With An All-Female Crew, 'Maiden' Sailed Around The World And Into History

Jun 27, 2019
Originally published on June 28, 2019 9:17 am

In the 1980s, Tracy Edwards dreamed of racing a sailboat around the world. But at the time, open ocean sailboat racing was a male-dominated sport. She was only able to sign on as a cook for an all-male team in the 1985-86 Whitbread Round the World Race, a grueling 33,000 mile endeavor.

Afterward, when she still wasn't able to crew, she decided to take matters into her own hands: "My mom always told me, 'If you don't like the way the world looks, change it,'" she says. "So I thought, OK, I will."

In 1989, Edwards, then 26-years-old, assembled an all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race. The idea was unthinkable to many of the men in the world of yacht-racing, and backlash was intense.

"We had so much obstruction and criticism and anger," she says. "Guys used to say to us, with absolute certainty, 'You're going to die.'"

But Edwards didn't back down: "We all became very aware, as a crew, as a team, that we were fighting for all women, and actually anyone who's been told they can't do anything," she says.

Edwards and her 12-woman crew restored an old racing yacht, which they christened Maiden, and finished the nine-month race second in their class. Now, a new documentary, Maiden, retraces their voyage.


Interview Highlights

On restoring an old racing yacht while the male crews had new boats

We found an old, secondhand racing yacht with a pedigree. ... She was in a terrible state, and we put her on a ship and we brought her back to the U.K. and then I gave the girls sledgehammers and I said, "Right, take her apart," and we did. We stripped the inside of the boat. We stripped the deck. We took the mast out. We took everything apart. ...

This was also a bit of a first, because people didn't usually see women in shipyards. So that was an interesting situation. ... All these other guys had a shore team. They had brand new boats. So they didn't really need to do any work on them. And so they'd sit in a cafe and watch us as we were putting this boat together. ...

Although, as I say, there was a very nice part of that sort of, being part of this big Whitbread family, is that if you did go and ask for help, 99.9 percent of the time you would get it. You know, you might get a bit of a snide, "Ugh, you know if you need help ...," kind of thing, but you know, beggars can't be choosers.

But the great thing about doing what we did the way we did it was we learned everything we needed to know about the boat. We put every single item into that boat, onto that boat. We painted her. We put the rig in. We did the rigging. We did the electronics, the plumbing, the [navigation] station. ... So when we put Maiden in the water, I would say that we, as a crew, knew our boat better than any other team in the race.

"We were always chatting, always talking," Edwards (left, with crewmate Mikaela Von Koskull) says of the Maiden's voyage. "I don't think there's one subject that we didn't cover in depth inside, outside and backwards."
Courtesy of Tracy Edwards and Sony Pictures Classics

On the media's reaction to an all-female crew

We weren't surprised that there was resistance to an all-female crew in the race. Sailing is one of the last bastions of patriarchy. ... It is so entrenched. We're a maritime nation. It's entrenched in our history, in our warfare, in our culture, and it is extremely male-dominated. ... So I wasn't surprised there was resistance, but I was shocked at the level of anger there was that we wanted to do this, because why is this making you angry? We're only going out there and doing what we want to do.

On how at the time she didn't think of herself as a feminist — and said so in an interview — and why she changed her mind

In the '80s, "feminist" was an accusation. It wasn't a nice title. It had all sorts of horrible connotations, and really, it had been made into a word that women should be ashamed of — I think with deliberate reason. ... I was very young. I was 23, 24 ... [and] I didn't want people not to like me. You care very much, at that age, that people like you. ...

But I do remember [after that interview] my mum said to me, "I am so surprised that you don't think you're a feminist, and I'm not going to tell you what you should say, but I think you need to have a bit of a think about that one."

I think this is bigger than us, and bigger than Maiden, and bigger than anything we've been tackling. This is about equality. And I think I am a huge, fat feminist. I think I absolutely am! - Tracy Edwards

And then when we got to New Zealand and we won that leg [of the race] and we were getting the same stupid, crass, banal questions that we had on every other leg, I just thought, you know what? I think this is bigger than us, and bigger than Maiden, and bigger than anything we've been tackling. This is about equality. And I think I am a huge, fat feminist. I think I absolutely am! And I stood up for the first time in my life and I said something that might hurt me and might make me not likable, and I took pride in it, and it was an extraordinary experience.

On how her experience with a male crew was different than the female crew

[Male-run boats are] very smelly. It's very messy. There's a lot of swearing and then there are days when guys don't talk to each other. What is that? So that was very weird. A lot of tension, testosterone, egos. I mean, it was an interesting experience, that nine months, [the] first time and last time I'd ever been with 17 men and sort of watching them in their environments, if you like, their natural habitat. ...

Then, doing an all-female crew, then I noticed, wow, there's a huge difference between a group of women and a group of men. ... I prefer sailing around the world with an all-female crew. I prefer sailing with women anyway — much cleaner. We do tend to wash, even if it was in cold, salt water. More use of deodorant as well, I have noticed. But we were always chatting, always talking. ... We did talk the whole way 'round the world. I don't think there's one subject that we didn't cover in depth inside, outside and backwards.

Women are kinder to each other, and in a much more obvious way. We're actually more nurturing and caring, I think. And if you saw someone scared or worried or anxious or a bit down, there'd always be someone that would put their arm around your shoulder and say, "Cuppa tea?"

On the conditions on the Southern Ocean near the South Pole

Your body starts to deteriorate as soon as you cross the start line. Pain and cold are the quickest ways to lose weight. You can get frostbite in your fingers and toes. It's minus 20, minus 30 degrees below freezing. You are constantly damp because salt water doesn't dry. So the girls up on deck would be miserable — cold, wet, miserable. Freezing fingers and toes. Tons of clothing on so you can barely move. The food's revolting. So you just shovel it down your throat as quickly as possible and and try and get as much sleep as possible with this four [hour]-on/four-off watch system. It's also a sensory deprivation. There's no sun. There's no blue sky, it's gray, and the boat's gray, and everything's gray.

On Maiden's second-place finish in the Whitbread Round the World Race

Thousands of boaters cheered Maiden's crew as they finished the round the world race.
Courtesy of Andrew Sassoli-Walker and Sony Pictures Classics

We came second in our class overall, which is the best result for British boat since 1977, and actually hasn't been beaten yet, but that didn't mean much to us at the time. When you finish a race like, that you go through a mixture of emotions. Obviously if you're winning it's all happiness and wonderful and fantastic. We hadn't won; we've come second, and it took me a long time to come to terms with that, because second is nowhere in racing. But as Claire [Warren, the ship doctor] says in the film — and she's very right — there was a bigger picture, and the bigger picture was what we had achieved.

On the reception when Maiden arrived in England

... crossing the finishing line we knew, OK, we hadn't won, but we had sailed into the history books, and we are first, and you can't beat being first to do something. - Tracy Edwards

It was sunrise. There wasn't really that much wind, and we were so close to ... [the] final stretch, and as we were going up Southampton Water, hundreds of boats came out to meet us and they would come towards us, turn round, and start sailing with us. So the final two hours of the boat was two hours I will never forget as long as I live, surrounded by thousands of people on hundreds of boats throwing flowers and cheering. It was absolutely amazing. And crossing the finishing line we knew, OK, we hadn't won, but we had sailed into the history books, and we are first, and you can't beat being first to do something.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the 1980s, the world of open ocean sailboat racing was pretty much all male. That is, until our guest, Tracy Edwards, decided she'd assemble an all-female crew to enter the grueling and dangerous 33,000 mile Whitbread Round the World Race. As you'll hear, the idea was unthinkable to most of men in the world of yacht racing and the journalists who covered them. The remarkable story of Edwards and her crew is told in a new documentary directed by Alex Holmes titled "Maiden," which was also the name of the yacht she sailed in the race. The film opens in theaters tomorrow.

Tracy Edwards had an unhappy childhood after her father died and her mom remarried. She ran away from home as a teenager, made her way to Greece and fell in love with sailing. She wanted so badly to compete that she signed on as a cook for an all-male crew on a Round the World Race. Though she learned a lot about sailing, she had no luck getting on as a crew member. She talked about her story with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Tracy Edwards, welcome to FRESH AIR. So as I gather from the documentary, you decided you're never going to get accepted as a crew member on a Round the World Race. So you decided, well, you're just going to start your own. How did you pull that off?

TRACY EDWARDS: Yes. I did look at the world of sailing and thought I need to change the shape of this because I don't fit in here. And so, you know, my mom always told me, if you don't like the way the world looks, change it. So I thought, OK, I will. I thought the easiest way - (laughter) that makes me laugh - the easiest way to do that would just be to put an all-female crew together. And, you know, we'd just prove we can do it and everyone will accept it and everything will be fine.

But that was far from what happened. You know, we had so much obstruction and criticism and anger, which I found really quite strange. You know, why would you be angry that we want to sail around the world? It's - we're not putting you out. We're just doing our own thing.

So it's - it was a strange process. I started out putting an all-female crew together because, A, I wanted to prove that we could do it but also so that I could be the navigator, which was quite a selfish reason. And then as we went on with it and it - people thought it was so impossible. And I thought, well, I've just raced around the world. It's not that difficult.

DAVIES: Right. And, well, you had to figure out - well, you had to buy a boat. And I gather you had a house that you mortgaged - right? - and put up - and borrowed money. And then you and the women that you recruited worked on restoring this boat yourselves. And it needed a lot of work, right?

EDWARDS: Yes, it did. We got to the point where we'd been trying for so long to raise money, the sponsorship to design and build our own boat, which, of course, all the other crews were doing. And I just - I realized one day that that's not going to happen. There are times where you do have to admit failure and go in a different direction. This is one of those times.

And so we found an old secondhand racing yacht with a pedigree. And that was - she was called Prestige at the time, but before that, she'd been Disque D'Or 3 and had been designed and built for Pierre Fehlmann in the '81-'82 Whitbread Round the World Race where she hadn't actually done that well.

When we bought her in the summer of '88, I mean, she was in a terrible state. And we put her on a ship, and we brought her back to the U.K. And then I gave the girls sledgehammers, and I said, right, take her apart, and we did. I mean, we stripped the inside of the boat. We stripped the deck. We took the mast out. We took everything apart.

DAVIES: Yeah. Was it unusual for crew members to do the repairs on their own boat? Is that what the guys did?

EDWARDS: It was absolutely unique - completely unique. All these other guys had a shore team. They had - well, they had brand-new boats, so they didn't really need to do any work on them. And, you know, so they'd sit in the cafe and watch us as we were putting this boat together. Although, as I said, I mean, there was a very nice part of that sort of being part of this big Whitbread family is that if you did go and ask for help, you would 99.9% of the time you would get it. You know, you might get a bit of a snide, well, you know, if you need help kind of thing, but then, you know, we were - beggars can't be choosers.

But the great thing about doing what we did the way we did it was we learned everything we needed to know about the boat. We put every single item into that boat, onto that boat. We painted her. We put the rig in. We did the rigging. We did the electronics, the plumbing, the NAV station, the rigging. So when we put Maiden in the water, I would say that we, us as a crew, knew our boat better than any other team in the race.

DAVIES: Which would come in handy later on (laughter).

EDWARDS: Yeah.

DAVIES: You got the boat, and even if you fixed it up, you still needed a lot of money because this is a race that takes months, and you need shore crews to help. And so you needed a sponsor. And typically, corporations would sponsor crews. You couldn't get that and you got some help as the result of a kind of a chance association you'd made in the past. Tell us about this.

EDWARDS: Yeah (laughter). So - I know. There's bits of my life which are so surreal. I was a stewardess on a charter yacht in Newport, R.I., and we had a very secretive, very important, high-profile guest. And we didn't know who it was.

DAVIES: This is a couple years earlier, right? Yeah.

EDWARDS: This is in 1984. So in 1984, I was working as a stewardess on this charter yacht. We had a surprise guest. It was, you know, very - it was all a bit weird, actually. We thought it might be Ted Kennedy.

But anyway, so we went off to Martha's Vineyard. The whole boat was checked. You know, we had the Navy. We had sniffer dogs. We had divers. Then we weren't allowed to stay on the boat that night. We're like, who is this person? And it turned out to be King Hussein and Queen Noor, and they'd just been their - Prince Abdullah's graduation. And they came for day sailing.

And I was washing up after lunch, and I felt this sort of presence beside me, and I turned around and it was King Hussein. And he had a tea towel in his hand, and I said, I don't think you can do that. He said, I can do anything. I'm king.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

EDWARDS: I was like, OK. I mean, I didn't really know who he was, if I'm perfectly honest. I was 21 years old, hadn't read a newspaper since I'd left home. But there was something quite extraordinary about this man, and he was fascinated with what I did, and King Hussein was a people collector.

He - and it wasn't just me. I mean, he collected people from all over the world, all walks of life. He found people interesting, fascinating. He loved his fellow human being. And I think that's what made him such an extraordinary leader and why Jordan is such a place of stability in the Middle East today. And he encouraged me to do the '85-'86 race. And then when I was putting Maiden together, he was always there in the background, always on the end of a phone if I needed help or advice.

But when I got to the point where I thought I can't spend any more time looking for this money - you know, two years and we had bits and pieces of money and donations and stuff but no big sponsor - I called him up and I told him, and he went, oh, for goodness sake. He said, right. He said, Royal Jordanian Airlines is going to be your sponsor. And that was just brilliant. You know, we - just having not to struggle for money anymore was amazing. And then, of course, she ended up this beautiful gray color with the red and the gold stripe because that's the color of Royal Jordanian Airlines' planes.

DAVIES: I have to ask. He was always on the other end of a phone. How does one dial up a king? Do you get his cellphone number?

EDWARDS: Well, he left me his phone number before he left the boat, and then before I got home to the U.K., he'd called my mum. And when I - I did a transatlantic home, and I got to Lymington and, of course, we didn't have cellphones in those days, so I went to find a payphone. And I called my mother and she said, what have you been up to? I said, nothing. I have - we just got off the boat. I've sailed across the Atlantic. She said, some guy called King Hussein keeps calling, and...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

EDWARDS: ...You know? I said, oh, God. Please don't tell me you said you were the Queen of Sheba and put the phone down. She said, no, because knowing you, I thought there was every likelihood that it would be, so, yeah. So we forged this...

DAVIES: Wow.

EDWARDS: ...Very strong and very close friendship. And if I ever, ever needed to speak to him, he would always get back to me or be on the end of a phone.

DAVIES: Tracy Edwards' remarkable experience as skipper of the first all-female crew to compete in an around-the-world sailing race is told in the new documentary "Maiden." It opens in theaters this Friday. We'll be back and talk some more after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH'S "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Tracy Edwards. She assembled and led the first all-female sailing crew to compete in an around-the-world race in 1989. That's the subject of the new documentary "Maiden." It opens in theaters this Friday.

So you get the boat ready, and you start going out and sailing in runs. And there was actually a kind of a warm-up race to the round-the-world race. And there's some - there's a leadership struggle, in effect. I mean, you - your first mate, who was a very experienced sailor - you decide you have to let her go because there's a question of sort of who's really in charge of the boat. And it was kind of a tough thing. And it became a media story when you came back because it fed into the narrative of, oh, it's a catfight. These are squabbling women.

And I thought we'd just hear a - this is a scene from the film that's - where we hear a member of your crew, Jeni Mundy, talking about the kinds of questions that she and the crew and you got from the media. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAIDEN")

JENI MUNDY: If you looked at the questions or the articles written about us at the time, they were always digging for stories on, well, who's boyfriend, girlfriend? Are you lesbians? Are you sleeping around? Or surely you're not getting on that well. Bunch of women on a boat that size - there must be a lot of squabbles.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What about the crew? A bunch of girls - how'd you all get on?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Remarkably well.

MUNDY: You never saw them ask the guys those questions. They would be asked about tactics, challenges, you know, sail - sensible sporting questions. We almost never got asked those questions. Why?

DAVIES: And that's Jeni Mundy. She was on the crew of the Maiden. That was the ship that was skippered by our guest Tracy Edwards. You had the first all-female crew to compete in an around-the-world sailing race. That story is told in the new documentary "Maiden." Were you surprised at the media reaction that you got?

EDWARDS: We weren't surprised that there was resistance to an all-female crew in the race. You know, sailing is one of the last bastions of patriarchy, if you like. And it is entrenched. It's - you know, we're a maritime nation. It's entrenched in our history, in our warfare, in our culture. And it is extremely male-dominated. And it was, I would say, the hardest sport at - well, the hardest sport of any time to want to prove that women could do it, so I wasn't surprised there was resistance.

The thing that really made me laugh was the two things that guys used to say to us with absolute certainty. One was you're going to die, not you might or, you know, we think it's a bit of a risk. But, no, you're going to die, which - OK, we took that with a pinch of salt. And the other one, many says, women don't get on. Well, what? You're not a woman, and you're wrong. And, you know, it was (laughter) so weird.

DAVIES: Yeah. One of - one sailing journalist, Bob Fisher, called you a tin full of tarts.

EDWARDS: (Laughter) Well, Bob and I are now very good friends, you'll be pleased to hear. Bob was one of the very few journalists who allowed us to change his mind. And for the documentary, I have to say, he did a wonderful job of being very honest about what he thought then. You know, and he could have ducked it, but he didn't. He really - he stepped up to the plate. But when we sailed into New Zealand in first place, Bob Fisher then wrote in Yachts & Yachting, not just a tin full of tarts - a tin full of smart, fast tarts.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

EDWARDS: And we all thought this was great. You know, oh, yay. Bob's changed his mind. And then someone said to us, you do know that tart is still in that sentence, you know? We were like, oh, yeah. OK. Well, maybe a little bit further to go.

DAVIES: You know, one of the things that struck me as I looked at the film - there's a lot of clips of you doing media interviews. And I have to say you seem very composed and on-message. I mean, you don't - you know, you don't rail at people. You don't rage at the criticism that you have been given. Did you get advice on this? Did it just come naturally?

EDWARDS: That is such a good question. You know, the first thing I thought when I first watched this documentary with all the other women - and we all said to - almost - a woman, the same thing. I looked at myself on that screen, and I thought, well, that's not me. That's - no, no. I have no link with that person - this young person up on the screen because I remember myself as being a bit of an idiot and a bit of a twit, really.

And I have this sort of almost horrible reoccurring dream about me being - oh, just kind of lurching from one situation to the next and, you know, fighting the next obstacle. And then we watched that, and I thought, I actually sound quite sensible in some of the interviews. And, you know, I say a couple of quite profound things. And to me, I don't remember myself like that.

And the only thing I can think - and I didn't have any major training. The only thing I can think is - I mean, my mom and Admiral Charles Williams, who was the organizer of the Whitbread, who was a huge supporter of Maiden. He was so wonderful. Admiral Charles Williams - yes, of course women can sail around the world.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

EDWARDS: He was just wonderful. He did take me aside a couple of times and say, you know, yeah, you can't do a press announcement and then run out of the room. You know, you do have to stay for questions and little tips like that. But I was told right from Day 1, don't lose your temper. Because I, at the time, did have just a little bit of a temper, I have to say. So I am amazed when I watch that footage because I think I probably know what's going on beneath the surface.

DAVIES: And there's one moment which, I'm told, you cringe when you see now where you're asked, are you a feminist? And you say, I hate that word.

EDWARDS: Yeah.

DAVIES: What was - I could kind of get what you were saying, but you tell me.

EDWARDS: Yeah. Well, you know, in the '80s, feminist was an accusation. It wasn't a nice title. It was - it had all sorts of horrible connotations. And really, it had been made into a word that women should be ashamed of, I think, with deliberate reason. And, you know, I drank the Kool-Aid, basically. And I was very young. I was 23, 24, during that interview. And I didn't want people not to like me. You know? You care very much at that age that people like you. I mean, you may be annoying them and putting this whole female crew together.

But I do remember afterwards my mum said to me, I'm so surprised that you don't think you're a feminist. And she said, I'm not going to tell you what you should say, but I think you need to have a bit of a think about that one. And then when we again got to New Zealand, and we won that leg and we were getting the same stupid, crass, banal questions that we had on every other leg, I just thought, you know what? I think this is bigger than us and bigger than Maiden and bigger than anything we've been tackling. This is about equality. And I think I am a huge, fat feminist. I think I absolutely am.

And I stood up for the first time in my life, and I said something that might hurt me and might make me not likeable. And I took pride in it, and it was an extraordinary experience.

DAVIES: When you were working as a cook on the otherwise all-male crew of that Round The World Race back then, when you observed the men on the boat and how they interacted with one another, I'm wondering if that was different from your observations of all-women crews that you saw later on?

EDWARDS: It's very smelly. It's very messy. You know, there's a lot of swearing. And then there are days when guys don't talk to each other. What is that? So that was very weird - a lot of tension, testosterone, egos. I mean, it was an interesting experience, that nine months. You know, first time and last time I'd ever been, you know, with 17 men and sort of watching them in their environments, if you like. You know, their natural habitat (laughter).

So it was - I had nothing to compare it to at that time, but then doing an all-female crew, then I noticed, wow, there's a huge difference between a group of women and a group of men.

DAVIES: Right. And how would you describe the difference?

EDWARDS: Well, I prefer sailing around the world with an all-female crew. I prefer, you know, sailing with women, anyway - much cleaner, you know? We do tend to wash.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

EDWARDS: You know, even if it was in cold saltwater. (Laughter). More use of deodorant, as well, I have noticed. But we were always chatting, always talking. I mean, I know women - I know people say women talk a lot. We really did. And we did talk the whole way around the world. I don't think there's one subject that we didn't cover in depth, inside, outside and backwards.

Women are kinder to each other, and in a much more obvious way. So, you know, we - well, we're naturally more nurturing and caring, I think. And if you saw someone scared, or worried, or anxious or a bit down, there'd always be someone, you know, that would put their arm around your shoulder and go, cup of tea? Yes, please. Thank you very much.

So just a completely, completely different atmosphere - and I do think that each flourish in their own atmosphere. You see, that's the thing. I have done mixed crews, which have worked really, really well. But I think at that time, it really was each to their own.

DAVIES: Right. The thing that I wondered was whether women are just simply more willing to cooperate. And a crew really has to work together on a long voyage like that.

EDWARDS: I think the one time when we didn't talk was the time when we were cooperating the most, which was on the start lines. And it was very interesting, actually. We didn't notice we did this at all because we trained a lot. We trained. We trained. We trained. And then when we were on the start line - on the start line, you've got a lot of screaming and shouting. There's a lot of very macho posturing, you know, between the boats. And it's all sort of playing chicken, and it's, (laughter), there's a lot of shouting.

DAVIES: 'Cause you're all close together there. Right.

EDWARDS: Because you're all close together. But what we didn't realize until we got to the next stop, one of the guys said, you girls not talking to each other on the start line then? You know, you're not talking to each other already? And we went, yeah. What do you mean? He said, well, no one was saying anything or shouting anything. I said, well, we don't like being shouted at so therefore we tend not to shout at each other (laughter). And then we realized, when we're sailing in those quite stressful conditions, we were completely silent because we were so in harmony with each other.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview Dave Davies recorded with Tracy Edwards. In 1989, she became the first woman to lead an all-female sailing crew on the Whitbread Round the World Race. That voyage is the subject of the new documentary "Maiden."

After a break, we'll talk about the dangers and the extremes the crew faced during the race. And Justin Chang will review the new movie "Yesterday," whose conceit is that a strange blip has erased The Beatles from history with the exception of one singer-songwriter who remembers the band and their songs. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Tracy Edwards, who in 1989 was the first woman to lead an all-female sailing crew on the Whitbread round the World Race.

It was an arduous 33,000-mile competition divided into five legs. The boats would start in England and compete to arrive first in the designated ports, where the winning crew would win a trophy and the crews would rest a few days before starting the next leg. The best cumulative time for the whole race was named the winner. Edwards' story is told in the new documentary "Maiden," directed by Alex Holmes. It opens in theaters tomorrow.

DAVIES: This first leg of the journey from England to Uruguay, you finished third out of the four boats in your class. And the journalists who thought you wouldn't even get there were giving you a well done sort of treatment. You didn't feel that way, right?

EDWARDS: No. We were absolutely gutted when we came third. We were so disappointed. So we had this really weird situation going on on the dock. So we were coming in with a face as low as I don't know what and then everyone else on the dock was going, you're alive, you're alive. So we had this really strange party with a very happy group of people and a very grumpy group of (laughter). It was very weird.

DAVIES: The second leg of the journey is from Uruguay to Australia. It's the longest. And you're kind of sailing across the bottom of the world if you kind of turn the globe over and picture it. So the most direct route would be kind of as close to the South Pole as possible. That gets tricky. That imposed a tough decision on you. Tell us what, you know, the trade-offs were and the challenges.

EDWARDS: Well, you don't just stop in ports. You continue to work and the girls are fixing the boat and themselves. And I just either sat in my room in the hotel with all my charts and everything else or on the boat in the nav station. And you're planning your next leg, and you're looking at different things, like what does the weather look like that's coming up? What is the sea state currently in the Southern Ocean? Where are the icebergs? They were particularly far north that year. And you're looking at long-range forecasts and trying to piece all these things together. And so what you want to do is, yes, you want to go as far south as possible but - and the reason why others made the decision not to was because of the icebergs.

Now, I made quite a risky decision that we wouldn't hit an iceberg. And I took us the furthest south of any boats in the Whitbread fleet that year. But I was very clear on what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it. What you don't want to do is go so far south that you go over the Antarctic shelf, which then changes the shape of the waves and can make them quite unmanageable. And you also don't want to get on the wrong side of the low pressures, which is to go south of them. You want to stay north of them because they travel clockwise. So it was a hugely fraught leg on the decision-making front, but I was probably the clearest I'd ever been about anything in the race, and I got it right.

DAVIES: OK. So this crew - this is not a balmy Caribbean sail. I mean, you're going to save time, but conditions are - well, I think one of you said there's nothing that can prepare you for sailing in the Southern Ocean. Can you just describe a little bit about what it was like, what the crew had to put up with?

EDWARDS: OK. So the conditions in the Southern Ocean is your body starts to deteriorate as soon as you cross the start line. Pain and cold are the quickest ways to lose weight. You can get frostbite in your fingers and toes. It's minus 20, minus 30 degrees below freezing. You are constantly damp because salt water doesn't dry. So the girls up on deck would be miserable, cold, wet, miserable, you know, freezing fingers and toes, tons of clothing on, so you can barely move.

The food's revolting, so you just shovel it down your throat as quickly as possible and try and get as much sleep as possible with this four on, four off watch system. And it's also a sensory deprivation. There's no sun. There's no blue sky. It's gray, and the boat's gray, and everything's gray. And it is a miserable leg.

DAVIES: And you have to look out for ice, and sometimes it's foggy, and sometimes it's at night. What - do you place someone on the bow? How does that work?

EDWARDS: Yep. So you have a bow watch. We realized when we had woken up - well, when I'd woken up and the girls were really staring at it, but I was - I went up on deck and we were sailing past an iceberg. And I said, oh, my God, I didn't see that on the radar, and they went, nope, we didn't either. So that's when we thought, yeah, we need to have someone up on the bow just because it just gives you that few seconds more of warning if you see an iceberg and you have to swerve.

DAVIES: Right. So you're not within sight of any of the other boats, obviously. And you finally get to the calmer waters as you approach Australia. Describe getting into Australia and realizing where you were.

EDWARDS: Well, coming out towards Australia, a number of things happen when you come out of the Southern Ocean. A, well, obviously, it gets warmer as you're heading up towards Australia. The sea state changes. The color of the sea goes from a black to this beautiful, deep, translucent blue. The sky - you can see the sky again. It actually has a definition between the - you know, between the sea and, you know, the clouds. You suddenly remember all these things that you haven't seen for five weeks.

And then obviously, as I said, it gets warmer. You start to dry everything out. And as you get closer to land, as Jeni says in the film, land smells. And, you know, for quite a way out, you can smell what's coming up, and that's quite amazing. And it is like being reborn. And as we came up to Australia, we did not know whether we had won. We suspected we were in first place, but we didn't know until we crossed the finishing line and Howard was on one of the boats shouting, you're first. And we just were - that was I think probably the happiest moment in my entire life.

DAVIES: The third leg is the shortest. It goes from Australia to New Zealand, and that's a different kind of sailing. It's sort of tactical. You're often within sight of the other boats. You win again. Describe arriving in New Zealand.

EDWARDS: Oh, it was just amazing. We knew we had to win this leg to prove that we could do a long, hard leg and a short, complicated leg. And I had three great tacticians on board, and we did match race pretty much the whole way there with L'Esprit (ph) and then with Rucanor. And when we got into New Zealand, we'd been delayed by the wind dropping, and it was nighttime, so we got - we actually ended up getting in at 1 o'clock in the morning. And it wasn't again until we crossed the start - the finishing line that someone said, you know, you've won, and we were so happy. It was only by an hour this time whereas the previous time, it'd been 36 hours.

So we were now 16 hours ahead of our nearest rival at the halfway point. And when we did turn the corner to motor into the port that we were going into, there was a wharf and we thought that it was covered with thousands of birds. And it was only when we got closer that we realized it was people. Thousands and thousands of people had come out in Auckland at 1 o'clock in the morning to see Maiden in. And it was - oh, it was just amazing.

DAVIES: So you were - you had become famous. I mean, I guess this was, in some respects, kind of a novelty story in some way. But suddenly, people are rooting for you, and you're winning.

EDWARDS: It was - yeah. I mean, I think we still stayed a novelty for some people, although for a lot of people, they started to wake up and go, wow. Actually, women can do this.

DAVIES: Tracy Edwards' remarkable experience as skipper of the first all-female crew to compete in an around-the-world sailing race is told in the new documentary "Maiden." It opens in theaters this Friday. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LULLATONE'S "ALL THE OPTIMISM OF EARLY JANUARY")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Tracy Edwards. She assembled and led the first all-female sailing crew to compete in an around-the-world race in 1989. That's the subject of the new documentary "Maiden." It opens in theaters this Friday.

The fourth leg of the race began not so well for you and the others on the Maiden. You had calm waters that prevented you from really getting a good start. And I thought we'd play a clip that describes the part where you were going around - I guess it's the Falkland Islands and some of the seas that you met. In this clip, we'll hear from members of the crew - Claire Warren, Dawn Riley, Jeni Mundy - and the clip begins with our guest, Tracy Edwards. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAIDEN")

EDWARDS: We went 'round Cape Horn. And then there was, you know, the possibility of some options opening up for us to be able to pick up some ground, so I decided to go for it. Turning up and going up past the Falklands, it got a bit busy.

DAWN RILEY: There's only been a few times in my life that it had been that rough.

CLAIRE WARREN: Often, on a boat, you know, you'll find the shortest distance is straight into the wind, for example. Well, boats don't sail into the wind, so how far off do you go?

MUNDY: It's like hitting a brick wall in a car without your seatbelt on every 10 seconds. It's just relentless.

EDWARDS: There's a lot of slamming. Whoomp (ph), bam. Whoomp, bam - takes a lot out of the boat.

DAVIES: And that's from the new documentary "Maiden," which features the voyage led by Tracy Edwards, our guest. It was the first all-female sailing crew to compete in an around-the-world race in 1989. It is powerful watching those scenes of, essentially, sort of surfing down one side of a wave and then slamming into another. How dicey did this get? How did the boat take it?

EDWARDS: It was an all-or-nothing decision. It was - you know, it could have been the wrong one, but we just had to do something, and so we all decided to go for it. What it did do was it opened up four hairline fractures in the mast, which we couldn't see at that time and didn't know they were there. But I - so I was in the nav station one evening, and I suddenly found water around my feet. And as we were going past the Falkland Islands, we had to - we started taking on a lot of water, and I mean a lot of water. It was pouring in.

We spent two days trying to find out where this water was coming in, and we hove to, which means you come off a way of the wind and you calm things down a bit, you take a couple of sails down. And the RAF Hercules was scrambled from the Falkland Islands just to check where we were in case we needed to be rescued.

DAVIES: That's an airplane dispatched from - by the British and the Falklands, right?

EDWARDS: That's exactly - so, yeah, after about two days, we managed to get rid of most of the water. And we realized that it was worse leaning over one side than it was leaning over the other side. And we managed to get on our way, but that lost us so much time. There was no way we could catch up on our lead at that point.

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, this problem appeared with water at your feet in the navigation station, right? Did the fact that you and your crew had effectively kind of built the boat over again inside out - did that matter in diagnosing the problem and resolving it?

EDWARDS: Oh, without a doubt. If we hadn't rebuilt that boat, we wouldn't have known where to start. And as Jeni so eloquently puts in the film - it's one of my favorite lines when she says, you know, you can't, then, just give up and call the repair people. There are no repair people. I just love that so much. And, of course, you know, I mean, Jeni knew every inch of the boat. She was the electrician, and she'd run every cable. And we'd all done our separate areas, so we felt - OK, it was worrying, but we felt very confident that we were sorted out and we would get to the next stop over.

DAVIES: The last two legs, you didn't do as well as you had in the previous two and ended up finishing second in your class out of four - right? - when you sailed to England. Is that right?

EDWARDS: Yes.

DAVIES: Pretty good showing, you know, considering what people were expecting. As you arrived, you weren't feeling that, right?

EDWARDS: No. I mean, we came second in our class overall, which is the best result for a British boat since 1977 and actually hasn't been beaten yet. But that didn't mean much to us at the time. We were going through - when you finish a race like that, you go through a mixture of emotions. Obviously, if you're winning, it's all happiness and wonderful and fantastic. We hadn't won. We've come second, and it took me a long time to come to terms with that because second is nowhere in racing. But as Claire says in the film - you know, and she's very right - there was a bigger picture, and the bigger picture was what we had achieved.

The other thing, I think, that happens to you as you finish a race of that length is you suddenly realize that this family of people that you have been with for three years is suddenly going to disappear. And that is - it's quite shocking and can be depressing.

DAVIES: Right. That's three years total, I guess - what? - nine months or so on the ocean, pretty much.

EDWARDS: Yeah.

DAVIES: Right. When you arrived in England, when you're sailing in, you knew that you weren't going to be there first. You did get a reception of sorts. You want to describe this?

EDWARDS: Well, it was quite - just extraordinary. We finished on Bank Holiday Monday, which - a good day to finish. And as we were coming up towards the needles, which we hadn't seen for nine months, it was sunrise. There wasn't really that much wind, and we were so close to - you know, this is it - the final stretch.

And as we were going up Southampton Water, hundreds of boats came out to meet us. And they would come towards us, turn around, then start sailing with us. So the final two hours of the boat was two hours I will never forget as long as I live - surrounded by thousands of people on hundreds of boats, throwing flowers and cheering. And it was absolutely amazing.

And crossing the finishing line, we knew, OK, we hadn't won, but we had sailed into the history books. And we are first, and you can't beat being first to do something. So - and then coming into Ocean Village, where 50,000 people were waiting for us, was just phenomenal - most amazing, extraordinary experience.

DAVIES: You know, we wouldn't have this documentary if there weren't a lot of film taken - or video, I guess - taken on the boat itself. This is real footage done on the voyage in 1989. How did that happen?

EDWARDS: Well, the Whitbread's organizers wanted some of the boats to take cameras, and most of the guys' boats were far too important and busy to take cameras and film. So you know, we stuck our hands up and said, we'll film. And so they gave us a camera.

And then we said, oh, who's - who is going to film? And Jo, who was the cook and my school friend - she said, well, I'd love to film. I'm doing - I'm the cooking. I'm - you know, I don't do a watch. So we packed her off to the BBC with a camera for four days. Four days - I mean, just extraordinary. And then she came back to the boat.

And, you know, we practiced before we went, which, again, is something the guys' boats didn't really do, even if they had cameras. We worked out that we needed a camera fixed on the radar mast for emergency situations when Jo couldn't film because we needed her on the deck as a crew member. And Jo has an amazing emotional intelligence. And her connection with her subjects, which is us, is what makes this whole film so completely unique. And Alex says, without her footage, he wouldn't have been able to make the documentary he made.

DAVIES: When the Maiden arrived back in England, you were named yachtsman of the year - still yachtsman, not...

EDWARDS: Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah. You were named yachtsman of the year - quite an honor. And you were a national celebrity - I mean, at age - what? - 27. What were your plans from that? I mean, you accomplished this remarkable thing.

EDWARDS: Well, I didn't have any plans, and that's unfortunately - did not go well. So the girls will disappear quite quickly. They'd been made job offers. And I said, rather gallantly and stupidly, I will - I'll stay here, and I'll write the book. And I'll do the interviews, and I'll, you know, sort of keep the story going.

And I fell off a cliff, really. And within, I would have to say - how long? - within nine months of the race finishing, I'd had a nervous breakdown. And if you'd have asked me this question even two years ago, I would not have told you that. But we're talking a lot about mental health in the U.K. and about well-being and caring for ourselves.

And I didn't ask for help, and I was struggling badly without my teammates around me. And so I disappeared off down to Wales, and I stayed there for two years and really became a recluse to - really, to the point where the whole saying, well, wonder where the hell I'd gone - before reappearing in 1994 with a new sailing project.

DAVIES: Right. I'm curious how you look back on that crisis. I mean, it - as I hear the story - I mean, you'd gone a long time without a real family, and then you found it with this crew. And then, suddenly, they were gone.

EDWARDS: It was very hard saying goodbye to everyone. And I still get emotional when I talk about it today, really. It was a time when I - I mean, I - my lesson that I learned from that was really to ask help when - ask for help when you need it. And you know, there's nothing big about pretending to be brave. That's just stupid.

So the lesson I learned on the race was that friendship and teamwork are the two most important things. And the thing I learned after the race was, if you have that teamwork and that friendship, ask for help (laughter).

DAVIES: Well, it's been great talking to you. Tracy Edwards, thanks so much.

EDWARDS: Thank you.

GROSS: Tracy Edwards spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies. Edwards and her all-women crew that competed in the 1989 Whitbread Round The World Race are the subject of the new documentary "Maiden," which opens in theaters tomorrow.

After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new movie "Yesterday" that imagines a world in which the Beatles were erased from cultural memory, with the exception of one aspiring singer-songwriter who starts performing Beatles songs. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.