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Men Overboard: The Tale of the Maiden

An all-female yacht crew battles sexism on the high seas in new documentary

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In Maiden, a documentary about the first all-female yacht crew to participate in the Whitbread Race, the emotional state of the ship's captain takes center stage. The camera stays with the Maiden's skipper, Tracy Edwards, now 56. The tears come, as she tries to compose herself. She apologizes, tells the director she promised herself she wouldn't break down. This movie tries to make you cry.

And it often succeeds.

The 1989-90 Whitbread Race was a serious undertaking: 167 days long and 30,000 nautical miles in six stages. First, the voyage from The Solent, off the Isle of Wight, to the coast of Uruguay. Then, around the Cape of Good Hope, where the racing yachts skirt icebergs off Antarctica's coast, taking advantage of the speed granted by the gales of the "Roaring Forties" to arrive in Fremantle, Western Australia. Then, on to New Zealand. Finally, around Cape Horn, north to Ft. Lauderdale and back to England.

The vastness of this trip is equal to the vast condescension Edwards and her team faced. In her early days as a yachtsperson, Edwards found neither a position on a crew nor support for her dream of sailing on her own. "Girls are for when you get into port," one yachtsman assured her. The rank sexism included the media watching the race. The Guardian's Bob Fisher referred to the Maiden in print as "a tin full of tarts."

It's as if the boating community was 30 years behind the times, even in 1989. Count the number of times you hear Edwards told to "smile" by a photographer. See her referred to as "a slip of a girl" by her contemporaries. Witness the number of times someone talks to her like they want to pat her on her little head. One marvels at the legions of men out there who really want to grind a proud woman down.

There's a particularly affecting moment involving how the Maiden's crew decided to spin the story of their poor performance in the New Zealand-to-Florida leg of the race, caused by a leak in the boat off the coast of Argentina. (It was serious enough that the Maiden had an RAF rescue plane on standby from the Falklands.) To deflect attention from their late arrival, the ladies decided to sail into harbor in Florida wearing skimpy bathing suits, a gesture Edwards has regretted for 30 years.

Director Alex Holmes' film is very clear on what Edwards was trying to prove, and how hard she worked to prove it. Home movies and primitive video demonstrate the vastness and loneliness of the sea. Edwards took the jobs of both navigator and captain (these tasks are usually divided up, and apparently the source of feuding). The trip was an exercise in sleep deprivation — four hours on watch, four hours off. And, as Edwards says repeatedly: "The ocean is always trying to kill you. It never takes a break."

The problem with Maiden is an issue handled more deftly in the documentary The Raft, about a trans-Atlantic voyage with a mostly female crew, which was conducted as a peculiar psychological experiment. In Maiden we don't get a sense of the friction aboard, or the technical requirements of such a voyage, or of the boat itself. The focus is on Edwards, a life coach these days. Her own history is witnessed by childhood pal Jo Gooding, the cook aboard the Maiden. The loss of Tracy's father ended an idyllic British childhood. Her mother married again, to a vicious drunk. The young girl dropped out of school, ran away to Greece and drifted into the sailor's life. We see what she was trying to overcome.

What we don't have are good anecdotes about what it takes to be a sea cook. Only occasional references, such as a passing note about smelling land after weeks at sea, and diplomatically understated English intimations, which hint at the strife aboard the boat. We don't even learn if a subsequent team of women ever entered the Whitbread Race. Stirring as Maiden is, it lacks all the Melvillian tidbits that make for a detailed picture of a sea voyage. 

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