I grew up on the water. My grandfather, like his father before him, owned and skippered a commercial fishing boat, the Defiance, a purse-seiner, which he’d take on salmon runs from Gig Harbor, our home port in Washington, up to the San Juans and sometimes far north into Alaska. As a kid I used to ride along during fishing season just because I loved it, until the day I was old enough to actually work a share with the rest of the old salts.
I say this not to establish my bone fides — well, maybe a little — but to make two distinct points: Having spent enough time on the open seas that dry land actually feels wrong to me, I’ve grown to love and fear the ocean as a god, jealous and unforgiving but also wildly liberating. There is absolutely nothing in this world to match its fluxing, exhilarating, monstrous power.
Secondly, and more importantly, it’s almost impossible to understate how, historically, the sea has been the exclusive domain of men. It’s not by artistic choice that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick lacks a single female character. Of course, literature has its sirens and mermaids, but having an actual woman on a working boat has, traditionally speaking, been prohibited. They are taboo, or as my grandfather once told me, “bad luck.”
Of course, not all country clubs barred Jews, and not all boats banned females, but we’re talking about an ingrained attitude here, something ancient that persists anywhere male power has congregated in bubbles of near-hermetic exclusivity — ocean racing, for instance. Imagine the disbelief, to say nothing of the derision, that took hold when a British woman entered an all-woman crew in the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Race, a nine-month sailing competition that sends crews on a journey into some of the planet’s most treacherous waters.
Directed with exquisite care and supreme suspensefulness by Alex Holmes, the documentary Maiden tells the story of how 26-year-old skipper Tracy Edwards and her crew turned heads, won hearts and ultimately earned the deepest respect by not only entering the Whitbread but — and I will say no more, in fear of depriving you of the impossible anticipation and joy I felt watching this triumphant, utterly unsentimental film unfold.
The Whitbread is so strenuous and so treacherous that sailing experts at the time doubted the “girls” would even finish the first leg of the race, from Southampton to Punta del Este. Holmes, using mostly grainy video footage from the time as well as present-day interviews with the crew and commentators, spends little time building up to the competition itself. Nonetheless, commentary from Edwards and other crew members evokes a strong sense of engagement and humanity. It seems a bit of a magic trick how quickly we become invested in the outcome, and even more so the people involved, each of whom shines through clearly from the screen.
The race itself, which takes up the preponderance of the film, is brutal. The second leg takes crews around the tip of South America, through dark Arctic waters inhospitable to human life; in fact, one boat in the 1989 race loses two crew members overboard, one of whom dies. The footage of the Maiden crew receiving this information by radio is devastating, and a testament to the insane courage of facing such waters, and the fortitude it takes to survive them.
The ocean, as much as Edwards (who is equal parts Ahab and Ishmael), is a leading character in this documentary. If chauvinism is an obstacle to be overcome, and it is, it’s much less at issue than the brute facts of survival. Holmes, like the crew itself, is careful not to overplay the sexism the Maiden faced. This is a feminist film by default, in that it focuses, with an unromantic but keen eye, on the strengths and weaknesses, the bravery and doubts of its subjects, thereby granting them their full humanity. Their fate, however tut-tutted and poo-pooed by crusty old men, is ultimately in their hands — that, and the roaring sea, with its power to kill and exalt.
Exaltation, not outrage, is the primary experience of this film. Unlike so many “feminist” films, it has no interest in dwelling too long on the low-hanging fruit of sexist men and their atavistic attitudes; instead, it slowly and steadily shuts them up, by proving them oh so wrong, while fully experiencing the mistakes and set-backs of any creature pushing forth into uncharted territory. Naysayers be damned.
Long before the uncertain final outcome of the race in Maiden — and the final outcome, really, is triumphant in ways you can’t imagine — I began crying an odd sort of cry. I reached up to my cheek and felt a wetness I hadn’t realized was there, which was a strange experience, like stepping on dry land after a long time at sea. They were tears of joy. (Bijou Art Cinemas)