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'Maiden' review: Inspiring true story of high-seas adventure and personal triumph

Tracy Edwards, left, Dawn Riley, Sally Hunter, Angela

Tracy Edwards, left, Dawn Riley, Sally Hunter, Angela Heath, Mikaela Von Koskull, Amanda Swan Neal, Tanja Visser, Jo Gooding from the documentary film "Maiden."  Credit: Sony Pictures Classics/Tracy Edwards

PLOT In 1989, an all-female yachting crew makes sailing history.

RATED PG (some language)


BOTTOM LINE An inspiring true story of high-seas adventure and personal triumph.

The 1980s look about as woke as the 1950s in “Maiden,” Alex Holmes’ documentary about an all-female sailing crew. Billie Jean King had already beaten a male tennis champ in a televised match; Sally Ride had already become the first woman in space; Margaret Thatcher, England’s first female prime minister, was still in office; but glass ceilings were as thick as ever. When Tracy Edwards, a young British sailor with ambition and skill, tried to join a professional yachting crew for the legendary Whitbread Round the World Race, she found her gender a problem. 

“We’re not having a girl,” Edwards recalls one crew telling her.

Today, that sounds like a lawsuit; back then, it was business as usual. Edwards fought back by finding her own sailors, buying her own boat and becoming skipper of the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread, in 1989. The name of her ship: Maiden, a clever bit of wordplay that upends old notions of femininity. In a rousing, often riveting documentary, Holmes recreates the journey of Edwards and company (including Long Islander Dawn Riley, the only American on board) as they fight for respect, make history and, not least, play to win. 

Holmes first envisioned "Maiden" as a narrative feature with a script, sets and actors; that still could come to pass. All the ingredients for a stormy adventure saga are right here, starting with Edwards herself, then an angry adolescent who drifts into the wild, unmoored sailing community. With the patriarchy hissing into one ear and her mother tsk-tsking into the other (“You’ve never stuck with anything in your life"), Edwards is a classic underdog with a chip on her shoulder.

The voyage itself, a seesawing trip through treacherous waters, is captured by Jo Gooding, the ship’s cook and official videographer. (It’s largely thanks to her footage this film exists). Still, the women's hardest battles would be fought on land. In each port, the media either treated them as an adorable novelty or blatantly mocked them. (One newspaper cartoon depicted the women shoving a hidden male crew overboard just as the finish line comes into view.) Only when Maiden stunned onlookers by placing first in early legs of the race did journalists grudgingly begin taking them seriously.

"Maiden" concludes so movingly, with such perfect symbolism, that it rivals any scripted sports drama. It may not be playing in the multiplexes, but with its can-do spirit and inspirational message, "Maiden" feels like one of this summer's surest crowd-pleasers.

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