Think about the phrase “yacht race” and what it signifies to you. I might be an ocean-loving California girl, but I was born in (central) Texas and come from a long, long line of avowed landlubbers. Thus, going in to a screening of director Alex Holmes’ new documentary, Maiden, I was picturing the film’s subjects — participants in the 1988-89 Whitbread Round the World Race — as a bunch of finely dressed dilettantes who sailed the world on massive luxury ships while sipping brandy, smoking illegally imported cigars, and comparing pocket squares.
Had I been more attuned to the reality of these types of competitions, I might have been braced for the full-on riot-grrrl storyline at the film’s center. For the uninitiated, the Maiden crew — the first-ever all-female crew to participate in a Whitbread race (now called The Ocean Race) — was pulled together by sheer force of will by a 26-year-old Briton named Tracy Edwards (the story’s Kathleen Hanna, if you will) in the mid-1980s. At the time, Edwards was a dissatisfied, stubborn, openly rebellious high school dropout with a troubled home life and a habit of giving up. Rudderless and drifting around Europe, she eventually found her calling working on ships as a young adult, and after working as a cook on board a 1985-86 Whitbread yacht, she knew she had to find a way to participate in the next race three years down the line. The only problem? She was a woman, and yacht racing was decidedly a boys’ club; no one wanted to give her a chance in a more important crew position.
So even though we see Edwards in archival footage declaring that she in no way considers herself a feminist, we see her embrace the movement’s DIY spirit and decide that she’s not going to let her gender stop her. She proceeds to assemble a talented all-female crew, buy an older yacht and get it repaired and ready for the race … and then struggle to find a big-name sponsor to back the venture. Mainstream companies were opposed to the publicity the Maiden crew was bound to attract, and many in sports journalism (then and now a very male-dominated field) were gleefully predicting that the team wouldn’t even make it through the first grueling leg of the competition. In fact, “a tin full of tarts” was a phrase one prominent Guardian reporter used at the time, and it says a lot that when he appears in the film as a talking head in the present day, he continues to have a laugh about it.
In truth, as Holmes and his editor, Katie Bryer, make clear via the inclusion of terrifying onboard super-8 footage taken during the race, the Whitbread Round the World is the kind of grueling, draining endeavor that’s as mental as it is physical, fairly dangerous for participants of any gender. The boats used in the competition are snug and far from the luxury crafts many of us think of when we hear the word “yacht”; watching these tiny little vessels get battered by towering waves on the open sea (often at night and in freezing conditions) is enough to keep any sane person firmly on land. Members of the Maiden’s crew are seen carefully tying themselves onto the boat to ensure they aren’t swept overboard and drowned — a very real fear that is realized when another yacht loses a sailor during the race’s second leg. Clearly, you’ve got to love it, and you’ve probably got to be a little bit crazy. Punk rock.
Holmes has gotten most of the key participants involved here, and he gives all of the crew members a chance to tell their side of the story about 30 years after they returned home from their life-changing months-long Maiden voyage. Though Holmes places Edwards at the film’s center, his interest is in the collective effort made by these adventurous and fearless women. He’s thus less interested in finding out what became of them individually after the race and more interested in placing the race into context: The fact that Maiden is making its voyage into theaters the same year a World Cup-winning U.S. women’s soccer team continues to be significantly underpaid compared to their less-successful male counterparts is just more proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same.