Australian exploitation cinema is infamous for its sheer badassery and white-knuckle storytelling (check out Mark Harley’s Not Quite Hollywood for incontestable proof), but this riveting documentary about powerhouse never-say-die Aussie yacht skipper Tracy Edwards is every bit as thrilling and emotionally grueling as Mad Max: Fury Road. And it’s all true.
For those of us landlubbers who haven’t been following the world of professional sailing, a bit of history is due. Started in 1973 in England, the Whitbread Round the World Race (now the Volvo Ocean Race) is the world’s largest and most famous around-the-world regatta. It’s a costly and cutthroat hypermasculine test of speed, endurance, and more than a little lunacy that every three years circumnavigates the globe – some 33,000-plus miles over the course of six legs, in a desperate attempt by competing countries to claim, well, a statue of a Beefeater, as it turns out.
National pride comes in a close second, one presumes; other countries seem to have more of a penchant for sailing than Americans.
(Edited to add:) Monterey County Weekly Art Director/Production Manager Karen Loutzenheiser – a semi-pro sailor who’s competed in Sweden, Russia, South Korea, the Caribbean and elsewhere – can attest to that. “Sailing is a bigger sport in other countries, more like football or basketball is here,” she says. But it’s not the pride so much that motivates her as much as camaraderie and competitiveness in intense and ever-changing conditions. “I love being on the water,” Loutzenheiser says. “The ocean is always different, so it’s never the same and you’re always learning.”
In the film, director Alex Holmes focuses his watertight lens and employs a wealth of archival footage to recount how Edwards, “a young slip of a girl” with a troubled backstory and severe wanderlust, fell in love with seafaring and eventually ended up putting together, seemingly by sheer force of stubborn will, a 12-member, all-female crew to compete in the 1989-90 Whitbread on board a reclaimed vessel that, at first glance, appears less seaworthy and more a candidate for the salvage yard.
The Maiden was summarily retrofitted by Edwards and her crew; Edwards mortgaged her home and then the Maiden itself to raise the funds to do the necessary work.
Their most difficult task at that point was finding a sponsor to gain the cash necessary to enter the Whitbread. Suffice to say, in the white-male-dominated world of professional yachting, none were forthcoming, until by sheer happenstance Edwards found an unlikely ally in King Hussein bin Talal of Jordan, who admired her pluck and came aboard as official sponsor.
It goes without saying the yachting press were, shall we say, gobsmacked and more than a little outraged. Girls? In the Whitbread? The very notion was a travesty and the inevitable misogynistic backbiting and catcalls drenched Edwards and her crew like Dom Pérignon at a regatta launch. Holmes intercuts the remarkable archival footage with contemporary interviews, revealing that while Edwards was outwardly unfazed by the macho brouhaha, both she and most members of her crew were exceptionally nervous, awash in second-guessing their quest but admirably bound and determined to see it through. There’s clear relevance to contemporary sailing – and women’s sports across the board, with a continued push for gender equity.
If, as I was, you’ve no idea of the outcome of that year’s Whitbread, I’ll say no more. Win, lose, or draw, Edwards and the crew of the Maiden unquestionably shattered the glass hull of this most dangerous and often outright deadly waterborne challenge, and Holmes’ documentary is as inspirational and empowering as it is frothily exhilarating. (Even if you do know how the race ended, for that matter, there’s suspense and insight worth exploring further in this film.)
The 100-foot swells of the Southern Ocean turn out to be little more than ripples in a pond when compared to this truly mind-blowing Maiden voyage. Hankies are advised as the film reaches its denouement. And prepare to be more motivated than you’ve ever been before to put on a personal flotation device and shove off in a kayak or some other vessel; this movie might just make you want to get onto the water.
And if you just want a bystander’s seat, Maiden is currently on a world tour fundraiser, docked at the San Francisco Yacht Club until Aug. 30, when the ship and crew depart for Los Angeles. It’s part of a 17-nation, two-year voyage benefitting programs to provide for girls who do not have the basic human right to an education.
Maiden ( 3½ ) Directed by Alex Holmes • Starring Tracy Edwards • Rated PG • 97 min. • At Osio Theater