Tracy Edwards MBE: From Maiden voyage to history maker

In our biggest Women in Yachting interview yet, we speak to sailing royalty – someone who changed the game for women in yachting. A pioneer-turned-educator, this lady broke records and inspired a generation, while simultaneously overcoming barriers and age-old stereotypes.

Allow us to introduce Tracy Edwards MBE, skipper of the first all-female crew to sail around the world in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race in 1989. Her exploits saw her become the first woman to receive the Yachtsman of the Year Trophy, before later being awarded an MBE.

The Maiden team after crossing finish line in 1989 Whitbread Round The World Race

Such was the significance of the team’s triumph, a docu-film of their story was released in 2019 on Netflix entitled ‘Maiden’ – the name of the yacht on which they made history.

Following her life-changing experience, Edwards founded The Maiden Factor, a foundation that works with, raises funds for and supports communities to enable girls into education. Their vision is for every girl to have access to 12 years of quality education, empowering them to choose their future and fulfill their dreams. The team are currently on a three-year world tour to show girls what can be achieved if they embrace STEM subjects.

In an exclusive conversation with Yachting Pages, Edwards tells us about that epic success aboard Maiden, the profound impact it had on her life and the importance of helping young girls of today.

In your work with The Maiden Factor, what does a typical day look like?

One thing I can safely say is that there is no typical day with Maiden! During the first world tour from 2018 to 2020 we were learning as we went and it was pretty crazy. Now we know more about what needs to be done, there is more focus on our impact.

Although, of course, coming out of the pandemic we have had to be a bit cautious with events and activities at stopovers, as I guess everyone still is. The two years of the pandemic was spent trying to keep Maiden afloat and raise the funds to begin the tour again when we could.

Now, as project manager, I do the initial groundwork at each destination before handing over to Maiden’s various teams. I am always on the search for funds as the more we raise, the more girls we can reach.

What are some of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your work with Maiden?

Raising funds is always the hardest part of what we do and that never changes. However, the Maiden supporters are the best in the world!

The most rewarding aspect of what we do is seeing the enthusiasm for Maiden when she arrives at each destination, the girls she inspires and the programmes we fund all over the world.

Female crew aboard Maiden in Los Angeles

Where do you see the project progressing in the future?

The three-year world tour is the first phase of enthusing girls into STEM when we learn where we can make the impact. We want to change the narrative around what a girl can be and what she can achieve; all the statistics prove that the greatest impact on an economy can be achieved by educating girls; you can change the future prospects of girls, their family, their communities and beyond.

We are then looking at a three-year legacy tour where we show the impact of what we have achieved, by visiting projects and individuals that we have supported. We are also building a Collaborative Community online to continue the legacy after Maiden retires, which she must do at some point!

After the incredible achievement by you and your crew in 1989 Whitbread, winning two out of six legs, receiving an MBE and Yachtsman of The Year, was there a sense of anti-climax? Is it this that led you to resurrect Maiden as a project for the greater good or were there other reasons behind it?

After Maiden I can now admit that I had a nervous breakdown as I didn’t know how to ask for help when things got crazy. However, I then went back to sailing after two years recovery and created and skippered Royal SunAlliance, which was the first all-female attempt at the Jules Verne, non-stop round the world record.

Then I created and managed Maiden II, the first professional racing team with equal male and female sailors, which broke a number of world records including the fastest 24-hour run.

The reason I ‘resurrected’ Maiden was pure chance really. When I found her rotting in the Seychelles, I knew I had to rescue her and then that led to the restoration; which led to ‘what are we going to do with her’; which led to The Maiden Factor.

When you look back on that success and the significance of it, how do you reflect on the experience? Is there anything you would have done differently?

It is only with reflection and the film Maiden and now the tour that it is possible for me to get a true sense of what Maiden achieved. At the time we were just doing what we wanted to do. The reaction that we get to Maiden now is sometimes completely overwhelming.

Tracy Edwards MBE and colleague navigating aboard Maiden

You have a longstanding relationship with the Jordanian Royal Family, ever since King Hussein met you during a charter. How much did his support allow your voice to be heard? Is there more that the wealthiest in the superyacht industry can be doing to support similar current causes?

Very simply Maiden would not have happened without King Hussein’s support. He was a visionary and the world is the poorer without him. I think it is always difficult to surmise that wealthy yacht owners should do more as it is impossible to know what they do quietly behind the scenes. However, I have never and will never understand the accumulation of wealth for its own sake.

The greatest pleasure in life is to give.

Having started as a stewardess on a charter boat, then cook on a race boat, you were able to break out of an unforgivable and pervasive stereotype in the industry at the time by taking matters into your own hands and building the Maiden legacy. What are the remaining barriers in the marine industry and what do you feel are the most obvious ways to counter them?

The world is designed by the ‘male, pale and stale’ brigade for the ‘male, pale and stale’ brigade and until there are more women in positions of power that will remain the case. There are huge changes that have been made of course and we all play our small part in that change.

I think the next issue for the yachting industry is tackling diversity. I cannot believe that in 2022, Maiden is, to my knowledge, the only professional sailing team with two black female crew members. There is much, much more to be done.

During the film you start by saying that you were not a feminist but admit later on that perhaps you were. How much of this came down to the media treatment of your campaign?

I think it would be simplistic to say it was just the media reporting that caused my change of heart. There was much going on at the time with the word ‘feminist’ and although I knew I was fighting a battle for my rights I hated the word itself. It had been hijacked by men. The growing understanding that this was a battle on behalf of women everywhere, gave me the courage I needed to stand up and reclaim the word.

What can media sources like YP do in order to support the pioneering work that you started?

Media reporting has vastly improved and I hope it continues to do so.

Tracy Edwards MBE with her crew mates on board

We have seen Sail GP, VOR and Clipper engage in stating quotas for female crew participation. Do you feel that this is helpful or does it, in fact, undo some of the good work for inclusivity by forcing the issue and suggesting that female athletes need to be included as opposed to gaining inclusion on their merits?

Women have been discriminated against for hundreds of years and I believe that positive discrimination has a part to play in redressing the balance. Yes of course places should be allocated on merit but until men naturally consider women for crew places on the big racing yachts, I believe we need to show them what they are missing!

I think that the VOR rule in particular was genius because it made it an advantage to take women sailors. We only have to look at the improved performance of Scallywag in the 17/18 race once they (grudgingly) decided to take on Libby Greenhalgh as navigator and went from last to first place. I know from first-hand experience the success of a mixed-sex racing team when I put Maiden II together, with female and male co-skippers and six men and six women crew.

We were the first and I expected more fully mixed teams but I guess that was too much to expect. Maiden II was so successful, of course, because you get the best women and the best men and you have the best team you can possibly have. Men and Women are different, not better or worse but different, and our differences complement each other.

How much did the media treatment of your Round the World campaign serve to spur you on to do what they had, at the time, branded as impossible?

I didn’t realise how competitive I was until I was told I couldn’t do something! Someone asked me the other day how do I motivate the teams I put together and the answer then, of course, was I didn’t need to because the media did it for me. I just gave the crew a boat and pointed them in the right direction!

When watching the film, it seems inconceivable that the media representation of your campaign was so openly discouraging and, in the context of 2022, the viewer is left incredulous. Through running The Maiden Factor in the modern era do you see a genuine improvement in the approach towards female sailors or is there still a hidden undercurrent that is not openly expressed?

I think that casual misogyny is a permanent feature of our lives. Everything around us is designed by men for men down to the office environment and the algorithms that control social media. When we take young women on Maiden as apprentices, we still hear the same stories of sexism that we were telling 30 years ago but now it is more subtle. You could even say it was easier to deal with in those days as it was ‘in your face’ and you could answer back.

The relentless attacks on women online and insidious misogyny in the workplace are, I am told by women in the workplace, harder to deal with. Women shouldn’t be fighting this battle alone; more men need to stand alongside women and call it out for what it is. On a positive note, so many Maiden supporters are men and many tell us they don’t want their daughters fighting the same battles that we did.

Tracy Edwards MBE lifting Beefeater Trophy

What advice would you give to the next generation of women in yachting?

I think the question should be what are men going to do to ensure equality in sailing? Women are already out on the water showing what they can do and proving again and again that they are up to the job. Women are already supporting other women.

The Maiden crew of today are more competent, confident and better qualified than we were. I think we are moving in the right direction and if we just had more support from boat owners and skippers giving women more opportunities to prove what they can do, real equality on the water can be achieved.

The Maiden Factor

The Maiden Factor, led by Tracy Edwards MBE, is a Global Ambassador for the Empowerment of Girls through Education. Its mission is to raise awareness of the 130 million girls worldwide who are currently not able to access education by interacting with, fundraising for and supporting community programmes worldwide that enable girls into education and support them to remain there through their teenage years.

Maiden, the sailing yacht in which Edwards and her all-female crew achieved success in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race in 1989, set sail on a three-year world tour in 2018 with this very purpose. After a first year of research and learning, The Maiden Factor has found the most impactful way of improving the rights of girls to an education and identifying opportunities for girls in STEM subjects. After a Covid-enforced delay, it has now resumed its activity.

Maiden has the power to inspire girls (and boys), transcending gender, colour, creed, ethnicity, religion and socio-economic background. It is proof that anyone can change the world, no matter who they are or where they are from.

If you would like to donate to the cause, you can find out how on The Maiden Factor website.

If you're interested in pursuing a new position on board, search for Crew Agents in the Yachting Pages directory. Alternatively, you can enjoy more interviews in our Women in Yachting series.

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