Relentless and crushingly unpredictable, sexism has long since been a devastating iceberg in the ocean of gender equality. Seas of change, however, brew in this gripping film by seasoned sports documentarian Alex Holmes. Maiden tells the tale of yachting legend Tracy Edwards and her quest to skipper the first ever all-female crew to enter the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Race. It is a story driven by intense passion and endurance, captured with an immediacy not so dissimilar from the likes of Maidentrip and Deep Water.
In the vein of James Marsh’s recent Duncan Crowhurt feature, The Mercy, Tracy Edwards’ mission to sail the seven seas seems almost to scream out for a dramatisation. How easy it is to envision Florence Pugh as the indomitable Edwards – struggling on in the face of external sexism and internal rage – with Saoirse Ronan and Jodie Comer among her all female crew. For posterity, why not bring Celia Imrie, Imelda Staunton and Fiona Shaw on board to play their older selves looking back? That’s how Holmes frames his documentary at any rate. Simply shot but smartly constructed interviews filter a wave of unbelievably comprehensive home video reels in the film, which feels all the more involving as a result.
In no doubt of the challenge faced by Edwards and company – nine months on choppy waters – Holmes opens his film with an assertion that: ‘the ocean’s always trying to kill you’. Such is a sentiment that will be heard often in the following ninety minutes. It’s a metaphor too, of course. In the same sense that Billie Jean King’s so-called Battle of the Sexes became far more than a game, the Maiden’s very capacity to finish the Whitbread Round the World Race transcends before our eyes to monumental ramification. Whether the world changed in its wake remains to be seen. In telling appearances, the ladies’ contemporary male rivals continue to look vaguely miffed by the whole affair.
Holmes’ astute employment of the vast archive footage on offer to him does much to ensure that his film is consistently compelling and increasingly tense. An opening third zips through Tracy’s idyllic childhood, troubled teens and desperate twenties in a bid not to waste too much time landlubbing. One suspects that a dramatisation too would condense the four years that it took Edwards to assemble her team, buy and renovate a scrappy boat and eventually secure vital sponsorship. Before long, they’re off. Sexist bile might then have followed the Maiden across the globe but now we watch in awe.
Thirty years on from the finish line, the Maiden’s crew reminisce fondly. They’re a cheerful set and excellent company throughout. Perhaps their story is told with too little detail to truly convey the tolls of the experience – certainly, the extensive build up is overly sleight – but it works. In frank interviews, the group reveal that their skipper was not always as pleasant company as is so here. There is great insight also in discussion concerning the types of questions they were asked by the world’s media en route, which rarely concerned technical skill. After all, prior to the Maiden, a woman’s only route into the race was as on-board cook or cleaner. Otherwise, Edwards was told at the time: ‘girls are for screwing when you get back into port’.
An uplifting finish might round off the film nicely but it is worth noting that the Whitbread race – now known as ‘The Ocean Race’ – has yet to be won by a female-led team. Edwards’ trail has, thus, yet to be thoroughly blazed.