Sophie Dingwall talks to Tracy Edwards about her sailing life, her campaign for girls’ education and what is next for Maiden
Tracy Edwards skippered the first all-female crew in the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race and has been empowering women ever since.
We’ve all got a story to tell, yet those who flock to the seas manufacture the most electric of tales. This is the story of a girl who was heading down the wrong path, became the fighting underdog and is now conquering change for women all over the world.
It takes a standout character to create a global shockwave and that’s exactly what Tracy Edwards has achieved in empowering girls through education.
Tracy Edwards MBE has received more than enough backlash, derogatory and sexist comments, especially by the press, yet this has not fazed her.
In fact, this no-nonsense, straight-talking sailor thrived on the negativity to prove everyone wrong as she made history skippering the first all-female crew in the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race, and becoming the first woman to receive the Yachtsman of the Year Trophy.
‘I often wondered if we would’ve carried on if everyone had said what I was doing was a good idea,’ she says.
She moved to the Gower Peninsula, Wales aged 10 after her father’s death, where she quickly learned to lose her traditional British boarding school accent to try and fit in, but was continually bullied throughout secondary school.
Tracy Edwards was a teenage reprobate, a wild child. At 15 she was expelled, leaving education with no qualifications. Like most omitted teens, Tracy was looking for more; an escape, a purpose… and with this, she moved to Greece, where, during her time working on yachts as a stewardess, her sailing career began.
One of the most inspirational and record-breaking women in the sailing industry fell into the sport by accident. ‘I’d like to say it was all planned, but that would be a total lie,’ she says.
For Tracy, sailing was the backdrop to her life, but what she fell in love with was the people. ‘The sort of people that flock to the sea and boats, the mad type’ gave her a sense of belonging: for the first time in her life, she had found her tribe.
Having met the crews entering the 1985 Whitbread Round the World, Tracy was set on being a part of it. This was no easy feat, especially at a time where women were thought to have no place at sea.
Her persistence and resilient attitude led to a position as a cook on board.
The thirst to navigate around the world was constantly at the forefront of her mind, but after completing the race she came to the shattering realisation that ‘no man will ever let me navigate their boat!’
Tracy turned to her mother for advice, an extraordinary woman in her own right who was a former ballet dancer turned go-kart driver; quite the unorthodox hobby for a woman in the 1960s and inevitably where Tracy inherited her indomitable defiance to achieve her ambitions. a desire to impact the world Tracy asked, ‘Mum, how do I change the world?’
Quite the quest for a 23-year-old runaway and school dropout. Her mother responded with: ‘You can’t change the world… yet. But you can change your world now.’
At this point Tracy Edwards had no idea she would be the matriarch for women, bulldozing a path towards equal opportunities and inspiring a generation of new thinking.
Tracy Edwards and Maiden
Edwards made history when she launched her campaign to skipper the first all-female crew in the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race.
Backed by the support and belief of King Hussein of Jordan, whom she had previously met while working on a chartered yacht, Tracy and her crew proved that women were equal to men in the sailing world when Maiden won two of the six legs and finished second in class in the most notoriously challenging yacht race of its time.
It was not an easy path to forge. Faced with the hounding press and sexist remarks, Tracy said she felt ‘like a lamb sent to slaughter’ during interviews. The press revelled in publishing derogatory headlines.
One of yachting’s most renowned journalists, Bob Fisher, who passed away in 2021, described Maiden as ‘A Tin Full of Tarts’.
This charged relationship changed over time and in later years the two became good friends: when Maiden docked in Southampton ahead of the launch of The Maiden Factor to promote girls’ education around the world, Fisher was the first to meet the yacht dressed in his Sunday best.
The two cried and rejoiced, and he asked for an interview, opening with the line, ‘Tell me about girls’ education…?’
Other journalists followed his lead, giving Tracy the recognition she deserved. Her unique, brash approach to stand for what she believed in gave her the ability to change the mind of even the harshest critics.
At first, instant fame came as a blessing. Tracy had the spotlight, which enabled her voice to be heard by the many. But this soon changed. The media quickly lost interest in the achievements of Maiden and pried into Tracy’s personal affairs, including the breakdown of her marriage.
Tracy Edwards’ life after the Whitbread
Mental health issues are something many of us will face, and the headstrong, outspoken Tracy Edwards was no exception. After the Whitbread finished, Tracy found herself burnt out and suffered a breakdown.
Her recovery saw her move back to the Gower in Wales, where she essentially became a recluse and focused on another passion: breeding horses. She suffered a serious back injury, which has left her unable to endure the physical aspects of sailing, even today.
Perhaps it was the fresh air and change in surroundings that enabled her to dig deep and relight the fire in her belly to continue the legacy she had started.
In 1990 Tracy Edwards was named Yachtsman of the Year and during these awards a match was ignited.
Inspired by Sir Robin Knox Johnston and Peter Blake, she set out to compete in the 1998 Jules Verne Trophy with the first all-female crew on their 92ft catamaran, Royal & SunAlliance.
The team smashed five world records but ended with a broken mast 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile.
Undeterred, a few years later in 2002 Tracy put together the first-ever mixed gender team onboard the 110ft maxi-catamaran Maiden II and again made headlines, when the boat broke numerous world records including longest distance sailed in 24 hours.
Her goal was to prove that women could sail as well as men and they should be included in the big boat race scene. Again she proved her case. proving the critics wrong But the bubble was about to burst.
In 2003 she signed a four-year sponsorship with Qatar to stage a round the world yacht race, starting and finishing in the Middle East. The event ended without payment from Qatar, forcing Tracy into bankruptcy.
The pioneering skipper was again the topic of conversation as outsiders welcomed fresh gossip and rumours, losing sight that she was a single parent and carer for her disabled mother, facing the overwhelming reality that she had lost everything she’d ever worked for including her home and job.
Her strong ability to bounce back from rock bottom is just one of the reasons she has achieved more than most. ‘I stood up, dusted myself off and started again,’ recalls Tracy.
This life-altering event left Tracy in a position she had never been before. At the age of 43, and for the first time, she had to write a CV to get a ‘proper job’.
Her impressive background landed her a position working with Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) as project manager for their International Youth Advisory Conference.
Together with the team, Tracy worked on the The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
This human rights treaty hadn’t been renewed since 1947, and her work has helped make children safer around the world.
In her lifetime of achievements, award-winning titles and records broken, it is this which is one of her proudest accomplishments.
In her typical unconventional manner, Tracy decided it was finally time to get an education and aged 47 studied forensic psychology at Roehampton University.
‘It reinvigorated me and gave me confidence. It was more than a degree, it was a way of reaffirming who I was,’ she notes. It was then that the seeds of her campaign to promote education for girls around the world began.
Reflecting on her past she realised ‘sailing saved me’. It had enabled her to find her tribe and fit in, but this was down to the people rather than the ocean or the boat.
She knew that her own experience with Maiden couldn’t be recreated and instead passed the baton on to Maiden itself.
The Maiden Factor was born, giving young women a platform to make a difference by raising awareness and funds themselves.
In 2017 Maiden was brought back to Southampton after years abandoned in the Seychelles to undergo an extensive refit. The boat and her all-female crew then began a tour around the world, with the foundation successfully working with six global charities to break down the barriers that prevent girls from accessing education.
This was brought to an abrupt halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic but Maiden is now back. The yacht and her crew have started a new three-year world tour to 60 places in over 40 countries, backed by DP World.
‘If I die without putting every ounce into getting girls into education and empowering women, then I haven’t done what I set out to do,’ says Tracy, who believes that every girl has the right and opportunity to at least 12 years of education.
‘If we don’t get girls in education, how will they come up through the ranks?’
Tracy Edwards and Maiden are inextricably linked, both providing courage, inspiration and opportunities to others that may otherwise have been unattainable.
Tracy has not got to where she is today because she is the best sailor; in fact, she’s the first to admit she’s pretty average.
We can all take inspiration from this one girl’s story, as she wholeheartedly has gone after what she believes in, against all odds, and despite the controversy.
Given her track record, one can only assume that she will make waves with The Maiden Factor and change the lives of many women to come.
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