Oceans of raw courage

PUBLISHED: 01:36 18 December 2001 | UPDATED: 11:02 03 March 2010

BACK in 1990, a team of jubilant women arrived in the dock at Southampton with a victorious look of joy.

For this one moment, surrounded by several thousand supporters, these spirited challengers would be known as the courageous and valiant heroines of their generation.

BACK in 1990, a team of jubilant women arrived in the dock at Southampton with a victorious look of joy.

For this one moment, surrounded by several thousand supporters, these spirited challengers would be known as the courageous and valiant heroines of their generation.

They were the first all-female crew to sail round the world. They had captured their tenacity for the world – and they had just one woman to thank for it all. Tracy Edwards.

This was the pint-sized, self-made yachtswoman who believed that she could re-write the rules of the waves; the woman who literally sailed her way into the record books; the woman who should have come to nothing.

The truth, as she herself accepts, is that Tracy Edwards didn't ought to have achieved such success. She didn't ought to have stolen such acclaim – in fact, she didn't ought to have sailed at all.

Tracy Edwards, now 39, simply and truly carved her own fate in the most exceptional and unlikely manner of all.

"My accidental route into sailing was probably the biggest driving force in my absolute bloody-mindedness to have wanted Maiden to succeed," she laughed.

"In fact, that says a lot about the way I have lived my entire life. I just made up my mind to do things and I wanted to see them through."

From the very earliest days of her life, Tracy has been carving out the most forthright, inspirational, and utterly un-stoppable young woman.

And gender was never going to stand in her way.

This is the same girl who, as a child, fervently refused to play Lady Guinevere in jousting tournaments at the family home. "I'll play the Earl of Godolphin," the seven-year-old feminist would protest.

Given this wild imagination, it's hardly any wonder that school would fail to provide Tracy with the vast 'creative ocean' she must ultimately have been looking for.

It's hardly any wonder that she found herself officially 'disgraced' for her wild-child ways.

"I thought I was so cool, and I thought I knew it all," she said with her characteristic, and mischevious, smile.

"I didn't need them, and I was soon to find out that they didn't need me.

"At 15, I found myself sent home with a letter to my Mum – and the closure to my days in school."

Half-serious, she gestures with her arm and recalls the moment her mother read the letter aloud:

"…Your daughter is a born leader Mrs Edwards, but unfortunately, she seems to take great delight in leading all the other children in completely the wrong direction…"

"Well, I guess it was inevitable," Tracy said. "They'd already suspended me 26 times, so we got the bill for the science-room doors and that was that."

In a round-about-way, perhaps even back then, Tracy's despairing teachers might just have hit the nail on the head.

She was a "born leader", and she was ready to lead others on life's less conventional quest – only she wasn't yet aware of the enormity that such a quest might represent.

Tracy reflects on her mother's suggestion that she might 'get away for a bit', after her official school expulsion. "The further, the better I think," quips Tracy, so she left for Greece.

However brave it had seemed at this age, Tracy was already primed for survival. Her father had died when she was young, and her instinct had always encouraged her to 'battle through'.

She was never going to be a participant in life; always a winner.

Not unlike many students and thrill-seeking teenagers, on her arrival in Greece the young Tracy took up bar work, and it was there that she was first offered a taste of the nautical world.

"My brother and I had been in a dinghy with my dad when we were very young, but that was about it," recalled Tracy. "I didn't sail on rivers like the Deben or join clubs like Waldringfield in the way that more kids are doing now. I had to learn from scratch at an older age."

This was certainly no disadvantage to the ever-ambitious Tracy. Asked to help as stewardess on a yacht in a Greek harbour, she jumped at the chance, and destiny began forming his path.

"This guy just walked in the bar and offered me the chance, so I went," she shrugged. "I was two days into the job before I knew that this was how I wanted to spend the rest of my life, and I meant it very sincerely."

Breaking from her characteristic sarcasm and humour, her face is overcome with a serious expression and she speaks passionately.

"It was a love affair with the ocean, and it began on that very day," she said. "For the very first time in my life, I felt like I belonged to something, and I knew I didn't want to let it go. I had become a part of this travelling circus of misfits – and I felt great."

Over the following years, Tracy's passion simply grew. She learnt to sail, to race and to be part of a highly competitve crew all in one sweep. Then, in 1985, the boat Atlantic Privateer offered the first chance for her to begin adjusting the nautical records.

Joining a highly resistent and seemingly anti-woman, all-male crew, Tracy conned her way on to the Whitbread Round-The-World-Race by declaring herself a fantastic cook. This, she now says, was a "downright lie".

And, despite the sexism and the "determination of the team to make me cry," Tracy came back to dry land fuelled for the next quest.

"I couldn't understand why more women didn't want to do this race. It was just so good. So hard and so physical, but so very, very good."

She said: "I decided to do Maiden because I wanted to prove that we women could do this adventure too – and of course, it was because we wanted to win. There could be no other reason for doing a race like that."

In 1989 Maiden was finally launched on the Solent by the Duchess of York. For two hard years, the expelled schoolgirl had transformed her fate and had built a competent female team out of nothing. From scratch she had raised millions of pounds to realise an unlikely aspiration, and even without racing, she had proved herself a true winner.

"Maiden was a dream, and dreams attract those who are looking for a dream," said Tracy. "I didn't have to pay anyone for two whole years – people just wanted to be part of this. They gave their all."

And for the 33,000 miles of the Whitbread race, Tracy's 'girls' indeed gave their all. In treacherous conditions, driven by their dream, the thirteen crew members sailed into the record books, sealing several leg wins and a position of second overall.

It was enough to grant Tracy an MBE, to accomplish her off-beat ambition, and to prove that women indeed had a place at sea.

"Maiden was just phenomenonly successful and when we sailed back in to the Ocean Village to 50,000 people, I was on top of the world. We felt like real heroines and I was so overwhemled."

In fact, the elation gave way to new goals and dreams almost before Tracy had set foot on shore.

She knew that there was more she could give, more she could do – more she could achieve. And she would.

"I always saw Maiden as being 'unfinished business'," Tracy insisted. "I wasn't just going to put on my slippers, sit back and stop everything after such a big challenge. There was more to come – and Jules Verne was it."

The Jules Verne challenge required more heavy sponsorship battles, more mass recruitment of talented yachtswomen, and, increasingly, more sacrifices on the home front.

"I make no secret of the fact that something has had to give in my life to allow for these dreams," confessed Tracy. "Yes, there have had to be sacrifices, and yes, I have had to make choices which have had very specific consequences on my life, but that's something I always knew.

"I was a very aggressive person in the days of Maiden and Jules Verne and I needed to be so utterly single-minded in order to get the job done."

"Men," she added, "will always find that kind of quality in a woman very, very tough. It doesn't surprise me that that side of my life was hit by what I was doing, but really and truly, I don't regret a thing."

Driven by the single-mindedness which she talks so openly and so emotively about, Tracy built a new team for the Jules Verne quest and patiently waited for the chance to sail the world in 80 days.

"For six weeks our entire crew was cooped up in this little house in Hamble, just waiting to be told that the winds, the tides and all eventualities were perfect to set off.

"We had the wet-weather gear sitting by the door, our bags packed, and no-one was allowed to be more than two-hours from the house in all that time. It got pretty tense I can tell you."

Eventually, in a small cinema, gripped by the dramatic closing moments of the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic, Tracy took the call she had been waiting for.

On board their 'beautiful' catamaran, the girls sailed in to the most treacherous and demanding conditions which Mother Nature could possibly have thrown at them.

Typically, they would wear five layers of thermal underwear beneath their £2,000-a-piece survival suits, they would share a sleeping bag with three other people, and they would suffer regular and excruciating bouts of frostbite.

"Each and every one of those girls was a true heroine," insisted Tracy. "That race is really tough, and it was so painful when we had to admit defeat and accept the challenge was over."

At 2am on day 43 Tracy woke up to find she was now vertical in sleeping bag. The boat had stood on its nose, the mast had snapped – the dream was crushed.

"For a while there, we honestly thought we were going to die," said Tracy. "But the nature of teammanship is that you pull yourself together and get on – so we did. Within 14 hours we had managed to overhaul the boat into a bizarre looking Cat which could keep afloat.

"We wanted to keep on heading home ourselves because our pride was at stake. We'd already broken records earlier in the course, and it was hard to accept defeat."

As their yacht limped toward shore for several more days, the girls received a well-meant gift of beer and magazines from an overhead RAF team, and then finally, 58 days since leaving Hamble, they accepted the helping hand of a Chilean tug. Enough was enough.

"We were devastated when the record-bid had to stop, because four years of our lives had come crashing to a halt like that, but I still believe we had proved ourselves.

"And yes," she said with a glint of a tear, "Maybe you could say that that's one regret which Tracy Edwards does have. It's business that's not yet finished."

These days, Tracy is distinctly less hung-up on settling old nautical grievances. Yes, she will be managing the next all-female Jules Verne team, and yes, she will be as keen as ever to see records made. But right now, Tracy is sailing a very different voyage.

Late in 1999, the woman who had thrived on determined agression, who had vowed she would never have – nor want – children, Tracy gave birth to her greatest achievement of all.

Her daughter Mackenna, now 22 months, entered the world in a Windsor hospital, and Mum has never been more sure of her objective in this world.

"Someone once told me that when you have a child, your entire perspective on the world is changed. I already have a different and dramatic perspective because of my love affair with the ocean – I didn't think anything could change that," Tracy smiled.

"Mackenna changed everything. She gave me the most amazing feeling to be a parent, and I love her so completely that I cannot imagine how it would have been if I had never had her. She is my world."

First and foremost, Tracy Edwards is on a voyage of motherhood. There are only so many times that a woman can navigate the globe before she finds the place where she truly belongs. Today, Tracy Edwards has found that place.


If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Ipswich Star. Click the link in the orange box above for details.

Become a supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Latest from the Ipswich Star