Around the world in 72 days...

Andrew Preece talks to the first lady of the high seas who risked financial ruin in her quest for a new adventure
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Tracy Edwards who made her name as skipper of Maiden, the first- ever all-woman Whitbread race entry, is setting her sights on even more challenging horizons. Last week she announced a pounds 4.27m sponsorship deal with Royal Sun Alliance for a series of record attempts that will culminate in a shot at Peter Blake and Robin Knox-Johnston's 74 day 22 hour record for a non-stop circumnavigation of the world.

Edwards, who will sail the massive 92-foot catamaran ENZA in which Blake and Knox-Johnston set the record, is returning to competition after an absence of seven years. She explained: "After saying I was never going sailing again as long as I lived, I got bored. So I borrowed money, mortgaged the house and did all the things I swore I would never do again, and bought the boat."

The announcement could not have been more timely. Edwards bought the boat last year and commissioned an extensive refit in readiness for a departure last January, but then her sponsor pulled out leaving debts which were "heading up there for the pounds 1m mark". "March the 31st was the deadline," she said with a laugh. "I was two weeks away from losing everything."

But if Edwards, 34, from Reading, is relieved at having so narrowly escaped financial ruin, her peace of mind is tempered by the enormity of what lies ahead. She was breaking new ground when she assembled, in the face of widespread and severe scepticism, her Whitbread crew nearly 10 years ago. But, like any sailor, she will testify that the transition from Whitbread sailor - she had taken part in the race before as a cook - to Whitbread skipper of an all-woman crew was nothing like the jump she took when she decided to sail a multihull.

"ENZA makes Maiden look like a cruise liner," she said. "I first saw her when I flew to Fort Lauderdale to deliver her back to England and I remember gulping 'She's a lot bigger than I remember.' And when we got on the boat I said to Ed Danby [one of ENZA's circumnavigating crewmen and project manager of Edwards' campaign] 'What are we looking at here? How am I going to tackle this?' And he said 'Just forget everything you know about sailing, get rid of any preconceived ideas and just listen and learn.' It was the best advice he could have given me.

"More of it is looking ahead and being aware of what the boat's doing all the time. Women tend to do that anyway because if they get into a shit-fight [an on-board calamity] you haven't got the strength to get out of it. If you lose a headsail over the side and it fills with water...that happened on Maiden once and we never did it again because there were nine of us hanging on to the thing for three hours before we could even get it on board again."

If Edwards is to break the 74-day record when she and her nine crew leave some time in January of next year - the exact starting date will be determined just hours before they leave when Bob Rice, the American weather expert and router, gives the green light on a window of favourable weather to jet them out of the northern hemisphere - she has to make considerable ground over the next nine months. The boat has been modified and upgraded and can be expected to be slightly quicker than in 1996, particularly in light airs, which will be a benefit in negotiating the Doldrums.

But if Edwards is to meet the target of 72 days that she has set for herself, the crew will need to be pushing the boat as hard as Blake and his seven crew were. "I hope we will be able to push the boat to 100 per cent but I guess I won't know the answer to that until I've been out there sailing properly," Edwards said. "I've spoken to Peter Blake about this and he said 'You must look ahead with this boat, you must know what she's doing, how she's feeling, what's coming next, and do it before. Don't let the shit-fight happen.'"

As yet Edwards has named only two of the nine crew who will join her but is happy to be spoilt for choice. Up until last week the challenge had received more than 120 applications from around the world even before the new sponsor was announced. Her specifications are somewhat different from those of the Whitbread and America's Cup teams from where you would expect the expertise to be sourced. "We are not looking for five or six helmspeople like some of those boats," she said. "Every person has to be able to helm. Everything happens so quickly, it's all so much a reflex thing. If you're on the helm you feel the boat. You can't even have, say, a watch captain standing next to you saying 'do this, do that'. So what we're looking for are small boat sailors because they can learn anything whereas often a big boat sailor will be only familiar with one area on a boat."

Before next January's world challenge the crew will attempt to beat the records for sailing around Britain and Ireland and transatlantic from New York to England. Edwards is contemplating the examination she has set herself with remarkable pragmatism. She silenced her critics when she successfully completed the Whitbread but she is reminded of what she has taken on with every press call and interview. "Why," she smiled, "does everyone keep saying 'good luck'... and then laughing?"

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