Part Three: “I have a dream.”
Tracy Edwards, MBE was the first (and until the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15, the only) skipper to muster an all-women crew and compete in the then named Whitbread Round the World Race. I spoke with Tracy aboard the same yacht, the refit Maiden, at Safe Harbor Newport Shipyard in Newport, Rhode Island. (Part One of our conversation can be found at windcheckmagazine.com.)
Coop: You had just come ashore after three weeks at sea. You called your mum and found out she’d been getting calls from a guy saying he is King Hussein. When you told her he is who he said he was, she responded, “I thought he might’ve been.” How did your mum develop that level of prescience with you?
TE: All of my life preceding that moment was preparation for an “Anything is possible” moment. We had been rebuilding our relationship at that point, which was nice. And when she died and I was going through her things. She had kept EVERYTHING from and about me. Post cards, letters, with little notes on them, pictures, everything. It is a treasure trove of my life.
Coop: Had she and your stepfather reconciled?
TE: Oh, Lord no. She had left him at that point, moved back to live with my brother, Trevor. He had driven to Wales, collected her and her things and driven back to Reading one day while the stepdad was in the pub. Trevor came and worked for me on a yacht in the Caribbean. I was cook and he was the Steward. THAT was hilarious.
Coop: Cooking…A woman cooking on a yacht is the stereotype of women and sailing. What kind of cooking experience had you had?
TE: Oh, not at all…none. Self-taught all the way. I just made it up as I went along. “Fake it till you make it” is My Life’s Motto. But you know, I learned. I am a quick learner, as I discovered. I learned lots from the people around me. In school I wasn’t. If they had told me, “If you learn math you can be a pirate, I would have learned that, but they just said. “You need to learn because you have to.” That was not a good enough reason. Then I get out of school and suddenly I started learning, because there was a reason for it.
I had read a book called Cape Horn to Port on Julian’s boat in the Caribbean. I opened the book and I paused: “Julian, is this you, on Condor? With a broken mast with Peter Blake?” “Yup, that’s me,” he replied. I thought, “Wow!” I asked him “What is the Whitbread like?” He said, “It’s the best thing you will ever do. There is nothing like it.” And it was still so Corinthian. You could sail whatever you had, and there were no rules or regulations. He said, “It is total freedom to find out what you are made of.” I heard these wondrous tales of the Whitbread and sailing around the world. When I got back to England there was a Whitbread boat in the marina. I went over and ask them if they needed a cook. I would not to presume that I could sail in any other position.
Well, long story, I was not well treated but it got me to Cape Town and I left the boat. I put out the word I was looking for a cook’s job on a boat. I knew all the guys in Atlantic Privateer. We had spent some time together examining the inside of glasses of beer. The Doctor got a hold of me one day and said, “Our cook has had a stroke. He is OK, but he cannot sail. I went to see Shag,[Aussie Kim Morton], the skipper I’d known for years. He was on the boat when I had my teeth knocked out in Sardinia. He said, “No, we are not having a girl on the boat…not happening.” I said, “Shag, we are friends.” He said, “This is not about friendship. I don’t want a girl on the boat.” So, I went behind his back (Under her breath she mutters a naughty girl) to the owner, Padda Kuttel. I said, “I have done the budgets, the meal plans, menus, and I know where to get freeze-dried food. There is no one else. You have to take me.” He said, “What does Shag think?” “He doesn’t want me.” “OK, let’s take you.”
Shag was not impressed when I showed up with Padda’s blessing. He said, “We are gonna make you cry every day. We will make your life hell.” And they did, but I toughened up. And I learned soooo much. If I had not done that race, I could never have done Maiden in a million years. I learned so much over and above the sailing experience. They had no shore crew, no nothing. I did everything: budgeting, getting money from Padda, victualing, logistics, sorting sail repairs, so I was learning all the other stuff though I did not realize I was learning it.
It was a gift. After they got over their initial horror of being the only professional ocean racing Maxi with a girl on the boat, well we won the next leg, into Auckland. That was the 7-minute finish with NZ Enterprise and Peter Montgomery announcing. His commentary was more exciting than doing the race. So all of a sudden, I was the lucky Mascot but I also now had seventeen older brothers, so dating was, ah, really hard. Fortunately, I was going out with one of the guys on Drum.
As we were coming in I had this profound thought – I don’t get them very often – and that was: “No man will ever let me navigate his boat in a Whitbread, in my lifetime.” And I thought, “I want to go around again as the navigator.” And really it was not about feminism. I wanted to navigate.”
I went back to England, saw mum and said, “Mum I want to change the world.” And she said, “Oh God, really? Why do we want to do that?” “Because I want to be the navigator in the next Whitbread.” She said, “Oh, well if you think of it like this, it is like an inverse pyramid. You want to do that (points to the top of an imaginary pyramid, made by her hands), you have to come down here, to the first little step.” She had run her own businesses. I should have known. “Wow, Mum!” She said, “Well, you’re going to have your own boat, your own project. That means you’re going to have to raise the money.” I said, “We’ll do an all-female crew. That will prove women can sail around the world and we can kill lots of birds with one stone.”
I went down to Hamble to see the guys. I told them and none of them laughed…and I thought they were all going to fall over laughing and rubbish the idea. And Paul Stanbridge – I have so much respect for him – said, “If anyone is going to do it, it’s going to be you.” I thought, “Blimey, thank you,” and then I said, “Thank you.” And then they started taking the piss out of me.
The next person I met was Howard Gibbons. He was a yachting journalist at the time, but he knew stuff. We started talking and I realized I knew stuff I did not think I knew. I asked him, “Do you fancy being my Project Manager?” You know, in the pub after a few beers. He said, “Oh, yeah, OK.” And that was really how Maiden was born. It was not a big feminist schtick: “I’m going to change the world for women.” I wanted to do the Whitbread again, this time as navigator. We announced the project at the Southhampton Boat show in September. Well, there was too much mickey taking, laughter, total disbelief.
Coop: How did Bob Fisher (Senior Ranking member of International Yachting Journalists, recently deceased) take it, having a heart attack?
TE: Oh, Fish was hysterical. He was the one who wrote the line, “a tin full of tarts,” which he did change.
Coop: Did you reconcile with him?
TE: Oh yes, Fish became one of my favorite people in the world. When we won the leg into Auckland (jumping ahead a bit) he was on Fisher and Paykel. They came out to meet us and they were all singing, “There she was just walkin’ down the street, singing Do wah diddy, diddy dum diddy do,” with Fish on board having been well overserved, trying to not go off the boat into Auckland Harbor. But the next day the headline in his article was: “Not just a tin full of tarts. A tin full of smart, fast tarts.” We knew the word “tarts” was still in the sentence but we thought, “OK, baby steps. Let’s not run before we can walk.” Bob became one of my biggest supporters in every other project I ever did. When we rescued Maiden and brought her back to Hamble, he came down to meet us.
Walking down the ramp with his new hips, he was eighty-something, and dressed in his Sunday best. I told him, “Bob, today would not be today without you being here.” Oh, I am getting ahead again here. This was 2014. We sat down and he said, “Tell me about girls’ education.” “Bob, you have come a long way,” I told him. “I had a good teacher” he replied.
But back to Maiden. In the early days, we got soooo much grief. Some of the stuff that people wrote was ghastly. “Back to the kitchen sink, girls. You failed.” Someone dumped motor oil on my front yard. One bloke came up to me in a pub one night. Never seen him before and he poked his finger at me, almost in my face and growled, “You’re all going to die.” I asked him, “OK, how does that put you out?” It was wearing at the time, but I think it was a good thing in the end because God, it spurred me on.
Tracy Edwards will return… ■