On rare occasions, a documentary film tells a story so engaging at the heart level that it could have been a folksong. In the case of Alex Holmes’ Maiden — currently screening at Upstate Films, and coming to the Rosendale Theatre August 9 — it’s a variant on the classic tale of a bold English lass who runs away to sea to escape a wicked stepparent. Only this time, instead of cutting off her lovely locks and disguising herself as a cabin boy, this “female rambling sailor” acquires her own ship and recruits a whole crew of similarly adventurous young women to beat the lads at their own game. It’s a modern-day fairytale that even includes a benefactor in the form of a prince passing as a commoner.
In the 1980s, when a rebellious teenager named Tracy Edwards runs away from a troubled home to take up sailing in the Greek Islands, competitive yachting is still almost exclusively a man’s game. When she learns about the Whitbread Round the World Race, taking part in this 32,000-mile odyssey becomes Edwards’ consuming dream. A mysterious wealthy foreigner who hires the sailboat on which she works responds to her yearnings with the advice that she simply must make it come true, somehow. The two become friends before it dawns on her that her wise mentor (a necessity to every Hero’s Journey) is a very famous and influential person indeed: King Hussein of Jordan.
Edwards manages, with some difficulty, to talk herself into a position as a cook for the 1985-86 Whitbread Race — the only opportunity open to a woman at that time. It gives her valuable experience of long, challenging voyages; but being above decks, plying her actual sailing skills, is what the feisty lass craves. Everywhere she turns, the men who run the sport tell her no. The ancient sailing superstition of a woman on board bringing bad luck still seems to linger at the end of the second millennium AD.
Unable to find a racing crew who will accept her, with no better rationale than “You’re a girl,” Edwards gets fed up and decides to go it on her own, as captain of a Whitbread entrant. She puts out a call for women who want to race, interviews applicants from all over the world, hires a competent and hungry crew. The British sports media pick up on the story, but treat them patronizingly.
It takes several years before Edwards manages to find funding for the venture. Potential sponsors shy away, fearing negative publicity if the all-female crew messes up, as the men dominating the sport all seem to expect, and everybody drowns. Usually boats for the Whitbread Race are built from scratch, specifically designed for speed. But the 58-foot aluminum vessel rechristened the Maiden is a secondhand acquisition, because that’s all Edwards and her crew can afford. Though it has a respectable racing pedigree, it is direly in need of rehabilitation. So the young women do the work themselves, breeding a familiarity that will serve them well when their boat springs a leak far out at sea. Eventually they find their prime sponsor in Royal Jordanian Airlines when Edwards, in desperation, turns to her friend King Hussein for help.
How the Maiden fares in the 1989-90 Whitbread Race is easily discovered via Google, if you don’t already know the outcomes. But it’s more fun going in without that information. Let’s just say that the dismissive predictions of the crew of women not even making it through the first leg of the daunting trip don’t come true, and that the yachting world is quickly forced to take women seriously as competitive sailors. And even if you do know how this high-stakes story ends, it’s told with such drama — shifting back and forth among retrospective interviews with the crew 30 years later, camcorder footage taken on board Maiden by Jo Gooding (the ship’s cook and Edwards’ friend since secondary school) during the race and archival sports TV coverage, in which the female sailors are asked about makeup and catfighting while their male counterparts are asked about racing strategy and technique — that the audience is completely caught up on tenterhooks.
Especially gripping is the second leg of the race, from Uruguay to Australia, when Edwards decides on a risky route that takes Maiden deep into the iceberg-infested waters of the Southern Ocean in order to shorten the distance. Disaster strikes another boat, and the captain’s decision to include a doctor among the Maiden crew helps save the life of a male sailor swept overboard and retrieved with a severe case of hypothermia. These waters are unforgiving and don’t discriminate. In a voyage around the globe, anything can happen.
By the time the all-female crew sail back into Southampton after 167 days at sea, they’ve won not only modern viewers’ hearts, but also the good wishes of sports fans around the world and the imaginations of young girls who want to excel in some field that’s normally closed to them. For financial reasons Edwards had to sell Maiden soon after the race, but bought it again more recently and fixed it up a second time; it’s currently in New Zealand, being used to raise funding and awareness for educational programs for girls via the Maiden Factor Foundation. If you love the saga of the Hudson River sloop Clearwater and how she’s carrying out Pete Seeger’s vision of raising environmental awareness in our own region, you’ll love Maiden as well. And if you’ve got young girls in your life who dare to dream, definitely bring them along when you go to see this inspiring documentary.