Tracy Edwards: What Can A Sailboat Teach You That A Classroom Can't?

Oct 2, 2020

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode School of Life

When Tracy Edwards was expelled from school, she wound up working on boats. That led her to form a record-breaking all-female sailing crew, which circumnavigated the world in 1989.

About Tracy Edwards

Tracy Edwards is a sailor, social activist and the founder of The Maiden Factor Foundation, a funding project that empowers girls through education.

Edwards gained recognition as the skipper of the first all-female crew to sail around the world. Her team raced in the 1989/90 Whitbread Round the World Race, and won two legs and came second overall in her class. She was awarded an MBE, an award for an outstanding achievement or service to the British Empire, and became the first woman awarded the Yachtsman of the Year Trophy. In 2002, Edwards created the first ever truly mixed gender team, and broke four major world records on her yacht Maiden II.

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and today on the show, the school of life - how some lessons could never happen in a classroom.

Hey, Tracy. Are you there?

TRACY EDWARDS: Hi. How are you?

ZOMORODI: Hey. I'm doing well. I'm thrilled to hear your voice. Thank you so much for doing this.

EDWARDS: Oh, not at all.

ZOMORODI: This is Tracy Edwards.

EDWARDS: My name is Tracy Edwards. I am an around the world sailor and a social activist.

ZOMORODI: Well, you're a record-breaking around the world sailor, a social activist. But is it also fair to say you are also someone who did not thrive at school? Like, you were not a good student.

EDWARDS: Yeah, I think not a good student would be the understatement of the century.

(LAUGHTER)

EDWARDS: I was just about opposite to everything you would hope to have in a daughter. Thank goodness my daughter is totally different from me. I had a difficult time during my teenage years. My father died when I was 10, and my mother married - unbeknownst to her, obviously - an abusive alcoholic. It just didn't make for a happy teenager, and I rebelled quite spectacularly. I hung around with a group of kids who - I guess we were all fighting against something. And, you know, we were drinking and staying out all night. I was aggressive, angry. I was so angry all the time. And I stopped going to school because I was being bullied at school, and I didn't tell my parents. I just stopped going. And what really brought things to a head was I stole a car and was arrested and...

ZOMORODI: Wow.

EDWARDS: Yeah. And then I was eventually expelled from school.

ZOMORODI: What - like, what did you do? What did your mom do?

EDWARDS: My poor mother - my mother took a long, hard look at me and said, right, then. Something has to change. You know, you're obviously not happy. I think you are not in the right place. And you need to go and find what it is you're looking for, which is very brave of her at the age of - you know, I was 15.

ZOMORODI: Wow. Yeah.

EDWARDS: But at 16, I left home. And I went backpacking to Greece and ended up working in a bar in Greece, which is how I ended up getting onto boats.

ZOMORODI: I mean, I got to say it is kind of remarkable that your mom gave you permission to leave school and to go to Greece.

EDWARDS: I mean, it was incredibly brave of her. I mean, she said to me, every human being is good at at least one thing. You have just got to go and find what that one thing is. And then she said, you know, once you found it, you know, it will change your life. And I dread to think where I would have ended up if she hasn't let me do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

ZOMORODI: So at 16, Tracy was on her own in Greece, working as what was then called a stewardess on a boat, basically cleaning up after wealthy guests on luxury yachts.

EDWARDS: So, I mean, it was hard work, but when you're sailing around the Greek islands, you know, you can kind of put up with anything. I just felt, this is me. I've just landed on my feet. I've fallen over my own path. And for me, it wasn't necessarily the ocean or the sailing to start off with. That came later. It was the people. I felt like I found my tribe. All of us were running away from something. We were nomads and wanderers, if you like. And I just - I slid right in there.

ZOMORODI: OK, so you said you didn't start working on boats because you loved sailing, but you eventually did learn to love sailing, and it involved your skipper.

EDWARDS: Yes.

ZOMORODI: How did that happen?

EDWARDS: So I was doing my second transatlantic, and he said to me, can you navigate? And I said, of course I can't navigate. You know, I was expelled before long division, you know? I mean, no. And, you know, he looked at me, and he said, well, what are you going to do if I fall over the side? And I said, well, you know, I'll use the - whatever that is, the navigational stuff. He said, you know, what if the batteries go down? I'm like, oh, for goodness' sake. I don't know. I'll shout, help.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

EDWARDS: And he looked at me, and he said, why are you a bystander in your own life? You're supposed to be playing the starring role in your own life. And I just thought, maybe that's a bit profound for two days out into the Atlantic.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

EDWARDS: But I thought, wow. He's right. And in two days, he taught me to navigate. He taught me how to use a sextant, a book of tables, charts. And it was one of the most profound moments of my life. And I fell in love with navigation then, and I have never lost that passion for it. You know, being able to tell wherever you are in the world with a few basic set of instruments, it's amazing.

ZOMORODI: And did you think, you know, forget doing the washing; this is - I got to find my way across various oceans?

EDWARDS: Not really because...

ZOMORODI: No?

EDWARDS: Well, because women didn't do that. I could navigate, but I wasn't allowed to at that time. It was 35, 40 years ago. You got on, and your job was cook or stewardess. So I kind of put that to one side, I guess, in my mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAIL FLAPPING)

EDWARDS: I sailed many oceans - so the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the Maldives, the Seychelles. But I knew in the back of my mind that this type of cruising was probably not for me forever. I needed something else. There was something missing, but I didn't know what it was.

EDWARDS: And then I heard about the '85-'86 Whitbread Round the World race.

ZOMORODI: What is the Whitbread for people who've never heard of it?

EDWARDS: The Whitbread Round the World race is the toughest yacht race in the world. It starts and finishes in the U.K. And it's 33,000 miles, and it's nine months. And it was the pinnacle of ocean racing, you know, the peak of what guys wanted to achieve. I didn't really know that then. I just thought it looked like good fun. But girls don't do it. There's just no way I would have got on a boat as anything other than a cook. But I was, you know - OK, fine. I'll do that. So I did the '85-'86 Whitbread on a boat called Atlantic Privateer, which was very aptly named because they were a complete bunch of pirates, these guys. I mean...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

EDWARDS: I adored them, but I could have killed them a lot of times as well.

ZOMORODI: You were the only woman on the boat for nine months...

EDWARDS: Yep. Yep.

ZOMORODI: ...Traveling the world on a - that's it - like, just you.

EDWARDS: Yeah. Well, we were racing. So you're racing around the world, so it's very focused. It's very professional. You know, there were 26 boats, I think, in that race. So 260 crew, and there were three girls.

ZOMORODI: OK. So you hear about this around the world race, and you decide, sounds fun, even though I don't think you had ever been in a race and there were hardly any other women. I mean, were you scared?

EDWARDS: No, not really. They were such great sailors and I learned so much from them. And when we finished the race nine months later in April 1986, I just thought, wow. I have got to do that again, but I don't want to be a cook. I want to go around as a navigator. And, you know, I had this really - again, a very profound moment when I realized no male crew is ever going to allow you to be a navigator. It's not going to happen. And that was the first time in my life I felt that I was being prevented from doing something I wanted to do because I was a girl. To my mom, it was no surprise. You know, she was like, oh, well, welcome to the real world.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

EDWARDS: But, you know, she said another thing, which was - again, which set me off on another course, which was - she said, if you don't like the way the world looks, change it. Don't moan about it. Change it.

ZOMORODI: Your mom...

EDWARDS: She was an amazing woman. I miss her so much.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

EDWARDS: So I thought, well, how do I change it? OK, well, I have to have my own boat. I guess I have to have my own boat...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

EDWARDS: ...Which means I have to have my own team. And let's make it a team of girls so that we can prove to men that we can do this. So, I mean, it wasn't - it didn't start off being this, you know, rah-rah, let's prove women can do stuff. It was a selfish reason initially because I wanted to navigate. And it was only really when we announced this first all-female crew to sail around the world to much laughter and derisory comments that I thought, right, OK, I am now doing this for every woman in the world.

(LAUGHTER)

EDWARDS: You know, women would turn up on my doorstep and go, right, point me in the direction where I can help, you know? OK, well, you can stuff those sponsorship envelopes, or you can go into that boat show and try and raise us some money (laughter). I mean, some of us had two, three jobs at the same time. And, of course, around us, all of these multi-million pound, male racing teams, you know, with their shiny boats and their shiny crew - and there was us (laughter).

ZOMORODI: Ragtag girl - I love it.

EDWARDS: And we were quite a novelty because no one had ever seen women in a shipyard before. So we used to arrive in the morning, and literally, jaws would drop open.

ZOMORODI: I mean, what you're describing to me - I'm a little worried for you at this point because I'm concerned that the whole thing's going to fall apart in the middle of an ocean.

EDWARDS: (Laughter) Well, no. We had some really amazing people give us a lot of help. And, I mean, remember that the women I was employing were also professional racing, you know? These were women who loved sailing and loved racing and were told, no, you can't do that (laughter). So they said, well, sod you, then. We're going to go and sail with this all-female crew. And we weren't taken seriously by the rest of the fleet, but we were very confident. We were very sure of what we were doing. We'd done probably more ocean miles than any other team. We'd been together longer than any other team. We didn't have as much money, but our battle to get to the start line had made us into a tightknit, battle-hardened team. Everyone else was just starting out, so we almost had an advantage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The start of the Whitbread is a celebration of sail. It's thousands of boats...

ZOMORODI: Sept. 2, 1989, you line up with the other boats in your class to embark on a race around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...Brutal weather conditions, exhaustion and depression...

ZOMORODI: Some people didn't think that you'd make it. Like, some of them thought that, actually, you and your group of women were going to die at sea. What was the mood like?

EDWARDS: Oh, God, we were completely confident.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: On board Maiden, Tracy Edwards had something to prove.

EDWARDS: We never had any doubts.

ZOMORODI: Really?

EDWARDS: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. We - yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDWARDS: You're a woman. You're told you have to look like this, be like that. You have to use this, use that. Yeah, it's sort of nice. You spend 28 days. You don't have to wash. You don't have to dress properly. You don't have to do your hair. It's great.

I mean, I finished the '85-'86 Whitbread, and I just went, why are they telling us that's difficult? That's not difficult.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: This race is the ultimate challenge of man against man as well as man against the sea.

EDWARDS: You know, this was a very well-kept secret, this, you know...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

EDWARDS: ...Only men can sail around the world thing. And yeah, I mean, when we didn't win the first leg, we were gutted. Everyone else was just really pleased that we were alive.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Sixteen hundred miles south...

EDWARDS: So, you know, the second leg we started off into the Southern Ocean...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...The longest and most dangerous...

EDWARDS: ...From Uruguay in South America to Australia - 6,800 miles, five, maybe six weeks at sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Freezing cold, huge seas and winds of 40 to 50 miles per hour.

EDWARDS: And we were completely confident that we were going to be able to...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Perhaps the biggest welcome of all.

EDWARDS: ...Win that leg, actually, and we did.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They won Class D and claimed a Beefeater trophy. The final...

ZOMORODI: You had described what it was like to be sailing around with a group of men as the only woman. What was it like to be sailing around with a group of all women?

EDWARDS: We were a lot more collaborative as a team. My word was final, and my decision was final because someone has to take responsibility, and the buck always stops with the captain. But, yeah, no, we were a lot more - had a lot more discussions than I'd ever seen on - racing around the world with men. And it worked. I mean, goodness gracious, we just talked for nine months, pretty much.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Bright side of life, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do.

ZOMORODI: I read that also that you would let the girls play music and that there was kind of a festive atmosphere on your boat compared to others.

EDWARDS: Yeah. Well, music, I felt, was really, really important. You know, you can be professional and race fast and hard and, you know, knuckle down to the work and listen to music. You know, it's not - I know a lot of the boats banned music and...

ZOMORODI: Really? They banned them?

EDWARDS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY LOGGINS SONG, "DANGER ZONE")

EDWARDS: I'm sorry, but if you've got "Top Gun" playing on the speakers on deck at full blast, highway through the danger zone in the Southern Ocean, it's a huge driver. You know, it picks you up. It's like...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANGER ZONE")

KENNY LOGGINS: (Singing) Highway through the danger zone. I'll take you right into the danger zone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What a welcome, though, awaits Tracy Edwards and her crew.

ZOMORODI: So tell me how the race ended.

EDWARDS: Well, the race ended up with us coming second overall and winning two legs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes, it's an historic moment.

ZOMORODI: Second in your division, which is a really big deal.

EDWARDS: The best result for a British boat since 1977, and it hasn't actually been beaten.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Maiden's engulfed by a huge spectator fleet...

EDWARDS: It was extraordinary. A flotilla of 600 yachts came out to meet us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...As the 12 women complete the task they set out to do nine months ago.

EDWARDS: Fifty thousand people standing on the dock - I mean, literally climbing over each other. It was absolutely amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EDWARDS: Thirty years later, I understand how we did change things. At the time, I didn't realize quite the impact that we had. But we knew that we'd achieved something which we could be proud of and which we hoped the next all-female crew could build on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

EDWARDS: That this has done a lot for British yachting, and I hope it's done a lot for women sailors and men sailors and everyone. And I hope everyone feels good about Maiden and what we've done 'cause we feel great.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: A little later, that...

ZOMORODI: So you all went your separate ways. Is that right?

EDWARDS: Yeah. So a lot of the crew got really great jobs on racing boats. A couple got married. I got married, then got divorced very quickly. And then I went into another sailing project. I did the first all-female crew to attempt nonstop round the world record. Unfortunately, we lost our mast in the Southern Ocean, and we didn't break that record.

And then I guess 20 years ago, I put together the first-ever mixed-gender professional racing team because, you know, the whole point about getting all-female crews wasn't that, you know, the world needs all-female crews. We wanted to prove that we could race with the men because ocean racing is a level playing field. So we had six girls and six guys on 125-foot catamaran - fastest boats in the world at the time - and a male skipper and a female skipper. It worked absolutely brilliantly. I mean, it was harmonious. It was competitive. And it really taught me that men and women can work together. You know, if we can work this out, you know, and have this equality, which we're all striving for, then that's when we're at our most effective. We were the most successful record-breaking team for 10 years.

ZOMORODI: You know, Tracy, you are someone who is so accomplished despite not having a formal education. So I guess I'm wondering, like, in this moment when school has been upended for so many students, what advice would you have for making the most of the situation?

EDWARDS: I think the most successful friends of mine who seem to be getting the most out of this are the ones that are embracing it - you know, that quality time with their children. I know that the actual scholarly - you know, scholastic part of the learning outside school has been difficult. But then maybe this is the moment in time where we replace the exams and that regimented education system that we have. You know, maybe we can replace that with those things that we've just talked about - you know, sort of learning, problem-solving and resilience and how to save the planet and how to work together to sort out this mess, quite frankly, that my generation has made.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: That's Tracy Edwards. And by the way, the boat that Tracy and her all-female crew sailed in the Whitbread was called Maiden. And in 2015, Tracy launched The Maiden Factor, a nonprofit that raises money for girls' education. On the show today, The School of Life. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.