Inside a legendary Whitbread: Extract from Maiden by Tracy Edwards and Tim Madge

Yachting World

Tracy Edwards’ book ‘Maiden’, written with Tim Madge, tells a tale that has quite properly passed into legend

Tracy raises the funds, finds the boat of the same name and skippers the first all-female crew around the globe in the world’s greatest fully-crewed yacht race. The years 1989/90 were iconic for the Whitbread, with the likes of Peter Blake driving Steinlager II, Lawrie Smith with his redoubtable crew jockeying Rothmans, and Fisher & Paykel with Grant Dalton at the helm.

The stress on Tracy throughout this book is almost unbelievable, but it is in the Southern Ocean, hammering down to Fremantle in Australia, that she really shows her mettle. The text comes in the form of her daily diary and it lays her soul frighteningly bare.

In the extract below, she has just been relaying messages and standing by for Creighton’s Naturally, a maxi which had just lost a crewman. She has turned in exhausted, while inaccurate steering compasses have forced Maiden further north than she’d intended. Read on. I couldn’t put it down.

From Maiden

November 14th 49°24’N, 19°05’E

I spent the whole day in a dreadful mood because we had gone too far north. When I finally thought I had sorted it all out, the satnavs packed up. I started praying my calculations had been right, but I have no way of checking them.

Dawn, Jeni and I racked our brains trying to work it all out. Why did this have to happen when we were first? Well, we won’t be for much longer. Rucanor will have creamed past us last night.

I stood by for Creighton’s all day. Bart is getting better all the time. I had a message for them from British Defender.

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Edwards at the Maiden nav and comms station. Unreliable instruments piled on the pressure

At the chat show, sure enough Rucanor were only 39 miles behind with lots of wind. I had to fight my temper – difficult. I still couldn’t get weather maps because of being on standby. It was too cloudy to take a sight (using a sextant).

I am beginning to feel, too, that if we can’t sort out these compasses in Freo then the girls can get themselves another navigator, I’ve had enough. I expect Rucanor can’t believe their luck.

November 15th 49°40’S, 25°17’E – 3,960 miles to go

I kept getting up in the night to check on the sat nav. Nothing, bloody nothing. We had pancakes for breakfast but Jo was in a foul mood. I missed Creighton’s calling as I was trying to deal with a couple of our own problems.

Article continues below…


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If anyone who didn’t sail had been on the boat today it would have put them off sailing for life. It very nearly did it to me. What a nightmare. The wind, too, was up and down. No weather charts again – very bad reception.

It was very cold and damp and miserable – now there is something wrong with the breakers (for electric power). I wonder if they are leaking into the hull and creating the compass problem? At one point everything went. I screamed for Jeni and we sat down and went round and round in circles trying to figure it all out.

We checked everything: the compasses again, the cables to the satnav, the computer. Tempers were again a little short today. Then, at the chat show, things were not too bad. Rucanor and the others are still in the high as well as us. We’ll try to head south again as they all are. Rucanor is still 40 miles behind (are they sailing backwards?). I really thought they would have overtaken us last night. L’Esprit is 100 miles behind, Schlussel 173. Good.

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Dramatic view of Maiden in the 1989/90 Whitbread Round the World Race

Everyone else is very fed up but trying to make the best of it. Good on ’em. I stayed up all day but did manage to grab two hours this afternoon. Finally, the satnav took a fix in the early evening; then immediately stopped again.

Dawn had worked out the fuel. Because of Creighton’s (not that I mind), we will probably run out during the last week. Thank the Lord for the emergency batteries. I have worked out that in five days we can finally head north. Jeni will be pleased – she has been suffering badly from her frozen feet.

We went today onto the chart which has Australia away in the corner. Rucanor are not on it yet. That makes things seem a lot better. But while we were gybing, Sally managed to slam the hatch shut on my hand. When Jo brought some water to soothe it she stumbled and spilled it all over the chart. If I hadn’t been crying, I’d have laughed.

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Testing times for the Maiden crew in the Southern Ocean

I heard via Portishead today that we now have huge money problems. Oh dear God I have had enough. I want to be at home curled up in front of the fire watching ‘Coronation Street’, and stroking the dog. I have never been as highly strung on a boat as I am now.

I feel like punching walls (except my hand hurts too much). I have to make such an effort at the moment to stay calm; worrying about the money is not helping. I suppose I will find out in Freo soon enough. Finally, tonight we were doing 9 knots in the right direction and we had taken another 14 miles from Rucanor.

November 18th 51°30’S, 42°53’E – 3,286 miles to go

Things are looking up. The sat navs are now working and the compasses seem OK. We spent a couple of hours with no wind; it was cold and raining. Then both the compasses and the satnavs packed up.

I can’t begin to write how angry and frustrated I am. Everyone is down in the dumps – and it is raining again. Rucanor is now only 23 miles behind; everyone has caught up. I still don’t know where exactly we are.

I got my sleeping bag and snoozed off and on in the nav station, waiting for a fix. I got one at midnight and then worked out how much the compasses were out. I gave the watch a course. Jo is now getting up to do breakfast. I have been up for 19 hours.

November 20th 51°05’S, 57°22’E – 2,746 miles to go

It is getting warmer; lots of birds now follow us. Meanwhile the pressure is building on me to do the right thing. The compasses seem OK; satnav still on the blink from time to time. We spotted another iceberg, a large one. The wind is yuk, so is the sea. I got some weather charts and as a result I am heading north slowly. Rucanor have given up to go above Kerguelen.

I can’t make up my mind, it is one of the most difficult decisions to make. I think Equity & Law are going north too. There is a high pressure system over us and it is taking its toll. We have heard that Fortuna has two men injured and that Schlussel have broken a pole.

Stress and strain all round. The position reports have become the most important part of the day. We are all getting physically, emotionally and mentally knackered.

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‘Maiden’ by Tracy Edwards and Tim Madge, available on Kindle from Amazon, £8.19. Proceeds go to The Maiden Foundation

November 21st 50°49’S, 60°38’E

I live, eat, breathe, sleep course, course, course. Which way to go??? I can’t believe how pressured I feel. Exploding point is not far away. Even if Rucanor overtake us it will be a release ­– something to let the steam off. My stomach is playing up and my neck is stiff – all the classic symptoms. I just wish this leg was over. I feel that if we lose we will have let so many people down.

Today started off badly with the wind directly behind us. We gybed and still had a bad course. The wind kept going back and forth. L’Esprit is still going our way – south of Kerguelen. What a stupid place to put an island!

There was blue sky today and some sun, fluffy white clouds and a lovely rolling sea. We had a good wind speed – just the wrong direction. The spinnaker tripped itself twice today – bloody dangerous – but the girls have got it down to a fine art in getting it back.

We got some brilliant speeds today but at the chat show I found out that both Rucanor and L’Esprit had taken miles from us. I heard Fremantle Sailing Club talking to Steinlager. Yippee, there’s life out there! During the chat show the reacher went up and we went over very badly. Horror show.

November 23 50‚21’S, 69°45’E – 2,302 miles to go

38 miles south of Kerguelen. Wiped out totally at 03.30 doing 15 knots. Right over on our side, water pouring into the boat. We had a new record recorded speed (by Jeni) of 17.11 knots. The peak wind was 42 knots.

November 24th 47°56’S, 82°53’E – 1,739 miles to go

I have been like a cat on hot bricks going around Kerguelen, knowing that at any time we could lose the lead. The whole boat was like a time bomb. In the end it was me and Michele. She told me this was not a race around the buoys. Well, after the last-second Whitbread leg I did with Atlantic Privateer, when we finished seven minutes in front of NZI Enterprise I had to disagree.

So we had a screaming match. Everyone agrees I get Bitch of the Leg award. But when we got round Kerguelen there we were still in front – now with a massive advantage. I got worse as I began to realise we really could win this leg.

For three nights now I have not slept. I just toss and turn, wondering if we are doing the course, what the wind is up to – even (still) am I doing the right thing? I am confident but my nerves are raw. The Maiden bravado is cracking up right now. It got a bit better when we found we had taken more miles out of the others, the weather was better and we did some great surfing with a poled-out reacher.

Then the wind dropped again tonight, so I am gritting my teeth waiting for the chat show. L’Esprit is beginning to overtake Rucanor; in general I can feel them both willing us to make a mistake.

November 28th 43º24’S, 97º40’E – 1,061 miles to go

We had 56 knots of wind today. We left the spinnaker up as long as we dared. We were hurtling down the waves at breakneck speeds, our hearts in our mouths. When we did take the flanker down, it was gusting as high as 65 knots. We broached twice while trying to trip the spinnaker.

The mast went completely in the water; the keel was out of the water on the other side. It was terrifying. Water went everywhere, all over the place, all over us. We were gasping and choking in it. Finally, the spinnaker tripped, but by the time we got it down it was in shreds.

It is almost impossible to describe how angry the sea was, how violent the wind. When it had calmed down a little we poled out the blast reacher. By then everyone was soaked through and freezing cold. The compasses are out again.

November 29th 41°21’S, 101°48’E – 856 miles to go

We are now absolutely exhausted. My emotions are up and down. One minute I am as high as a kite, the next suicidal. The girls are so tired they have to concentrate on not falling asleep the whole time on deck. We eat, sleep, work, eat, sleep, work. As I write this there are 700 miles left. I don’t think we could hold on for much longer. Everyone has pushed themselves to their limit; there is still not a whimper of complaint.

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Relief and vindication for Tracy Edwards at the leg finish in Fremantle

These are 11 very special women. We all feel about 20 years older – and look it. The trust we now share is immeasurable. You might know someone all your life and not trust them as much as we do each other. I have seen the most extraordinary acts of selfless caring, heroism, courage, will-power, kindness – and achievement.

L’Esprit has not let up for one minute; they wait for us to break the boat or just to break. I have been terrified, ecstatic, depressed, confident, unsure, brave and cowardly. I am ashamed I ever doubted we could do this, proud of myself for the first time in my life, not tearing myself apart for once, or looking for faults. I have finally found all the good bits I knew were there somewhere in me. I think the girls would say the same about themselves. And, of them, I am so proud I could burst.

Just over three days later Maiden crossed the line off the North Mole in Fremantle, first in her division. The next yacht, Rucanor came in 30 hours later. Maiden had not just won this most difficult of legs: she had achieved the best result by a British yacht in the Whitbread for 12 years; and she had nailed her last critics to her mast, with nothing left to say.

Tracy never gives up. To learn about The Maiden Factor Foundation visit: themaidenfactor.org

First published in the August 2020 issue of Yachting World.


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