With only seconds separating the Russian boat and us, Skipper Liz Wardley had the “Maiden” fully keeled, rail under water, maximizing our propulsion to a spot on the race podium. Many of you might be wondering how in the world did I finagle my way onto the legendary "Maiden" and end up in the Caribbean racing in the 40th Annual Heineken Regatta. Well, I am excited to share how it all happened, lessons learned, a few salty sea tales, and some lasting reflections.
This story all began in October of 2019 when my fiancé (Kelsey) and I rented the documentary movie, "Maiden." The film is an epic account of the first all-female ocean yacht racing team, skippered by 27-year-old Tracy Edwards, who entered the famous Whitbread 33,000 mile race around the world. Tracy and her hand-picked all-female crew crushed old stereotypes about women, proving they could not only compete, but placed 2nd in their class against the best sailors in the world. The story completely fascinated me and was one of the most inspiring movies I have seen in years. Before watching the movie “Maiden”, I had no idea what the Whitbread Race was all about, nor the dangers these sailors endured. Tracy and her all-women crew raced the Maiden for nine months, surviving monstrous waves through the Southern Ocean. These courageous women faced unbelievable odds and shocked the sailing world. They opened countless doors for women in a sport that had previously been an all-boys club.
About a week after watching the movie, Kelsey called me and said, "Deb, the Maiden is here in Santa Barbara Harbor." I said, "Oh my goodness, we have to go see her!" We drove down to the harbor that afternoon and spotted the Maiden tied up next to the private owner's section at the marina. We walked to the edge of the lifting boat ramp to get the best view of the Maiden. Kelsey and I spotted a couple of crew-mates on the deck, and like a couple of 13-year-old giggling girls yelled, "Hey Maiden, we love you”! It was exhilarating to see this legendary 58' racing yacht in person. Wendy Tuck, who was the skipper at that time saw us jumping up and down on the pier and said, "Hey ladies hurry, and I will let you see her for a few minutes as we are just getting ready to close it down for the day." We launched into a sprint to the other side of the harbor, where Tracy Edward's daughter (Mack Edwards-Mair) met us at the gate with a lanyard badge that said "Maiden Guest". At that moment, I felt as if I was boarding Amelia Earhart's "Lockheed Electra." To me, these adventurous world sailors are the Amelia Earhart’s of the ocean. Wendy greeted Kelsey and me at the edge of the rail, as we both asked, "permission to board the Maiden?" Wendy said, "Welcome aboard. Shoes off please come and have a quick look around."
Kelsey snapped a picture of me at the helm as I grinned with delight, standing next to the giant pink wheel. We only had about ten minutes to look around, so I promptly crawled down the companionway and was awestruck by the navigation station neatly tucked away by the captain's quarters. The galley was a horseshoe-shaped design with whitewashed cupboards. Walking through the interior of the Maiden, felt similar to the 150 sq ft tiny home that we live in full time.
Living a minimalist lifestyle, I appreciate that everything has a purpose and a place in small quarters, or it has to go. The crew bunks were neat, organized, and decorated with postcards and sweet family photos. There was a grey cleverly designed milk crate storage center for the crew's foul weather gear and PFD's. I recall standing by the middle hatch peering forward into the engine compartment and said to myself, "I want to sail on the Maiden someday."
Those words continued to ring in my head for months to come. The Maiden departed Santa Barbara Harbor early the next morning, heading south to Los Angeles. The crew was halfway through their tour around the world with Maiden's mission: supporting and working with community programs all over the world which empower and enable girls in education. They promote women's equality, motivating and inspiring many to pursue their dreams.
I continued following the Maiden and her crew from that day forward via their Facebook site. As one of their Facebook “Top Fans”, I would check the website almost daily with updates on the Maiden and read fun stories from the team and their adventures. In early February 2020, the Maiden Factor Foundation posted a photo and link on their website that said, "This could be you!" The minute I saw the post, I said, "Yes, I want that to be me." When Kelsey came home later that night, I immediately announced, "I have something incredible to ask you." Kelsey looked at me and said, "What's up?" I said, "I want to apply for an opportunity to sail on the Maiden. They are offering one amateur spot on the crew down in St Maarten for the 40th Annual Heineken Regatta. It is an expensive proposition, but all the money will go to support the Maiden Foundation." Kelsey did not hesitate one second or question my motives. She looked at me with thumbs up and said, "Deb, I support you 100%, and you should apply."
It was certainly worth a shot. I truly believe if you want something, then don't fill your mind with excuses, just fill out the darn application. The answer may well be “no”, but it can't be “yes” if you never apply. You can't sit around and fret too much about how, what, when, or where. I honestly had no idea what role or expectations the crew might have for me. I sat down that night and drafted my email of interest from my heart and emailed it the following morning. The deadline for interest was February 3rd, with notifications to be made by February 7th- if chosen. The entire week I was buzzing with positive energy around the house. I had a feeling that I would get a call. Call it a vision or just fate, but I had already visualized myself sailing the Maiden since standing on her deck in Santa Barbara.
On February 9th, I received an official invite from the Maiden Factor Foundation to join the crew down in St Maarten on March 1st to start crew training. When I first opened the email, I thought it was a "Dear John" letter thanking me for my interest. As my eyes focused on the first line of the email, I just held up the iPhone for Kelsey to read. She said, "You got it didn't you?" I squeaked out, "Yes, baby, they picked me." The email from Carol started with, "I am delighted to offer you one of the guest spots on the Maiden for the 40th Annual Heineken Regatta. If you could, please let me know as soon as you can.” Let's just say they had my money within four hours.
The next few weeks were quite a whirlwind as Kelsey and I were beginning our nine-month Santa Barbara County Park Host assignment at Lookout Park in Summerland, CA. We had less than two weeks to lay a new floor, install a kitchen, re-plumb the entire rig, and get our bathroom put back together. Not to mention fulfilling our business client contracts to pack and move two elderly couples into new homes, coordinate an estate sale, pack up our RV and drive it down the coast to Lookout Park for the summer.
Giddy up! Fortunately we are an excellent team and quickly accomplish tasks together.
I booked my flight and departed Santa Barbara for St. Maarten on March 1st.
When I first wrote my letter of interest to the Maiden Factor Foundation, I thought to myself, "Deb, why do you want to do this?" The reality is big girls have dreams too, and I had three reasons to grasp this opportunity. First of all, I found many similarities with Tracy Edward's story to my own experiences of busting down gender barriers working as an Airframe and Power Plant (A&P) Mechanic. In the 1990's it was a harsh world for a woman in her 20’s to navigate lots of stereotypes and barriers to hurdle in the workplace. I was one of three females in a large maintenance shop at Chicago O'Hare with over 100 men, but thrived in the challenges and opportunities to learn. So I too had pulled up my bootstraps and plowed through a male-dominated world. After watching the documentary Maiden, I was inspired by these women's GRIT to endure such arduous conditions. As an aside, as of 2017 only 2.3% of A&P Mechanics are female.
The second reason I wanted to apply for this position was to test myself and try new skills. If you're going to learn a foreign language quickly, then spend time in that country. The desire to be pushed outside my comfort zone and accelerate my learning curve in sailing was strong. Therefore, I applied to join a world-class group of female sailors. This experience hurdled me from American Sailing Association 101 “Intro To Sailing”, to sailing in one of the most prestigious regattas in the world.
Here I am, 51 years young and have only been sailing for about 18 months in semi mild conditions within 25 miles of Santa Barbara. Talk about raising your sailing game! Throwing yourself into the most demanding professional sailing scenario might not be the recommended approach for everyone. However, the ten days physical, mental, and spiritual exercises opened up an entirely new horizon for me. Secretly I craved a sample taste of professional sailing with the "big girls." By working hard over the past three years, maintaining a healthy weight, nutritional balance, and remaining alcohol-free, I figured I could physically endure whatever they threw at me.
The third reason I wanted to apply for this position was to expand my international sailing experiences. Now that I have discovered sailing, the wind now carries me onto new engaging places in my life. Moving to Santa Barbara two years ago was one of the unparalleled greatest decisions I have ever made in my life; it healed my broken soul. I dreamed of moving to Santa Barbara, CA for 25 years and desired to learn more about sailing. I knew sailing would be comparable to flying airplanes, as there are many crossover aspects between a wing and a sail. You are never too old to learn new skills. When I am near the ocean and feel the wind propel a sailboat forward, I feel free and peaceful.
So with little thought about what would be involved to join the Maiden as guest crew, I believed "Deb, this can be you. Apply!"
PREPARE TO TACK
I began drafting my Maiden sailing memoirs on a notepad at the airport in St Maarten, while awaiting my flight back to the USA on March 13th. As I replayed the last ten days, my lips were slightly chapped, sunburned, and salty from the Caribbean seas. I could still feel the Maiden beneath me heeled over in aqua sea-foam, spray splashing over the foredeck in a brisk 78-degree breeze. There are few words to describe my expectations going into this adventure and what I walked away with an upgraded sailing “toolbox”. Ocean yacht racing is a profession attempted by many but perfected by few. I secured a brand-new appreciation for teamwork and technical yacht racing skills.
Our Maiden skipper, Liz Wardley, is a remarkable tactical start wizard. She is an unbelievable salty sea dog, having sailed around the world three times. I imagine she birthed out of the womb saying, "Prepare to tack." Athletic and robust in stature yet agile and nimble up the mast like a monkey. Liz was fearless, competitive, gutsy, serious at times, yet quiet with stealthy calculated planning when she sails.
On the first day of practice, while sailing back to the harbor, I was given an unexpected opportunity. Liz shouted, "Deb, do you want to take the helm?" I replied, "Oh, yes, you don't have to ask me twice." What a thrill! The next 20 minutes of guiding the Maiden at the helm became one of my life's highlights. The sensation of standing at the big pink wheel of the 58' Maiden powering forward under full sail was terrific. The breeze on my face that day has etched this experience forever into my memories.
From day one, I was very grateful for the extra efforts Liz shared with me as she took time and patience to coach me on tacking techniques and releasing the jib line safely. My previous sailing experiences consisted of much smaller winches with a lot less load. Liz, straight away, spotted my methods of releasing the jib lines, could be dangerous and cause a potential override. The extreme heavy loads on the wenches are thousands of pounds; therefore, miss handling of a line could result in some ugly consequences.
During day one of practice, I attempted to practice a few new advanced skills. Yet the intimidation of such power in my hands left me incredibly nervous. Lucky me, thankfully, I was mentored and coached from another fantastic sailor on board, April Armstrong. On day two of practice, I continued to struggle with releasing the line without getting my fingers in the wrong position. April walked over to me and said, "Hey, Deb, I'd love to help you with some suggestions if you would like." I said, "Oh, yes, I would be so grateful!"
On the Maiden, everything happens very fast, and there is no time to hesitate and wonder if you are doing something correctly. Communication is number one, as everyone must have an ear for the skipper's orders when she needs it. Participating in a variety of team sports over the years, I understand how communication is essential. However, in sailing, communication is vital and could be life or death. There are no star players on the court of a yacht. If one person is not communicating and performing their job, the performance of the entire boat could suffer. Safety is continuously at the forefront of everyone's mind, along with the cohesion of teamwork on board. One must be able to react at a moment's notice. Things constantly happen on a yacht, you must watch for overrides, line fouls, something breaking loose, jams, rigging issues or humans in the wrong place at the wrong time. Witnessing the Maiden crew leap like lightning bolts while scanning for potential safety issues for themselves and others was such a privilege.
From the moment I boarded the Maiden, I felt like I belonged there. No matter my limited sailing experience, it was more about being an example for empowering women of all ages to dream. My experience of hanging on to the rail of a racing yacht moving at 20 knots sprayed with sea-foam, was exhilarating. My heart raced non-stop through many moments when I should have been scared. However, I had an important job to do, so being frightened wasn't an option. When our Skipper, Liz Wardley, shouted, "prepare to tack," you get your ass into position no matter what it takes. You are always moving from side to side.
On day three of racing Liz had the Maiden heeled over 50-60 degrees on a long upwind stretch of the Caribbean coastline. I could barely get my foothold as I clung hung onto the lifeline, finally managing to find a footing while sliding across the deck. Then again, the rail (where I usually brace my foot against) was underwater. I mustered all my strength by squeezing my inner thighs together (I imagine similar to bull riding at a rodeo!) I gulped up any fear and shouted, "ready to tack!" which means I have the jib line ready, the line is out of the self-tailor, one wrap is off the wench, and awaiting Liz's command to tack. If I release the jib line too soon, it "kills" boat speed and the skipper would not be happy. Lose focus and over-ride could occur, and it is; it's a major mess. Not to mention getting fingers or hands in the wrong place will provide to be an awful day.
During a maneuver, my left ankle suddenly became entangled in the jib line moments before the tack, and terror struck! Training on the first day taught us that if something were wrong to yell, "HOLD." On deck, that means stop and immediately look for a problem. I calmly said, "Hold, my foot is caught in the line." Within seconds, Bella spotted the situation and flicked the line off of my foot. She is one cool, calm cat. If something happened on deck, Bella was Johnny-on-the-spot in any on deck situation. As the first mate on the Maiden crew, Bella had a keen intuition with 360 visions of the deck at all times. She was also the man overboard rescue swimmer (MOB) if ever needed. I'm not sure how it all happened, but I am indebted Bella was there.
The Maiden crew all carry very sharp knives in their pockets at all times. Also, there are several huge knives attached to the deck and boom in case of an emergency. It is critical to keep the pit area clear of lines to eliminate potential entanglement of the crew and a stockpile of mess. Every second, the pit crew is not performing a maneuver; they are coiling lines (all 10 to 12 of them) ready for the next move. Marthe, one of our two Canadian crew-mates, was like the "Fire Captain", coiling, and figure-eight looping lines for hours. Marthe was relentless in our days on the Maiden with keeping the pit area neatly coiled and ready to go at a moment's notice.
Most of my prior sailing experience, I would ordinarily cling to the helm position, and Kelsey would manage the lines and tacks. I can confidently say that post Maiden experience, I am much more confident and have no problem performing multiple jobs. My earlier sailing instruction made me nervous with jibing, as instructors never seemed to practice the jibe. Yet it is a necessary skill that must be in the toolbox like any other maneuver essential to sailing. Working the jibe lines was a tremendous amount of work that required multiple crew-members, especially when flying the kite (spinnaker). Liz entrusted me with several essential roles on the Maiden. I am very grateful to have had this experience under her leadership.
Three replies came out of my mouth when asked to do something by the Maiden crew - "Yes ma'am," "Copy that," "I need clarification." There is an order to everything on the deck, and crystal clear communication is imperative for overall safety and success. When the skipper speaks, you listen, when she asks for something you respond, and when she yells, you reflect and revise to do better. Therefore, when Liz said, "well-done crew," she meant it. I witnessed the permanent Maiden crew take a group of unknown women and one guest male sailor (Ag) with a 40 year age difference, and a vast range of skills, whip us into a pretty darn good crew in ten days! I discovered modern yacht racing to be a great equalizer sport; women have a legitimate shot to complete. This experience was, by far, the most exciting team sport I had ever discovered.
Maidens’ race starts and countdowns were as electrifying as a NASA rocket launch! Liz had the intensity of Gene Kranz at NASA mission control, making multiple rapid-fire decisions. At the beginning of the Heineken Regatta races, skipper Liz would navigate the Maiden into the perfect position with 10-15 other 50' yachts jockeying for a clean start. My job on the Maiden was offside trimmer, grinder, and helping with sail changes.
The grinder position on a sailing yacht has two upside-down handles that look like double bicycle peddles. Grinders on a racing yacht are the human muscle that pulls tension on a series of lines connected between winches, raising sheets, the mainsail, or controlling trim when needed. When the trimmer calls for "grind," you haul butt as fast as you can until you physically can not turn the grinder, then you quickly reverse directions, which change gears but is a slower haul result. Staying in second gear as long as possible provides an advantage for faster sail trim at the start of a race.
Our trimmer, Erica Lush, was a master sail trimmer. When the skipper is happy with the yacht performance in trimming, everyone scampers to the windward side of the rail (boat's edge), as a flatboat is a fast boat (maintaining rudder control).
When you see 10-12 crew sitting on the side of a racing yacht - it's not because they are sun baking! It is vitally essential for weight distribution and speed performance. Our skipper, Liz, would typically keep the Maiden heeled over as much as possible. Our weight placement on the rail helped her drive the sails harder, hence maximizing the Maiden's speed and control.
On the last day of the 40th Annual Heineken regatta, the Maiden was in the 4th/5th overall position. We needed the best start of our lives to have any chance to beat the Russian boat (Anna) and claim 3rd position (making the podium!). That day everyone on the Maiden crew was silently focused. Liz strategically maneuvered the more massive 58-foot, 40-year-old Maiden like it was a fast and furious sports car. She had a secret plan devised to position us for a stellar start. Listening with a keen ear as Summer called out the countdowns, I stood at my grinding position with Ag (a guest male crew member) staring at the forward arrow on top of the grinder.
There was a lot of action happening, and I needed to avoid being distracted by the other sailing crews yelling out commands in multiple languages. With seven seconds remaining, Liz yelled, "GRIND." Ag and I went into hyper-drive as Erica and Summer perfectly trimmed the sails as we shot across the start line in 1st position! The entire crew knew we had a fighting chance to compete for a spot on the podium. With a clean start, we did not have to contend with the congestion of all the other boats. Liz was very excited to have good wind and full perfectly trimmed sails to launch us forward. It was up to the Skipper Liz to outmaneuver the much lighter yachts in our division over the next four hours. The little things such as hustle with sail changes, weight distribution, and tactical wind strategy would soon play an important role. Throughout the remainder of the day, all of these things added up to significant gains in time, which kept us close to our main rival, "Anna", the Russian boat.
After four days of racing, everyone on the crew had their share of bumps and bruises. However, the crew energy was high, as we all knew we had a shot at this race. Everyone on deck remained focused, and on alert for Liz's instructions. We all leaned our legs out further on the rail than previous days sailing. My buttock was aching from sliding back and forth across the deck. Still, I did not think of anything else except performing my job to the best of my abilities.
They make these fancy padded sailing shorts for a reason, but I didn't have a chance to pick up a pair! Trust me, bear-crawls on a gym floor have nothing on a rolling and pitching 58' ocean racing yacht! You could see the bruised legs and arms from all the crew-mates as everyone was giving it their all.
Particular respect gained for two of my lovely crew-mates who were in their 60's. These warrior ladies endured some rough deck falls, sail packing punches, and physically demanding positions on the Maiden. Never did I hear a whimper or a complaint from these badass ladies. Elaine, your granddaughter should be so proud of you, as she has a real role model of strength and character to aspire in after you.
Everyone on the Maiden had incredible responsibility with numerous positions. When racing with a team working in harmony, it is magical. Assisting with the jib takedowns and deploying the spinnaker required coordinated timing and precision team effort. The first time I went to the foredeck and performed this task was like wing walking on an airplane. The incredibly talented Courtney Koos, (Maiden permanent crew) was swift as a cat, athletic, and agile. I was watching Courtney on the foredeck like a live performance of the Cirque del Sole act, whereas I looked like a befuddling toddler clinging to anything with a handhold. Nevertheless, it took me about 20 times of going forward learning to navigate an obstacle course of lines, deck hardware, pitching, and rolling seas to work out how to quickly get to my position and back with ease.
After a long day of racing, our evenings were filled with stress-releasing antics such as halyard-swinging competitions and concocting humorous antics to rattle other crews. Our favorite was Courtney wearing electrical tape mustaches longer and blacker than the Russians! It was hilarious. Courtney sported a handsome, dashing mouser while directing traffic on the Maiden bow for the start of our races. I found ocean yacht racing to be a combination of a 100m dash and a marathon.
The exhilaration of a fast start to the grind of a three to a six-hour endurance test, filled with a full spectrum of gladiator-style on deck maneuvers, was terrific. This experience gave me an authentic insight into what these unbelievable women do daily. These ladies are all fiercely strong, yet graceful as dancers. They can skillfully move back and forth across a pitching deck while negotiating multiple tripping hazards, all while performing incredibly tricky tasks. Liz and the Maiden crew are the ultimate silent achievers. They are committed to each other as the Musketeers.
It's important to highlight some of the Maiden's permanent crew's incredible individual attributes. Erica Lush, was our East coast trimmer from Rhode Island, NH. She is a skilled strategic chess player who always was contemplating her next four moves. She is a technical trim wizard, sail repair specialist, with immense tactical knowledge. Not to mention, she speaks four languages, including Arabic.
Courtney Koos, our Maiden engineer and is a mechanical troubleshooter extraordinaire. When Courtney was not on the foredeck dancing around with poise and perception changing sails, she was reading electrical schematics and repairing or refitting a non-stop list of maintenance issues.
Belinda Henry was like an Eveready battery and our dependable steadfast first mate on the Maiden. She was cool as a cat and a smooth polished operator, never becoming unraveled or tense during the day while showing incredible patience and guidance working with a lot of rookies. No matter how many times I would ask her the same question, she would, in a gentle voice, give me clear directions with confidence.
Amalia Infante was our talented onboard reporter/photographer who travels around the world with the Maiden. She shares her gift to the world through her camera lens. She skillfully cemented our treasured moments including the photographs in this blog to be shared widely. Her unique ability to capture moments is a gift from God. Amalia can tell a story of excitement, adrenaline, the beauty of nature, individual effort, and the joy of sailing all in one perfect shot. Not to mention, she dances like a beautiful princess all over the deck juggling a gigantic camera in her hands.
My experience on the Maiden catapulted my confidence and skill level to a point where I feel comfortable at the prospect of sailing and chartering larger boats. I plan to join our local yacht club in Santa Barbara and register as an "available crew" for the club's weekly races.
I now have my personal Maiden memories that will last me a lifetime. So please ask yourself, "why not me?" and go for your dreams.
Thank you, Tracey Edwards, and the entire staff at The Maiden Factor Foundation. You are changing the projection of women's lives, young and old, through empowerment and education through sailing.
If you enjoyed this blog and reading about my adventures on the Maiden, please consider donating to the Maiden Factor Foundation.
May the Journey Begin Within You