Alex Holmes’ “Maiden” should be experienced in a theater. Catch it soon, because the rip-roaring sailing documentary could soon be gone, despite the yeoman efforts of Sony Pictures Classics. It’s a tough market these days, but the movie could be a factor in this year’s documentary Oscar race.
For veteran British sailor Tracy Edwards, who has been riding the swells of cheering audiences since she first saw “Maiden” ahead of its official 2018 TIFF world premiere, the film has been a cathartic, healing experience. Back in 1989-1990, the 23-year-old skippered the yacht Maiden and its all-female crew in the Whitbread Round the World yacht race. She had to mortgage her house to buy and restore a second-hand yacht — the crew knew every inch of the boat as a result — as well as mortgaging the restored boat, and only the financial support of Jordan’s King Hussein, who had taken a shine to the young sailor and cheered her on, made it possible to enter the race.
Back then, Edwards was only able to get on yacht crews as a cook — and competed in the Whitbread race in 1985-6. She wanted to navigate a boat so badly that she entered the competition and assembled an all-female crew of 12 extraordinary sailors. By then, having logged more than 120,000 miles, she had amassed top-notch sailing skills. Nonetheless, nobody thought the Maiden would be able to finish. The dismissive coverage by male sports journalists was typical of the time.
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The Maiden crew not only completed the daunting journey — sailing farther south in the dangerously freezing, iceberg-riddled South Ocean than any other boat — but won two out of six legs of the race, finishing second in their class overall, and came in first among the British competitors. Edwards took home not only the Yachtsman of the Year Trophy and an MBE honour, but a nasty nervous breakdown.
Edwards wasn’t prepared for how intensely she had bonded with her crew over three years, she told me at a recent Q&A, and how devastating it would be to separate from them when the race was over. And she was never able to truly appreciate their accomplishment until they reassembled at a BAFTA screening in June 2018 for the first time in 27 years. (One sailor was off navigating the Northwest Passage.)
“Each of us went falling off cliff when we finished the race,” Edwards said. “We had been together, for some of us, three years. We bonded, so close, way closer than we realized. Everyone I cared about for all that time was suddenly gone. It was a massive wrench at the end of the race. I had mental health issues. It took two years to get back into sailing.”
British documentarian Holmes (“House of Saddam”) was riveted by Edwards’ story when she was a guest speaker at the middle school graduation of his youngest daughter. “She was a great character,” he said, and assumed that someone else must had filmed this extraordinary adventure (Edwards has written two books), and that if not, he would have to make a narrative drama out of it. People didn’t have GoPros and iPhones back in 1989.
“I didn’t jump at it,” said Edwards. “I was a bit battered around. I had learned not to trust people, so I took it with a pinch of salt. I contacted the other girls. ‘It’s your legacy as well as mine.’ We all talked about it, and said ‘yes.'”
Holmes’ “heart lifted,” he said, when he learned that Edwards’ best friend Jo not only took on the role of cook on the Maiden, but cinematographer, shooting in the short-lived SVHS format. She lashed one camera to the mast, rigged to film whenever there was an all-hands-on-deck situation, resulting in amazing storm footage as the Maiden rode through gigantic swells. Every time Maiden pulled into port, getting the recorded film off the boat was the first priority.
Holmes was amazed at how much archive footage their was — Edwards’ mother had a treasure chest of TV interviews and family videos — and launched a two-year global search for the best possible originals.
“It was an exhilarating experience to piece all his stuff together,” he said. “It was a huge jigsaw puzzle. Footage was coming in from every different format. We saw other boats had cameras on board, but nothing like the dramatic footage that came from Maiden. The quality of the camerawork was amazing. Jo had an incredible emotional intelligence, and let us watch people through the camera.”
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Holmes didn’t do any pre-interviews with the Maiden crew. He told them that nearly three decades after the event was a good time to tell the truth. “And did they ever!” said Edwards, who was carrying an enormous burden at the time and did not always behave well.
When she called her crew, they agreed to go for the legacy of the unvarnished truth. “We all watched the film together at BAFTA,” Edwards said. “We all cried and laughed. What Alex wanted was raw, unabridged, unedited. I’m really glad he got us to do that. He dragged stuff out of us we didn’t know we had. I can’t believe I know that much about what we did.”
Holmes pushed and pushed to pull as many memories out of the women as he could. “I wanted them to remember for the first time when they were telling me,” he said. “We knew the pinch points, but went into the interviews with an open mind. We put aside a little time for each of the interviews. We took them to a studio with no distractions. Once we had them in the seat there was nowhere for them to go.”
He added, “They unburdened themselves and reached back into the depths of their minds, and kept finding more stuff they remembered. You can see people remembering things in the moment, they hadn’t been living this stuff for 30 years. Suddenly it was coming to them fresh.”
For Edwards, “watching the movie was cathartic in a healing way,” she said. “It reminded me that we did do an amazing thing. I’m a Roman Catholic female. My daughter said, ‘When someone comes to thank you for being amazing, say “thank you so much, I’m very proud of what we did.”‘ What the film did for us was to allow us all to say that, after 30 years. We really did what we did!”
Has yacht racing opened up to women since then? “It hasn’t gotten better,” said Edwards. “More women are participating, more men are sailing alongside women, and more men are fighting for women’s rights. There’s hope and positivity. But it’s still as hard for a woman to get on a big racing ocean yacht today as it was then. Many guys think it’s great having women on boats, but then there’s the diehards who run things. That’s gotten worse.”
In 2014, just weeks before meeting Holmes, Maiden came back to Edwards in another way: she was alerted that her beloved ship was rotting in the Seychelles. She launched a crowdfunding campaign to buy her back and rescue and restore her again. She’s using a world tour of Maiden to raise money for girls education.
And she has an all-female crew.
“Maiden” is in theaters now.