The Whitbread Round the World sailing race was strictly a men’s sport — not because there were any rules against women racing, but because it was just assumed that they weren’t capable of doing it. The longest open-sea yachting race in the world, involving months on the ocean with an experienced crew, just wasn’t a place for women. That is, until Tracy Edwards came along. Maiden documents the 1990 race that made history, with the first all-female crew to participate. As riveting as any thriller, the story is cinematic gold; it has all the sheer excitement of big-budget Hollywood movie, but retains its grounded warmth via interviews with the crew interspersed throughout.
A twenty-four year-old cook in charter boats, Tracy Edwards knew she had to race in Whitbread the moment she heard about it. She was begrudgingly accepted onto one boat as the cook, but was rarely allowed to leave her station, and was reminded throughout the long journey that the actual racing part wasn’t for women. Tracy got the message — if she were to race, she would have to put her own all-female crew together. Maiden tells the story of the inception of this crew, as well as their unbelievable sea voyage across the world. From having to buy a second-hand boat then rebuild it, to knowing bets were being waged on how quickly they would fail, this adventure story is a crowd-pleasing gem.
It’s a blessing that Maiden is a documentary instead of a feature film, as the story of these extraordinary women is epic enough as it is, and a narrative film might have lost the poignancy of what these women were actually doing. To hear their actual voices describe the magnitude of what they had undertaken, set against the unfolding of the events that took place, gives the film the emotional weight it deserves. It also lets Edwards be human rather than a wooden caricature of stoic strength and perfect leadership, She struggles with the enormity of the risk, and isn’t always cool or nice or easy to be around. By letting Tracy be a real person, the film presents an inspiring message to women everywhere that it’s better to go ahead and do something than sit idly by, even if it’s terrifying and overwhelming most of the time — and especially if you aren’t always likable.
Maiden is a nimble documentary, and nothing feels heavy or dragged on; the story unfolds with all the adventure naturally built-in. The women faced not only severe stigma, but also the reality of possible death at sea, and this documentary captures that brilliantly. The ending is so Hollywood that even Hollywood wouldn’t be able to pull it off. That it’s the documented reality makes Maiden a story that was made to tell on film.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs April 24 to May 5. Visit the official website for more details.