Film & Television

‘Maiden’: Sailing Into History Against the Odds

When the U.S. women’s national soccer team won the World Cup last week, it was tremendously exciting. Megan Rapinoe, with her lavender hair and outspoken political views, and Alex Morgan, recently crowned by PETA as the most beautiful vegan celebrity, scored goal after goal, capturing the hearts of little girls and little boys. In fact, The Today Show reported that boys, and even grown men, were proudly wearing the jerseys of Rapinoe, Morgan, and co-captain Carli Lloyd. 

The tournament drew a billion viewers, and the final match between the U.S. and the Netherlands earned higher ratings than the men’s final, proving — hopefully — that women’s sports can attract a sizeable audience, and consequently enough advertiser and sponsor dollars to justify pay equity. When Sandra Bullock presented the women with the 2019 ESPY (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) award for “Best Team,” the actress echoed a sentiment that had been heard at their matches. “All those in favor of equal pay, say aye.”

The U.S. team’s World Cup win was an exciting victory. Yet it wasn’t exactly historic. In the eight years since the tournament began, the U.S. women have won four times and always placed in the top four. They are nevertheless paid a small percentage of the salaries and bonuses of their counterparts on the men’s team — despite the fact that in nearly 90 years, the men have never won the World’s Cup. Earlier this year, the women’s team sued the U.S. Soccer Federation. The spokesperson for the players, Molly Levinson, is quick to point out that, “Even as the most decorated American soccer team in history, USSF treats the women’s team as `less-than’ equal compared to their male colleagues.”

If “Equal Pay for Equal Play” is such a newsworthy issue in 2019, imagine how much more difficult it was for female athletes to be taken seriously 30 years ago. 

The inspiring and exhilarating new documentary Maiden, directed by Alex Holmes (Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story), tells the story of the first all-female crew to compete in the prestigious Whitbread Round the World race. Facing the same life or death odds as every other crew, the women also had to contend with a belittling sports press, skeptical sponsors, and the “boys’ club” of the sailing world, which was determinedly sexist, if not downright hostile.

The aptly named vessel, Maiden, was the vision of an unlikely heroine. Tracy Edwards began her life in England, but moved to Wales after her father died and her mother remarried. Restless and unhappy, she was suspended from school multiple times before being expelled right before her O levels (her mother intervened, convincing the school to let her take them, but Tracy decided to travel instead). She found work as a stewardess on a yacht in Greece, where she had her first taste of sailing and made an influential friend, King Hussein of Jordan. She also learned about the Whitbread race, but was unable to join a crew. 

“We’re not having a girl,” one captain told her. Another leered, “Girls are for when you get into port.” Determined, she managed to get a job as a cook on one of the boats. “I was treated like a servant,” she recalls. At one point, crew members stole her underwear and wrote “For sale: one case of beer.” Suffice it to say, she never felt like part of the team. Learning that there were only a handful of women among the 230 sailors in the Whitbread, she decided to put together her own team, a yacht manned entirely by women.

Edwards had trouble raising the money necessary to build a vessel capable of finishing the grueling 9-month, 33,000-mile competition. Sponsors weren’t interested, many worrying that there would be bad publicity if (and presumably when) the boat met with disaster. Eventually, Edwards mortgaged her home and used all of the money she had to purchase and refurbish a secondhand boat. She pulled together an international crew of women (experienced sailors and a doctor, plus a friend from her teen years as a cook) and finally reached out to King Hussein, who, impressed by all she had accomplished on her own, offered the financial support of Royal Jordanian Airlines.

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