Being at sea, for me, is … it’s total freedom, and it is the ultimate opportunity to be you because you can’t be anything else. You are naked in front of your peers on a boat. It is a small area.
Maiden is 58 feet long. There's 12 women in a 58-foot boat. I mean, you are literally up against each other, and so you have to be you. The greatest moment for me when I'm sailing is the moment that the land disappears.
It’s an indescribable moment of — adventure and no turning back, and just you and the boat and the elements. I wish everyone could experience this at least once in their lives. The further you get away from land, the more you kind of fit into yourself.
It is you, how do we get to the next place, how do we stay alive, how do we look after each other and what do we do to get to the other side. So the question I get asked the most when I go and do talks is "How do you become an ocean-racing sailor?" And that's a really good question.
And I've always wanted to say "I had a vision, which became a dream, which became an obsession," but, of course, life's not like that, and one thing I'm really anxious for people to know about me is that my life hasn't gone from A to B — because how many people can say their lives just go from A to B; they think, "I'm going to do this," and they go and do it? So I tell the truth.
And the truth is that I was expelled from school when I was 15 years old, and my long-suffering headmaster sent a long-suffering note to my long-suffering mother, basically saying that if Tracy darkens these doors of the school again, then we will call the police.
And my mum took me and she said, “Darling, education is not for everyone.” And then she gave me the best piece of advice anyone has ever given me. She said, “Every single one of us is good at something, you just have to go and find what that is.”
And at the age of 16, she let me go backpacking off to Greece. I ended up working on boats, which was OK — 17 years old, didn’t really know what I wanted to do, kind of going with the flow.
And then on my second transatlantic, my skipper said to me, “Can you navigate?” And I said, “Of course I can’t navigate, I was expelled before long division.” And he said, “Don’t you think you should be able to navigate? What happens if I fall over the side? Stop being a bystander in your own life, stop looking at what you’re doing, and start taking part.”
This day, for me, was the day that my whole life started. I learned to navigate in two days — and this is someone who hates numbers and sees them as hieroglyphics. It opened up avenues and opportunities to me that I could never have imagined.
I actually managed to get a ride on a Whitbread Round the World Race boat. It was with 17 South African men and me. I was 21 years old, and it was the longest nine months of my life. But I went as a cook, I managed to survive until the end, and when I got to the end of this race, I realized that there was 230 crew in this race and three women, and I was one of them.
And I’m a lousy cook. I’m a really good navigator. I think the second most profound thought in my entire life was: “No man is ever going to allow me to be a navigator on their boat, ever.”
And that is still the case today. In 35 years of the Whitbread, there have only been two female navigators that haven’t been on an all-female cruise, and that’s how Maiden was born. That was the moment I thought, “I’ve got something to fight for.”
And I had no idea that I wanted to have this fight, and it was something that I took to like a duck to water. I discovered things about myself that I had no idea existed. I discovered I had a fighting spirit, I discovered I was competitive — never knew that before — and I discovered my second passion, which was equality.
I couldn’t let this one lie. And it became not just about me wanting to navigate on a boat and having to put my own crew together and my own team, raise my own money, find my own boat so that I could be the navigator.
This was about women everywhere. And this was when I realized that this was probably what I was going to spend the rest of my life doing. It took ages for us to find the money to do the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Race.
And as we looked at all the big, multimillion-pound, all-male projects around us, with their brand-new shiny boats designed for the race, we realized this was not going to be us. We had to make this up as we went along.
No one had enough faith in us to give us this kind of money. So I mortgaged my house, and we found an old wreck with a pedigree, an old Whitbread boat — it had already been around the world twice — in South Africa.
We somehow persuaded some guy to put it on a ship and bring it back to the UK for us. The girls were horrified at the state of the boat. We got a free place in a yard. We got her up on the hard and we redesigned her, we ripped her apart, we did all the work ourselves.
It was the first time that anyone had ever seen women in a shipyard, so that was quite entertaining. Every morning when we would walk in, everyone would just gawk at us. But it also had its advantages, because everyone was so helpful.
We were such a novelty. You know, we got given a generator, an engine — "Do you want this old rope?" "Yep." "Old sails?" "Yep, we'll have those." So we really made it up as we went along.
And I think, actually, one of the huge advantages we had was, you know, there was no preconceived idea about how an all-female crew would sail around the world. So whatever we did was OK. And what it also did was it drew people to it.
Not just women — men, anyone who'd ever been told, "You can't do something because you're not good enough" — the right gender or right race or right color, or whatever. Maiden became a passion.
And it was hard to raise the money — hundreds of companies wouldn’t sponsor us. They told us that we couldn’t do it, people thought we were going to die … You know, guys would literally come up to me and say, “You’re going to die.”
I’d think, “Well, OK, that’s my business, it’s not yours.” In the end, King Hussein of Jordan sponsored Maiden, and that was an amazing thing — way ahead of his time, all about equality.
We sailed around the world with a message of peace and equality. We were the only boat in the race with a message of any kind. We won two legs of the Whitbread — two of the most difficult legs — and we came second overall.
And that is still the best result for a British boat since 1977. It annoyed a lot of people. And I think what it did at the time — we didn't realize. You know, we crossed the finishing line, this incredible finish — 600 boats sailing up the Solent with us; 50,000 people in Ocean Village chanting "Maiden, Maiden" as we sailed in.
And so we knew we'd done something that we wanted to do and we hoped we'd achieved something good, but we had no idea at the time how many women's lives we changed. The Southern Ocean is my favorite ocean.
Each ocean has a character. So the North Atlantic is a yomping ocean. It's a jolly, go-for-it, heave-ho type of — have-fun type of ocean. The Southern Ocean is a deadly serious ocean. And you know the moment when you cross into the Southern Ocean — the latitude and longitude — you know when you're there, the waves have been building, they start getting big whitecaps on the top, it becomes really gray, you start to get sensory deprivation.
It is very focused on who you are and what you are with this massive wilderness around you. It is empty. It is so big and so empty. You see albatrosses swirling around the boat. It takes about four days to sail through their territory, so you have the same albatross for four days.
And they find us quite a novelty, so they literally windsurf off the wind that comes off the mainsail and they hang behind the boat, and you feel this presence behind you, and you turn around, and it's this albatross just looking at you.
We sold Maiden at the end of the race — we still had no money. And five years ago, we found her, at the same time as a film director decided he wanted to make a documentary about Maiden. We found Maiden, she burst back into my life and reminded me a lot of things I had forgotten, actually, over the years, about following my heart and my gut and really being part of the universe.
And everything I find important in life, Maiden has given back to me. Again, we rescued her — we did a Crowdfunder — we rescued her from Seychelles. Princess Haya, King Hussein’s daughter, funded the shipping back to the UK and then the restoration.
All the original crew was involved. We put the original team back together. And then we decided, what are we going to do with Maiden? And this, for me, really was the moment of my life where I looked back on every single thing that I’d done — every project, every feeling, every passion, every battle, every fight — and I decided that I wanted Maiden to continue that fight for the next generation.
Maiden is sailing around the world on a five-year world tour. We are engaging with thousands of girls all over the world. We are supporting community programs that get girls into education. Education doesn't just mean sitting in a classroom.
This, for me, is about teaching girls you don't have to look a certain way, you don't have to feel a certain way, you don't have to behave a certain way. You can be successful, you can follow your dreams and you can fight for them.
Life doesn’t go from A to B. It’s messy. My life has been a mess from beginning to end, but somehow I’ve got to where we’re going. The future for us and Maiden looks amazing. And for me, it is all about closing the circle.