Film & Television

‘Maiden’: Sailing Into History Against the Odds

Meanwhile, the sailing world and sports media were having a field day at Edwards’s expense. She and her crew were always referred to as “girls,” never “women.” One smug journalist called Maiden “a tinful of tarts.” Others talked about what a “pretty snip of a girl” Edwards was and wondered why she would want to partake at all. As a group, the sailing press took bets on how far Maiden would get — or, more aptly, how soon the “girls” would give up. 

As Edwards and her crew prepared to leave Southampton for the first of several legs of the race, a reporter asked her if she was a feminist. “I hate the word feminist,” she responded. “I just like to be allowed to do what I want to do.” Now in her 50s, Edwards looks back with a different perspective. “What the aggression against Maiden did was made me realize maybe I actually am a feminist. I’d begun a fight I didn’t realize I was having.”

In addition to aggression from within the sailing world, Edwards and her crew faced countless shifts of four hours on/four hours off, performing real-time maintenance, and navigating seas so rough that each woman was tethered to the boat at all times when on deck. “The ocean’s always trying to kill you. It doesn’t take a break,” Edwards remembers. In one particularly punishing leg, Maiden sailed across the Southern Ocean through icebergs, and provided medical assistance via radio to another boat when two of its crew were washed overboard. One would hope that this might have inspired some respect, but when Maiden won that challenging leg of the race, it was largely regarded as a fluke.

Until they won another.

The film shows a distinct change as Maiden and its crew began to prove their worth. The vessel was regarded as a novelty at first, but soon people began to appreciate how well Edwards and her team were performing. They were met at milestone ports with cheers and champagne, and fans began asking for autographs. Buoyed by their success and the resulting attention, Edwards became more driven to succeed — and more riddled with anxiety that they might not. 

When the women were delayed by many hours on a following leg, the captain was determined to avoid any pity or self-satisfaction from the press. She ordered all the women to wear their bathing suits as they glided into Fort Lauderdale. As she expected, the story immediately changed as reporters were quick to publish the racier photos and describe the sailors as “British Babes.” In one of the modern interview segments, Edwards cringes a bit at how she once leveraged their half-naked feminine wiles. She admits, “In hindsight, we really didn’t think that through.” One of the pictures, however, was the most syndicated sports photo of the year.

The documentary Maiden elegantly weaves together footage shot by crewmembers during the race, media reports, and contemporary interviews with Edwards and her crew. In each now middle-aged woman’s eyes, you still see the exhilaration and triumph their younger selves must have felt, pushing themselves to the point of exhaustion and proving all of their naysayers wrong. Holmes and editor Katie Bryer succeed in balancing the sheer adrenaline onboard Maiden with the emotional clarity that comes 30 years later. It is very clear that for each woman the Whitbread marked a defining moment — or more likely, countless defining moments over the course of nine challenging months. Each woman is still unendingly proud of her role in the accomplishment.

By the end of the race, no one could argue that what Maiden did was a huge accomplishment. Their one-time detractor, the reporter who had come up with the alliterative and disparaging tarts headline, sums it up this way. “They were heroines,” he admits in one of the current-day interview scenes. “Well,” he rethinks it, “Heroes by then.”

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