Record-breaking yachtswoman Tracy Edwards (MBE) retrieved her boat, Maiden, from the ‘pirate-infested’ Indian Ocean – and now she’s sailing around the world to raise awareness of the issues faced by women deprived of education
Words: Madeleine Howell
Over a cappuccino at Hudson’s on Lower Richmond Road in Putney, record-breaking yachtswoman Tracy Edwards regales me with the success of her recent keynote speech for International Women’s Day, hosted by one of the many charities she supports, The Girls’ Network.
‘They had women speaking who’ve done maths and science and who work for Google, all these things that we’re really trying to get girls interested in. It was just so inspiring,’ she beams. ‘I’m so honoured to be a patron. The founders are both teachers in their early 20s, and they felt it was important to work towards keeping girls aged 15 to 18 in school, and to provide them with mentors.’
Tracy Edwards is irrepressibly enthusiastic about other people’s successes, and incredibly modest about her own notable achievements. Expelled from school herself at 15, she went on to lead the first all-female yacht (Maiden) around the world, and was the first yachtswoman to receive the Yachtsman of the Year award in 1989. She was awarded an MBE in 1990 and, not yet content, put together another crew to sail around the world, this time non-stop. They broke five world records, but were unable to finish the race when their catamaran was dismasted. ‘It still frustrates me today,’ she winces.
More recently, Edwards founded the Maiden Rescue charity to rescue and restore Maiden when it was discovered abandoned, and as well as The Girls’ Network, she is also working as an ambassador for charities such as Fields of Life in Africa, Peace through Sport in the Middle East, and UN Women, famous for the #HeForShe campaign fronted by Emma Watson. In 2017, she will embark on a worldwide tour to raise awareness of the issues faced by women deprived of education. ‘The Maiden is a beautiful symbol, and I wanted to use her to fundraise and to interact with other charities,’ she explains.
I’m a little ashamed to say that back in the 80s, I wasn’t up on my soapbox shouting about how women should be allowed to sail around the world
‘I had noticed that there weren’t that many women in sailing, and I just thought a bunch of girls would be more fun. I’m a little ashamed to say that back in the 80s I wasn’t up on my soapbox shouting about how women should be allowed to sail around the world. It was only when I was told “no, you can’t do that, you can’t be a skipper because you’re a girl”, that’s when I thought, right, things are going to change. When we got going it was so empowering.
‘At the time, men were very good at making feminism seem nasty. Now, the conversation has softened. I look at my daughter’s generation and her attitude is just perfect.’ The #HeForShe campaign is great because it promotes the idea that men should be feminists too, I suggest. ‘And they should be,’ she doesn’t hesitate as her cup clatters back down onto the saucer. ‘It benefits all of us. The numbers are conclusive: if you educate a girl in a community, you improve its socio-economic status; you improve cohesiveness and you improve happiness.’ Edwards is full of admiration for Queen Rania’s work in Jordan to educate women and refugees. ‘She’s awesome. Intelligent women like her are really championing education.’
However, she also stresses that there’s still work to do. ‘It’s the threat of violence against women who speak out that worries me.’ She’s referring to MP Stella Creasy and Caroline Criado-Perez, who received death threats via social media after campaigning to keep women on British bank notes.
Sixty two million girls across the world aren’t even allowed to have an education
‘I think in some areas we are making headway, but in the more vulnerable parts of society across the globe, women almost have it worse. I don’t want you or my daughter growing up afraid to voice an opinion. I’m disappointed when women who have a voice don’t use it. We should scream and shout for the women who are going through domestic violence, or are being yanked out of school. Sixty two million girls across the world aren’t even allowed to have an education.’
Edwards herself took a step back from sailing to have children, and then went on to graduate with a degree in Psychology. ‘My own path was quite chaotic. But at the age of 47 I went and did a degree as a mature student. I thought wow, how lucky am I?’ Now, she’s bubbling with pride that her 16-year-old daughter plans on taking A levels in maths and physics and going to university to become a civil engineer. ‘Sometimes I wonder if we’re actually related,’ she jokes. ‘But seriously, her generation is wonderful. She doesn’t consider it a bloke’s profession. That didn’t even cross her mind. I want to be part of making that happen for the less advantaged.’
Edwards has now lived in Putney for 11 years: ‘It’s the longest I’ve ever settled anywhere in my life. I love being near the river. It’s funny because I literally just stuck a pin on a map and it landed on the Duke’s Head.’ As sun shines over the Thames, I can well imagine that no amount of wind or rain would ever be enough to put a dampener on her spirits.
Visit maidenrescue.org for more information and to read about Tracy Edwards’ work