News from the Field, January 1997
It was 1988 when Tracy Edwards first strolled into a mahogany boardroom--the lair of pasty-faced London businessmen-- and brassily asked for $2 million to sail around the world. "It was rather disconcerting," says Edwards, who encountered tittering mockery when she explained her plan to lead a 12-woman crew in the grueling Whitbread Round the World Race. "They laughed till they fell on the floor in tears." A year later, however, the laughter was stifled: Edwards's boat, the Maiden, grabbed second in the Whitbread, and Edwards was lustily greeted at the finish by a swarm of 50,000 fans. "It was bloody hard work," says Edwards. "And now I have to go out and show them up again."
Indeed, the more things change, the more they remain approximately the way they were. In the years since Edwards put the female imprimatur on world-class sailing, the movement has picked up noticeable speed, fueled most recently by the crew of Mighty Mary in the 1995 America's Cup. Now, hoping to build on the momentum of the American venture, three new ladies-only efforts are trying to conquer the high seas. In the first and certainly the purest, Isabelle Autissier--arguably the world's finest female offshore sailor--departed two months ago in hopes of becoming the first woman to complete the Vend‹e Globe; if all goes well, the French skipper should return from the solo round-the-world race near the end of February. The next attempt, less ambitious, will come from a team organized by supermodel Elle Macpherson, which will set sail in September trying to become the first all-female crew to win the Whitbread (see "Up Next...Naomi's Polar Quest?" page 22). The final group will be led by Edwards, who says she's no longer content to shoot for a goal modified by the phrase "all-female." To that end, the 34-year-old Englishwoman will take to the water this month with a crew of ten proven female sailors, beginning a year of training in pursuit of sailing's ultimate prize: the Troph‹e Jules Verne, awarded to the boat that completes history's fastest nonstop, unassisted circumnavigation. To claim it, Edwards will have to skipper her 92-foot catamaran, Lady Endeavour, around the world in less than 74 days, the record set in 1994 by Robin Knox-Johnston of England and New Zealander Peter Blake.
But the choppiest part of the Edwards voyage remains the passage through those inhospitable corporate boardrooms. Although such hat-in-hand maneuvering seemed to have paid off--for many months, Edwards maintained that her Jules Verne attempt would begin early this year--things turned suddenly foul last November when her primary sponsor pulled out, leaving the team...well, high and dry. Edwards, undaunted, immediately began spinning. "This delay can only work out favorably," she claims. "It will give us an extra year's training, which means we'll have a good chance to smash the record, rather than just beat it."
Whether this is true or merely a cheery sound-bite, Edwards is now on familiar ground. To pay for the 1988-1989 Whitbread, she was forced to sell her house and all her other possessions--and she still had to take out a mortgage on the Maiden. But then, simple money matters aren't the only thing prompting skepticism about this latest quest. Many observers question Edwards's ability to handle a nonstop circumnavigation, which among other things requires a crew able to conduct dicey repairs in treacherous seas. "They'll need some amazingly good weather and at least 15 knots every day," says Cam Lewis, a crew member on Bruno Peyron's Commodore Explorer, which snagged the Troph‹e with a 79-day effort in 1993. "And since she hasn't sailed much since the Whitbread project, this trip, more so than most, will depend almost entirely on her crew."
Edwards, of course, insists she's seen to such concerns. She's recruited two experienced Americans, Lisa Charles and Katie Pettibone, from Mighty Mary; two former Maiden crew members; and a handful of other Whitbread veterans. "Tracy's always been amazing at putting together the right personalities," says Mighty Mary captain Dawn Riley, who sailed with Edwards on the Maiden. "She's quiet, but she doesn't take any shit." And Edwards says her crew is hardly the only thing in her favor. Endeavour, she notes, playing her trump card, is the very same boat, albeit renamed and refurbished, that Blake and Knox-Johnston used on their record-breaking voyage three years ago.
Even so, if Edwards and her crew don't manage to best 74 days, they can still earn a place in the record books by completing the circuit nonstop, something no all-female crew has ever done. And with that, Edwards hopes, the doors to the boardrooms will open wide--ensuring a type of job security that she admits is one of her primary reasons for going after the Troph‹e.
"Raising money for these things can mean sitting in an office for two years," Edwards says. "That's not easy for someone who prefers to be on the open ocean."
Copyright 1997, Outside magazine