Yachtsman of the Year Trophy. She was also awarded an MBE and has written two books about her experiences.
But the impact of her and her crew’s incredible legacy was encapsulated when two of the original team – Jo Gooding and Angela Heath - joined Maiden’s current tour while on the west coast of the US.
The ladies were stunned by the prowess of the all-women team currently at the helm, led by skipper Liz Wardley.
“The age they are now is how old we were when we sailed Maiden - and they are so much better,” Tracy grins. “They’re more experienced, have more qualifications and are more confident. The level of women sailors now is off the chart.”
For more information about the work of the Maiden Factor Foundation – and the opportunities available for young female sailors – visit www.themaidenfactor.org