Magazine article Geographical

It's a Buoy's World

Magazine article Geographical

It's a Buoy's World

Article excerpt

Champion yachtswoman Tracy Edwards has sailed the world's most dangerous seas. Yet her journey has been as much about tackling the barriers that prevent women entering the competitive world of yacht racing. Melanie Train discovers it hasn't always been plain sailing

In just two decades, Tracy Edwards MBE has shaken the yachting world to its foundations. Now 36, she has twice competed in the Whitbread Round the World Race, the world's toughest yacht race. The second time, to the astonishment of the yachting fraternity, she skippered the sport's first all-female crew. And in 1989, she became the first woman to be voted `Yachtsman of the Year'.

But the list of Tracy Edwards' achievements doesn't end there. Edwards and her all-female crews currently hold record times for both the Australia to New Zealand and Cowes to Fastnet runs. They've also broken the cross-Channel record. Most recently, Edwards and ten other women attempted the Jules Verne Trophy, an award given for breaking the non-stop round-the-world record. Again, a first for a female crew.

For anyone each feat is remarkable, but considering Edwards achieved them in the male-oriented world of yacht racing, they are little short of phenomenal.

"The yacht-racing scene is not as far behind as say golf or cricket, but it is still one of the last bastions of the all-male club," says Edwards. "It's on a roller coaster of change now, but when I first started it was like there was a big conspiracy to prevent women from racing. On my first Whitbread in 1985, out of 250 crew members in the entire race, only seven were women."

Oddly, for a yachtswoman, Edwards grew up miles from the sea, first in Reading and later Wales. At 15, she was expelled from Gowerston Comprehensive school in Wales for non-attendance. At a loss for something to do, she went backpacking around Europe. That's when Edwards discovered sailing. She was working in a bar in Greece when a man came in looking for a stewardess to work on his charter motor yacht. Two days later, she'd found her vocation in life. At the time, she didn't know that her father, who had died when she was ten, had also been a keen sailor.

After two seasons working the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Indian Ocean, Edwards landed a job on an Ocean 70, skippered by Paul Van Beek. He gave Edwards her first taste of real sailing. Edwards cites many skippers as important influences, but it was one in particular, Julian Gildersleeve, who introduced her to racing. On a transatlantic crossing he taught her how to navigate a 90-foot racing yacht. Later he was to introduce her to the Whitbread Race.

"I was staying on his boat for a few days and saw this book on his shell From Cape Horn to Port," explains Edwards. "In it was a picture of him by his Whitbread boat. It was the first time I'd heard of the race. It really enthused me and six months later I joined a Whitbread boat in time for the 1985-1986 race."

The Whitbread Round the World Race is the ultimate yachting event. It's the toughest ocean race in the world. Despite her limited experience, Edwards managed to get a place as a paid crew member on Norsk Data GB. In 1985/1986, the 43,451 kilometer race began and finished in the Solent, sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, down to the Southern Ocean and back across the Atlantic. But Edwards got off at Cape Town and refused to get back on. The boat she was sailing on was crewed by amateurs paying for the privilege and Edwards considered it too dangerous to continue.

"I spent the next three weeks looking to get on another boat," recalls Edwards. "It was tough trying to persuade people to take me. On full-on racing boats they don't like taking girls on board, but I found this one boat, the Privateer, with a load of my friends on board. The skipper said `Look Tracy, if we were going to take a girl on board, it would be you, but we don't so forget it'. I worked on him, everywhere he went, I was there. …

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