Director Alex Holmes.
In 1989, history was made in the realm of competitive sailing when a 26-year-old Brit named Tracy Edwards entered her secondhand 58-foot racing yacht, Maiden, in the Whitbread Round the World Race. She recruited 11 other women sailors to race with her; in all, they represented seven nationalities.
It was considered an audacious proposition at the time. It may have been the late 1980s, but an all-female crew had never competed in the decidedly male sport of open-ocean yacht racing—especially not in the Whitbread, which is known to be the toughest sailing races of all. It’s a journey that takes more than a half year to complete and covers 30,000 miles of open ocean in some of the roughest sea conditions on the planet.
The women of Maiden were repeatedly told they couldn’t do it. They didn’t have the necessary skills and strength to make the journey, said some. They would die at sea, said others.
But, in the end, they did make it, placing a respectable 18th overall in the Whitbread by completing the race where it began, in Southampton, England, after 167 days and three hours. Along the way, they won two legs of the race in their division and helped save the life of a crewman from a competing yacht who fell overboard in the frigid waters off Antarctica.
The tale of Tracy Edwards and her crew is told in Alex Holmes’s documentary “Maiden,” the first of this season’s SummerDocs hosted by the Hamptons International Film Festival at Guild Hall. The June 29 screening will include a conversation afterward with the filmmaker led by host Alec Baldwin and HIFF’s artistic director, David Nugent.
Though, like Ms. Edwards, Mr. Holmes is British, the amazing story of Maiden and her crew was not one that he recalls from the time of their race. In fact, he heard the full story for the first time just five years ago at the most unlikely of venues—his daughter’s elementary school graduation, where Ms. Edwards told the story in person.
“She came to give a talk when my daughter was leaving elementary school,” Mr. Holmes recalled in a recent phone interview. “It was a celebration evening—she was my youngest, our third child, and our second daughter. We’d been to these events before, and they were good, proud moments for parents, but not all that memorable.
“But this year they had Tracy. She immediately held the children’s attention, as well as the grownups who came to see her,” he added. “As she unfolded her story, I was super aware I was seeing a movie in my head. When she finished, my first question was, had it been made into a movie? She said that it hadn’t, and I said that I’d love to do something with her.”
Initially, Mr. Holmes assumed that the story of the women’s journey around the world would we be told as a dramatic narrative film filled with lots of actor reenactments, given that the real-life events took place far out at sea.
“Then Tracy said, ‘We did have cameras on board the whole way around,’” recalled Mr. Holmes.
Suddenly, it was a whole different proposition—and Mr. Holmes, whose first love is documentaries, realized he might be able to tell the story of Maiden’s journey largely through the archival footage.
“As I sat there listening to Tracy speak, and my daughter soak it all up, I realized my daughter would still face the hurdles Tracy did all those years ago,” he said. “I didn’t think I had to raise my son to reach for the stars, but I had to remind my daughters that they could and should do that. That really shocked me. It’s not just uplifting—it’s an important story to be told.”
When asked why the sailing world was so openly hostile to women in the sport, even as late as the 1980s, Mr. Holmes, who isn’t a sailor himself, said he believes it had a lot to do with the fact that it’s a truly adventurous sport.
“There aren’t many sports where you are literally risking death when you take part, but that’s built into the sport, and you can’t make it safe,” he said. “Men always felt that the ability to test themselves and be adventurous was their preserve—it was their world.”
And the Whitbread was dangerous. Three men died during the 1989-90 race, but one survived thanks to Maiden’s crew. At around 3 a.m. one night in the stormy and icy Southern Ocean encircling Antarctica, two crew members from the boat Creighton’s Naturally were swept overboard. Though they were both quickly pulled back on deck, one died. The other, however, was resuscitated thanks to instructions provided via radio by a Maiden crew member.
“Maiden had a doctor on board who was one of the crew members, so if anything happened, someone would be able to assist,” Mr. Holmes said. “It only takes minutes in the water before hypothermia sets in … They had to get Claire Russell on Maiden to help, and over the radio she gave medical instructions.
“As a result, he survived,” he added. “It’s an important reminder that this wasn’t a pastime—ocean racing in the Southern Ocean, you take life in your hands.”
When asked how he went about structuring the film using the archival footage, Mr. Holmes noted that he let the source material itself lead the way.
“One of the joys of documentaries is that you are hemmed in at the start. It’s about telling the story within the material you have,” he explained. “In a drama, you can write about anything, but in a documentary, you have to plot your course through the material to tell a story you think is important. You’re guided by it, but how do I make the choices to tell the fundamental story?”
In turns out that Ms. Edwards, herself, nailed the story the first time Mr. Holmes heard it when she described how she had set out to achieve something for herself, yet ended up achieving something far greater. Though they didn’t win the Whitbread, the crew of Maiden secured an even bigger prize in that they garnered the love, affection and respect of the wider world.
“Maiden” made its premiere last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, and when asked how audiences reacted to the documentary, Mr. Holmes said, “There’s a line in the film when Tracy is asked on the morning of the race start, ‘How do you feel?’ A little lump comes to her throat, and she says it’s been four years of hard work.
“That’s what it’s like making a film. That’s how long this film took,” he added. “It’s a very gratifying thing when you put four years into something and get a reaction so positive and appreciative that you feel like the audience has connected to the characters in the film. So many say the film is inspiring—they go out of the cinema and can take on the challenges in their own life with renewed ambition and vigor.
“That’s why I made it. It’s been a beautiful experience sharing it with audiences.”
Mr. Holmes’s young daughter, whose elementary school graduation led him to the story of Maiden and Tracy Edwards, soon will turn 16. He trusts that the film has provided her with a sense of all she can accomplish going forward in her own life.
“She’s lived with it and she loves it,” he said. “For any girl, it’s such an inspiring story, and this is one she heard all those years ago and we talked about it on the walk home.
“When she sees it told on screen, she is super proud, and if it hadn’t been for her it wouldn’t have existed,” added Mr. Holmes. “I hope she takes the lessons to heart and pursues her dreams.”
“Maiden” directed by Alex Holmes will be shown at Guild Hall (158 Main Street, East Hampton) on Saturday, June 29, at 7 p.m. as part of the Hamptons International Film Festival’s SummerDocs series. The film will be followed by Mr. Holmes in conversation with HIFF’s co-chair Alec Baldwin and artistic director David Nugent. Tickets are $25 ($23 members) at guildhall.org or 631-324-4050.
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