Published On: Fri, Jul 12th, 2019

Peter Howell: Maiden’s true story of all-female yacht-race crew is gruelling and uplifting by turn

Documentary on the first all-woman crew to compete in a round-the-world yacht race. Directed by Alex Holmes. Opens Friday at the Varsity. 93 minutes. G

Do yourself a favour and don’t Google the outcome of the 1989-90 Whitbread Round the World Race, in which an all-woman yacht crew competed for the first time.

Instead, go see Maiden, a documentary by Alex Holmes that plays like a motivational action thriller. One of the year’s best docs, it bracingly tells how skipper Tracy Edwards and her 12-woman crew of the British yacht Maiden challenged the planet’s best male sailors in this traditionally testosteronal sea contest, which lasts nine months and spans roughly 34,000 nautical miles.

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Even if you were to sneak a peek at past press coverage, there’s little of it to be found. Most newspapers barely noticed the event, if at all, often treating it like a novelty. There’s but one tiny story in the Toronto Star archives, dated May 12, 1990 and referring to serious problems endured by the Maiden crew, which ran under the glib headline, “All-Female Crew Has Whale of a Time.”

Such ingrained sexism is very much a part of the story of Maiden’s voyage. The film shows how Edwards went from being a self-described “vile teenager” from a broken home to, at age 24, becoming both skipper and navigator of a refurbished 58-foot yacht, bent on making seafaring history with her international crew of like-minded women.

They had to fight the notion that women had no business competing in a man’s game, a calumny not confined to the usual oinking fraternity — a 1989 TV news clip shows a female interviewer describing Edwards as “a slip of a girl” and wondering why she wanted to take on the boys.

Edwards talks about how when she first applied to join a crew for the Whitbread (now called the Volvo Ocean Race), she was winkingly advised that “girls are for when you get into port.”

The sexism was more than just an annoyance: corporations deemed the Maiden sailors to be a “high-risk crew” and refused to sponsor them, fearing bad publicity if and when they ran aground (or worse). Male journalists made bets on how quickly that might happen.

“It seemed like the further that we got, the nastier this stuff would get,” Edwards recalls.

She raised the necessary funds to compete in the race by remortgaging her house and securing an angel investor (whose identity makes for quite the reveal). She also had to deal with anxiety issues, injuries and personality clashes within her crew.

Director Holmes is very good at finding both the uplift and downside of dramatic news stories, as he demonstrated in the TV movie Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story.

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He has a cache of archival video to work with, giving his film a cinéma vérité look and feel as Edwards and her crew fight storms, icebergs, waves, the occasional doldrum and a pesky whale on their destiny quest. The voyage began in Southampton, England, and took in six gruelling legs in climes both hot and cold.

Gaps in the narrative are patched by the recollections of Edwards and her crewmates, now in their 50s, who are as filled with pride and wonder as they were three decades ago. Maiden puts us all in the ship right there with them.

Peter Howell is the Star’s movie critic based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @peterhowellfilm

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Peter Howell: Maiden’s true story of all-female yacht-race crew is gruelling and uplifting by turn