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Tracy Edwards: 'Maiden was either met with antipathy or aggression'

In 1989, Tracy Edwards would have recoiled at the thought of being a feminist."It was such a dreadful...

Posted: Aug. 15, 2018 1:04 PM
Updated: Aug. 15, 2018 1:04 PM

In 1989, Tracy Edwards would have recoiled at the thought of being a feminist.

"It was such a dreadful word then," explains the sailor, who that year made history and defied critics by leading the first all-female crew to sail around the world.

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Volvo Ocean Race

Had Edwards not been expelled from school -- for smoking and drinking during a school trip -- she may have never discovered her love of sailing and become the trailblazer she is today.

Unbelievably, it was Edwards' well-traveled mother who suggested she pack her bags and go traveling to get some life experience abroad -- and alone -- after she was left without a degree.

"My mom was an extraordinary woman and she could see very clearly where I was headed and the direction I was carrying on," Edwards tells CNN Sport.

"She realized I needed to go away from where I was and kind of make many mistakes and find my way."

'I didn't realize there were people like me'

It was in Greece where Edwards, aged 17, began working on charter yachts.

"I found my feet and realized that I'd felt contained before and it gave me the freedom to discover what I wanted to do," she says.

"Every boat I worked on had a great skipper who was a mentor and a ragtag bunch of crew members who I realized were like me.

"I didn't realize there were people like me and I felt like I fit in for the first time in my life, that no one really cared about anyone's background or why we were there."

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Fast forward 10 years and Edwards noticed the significant lack of women around her at sea. She was a young cook and the only woman on-board South African boat Atlantic Privateer during the 1985-86 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race -- now known as the Volvo Ocean Race.

"Out of the 230 crew in the race, four of us were girls," Edwards remembers. It was at this point that she began asking herself, "I wonder if girls could do it?"

'Nobody had ever seen a bunch of girls working in a boatyard'

It was only then, when Edwards began looking at creating an all-female crew, that she says she had her first real experiences of sexism or misogyny.

"I had never been told before that I couldn't do something -- mostly because I was where I should be -- in the galley," Edwards says as she rolled her eyes.

"But that was the reaction! I think if the reaction hadn't been so strong I'd probably moseyed through it but it made me thing 'whoa, what's going on?'"

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After mortgaging her house in 1987, Edwards bought a dilapidated sailing yacht, Prestige, and brought it back to the UK where she, and her crew, began working on it.

"We had no money so we were just a bunch of girls with tools," Edwards laughs. "No hard hats, no health or safety -- flip flops and shorts, wandering around with chainsaws."

She says they were the talk of the boatyard.

"Nobody had ever seen a bunch of girls working in a boatyard so there was a lot of 'do you want help with that love?'" Edwards laughs.

Over six months, Edwards and her team pulled the yacht apart, redesigned it and rebuilt it from scratch.

"The best thing about doing it was we knew every inch of her -- we laid every cable, every pipe, we put every single thing in. We did everything ourselves."

Even after rebuilding what became to be known as Maiden, the all-female crew continued to face sexism within the industry.

"Maiden was either met with antipathy or aggression -- not really much in between," Edwards says. "As we got more successful it got worse -- they did not like that at all."

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And successful they were, Maiden finished second in its class during the 1989-90 Whitbread -- winning two of the legs. It was the best result for a British boat in 17 years -- and still remains the best result for an all-female crew.

It was an historic moment that shocked the sailing world. It was also here that she noticed her views on feminism slowly changed.

"I realized that one of my early interviews one of the journalists question me 'are you a feminist' and I go 'oh God - no, no, no.' ... but then later on I noticed I (started) saying 'yes I am because I believe in equality.'"

After the race in 1990, Edwards sold Maiden and the 12 crew members scattered across the globe.

READ: Sailing the world with a baby

'Bankruptcy was a defining moment in my life'

Though with triumphs, came defeats. Edwards began managing sailing programs and created the Oryx Quest in 2005 -- the first round the world race to start and finish in the Middle East. The race sent Edwards bankrupt, after the Qatari sponsor failed to pay up its £6 million sponsorship.

"Recovering from that is very hard," Edwards said.

"It was something that happened to me that I couldn't prevent. I would have never chosen to go down that route; It was a defining moment in my life.

"It was hard, I left home with nothing at the age of 15 and had done very well for myself by the time I was 36 and then lost it all by the time I was 43. It's a very difficult landscape when you're 43 years old and you think 'I've got to do that again.'

"You realize that when you're younger you have no fear -- you haven't failed yet. You have that overwhelming feeling that 'of course I'm going to succeed.'"

READ: Women make history in winning Volvo Ocean Race crew

Edwards went on to work for the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center and returned to university to complete a psychology degree.

"It's something I'd never have done if I hadn't of been disillusioned with the sailing world. I helped write the 2009 resolution on the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child which is not something I had planned to do!"

Maiden found rotting in the Seychelles

Then, in 2014, Maiden reentered Edwards life -- after she found out it was rotting away in the Seychelles -- an archipelago of islands in the Indian Ocean off East Africa.

"She'd been there for two years already -- unbelievable," Edwards says. "This man who left her there didn't tell me."

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Members of the public who recognized Maiden as the yacht that sailed into the history books in 1990 contacted Edwards to tell her of the yachts' dilapidated state. It was when a naval officer reached out to her and said they were talking about deep-sixing it that she knew she had to do something, so she turned to crowdfunding and in 2016 repurchased Maiden.

"She was in the water, not lifted out or anything, and they hadn't really looked after her. We beat them down on the price a lot when we got there and thought 'this is actually a wreck, this is no longer a boat.'

"Bringing her back was just awful because we were looking at our work -- our names were still on the lockers, the navigation station was just like I'd walked out and left it -- it had all the old equipment."

Maiden returned to Southampton, on the south coast of England, where a year-long restoration began -- in the very same shed where Edwards and her crew back in 1989 worked on the yacht before the Whitbread race.

Educating girls

Now Edwards begins a new chapter of her life -- this time with "The Maiden Factor" -- a not-for-profit organization that will see Maiden set off on a three-year world tour to raise money and awareness for girls' access to education.

Edwards says it dawned on her when she was completing her degree that she was privileged enough to live in a country where education was available to all.

"I was handed an education on a plate (at 15) and I decided 'no, I already know everything and I'm just going to throw that back in your face.'"

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According to UNESCO estimates published in 2016, 130 million girls between the ages of six and 17 are denied an education.

"The whole focus (of The Maiden Factor) is empowerment of women, celebrating where we got to and recognize how to get a bit further forward," Edwards says.

In early August she also walked away with the Lendy Ladies Day trophy at Lendy Cowes Week for her efforts and for championing the role of women in sailing.

Maiden will set sail and begin its three-year world tour on September 22.

"Everything about it feels really good," Edwards says. "Maiden is inspirational, she changed my life and I think most of the crew would probably say the same thing.

"We can inspire other women and girls and get people involve and very visibly demonstrate something no one believed in."

Visit CNN.com/sailing for more news, features and videos

Almost 30 years after she and her crew made history, Edwards says she's only now beginning to appreciate everything she's accomplished.

"For the first time in my life I'm proud of everything we achieved," she says, "and it's taken me a lot time to get there."

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