Expelled from school for her rebellious streak, Tracy Edwards, born on September 5th, 1962, was trouble and little else. However, her life was radically transformed by a chance encounter in a Greek bar. Her family was remarkable. She spent her early years in Pangbourne, England, dreaming of becoming a ballet dancer just as her mother had done, to great acclaim. But this was never the life Tracy was destined for. No, she would go on to battle virulent sexism to become one of the sailing world’s greatest pioneers, all before a spectacular downfall that nearly destroyed her and then a spectacular rise back to the top. This is her astonishing tale…
The Rebellious One
Tracy was only 10 years of age when her father passed away. The family moved to Wales and there her mother remarried, but this was not a happy relationship. Tracy’s relationship with her father was abusive and it’s no coincidence that this is when Tracy started getting in trouble. She was bullied in school and beaten regularly, her school life miserable only to trudge home to a volatile stepfather who was not much kinder to her. She became the archetypal teenage rebel. She regularly skipped school, drank heavily when underage and was often the subject of arrest. She was expelled from school at just 15.
Sailing was never a part of my childhood. My mum was a ballet dancer and, as I was growing up in Pangbourne, I wanted to follow in her footsteps. But my life changed when I was 10 with the death of my dad from a heart attack.
It was her family in which Tracy found solace. Her deceased father was a huge inspiration, an electronics entrepreneur filled to the brim with a can-do attitude, and her mother, a world-famous ballet dancer, touring the world, but also a person filled with derring-do… she was, after all, the first women to ride a motorbike on the Isle of Man TT circuit. They were the perfect couple. Indeed, Tracy’s early life was idyllic but a violent, alcoholic stepfather changed all that as Tracy entered her tumultuous adolescent years.
Suspended from school 26 times for smoking, drinking and other infractions all before she was eventually expelled. Her mother begged the school to let her daughter sit her exams but Tracy never showed up. Instead, at 16, she would leave home, finding herself in Greece working at a bar far away from a family that missed her and loved her. But Tracy was too far gone, home too filled with memories of despair and violence. This was her fresh start, no matter how mad it seemed. And it would prove to be one hell of a decision…
I was an upper-middle-class girl from Berkshire at a 1980s Welsh comp, with a stepfather I hated. I learnt to speak with a Welsh accent in about five minutes and went off the rails in spectacular fashion.
The Fashion of Greece
Sent backpacking across Europe at 16, after all, she hadn’t passed any exams and there was little tethering her to home, Tracy found herself in Greece working at a bar in Piraeus. She was enterprising, was Tracy. She was determined to make sure this was a new start and not some product of teenage rebellion. She found work on a yacht and it was then her love of sailing sparked into life. As she later said:
For the first time, I belonged. I had felt such a failure, but here I was getting on with people, doing a good job. I felt like someone had slid me into my life.
What happened next became the stuff of legend. She had left home for Greece at 16, found work in a bar at the marina and now found herself on a yacht as a steward. She loved the waves although her seasickness was deeply crippling. But she had discovered a love of the ocean and no amount of sickness could stop her now…
At 15 I was expelled for smoking and drinking on a school trip. My mum decided I was mixing with the wrong people and said I should go backpacking around Europe to escape. It was the best thing I could have done. I was working in a bar… when one day the skipper of a motor yacht came in saying her needed a stewardess. The next morning, I packed my bags and that was the start of my life in sailing.
Soon, Tracy worked her way up to deck hand and, eventually, first mate. She was inspired by her then boyfriend to take up sailing and it wasn’t long before she was out on the Atlantic sailing under canvas. It happened so suddenly and she was still so young but she was a natural… although she worked incredibly hard. Her wisdom belied her age and indeed her rebellious streak. People are all too quick to label teenage rebels as write-offs destined for a life of never amounting to much. Tracy had proved in a short space of time that that is not always the case…
She soon learned to navigate a sailing yacht. Clearly, being expelled from school was a great thing to happen to her, although perhaps not a message one should be giving children. It was during a stopover in America where Tracy just so happened to meet King Hussein I of Jordan. As you do. He became lifelong supporter of Tracy.
She was young and inexperienced but eager for a challenge. And, in 1985, she entered her first sailing race: The Whitbread Round the World Race, now known as the Ocean Race. You might wonder how someone so young and inexperienced managed this. After all, she wasn’t a professional sailor yet. Ah, but she had an idea.
She would blag her way onto a boat as the ship’s cook…
The Iron Maidens
She loved her time on the boat, meeting crews on her travels and becoming fascinated by the challenge such a daunting and arduous race held. Tracy was fearless. She was always so passionate about her sailing that she did whatever she could to immerse herself in that world. And her connections to King Hussein helped her achieve a mad if brilliant scheme she had concocted.
King Hussein organised funding from the Royal Jordanian Airlines so Tracy could buy a second-hand, 10-year-old 58-foot yacht and refurbish it. Tracy wanted her own yacht and team in the Whitbread. She was just 23. She named her yacht… The Maiden. And for Tracy, she knew the yacht had to have one defining characteristic, something that was unheard of, even in the late 1980s: it would have an all-female crew.
The bitter hatred of misogyny was rampant in the 1980s for female sailors and sportswomen in general. Nobody expected the Maiden and her crew to achieve much. One newspaper at the time dubbed the Maiden a ‘tin full of tarts’. I mean, it’s just ridiculous. There were bets, actual bets, that the ship wouldn’t make it past the Isle of Wight. The crew of 12 were hounded relentlessly by the media about their tactics, every inch of their plan scrutinised. In one press conference, they were asked only questions about insignificant things, such as chapped lips and who had fallen out with whom. It only made them more determined to succeed.
[I am reminded of] how hard it was. It brought us together and made us tough. We took it and used it. [It was the] fearlessness of youth – you’ve nothing to lose when you’ve got nothing.
And in 1989, with a 12-strong all-female crew, Tracy set out on the Maiden. And you know what? The Maiden finished second in its class, winning two out of six individual legs of the race. It made the racing world sit up and recognise this incredible achievement. One of the most breathtaking was the victory in the Southern Ocean where Tracy, a skilful navigator, took the yacht on the riskiest and most direct route, close to dangerous ice floes, through giant waves and storms to bring her to Freemantle 18 hours ahead of her competitors.
Tracy had risked it all to race. She had to mortgage her home to buy the boat and then mortgage the boat to fund the refit. Jordanian Airlines was the only company that would sponsor the yacht. Everyone else shunned them. Before Tracy, only five people of the 200 competitors were due to be women. Tracy changed all this and changed attitudes.
We were such a novelty. Women just didn’t do this kind of work. But by the time we set off we were probably the crew that knew the most about their boat. I was naïve and didn’t realise the battle I’d have. I’d experienced some mild ribbing about being a woman in sailing, but was shocked by the vindictiveness of certain people. There were articles saying it would be my fault when these women killed themselves in the race. I even received threatening phone calls and had oil poured on my lawn one night. But the project became a magnet for people who had a point to prove. The race itself was incredible. We proved a lot of people wrong… I’ll never forget sailing into Southampton with 50,000 people chanting the boat’s name.
Tracy and her crew were heralded as national heroes. They had become the first all-female crew to conquer the Ocean Race…
The Legacy of Success
Tracy’s success was nothing short of remarkable but after, her private life became tabloid gossip fodder. She was desperate to disappear from the public eye. Well, at least for a few years, rearing Welsh cob ponies on a smallholding. The sailing life had taken a tremendous toll on her physical and mental wellbeing. And her marriage collapsed.
I was running on fumes. I just wasn’t prepared for it all to finish and for the boat and the girls to go. I wasn’t looking after myself and had a complete meltdown. I phoned my good friends, who drove down from Wales to put me in the car and take me home. I was in a bad way. They only found me by following the telephone wire – I’d locked myself in a cupboard.
Her recuperation was her break from the sea, her smallholding in Wales doing her the world of good. Eventually, she returned to sailing. Once more, she assembled a mixed-gender team this time to take on the 1998 Jules Verne race with a 110-foot maxi catamaran named the Maiden II, sponsored by Royal & Sun Alliance. But it all went very wrong.
Bad weather near Chile caused the mast to break but Tracy was never left disheartened in life. “What drives any sportsperson is the belief that you can do better next time… it was going fantastically until we came across horrifying weather… it broke out mast. It took us 16 days to reach the shore, but I’ll always be proud that we didn’t need rescuing. It was the end of my sailing career.” Indeed it was, Tracy becoming pregnant soon after and deciding then to manage sailing projects instead.
Tracy is a good leader and she doesn’t micromanage… she’s always surrounded by a great team of people who enjoy sailing with her. Look at the personalities she’s managed and the great success she’s had, getting the best out of them. That’s what she’s good at.
– Adrienne Cahalan (sailor).
In 2000, Tracy started a family and began managing sailing programmes. She went out in style. The Maiden II broke four major world records. But Tracy’s world was to come crashing down in 2003. “It was suggested that I go to Qatar, which was trying to set itself up as a global sports capital. In 2003, I signed a £6 million sponsorship deal with Qatar Sports International.” It would prove to be a fateful decision.
This was the first part of a £38 million sailing programme, paying boats to enter races, creating big regattas with huge prize funds and a governing body to oversee the programme. There were suppliers, teams and wages to pay so, ever the risk taker, Tracy borrowed £8 million and used her house and boat as collateral for the remaining £2 million. She soon became involved in a new round-the-world race, the Oryx Quest, launching in 2005 in Qatar, the first race of its kind to start and finish in the Middle East. And it was a huge success.
But despite the huge sums promised, the first prize $1 million, more than any other sailing race in history, the event was marred by controversy. Rumours abounded that there was no prize money, the golden envelopes empty. Qatar refused to pay Tracy anything meaning she was in serious trouble. The sponsor dissolved leaving Tracy with £8 million in debt and no way to pay it. She had to declare bankruptcy. This was one risk too far.
For a while, she disappeared from public life almost completely, once more. She was declared bankrupt on her 43rd birthday. And the fallout was savage. “I lost everything.” After the race, she was held in the country for a month. “They took away my passport. I couldn’t get an exit visa. It was terrifying… when I threatened legal action, things got very nasty, very quickly. I got everyone out of the country. Mack [Tracy’s daughter] was five and she flew out with my cousin. I stayed behind to fight… they bugged my phones. I was followed, threatened.”
She was forced to sell her family home and had no way to care for her daughter and her seriously disabled mother who Tracy was forced to put into a home, where, not long after, she passed away. “So what do women do?” she asked at the time. “They get on with it.” She was determined to not let this break her. She moved to London. She was tough.
We literally stuck a pin in the map and it landed on the Duke’s Head in Putney. So, we rented a tiny, little terraced house just down the road… life is messy. They key thing is to surround yourself with the right people and be awake to opportunities.
Losing everything was strangely liberating for Tracy and her family. But time and time again, she proved hugely inspirational. She said at the time:
I had to pick myself up because I’m a single mum with a daughter to look after. I now do motivational talks, which I love. The experience has made me realise that it’s how you deal with failure that dictates who you are.
In 2013, Tracy began teaching internet safety and online reputation to children and parents, working extensively in schools across the UK for the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre as Project Manager for their International Youth Advisory Congress and other roles. She fell in love with motivational speaking and became a life coach.
She decided to dedicate her later years to helping others. She became an ambassador to the NSPCC and relishes the challenge. “God, I loved it. I was part of helping to write the 2009 resolution on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. How awesome is that? I would never have done that if all the bad things hadn’t happened.”
She continued to inspire, going to university to study psychology and graduated at the age of 50. And then she bumped into the Maiden. It was abandoned in a marina in the Indian Ocean. She launched a campaign to save the boat, intending to re-enact the Whitbread run, all for charity. She said:
I was angry. I was angry with some people in the sailing world. I was angry that people hadn’t asked for my side of the story before judging me and I didn’t have the energy to fight at the time. So I had literally walked away [from sailing].
Tracy was reunited with some of her old crew and the boat was restored. Shortly after, she founded ‘The Maiden Factor’, utilising the Maiden to raise funds and awareness for girls’ education. And in 2018, the Maiden rode again. Tracy was happy. She is happy. She continues to kick the arse of inequality to this day and she’s doing a damn good job of it…
At the time of writing, Tracy is very much still with us and is continuing her amazing work for charity, educating young people and inspiring young girls across the country. She was awarded an MBE recently and she deserves it. For all the criticism she has received, she’s the first to admit she made mistakes but that doesn’t make her a bad person nor does it negate all the good she did in her sailing career and inspiring and helping others thereafter. She is an awesome human being and is nothing less than inspirational.
Today, Tracy and her now 20-year-old daughter Mackenna are happily settled and Tracy continues to help her community, litter picking alongside her charity, speaking and coaching. She loves to walk her dog beside the Thames and enjoys the community spirit.
I love it here. There’s a real sense of community; people who care enough to get off their backsides and do something.
She no longer sails too much after being kicked by a horse, obviously, but she is tough, warm and prefers a quieter life. She’s a no-nonsense individual with a flair for the dramatic, going from teenage rebel to national hero on her own merit. Yes she screwed up with Qatar but so what? To come back from that is incredible. Is she a feminist icon?
“No! I’m so glad we’ve reclaimed that word,” she once said, cringing.
There are fewer finer examples of human endeavour living to this day. That’s her legacy. She is an inspirational hero and no less…
Someone has to take the risk. This stuff had got to be done and I have always felt very strongly that you have to stand up and be counted. And I have never been afraid of standing up and being counted.
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Image: 1) Tracy Edwards. Image Credit: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/sailor-tracy-edwards-bankruptcy-divorce-back-deck-feisty-female/