The Maiden Factor Foundation campaigns and raises funds for girls’ educational programmes by touring the iconic sailing yacht Maiden around the globe. Saffiyah Khalique talks to founder Tracy Edwards MBE on her inspiration for starting the organisation and the challenges she faced as a woman in yachting
'No man in my lifetime would ever let me onboard his boat as a navigator and I just thought, that’s not good enough, I need to change that. Then it became so much more.'
So says Tracy Edwards, who made her name as skipper of the yacht Maiden when she led the first all-female crew to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989. Now Maiden is used as a global ambassador for the empowerment of women through education, raising funds for girls’ educational programmes around the world.
The maiden voyage
Choosing an all-female crew for Maiden was not initially about making a feminist statement – it was to allow Ms Edwards to navigate her own vessel. 'It was quite selfish, I mean I didn’t put Maiden together for women’s rights or feminism or anything like that,’ she explains. ‘I put it together because I wanted to navigate rather than cook.'
Ms Edwards explains that she was not expecting the anger and aggression that she received following the announcement of an all-female crew, highlighting the rampant misogyny and sexism that existed at the time.
'One of the headlines at the time was 'Maiden is just a tin full of tarts'. That was our absolute favourite, and that was in a broadsheet!' she says.
The backlash only spurred the crew on, and Ms Edwards’s leadership earned her an MBE as well as becoming the first woman to win 'Yachtsman of the Year.' However, by the end of the race, she was forced to sell the Maiden.
A message of hope
In 2014, after hearing that the Maiden had been abandoned in the Seychelles, Ms Edwards raised funds to buy the vessel and bring it back to the UK. In April 2017 Maiden was shipped back to Southampton to undergo extensive restoration.
It was Ms Edwards’s daughter who suggested the idea for what has now become The Maiden Factor Foundation.
Maiden is now used to raise awareness of the 130 million girls worldwide who are unable to access education. The organisation raises funds for and supports community programmes across the world to provide girls with education and support them to remain in education throughout their teenage years.
Maiden began a three-year world tour in November 2018. The focus of the first year or so was to listen, research and learn how to grow the foundation’s audience and how Maiden and its inspiring and empowering story – coupled with its fundraising potential – could have the greatest impact on improving the rights of girls and getting them the education support they need.
Maiden carried a banner containing ‘messages of hope’ which started with messages written by children in the UK, which were placed in a baton and taken on Maiden across the world and passed on to children from different countries who add their own messages and pass the baton on again.
'All the messages say the same thing, wherever they are, whatever gender, creed, colour, religion, socioeconomic status; they all want the same thing. They want no more wars, they want no more poverty, they want a roof over their head, food to eat and an education. It’s all very simple stuff and it shows them how we are all connected.'
During the 2018 tour, Maiden visited various destinations, put on open days for local schools, held screenings of the BAFTA-nominated film Maiden, engaged with disadvantaged communities, and worked with local organisations and visited schools.
Reflecting on the initial tour experience, Ms Edwards said: 'There is something that [Maiden] can say about what’s possible; girls can come down and physically touch and see what is possible if just one person believes in a girl, and for me that’s such a powerful message. We are not reinventing the wheel, we’re just becoming part of a movement, so we can continue to take the message around the world.'
After sailing around the world for 18 months, totalling 22,000nm and 22 destinations in 13 countries, The Maiden Factor had to hit pause due to the Covid-19 pandemic. During this time, the team has been preparing for the next part of the world tour voyage and developing initiatives and opportunities for women and girls’ recruitment into industries such as maritime, coding, marine biology, climate activism, scientific research, business and banking.
Coronavirus travel requirements allowing, Maiden should be back on the water soon and able to leave on the next world tour. Ms Edwards is excited at getting Maiden back at sea and describes the most rewarding part of running the Maiden Factor as: 'The fact that every single woman on the boat was inspired by Maiden to start sailing, that makes me go goosepimply, it blows my mind. The fact that they are all so much more qualified and experienced than we were when we were at their age shows me how far women’s sailing has come. The happiness, the joy, the kids that come down to see the boat, the questions, the engagement we get from people, I love all of it and I cannot wait to get back to it!'