"Maiden" tells a mighty tale about the majesty of the human spirit and the power of women, and it's all true.
A potent documentary about 1989's first all-women crew to compete in yachting's grueling Whitbread Round The World Race, at 32,000-plus miles the longest contest on Earth, "Maiden" (also the name of the yacht) reveals an extraordinary saga of grit and daring in the face of doubt, fear and life-threatening situations.
"The ocean is always trying to kill you," Maiden's British skipper, Tracy Edwards, says, setting the film's compelling tone right from the start. "It never takes a break."
A heck of a story splendidly told, "Maiden" succeeds by combining the athleticism of "Free Solo" with the enriching, across-the-board emotional appeal of "RBG."
No matter what your expectations, this heartening doc about disregarding skeptics and moving ahead has the ways and means to take you by surprise, thrill you and make you cry.
It starts with the expert way director Alex Holmes (who first heard the story when Edwards spoke at his daughter's London elementary school) and editor Katie Bryer have assembled footage from the period, material that was by no means easy to find.
Everything from the contents of a huge plastic box accumulated by Edwards' collector mother to vintage video from news outlets worldwide was tracked down, with the best stuff being on-the-boat verite video filmed by Joanna Gooding, "Maiden's" cook and a friend of Edwards since they were preteens.
What makes "Maiden" truly special, however, are the present-day interviews conducted with the skipper and almost all the members of her 12-woman crew, each determined to be candid and forthcoming about the extraordinary, life-altering events they were part of.
Also heard from are the nowchagrined male members of the yachting establishment and the press who were dismissive if not downright hostile back in the day to the notion of an all-female crew on a race this arduous and challenging.
"They said we weren't strong enough, not skilled enough, girls don't get on, you'll die," Edwards relates, the edge of determination growing in her voice even decades after the fact. "It wasn't a choice; it was something I had to do."
That determination is the key to Maiden's success, but it was not something that was always part of Edwards' life. Thrown for a loop after her father died and her mother disastrously remarried, she was suspended from her high school in Wales 26 times before she was expelled and ran away from home.
Working in seaport bars led Edwards to the yachting world, where she felt a kinship with the "dropouts, misfits, gypsies and nomads" who crewed on boats.
That culture exerted an unexpectedly powerful pull on her, and Edwards managed to get a berth as a cook on the fourth running of the Whitbread (known since 2001 as the Volvo Ocean Race), a multistage endeavor held every three years that lasts eight to nine months and involves almost half a year at sea.
Upset at being treated like a servant and unhappy that of the 230 total crew on all the Whitbread competitors only four were women, Edwards determined to enter 1989's fifth Whitbread "as a proper sailor" and with an all-woman crew.
It wasn't a feminist gesture, she says, simply that "I like to do what I want to do and I didn't see why I couldn't do it."
The hiring of the crew, many of whom had thought they were the only woman obsessed with yachting, is one of the highlights of "Maiden" as we get to hear the participants ruefully reflecting today on what their younger selves were like.
Everything about Edwards' quest proved to be beyond daunting, starting with the literal years she spent fruitlessly pursuing corporate sponsors before a surprise source of funding materialized.
Even getting a boat proved a challenge, with Edwards finally mortgaging her house to buy one secondhand and then mortgaging that to get the funds to have it refurbished.
Every step of the way, Edwards and her crew were met with the kind of primitive sexism that included one journalist calling Maiden "a tin full of tarts." "People were scathing," one crew member says, "and they got nastier as we got further."
As if more complications were needed, Edwards, 26 when the race began, confesses to self-destructive insecurities, doubts and fears that led to conflicts with crew members, including a confrontation that made her so angry with one woman "I wanted to rip her throat out."
Amazing as it may seem, all of this prerace drama was nothing compared with the contest itself. "Maiden" gives full weight to each of the Whitbread's six legs and the unexpected dramatic elements every one of them contained, from horrific weather conditions to boat mishaps and more.
As they relate their still-astounding story, captain and crew are often in tears, and audiences savvy enough to take in this remarkable film can count on joining them.