In 1989, Tracy Edwards disproved doubters when the 26-year-old skipper led the first-ever all-woman crew to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Race through the punishing yachting competition that spans 33,000 miles, lasting nine months.
Her inspiring story is coming to the big screen locally when the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) presents Alex Holmes’ Maiden as part of HIFF’s SummerDocs.
We recently chatted with Holmes about the captivating journey and more.
Did you follow the Maiden’s voyage as it was happening?
AH: That’s an interesting question. It’s one of those things that I think was in the back of my head somewhere when I first heard Tracy tell the story, it kind of rung some bells, but I couldn’t quite grasp it. It wasn’t something I was interested in before I heard about Tracy’s experience. So, I think the honest answer is I wasn’t really. Hearing Tracy tell her story from the inside was very different from following this race at the time from the outside, I think. What drew me to Tracy’s story was her personal experience in it, all the battles that she had to face and overcome in order to even enter the race. And then her experience on the water. What we made is a film that you know, of course, on one level, it is about sailing. It’s got lots of sailing in it. If you’re into sailing, then you’re in for a treat with this film, but it’s just as relevant and just as interesting for people who have zero interest in sailing, who wouldn’t know a sail boat if it hit them on the head. Because really, it’s a film about this group of women and how they came together to achieve something incredible.
So how and when did you hear about Tracy’s story?
AH: So the first time I heard Tracy tell her story was when she came to give a talk at my daughter’s elementary school. My daughter was leaving that school and moving on to the next one. And they had arranged what they call a “celebration evening.” And this year, they had mixed it up. This was my third child. So I’ve been to a couple of these things before. And while they’re so full of pride, I didn’t have great expectations of it being a relatively riveting evening. But this Sunday, they had a guest speaker, and it was an evening that kind of changed my life, I guess. Because the minute Tracy started to speak, I thought this is a remarkable person, you can just tell that she has this sort of energy and charisma and drive. I could see that on the children’s faces. It takes quite a lot to hold the attention of a group of 11-year-olds, in the evening when they’re fidgeting and tired, but Tracy did that.
As she unfolded her story, I just felt like I was hearing a description of a movie. It just seemed like it was destined to be a film. So much so that by the time she finished telling the story, I thought, I can’t believe that this hasn’t been made. This is too good, someone must have already made this into a film. After, I went up and asked has anybody told this story? And she said, “Well, actually no.” And then she said she had sometimes wondered whether it might make a film. At that stage, I was thinking about it as a dramatic feature, as a narrative feature because what she had just described was something that happened a long time ago, before the invention of iPhones and selfie culture, and most of it happened at sea a long way from land in the middle of salty water in a damp boat. I thought there’s almost no chance of there being any footage of this. So it would have to be told as a narrative feature. But it was only later that Tracy told me that they had these cameras on board the whole way around and that somewhere this footage must exist. That was music to my ears because my background was as a documentary maker. That’s where I learned my filmmaking and it was always really my first love. The chance to tell this story as a documentary was really a gift. Of course, that’s when the hard work started and we had to track down the footage. We had a job in store.
Could you speak about the juxtaposition between original footage of the Whitbread Round the World Race and new footage within the film?
AH: It took us about two years really to kind of collect and curate all these little shards of footage from all over the world. But once we pulled them together, and saw what we had, I had the sense that there was going to be enough there that we could tell this story in quite a pure way, just using the archive footage and interviews. That would keep us honest to the events of the race, and also, it would really help the audience put themselves inside the experience of these women. I mean, I was blessed because not only did they have cameras on board, but the woman who became responsible for shooting much of the footage, who was the greatest childhood friend, Joe Gooding, she had used the camera in a way that was really interesting and unexpected. Joe has a great emotional intelligence, and she has allowed the camera just to linger on people and she has produced these fantastic portraits of different points of the voyage of these women, just watching them go about their daily lives.
A couple of other boats had cameras on them in this race, but the footage from those other boats wasn’t nearly so interesting because they had done little formal setups or little camera interviews and you didn’t really get a sense of what the characters were like, whereas on the way that Joe would use the camera was she really got under the skin of these of these women. So, that was a blessing and it was just great material to work with. It encouraged me to think that I didn’t want to undermine that by shooting whatever we could do to get it done, contemporary shot stuff or reconstructed footage, but just to try keep within the bounds of what they had shot during the race demonstrated, and of course, Tracy’s home movie footage from before the race started. We had that and then, of course, we have stills as well, which is another element that we use in the film.
It’s quite interesting that they were filming back then. Do you have any idea as to why?
AH: It was the first race that had any cameras on board because Tracy had done the previous race four years earlier, the Whitbread Race, and there were no cameras on that race. There’s no moving pictures from on board in that race. So technology had moved on a little bit. I mean, the cameras were still big and clunky video cameras. But, you know, video cameras were becoming more manageable and the Whitbread had asked the boats whether any of them were interested in having cameras on board. Most of the male crews had said no, absolutely not, we’re here to race. We haven’t got time to do filming. But I think that Tracy and the crew, having come through the four years that they’ve come through to even the battle that they had experienced just to even get to the start line, felt like this was probably something that was worth recording. Who knows what would happen and they owed it to themselves to kind of try and capture this moment if they could, having put in so much before they even started the race. I think that they did have a sense that one day this might be interesting to look back on and be a good story to tell. I was very grateful that they had done that and taken the trouble.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
AH: Well, I hope they take away what I took away the first time I heard Tracy tell the story, which is really a sense that if you look on, if you take courage in your hands, if you refuse to accept no for an answer, and if you step outside your front door and make an effort to try something, then good things will happen. You may have dreams and you may not achieve those dreams, but you’ll achieve something and it will be better than staying at home.
I think that’s a really encouraging message to say to people. Don’t expect it to be easy. They expect it to be straightforward and Tracy’s journey surely wasn’t straightforward. But if you keep at it, if you show perseverance and resilience, then your life will be enhanced and you will find the sorts of things that Tracy found. This is, for me, a film as much about sisterhood and the love that these women discovered for each other during the course of this race, as it is about anything else. That’s not what Tracy set out to find. But that was for her, I think, one of the biggest takeaways was that she created this set of relationships with these women that are in good stead throughout her life. So really, I hope it’s that inspirational sense that if you have a dream or an ambition, just don’t think about it, just start it. Do it, take the first step because it will certainly lead you somewhere interesting.
You’ve done quite a few documentaries that focus on professional athletes (Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story, Maiden, and One Night in Turin). From a filmmaker’s perspective, what makes athletes a compelling film topic?
AH: Athletes are a very particular type of character. They’re very driven. They live in a slightly accentuated, high octane environment because they are so focused on their goal. What it takes to be successful as an athlete is extraordinary – you need not just the physical strength, but you need mental strength. And you know, for me, that’s just as interesting. Someone who finds this sport interesting, and it comes very naturally to them, well, I don’t think they ever make it to the top. It’s the people who show absolute determination to overcome flaws and the obstacles that are put in front of them, their internal flaws and the external obstacles. They’re the people who end up truly succeeding. I think that’s a great life lesson for everybody. That it’s not about being lucky or being gifted an incredible talent. It’s actually about taking what you have and then confronting the obstacles that are put in front of you and confronting the flaws that are inside you, and trying to overcome them. That’s the way you achieve great success.
What are you working on at the moment?
AH: I actually just finished directing a completely different series for Netflix, a children’s fantasy series. That was a complete change of direction from this, but my company is developing a new feature documentary about the singer Billie Holiday, which I think is going to be quite remarkable. It’s based on some never before heard tapes of interviews with the people who were closest to Billie, in her life, that were made several decades ago and have been lost until now. So it’s a really raw and candid portrait of one of the most talented singers that ever lived. So I think that’s going to be quite extraordinary.
The Maiden screening, sponsored by Woodford Reserve and Scott Seltzer, Managing Director, The Seltzer Group at J.P. Morgan Securities, will be held at Guild Hall on Saturday, June 29 at 7 p.m. Following the film, HIFF Co-Chair Alec Baldwin and Artistic Director David Nugent will lead a conversation with the film’s director.
Tickets are $25.
Guild Hall is located at 158 Main Street in East Hampton. For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.