Q&A with Sailor and Girls’ Education Advocate Tracy Edwards

Let me tell you about a little girl who dreamed about sailing around the world. Now what if I tell you it’s true? ~ Jo Gooding in Maiden

Tracy Edwards skippered the first all-female crew to sail around the world when she and her team raced Maiden in the 1989/1990 Whitbread Round the World Race. Despite overwhelming odds and the skepticism of the sailing world and the press, they won two legs of the race and came in second overall. Tracy was named a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) and became the first woman to win the Yachtsman of the Year Award in its 34-year history. She then went on to skipper the first all-female nonstop around-the-world record attempt and managed Maiden II, the first ever fully mixed-sex professional racing team.

More recently, Tracy founded the Maiden Factor Foundation, a not-for-profit whose mission is to support the 130 million girls worldwide who are currently without access to education by fundraising for, and supporting, community programs that enable girls to get an education and make it possible for them to remain in school through their teenage years. Maiden began her world tour in support of Maiden Factor in November 2018 and was recently in New York Harbor where Debevoise associate Brita Siepker caught up with Tracy for an interview. This interview has been edited for publication.

Maiden Factor’s motto is “Educate a Girl, Change the World.” You’ve transformed a really remarkable racing career into a platform to raise money and awareness about girls’ education issues. What inspired you to found Maiden Factor?

When we rescued Maiden from the marina in the Seychelles, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do with her. I couldn’t leave her, I knew that. We crowdfunded to raise money to pay off the debts of the previous owner who had abandoned her in a marina, and then I flew to the Seychelles to sail her home. Princess Haya (Princess Haya bint Hussein, daughter of King Hussein of Jordan, who arranged the sponsorship of the original campaign) called me and said, “I hear you’ve rescued Dad’s boat; how can I help?” This is so full circle. So Princess Haya paid for shipping Maiden back to the UK, and she asked what we were going to do with her. I said, “Someone wants me to do a sailing school, but I’m thinking of a lap of honor to remind people, because it all came to a halt when I took two years off.”

Princess Haya mentioned being passionate about girls’ education, and I noted that I was a patron of a couple of girls’ education charities, and my daughter Mack said, “Why don’t you raise money and awareness for girls’ education as you do your lap of honor?” Because Princess Haya was paying for the tour, that allowed us to use the boat to raise the funds just for girls’ education. Post-pandemic, the Dubai-based multinational logistics company DP World has become our sponsor and is paying for the tour, so we can use the money Maiden Factor raises to fund girls’ education. It was all very organic and, like all things related to Maiden, was very much by coincidence and synchronicity and karma.

As Maiden has been sailing around the world raising money for education, you’ve had the opportunity to interact with young girls and boys in far-off ports and to speak to them about issues of equality and inclusion. I remember a video on Maiden Factor’s website where a little boy says, “Of course the girls should get to sail!” What can we do to preserve that sense of equality before the gender gap fills in?

It’s so true. Before they get to a certain age, there’s no difference; they consider each other equal.  We’ve found through our research that it’s about the age of 11 that girls start to think that STEM is a boys’ subject and that there is a disparity between the genders. And no matter how much as parents we try not to stereotype, we can’t engineer stuff. But we can let them see how much opportunity is out there. We can show them what’s possible. Maiden is not an adult lecturing them or a teacher saying you can be anything you want to be. We say, “This is Maiden. This is a boat that sailed around the world with all women—even though they were told they couldn’t—because one person believed in them, and they believed in themselves.” That is so impactful; they can get on board, hold the wheel and see for themselves what is possible.

After being awarded “Yachtsman of the Year,” you were made to enter through the service entrance to give a speech at the Royal Yacht Squadron. It reminded me of a story a now-retired litigation partner of ours told of having to take the service entrance to a bar association meeting at an all men’s university club. Sexism these days is sometimes less blatant than it was 30 years ago but nonetheless damaging. What strategies do you suggest for women experiencing or witnessing bias and sexism?

It’s insidious for your generation. We have two positions on every leg specifically for young women who are in the endless cycle of “can’t get on boats where the money is because they don’t have the experience and can’t get the experience because they don’t have the miles.” Not enough has changed in the last 30 years; these young women tell us the same stories that we heard 30 years ago. In a way it’s harder now, because back then it was so in our face and so blatant that we could stand up to it. But now with social media, women get horrible comments for standing up for themselves.

We are finally having the conversation and need to have more. We had a bright, sparky young woman sailing with us who was frustrated that it still doesn’t click for the guys—they still aren’t aware anything is wrong. She doesn’t want to be confrontational and be seen as difficult, so she makes a joke of it, “Wow, would you say that to your sister?”

People ask, “What can women do about it?” And I say, “We’re doing it. We’re out there, sailing, proving we can do it, beating the guys.” It’s up to the men. And there are some men out there now, standing up, often after they have daughters, when the penny drops. Loads of men come down to the boat and say, “I have daughters, I don’t want them to go through what you went through, and I can’t believe I’ve never seen this before.” I guess it’s reaching them younger and asking them to stand alongside us. Equality benefits everyone. It’s not a scale. Giving women equality doesn’t take it away from men.

When you were skippering the Whitbread Round the World Race, Bob Fisher referred to Maiden as “a tin full of tarts” before the race began and “a tin full of smart, fast tarts” after you’d won the leg to Australia. At the time, did his acknowledgment that that you had exceeded his expectations feel like a victory? Should we celebrate progress even when it coexists with blatant sexism?

We should. Every victory is a victory, and men need to be encouraged to stand up and be counted. Bob Fisher turned the tide for us in a lot of ways because he was the lead journalist covering the race and others followed his lead. The print coverage did change after that.

You have very elegantly emerged from behind the navigation table as a role model to all of us women on the water and as an ally to the 130 million girls around the world who are without access to education. How have you prepared for this new role, and what advice would you give to young women moving into roles that may be outside of their comfort zone?

With Maiden in the Whitbread Race, we were trying to get the word out there, and the media coverage was amazing—print, television. But ultimately it became too much for me. We were instantly famous and were one of the only sporting teams at the time to become instantly famous, and we had no support. I was so focused, and I became so angry we weren’t getting anywhere.

When people would approach me to compliment me about what we’d done, I would say “Oh it’s nothing really” whilst giggling like an idiot. It was my daughter Mack who called me out on it, and told me to stop giggling and say, “Thank you very much. I’m very proud of what we achieved.” Among the crew, we talk about how we still all have imposter syndrome, and we still downplay what we’ve done. The documentary made about us recently has allowed us to stand up and say that what we did was very hard, and we’re really proud of what we accomplished. But that’s taken 30 years. Women are the worst self promoters. In the crew on board these days, the women still have a bit of imposter syndrome. But I make it an absolute point to thank my crew and compliment their work and remind them they are making a difference.

I make it all about Maiden; I’ll talk about Maiden until the cows come home.

In a prior DWR article titled Nevertheless She Persisted, one of my colleagues wrote about the relative success of women runners over men at a particularly inclement Boston Marathon, and we’ve all read about the growing success of women in ultra marathons. It reminded me of the Southern Ocean leg that Maiden won—the toughest of all legs with big wind, big seas and icebergs. There is growing evidence that women really do out-persevere men. How can we harness that in our efforts for equality and inclusion?

I am one of the very few women who has sailed around the world with all women crews and all men crews. We as an all women crew were breaking all sorts of records, but we still weren’t getting women on boats in the big races like the Volvo Race and America’s Cup. So we decided to put together the world’s first mixed-sex racing team—six women and six men—hoping the young guys would go on to do other things and remember how great it is to sail with women and bring them on board. We worked phenomenally together. We brought the guys onto our boat and were the most successful record-breaking team in a 10-year period. We broke a number of massive world records. You get the best men and the best women, and you have the best team.  It’s not rocket science.

The mixed gender team worked phenomenally well together; we complimented each other so beautifully. We are so different—we work differently, we have different hierarchy structures, we have different strengths, we think differently, we treat each other differently. We worked with various scientific organizations on Maiden, and we learned that women have more stamina than men and we last longer in life rafts. Men have these tremendous bursts of strength, extraordinary brute force. On Maiden II, we found that women were thinking long term, making tactical decisions days ahead, and men were making tactical decisions in the moment, short term. Women are less of risk takers, more careful.

Maiden was never about an all women’s crew; it was about proving we can do this, so women could get on the big boats where the money is. It’s staggering that there is so much female experience from past races, and men are still running the boats. After Maiden II, there has not been a single other mixed-gender team. When Mark Turner had the genius idea to make it an advantage to take women along on the Volvo Ocean Race, allowing additional people on board if you take women, most the boats took women. David Witt skippering Scuttlebutt in the race said, “I’m not going to be part of some social experiment.” He did two legs with seven men and came last in each leg, then he took on a female navigator and won that leg. It was one of those moments when you thank the universe. We needed that.

In the documentary Maiden, you said, “The ocean’s always trying to kill you. It doesn’t take a break.” In a prior DWR article, we shared lessons learned from Crista Samaras from Brave Enterprises about a “bravery gap” between the genders and encouraging women to “brave your fear.”  I understand you feared failure, but did you fear the sea? And how did you overcome that to mount the campaign and sail the race? And maybe more importantly, 25 years later, what could you have done better to brave your fears?

You feel very small at sea. Everyone always exclaims how small Maiden is too, and she does look smaller than I remembered. I think you’d be an idiot if you weren’t scared at sea, and any man who says he hasn’t been scared at sea is lying. I saw very real fear and worry in their eyes on Atlantic Privateer when we went through a storm and couldn’t get the spinnaker down, and Paul Stanbridge was at the wheel trying to control the boat and Kym “Shag” Morton was at the mast prepared to blow the flares. It was terrifying because we’d left the sails up too long, because that’s what guys do. On Maiden, we would have had those sails down way before the wind came up and have been sailing along comfortably with the blast reacher poled out.

I think that fear is good. It’s adrenaline; you take and use it. It reminds you that you’re alive, that you’re on the edge. The worst bits all happen at night, and at first light, there is a relief you’ve made it.

Brita Siepker is an associate in Debevoise’s New York office. Brita is a lifelong sailor and in 2015 she took some time away from lawyering to sail around the world.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.