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 https://www.windcheckmagazine.com/article/women-on-the-water-tracy-edwards/.)
My brother, a career journalist, once remarked about interviewing: Know when to shut up and listen. In that vein, I have largely let this part run on as Tracy remembers her formative years in the boat game.
Coop: We left you in Greece, having found your tribe and discovering how much fun you were having with a great group of like-minded souls.
TE: Yes, it was just a great time – great people, travelling to all of these different places with my stuff, me and my own bed Then later, going from boat to boat, I had some amazing skippers, just fantastic, and every single one of them took me a little bit further forward in my sailing. They were way ahead of their time, all guys, great people and fantastic mentors. I was so lucky. I have heard some horror stories: “Well, the stewardess…ya know.”
Then I did my first transatlantic over to the Caribbean on a big, beautiful sloop named Southern Star. It was on this trip I really learned to sail. I recognized that they were people, real sailors, who could teach me the next thing I needed to know. I had already been across the Indian Ocean to the Maldives and the Seychelles, and here I was off to the Caribbean with these sailors.
Then we arrived in Antigua. I thought, “I could die happy right now. If I died right now, this would be enough.” This is 1982 or ‘83 and Antigua was still that absolutely gorgeous, untouched Caribbean island (Whimsical sigh of great memories, eyes looking off into the 40-year distance…). A dirt road into English Harbor, no marinas, no moorings, copper and lumber had not been restored; it was still a ruin. It was like magic, I loved it so much. The scene was just beautiful. I got a job as a stewardess there on a boat called Celestial. She was run by an almost legendary couple, Piggy and JoJo, and they took me to the next level of sailing.
And fun: I remember playing cricket on Galleon Beach on Sundays, and these fabulous people I am still friends with. That is what I love about sailing. I know I can go to any port in the world and likely know someone there.
After that Caribbean season, I came up to Newport. Newport was such a huge phase in my life. It made me realize I could be so much more than a stewardess. I got work, day jobs, and met some really amazing people (who are hosting my birthday party tonight as it turns out). Newport made me see so many possibilities.
Coop: And yesterday was the anniversary of the start of the Whitbread Race that started it all, thirty years ago.
TE: Oh, right. Yes. I missed that, damn it. I then did my next transatlantic to Sardinia to do the Swan Worlds. And then it dawned on me: “Oh, this is Racing. I quite like this.” Even getting a tooth knocked out on a grinder handle did not put me off. Went back to England had that fixed, flew back to Palma, did my second east to west transatlantic on a boat called White Qualio, with an awesome skipper named Julian Gildersleeve, and he taught me to navigate. In two days. Incredible, because numbers to me are like hieroglyphics. Julian said, “Oh don’t worry. I’ll reach you to navigate.” And he did. I did.
This was amazing. Here I was, knowing where I was using a sextant, pad, pencil, a book of tables and a clock. I thought, “My God, this is it! I have found what I want to do.” Oh, no hang on, we were going to the Swan Worlds… Anyway, Julian said, “OK, take us to Portugal.” And I said, “But you’ll be watching over my shoulder…?” He replied, “No, wherever you take us we’ll end up.” I thought, “Bloody hell. OK.” (one senses the cringe in her past body language).
Well, I got us to Villamoura, at the bottom of Portugal and I thought it was THE BEST moment of my life. I was just…(a visible, emotional, goose bump pause) “I did that. It came up over the horizon just like I calculated it would.” For a while, whenever we got into a port, whatever boat I was on, every time I would tell everyone, “I did that. I got us here.” And of course, the crew would look at me and say, “Ah, right. Well, it is your job. You ARE the navigator, you know.” It has never lost that magic. Well, I don’t sail anymore but it was always magical.
Back in Newport I got a job on a race boat called Jubilation, with Scotty Murray (Coop: A fixture in the Newport scene at New England Boatworks for thirty years) And I discovered they’re race crews. You got to work on the boat and then go and race… Got it.
Then I got a day job with Whitey (Russell, another Newport fixture) on a boat named Excalibur. And again, at the time, I had no idea that job was going to change my life. But it did. This was the day with King Hussein of Jordan and his family, a daysail in Martha’s Vineyard. That day changed my life, my relationship, my friendship with King Hussein and his family. And Gawd, it almost didn’t happen.
I was in my flat, asleep, really worn out and a bit dusty from the previous night and the phone rang about 0600. It was Whitey and he said, “I need a stewardess for a one-day deal. It’s good money. You need to be at the boat in…”
I was tired and not feeling great. I said, “Argh, I am not really up for it, Whitey. He said, “Listen, if you want to work in this game you cannot get a rap for this. Here is a great day’s work. You gotta take it. You get a name for this kind of attitude, and you will have a hard time in this biz. You said you wanted work. You need to be down at the boat at [some ungodly hour]. It seemed like fifteen minutes but was probably an hour. Thank God for Whitey’s firm hand on this. And of course he was right, so I got on with it.
Whitey and I brought the boat from Newport to Martha’s Vineyard. We still did not know who the charter party was. We arrived and there were guys on the dock in black suits with sunglasses and their fingers in their ears. We went to dinner and came back aboard to sleep. The next morning, there were Coast Guard boats and helos, local cops, divers, and the guys in suits again, Anyway, the King’s party came aboard (I had no idea who they were; I’d been sailing for four years) and we headed out for a lovely, sunny, sail around Vineyard Sound. It was a great sailing day and the King and his family were having a grand time. They were very relaxed. He and I ended up finding a common interest in radio communications. Turns out he was a ham radio operator, and I had been banned from Channel16 in the Caribbean for a while…
At the end of the day, we were coming back to the harbor and I was down below cleaning up in the galley. King Hussein came below, in his jeans and a T-shirt, and started talking with me again. We were chatting away and he picked up a tea towel and started drying the plates I was washing. I told him, “Hey, you cannot do that.” He smiled at me and said, “I am the King. I can do anything.” Just surreal. We had really hit it off. I know that sounds a bit odd, but we did, and he did that with a number of people. He gave his phone number and telex number – more surreal – and took down my Mum’s number, the best way to reach me.
Coop: It is reported elsewhere that one of the remarks he made concerning you was he thought you were like a
TE: Yes. Amazing.
Coop: Did you go home and read Seven Pillars of Wisdom?
TE: Yes, and I was so honored because of what the Bedouin were, what they meant in Arab life, and what he meant to them. One of the reasons King Hussein was so loved was that he was really a people person (a sort of a mental exhale). I then did another transatlantic with Scotty and those guys on Jubilation.
When we arrived in the UK, I called my mum and she burst out, “What have you been up to?” I replied, “Mum, I have just gotten off the boat after a transatlantic passage from Newport. I haven’t had a chance to do anything. Why?” She said, “This bloke calling himself King Hussein has ringing here looking for you. Who is he?” I was thinking, “Oh no, he is King Hussein,” and hoping she had not been telling him to bugger off. Mum said, “Hmmm, something told me he might just be a king…” ■
Look for Part 3 of this amazing interview in our January/February 2023 edition.