An all-female voyage is reborn

Maiden, the boat that took the first all-women’s crew around the globe in the Whitbread Race, is doing it again, and returning to Auckland on the way. Suzanne McFadden reports.

The first time Maiden sailed into Auckland, on a balmy night in January 1990, a phenomenal crowd of 14,000 people lined the waterfront to wave her in. It didn't matter that it was 1am, or that Sir Peter Blake’s unbeatable Steinlager II had already won line honours three days before.

They'd come to celebrate the crew of 12 yachtswomen who were pioneers in that 1989-90 Whitbread round-the-world race, including one Kiwi - Auckland sailor and rigger Amanda Swan (known by her crewmates as Mandi).

Newsroom journalist Alexia Russell, who happened to be Swan’s rowing pairs partner, was at the finish-line to report on Maiden’s finish. The New Zealand Herald held the front page for the news.

The throng of fans weren’t there simply because the sailors, for the first time, were all women, but because they were true race contenders - the first boat in their division to finish the leg from Fremantle to Auckland.

“The scene was pretty unbelievable,” Russell remembers. “The fact that it was the early hours of the morning did little to dissuade Aucklanders from turning up. The girls on Maiden were bowled over – you could see it on their faces.”

Maiden’s extraordinary skipper Tracey Edwards – a young Englishwoman who’d been a cook on board Atlantic Privateer in the previous Whitbread Race, and hated it - had mortgaged her house to buy an old boat which had already sailed once around the world.

When she couldn’t find anyone to support her dream of sailing around the globe with an all-women’s crew, King Hussein of Jordan stepped in.

Edwards had met the King by chance, working as a stewardess on a charter yacht in Newport, Rhode Island. She was washing dishes in the galley, King Hussein picked up a tea-towel, and they struck up a lifelong friendship. The Maiden team bore the logo of Royal Jordanian Airlines.

The crew on Maiden did more than win two legs, and finish second overall in their division. They burst through a glass ceiling, inspiring women and girls the world over to sail.

Almost 30 years later, Edwards has rescued her beloved Maiden from rotting away in the Indian Ocean. With the financial support of the late King’s daughter, Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, the fully restored boat will leave Southampton next month on a three-year voyage around the globe – including a stopover in Auckland.  

It’s likely that at some point of the journey, there will be New Zealand yachtswomen on board.

The 58ft aluminium sloop, drawn up by celebrated Kiwi designer Bruce Farr, was salvaged from the Seychelles, where Edwards found her in a distressing state of ruin.

Following a successful public funding campaign, she brought Maiden back to England, where the derelict boat is being rebuilt as a fast, blue-water sailing yacht.

Her retro-look sails have been custom made in Auckland by Doyle Sails New Zealand.

Maiden’s original skipper decided to bring the boat back to life with a special purpose. Expelled from school at 15, Edwards wanted all girls around the world to have the basic right to education.

During 30 stopovers in 18 countries, “The Maiden Factor” will campaign to raise money for educational equality worldwide.

That’s how the royal family of Jordan became involved once again. Princess Haya is supporting the voyage through her global initiative “Anything is Possible”, which honours the legacy of her father.  Its mission is to “support, promote and inspire the best in people”.

Maiden’s first leg, expected to begin in a month’s time, will be sailed from Southampton to Aqaba, Jordan. Edwards should be at the helm.  

Eight women will sail Maiden on each leg, but the crew will change to allow as many young yachtswomen as possible the opportunity to sail.

And there’s the opportunity for men onboard too - as guest crew, who will pay for the privilege.

Last month, all of the original Maiden crew were reunited for the first time since 1990 – meeting in London for a private screening of a documentary on their historic journey.

Amanda Swan Neal was there. The Kiwi rigger and photographer on board Maiden now divides her time between Friday Harbour, Washington, and the South Pacific Ocean, where she and her husband, John, lead offshore sail-training expeditions.

At the reunion, Edwards said there had been many doubters when she pulled the crew together, who didn’t believe they could “take on such a notorious challenge”.

“We not only completed the race, but did so in an impressive time, coming second in our class, ahead of many all-male crews,” she said.  “Our accomplishment reached beyond the world of sailing – showing that with the right support and plenty of belief, women can do anything."

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