Sailing: When life is not plain sailing

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW; Tracy Edwards tells Ian Stafford why she sailed round the world and then said never again...until now
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Tracy Edwards laughs at the absurdity of the situation. There she was, at the end of a long, hard day of negotiating with a potential - and crucial - sponsor. Time was running out and she was staring financial ruin in the face. As she said her goodbye, she dug her hand in her pocket and discovered the embarrassing truth.

"I didn't have enough money left to grab a taxi to the station," she recalls. "I had gone to the limit with the project and barely knew where my next meal would be coming from. I asked him if he could lend me some money. He replied: 'You can't be serious.' I said: 'I'm afraid I am.' Then we both laughed, and he gave me the money."

This little episode failed to deter Royal & Sun Alliance from forking out pounds 4.27m to sponsor Edwards and her all-female crew for a series of record attempts this year and next, culminating with an attempt on the Jules Verne non-stop circumnavigation record of 74 days and 22 hours.

It also ended what Edwards describes as a "nightmare experience" for her and her small team of dedicated friends working to get the whole project off the ground and into the water. It began at the end of 1994 when Edwards, having seen Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and Sir Peter Blake smash the circumnavigation record on the catamaran Enza, dreamed up the idea of having a go at the record herself with, of course, her obligatory all-female crew. She promptly bought the one boat that could achieve this goal - Enza.

"When I took the first big step of paying the first instalment on Enza, partly by raising the mortgage, I felt physically sick with anxiety," she says sitting in her small office at the Hamble Marina. "I was on my knees right here in the office thinking: 'Oh my God, what have I done?' The next day I decided that there was no turning back."

Disaster loomed last October when an American company, which was to have been her sponsors, suddenly pulled the plug on the deal. "They hadn't done their sums very well and decided they couldn't afford to be involved," Edwards explains with a wry smile. "It was a bit of a blow after we'd completed a pounds 350,000 refit."

This is, to say the least, an understatement. Plans to attempt the Jules Verne record this year were reluctantly aborted as a result, and Edwards and her team had to start from scratch. The deadline with the bank with 31 March. Edwards, thanks to her own hard work and vision from Royal & Sun Alliance, managed to beat the date by two weeks.

It was a desperately close-run affair. On the sunny morning we met last week the boat would have been in the process of being repossessed by the bank on behalf of all Tracy's creditors if she had failed to convince her sponsors. Come to think about it, the chairs we were sitting on during our talk would have been taken as well.

"I would have lost everything," she says. "The boat, my house, my car.... everything. The funny thing is, though, that I would have been able to have handled it pretty well. If the project had collapsed last October, when our initial sponsors let us down, I would have been devastated. But now the pain would have been numbed because at least I would have known that I had given it 150 per cent. I've been coming in to work at 5.00 in the morning, and leaving at 11.00 at night, and the rest of the office have been putting in similar hours to make this work."

That she says she could have handled the let-down reveals a lot about the Tracy Edwards of today. By her own admission she has spent the past few years discovering an awful lot about herself since she first made her name in 1990, captaining the first, all-female crew in the Whitbread Round the World Race on Maiden.

Back then her convention-crushing achievements prompted a 50,000-strong crowd to welcome her home in Southampton, leading to instant and unwanted fame and recognition. She fled to Wales to try and avoid much of this, but discovered that her adventures at sea had left her struggling to cope with life back on land. Now 34, and with two marriages behind her, Edwards has returned to sailing with a vengeance, the very act she vowed she would never do after the sour experience of immediate life after Maiden.

"I was a nightmare to be with after Maiden," she quite readily admits. "I had become very insular, which was the result of sailing together for so long in such a close-knit group. I began to almost resent the intrusion of others, and found it hard to have people around me who hadn't been part of it. And I just wasn't prepared for the sudden spotlight thrust upon me."

Instead, Edwards tried to settle down and lead a more conventional lifestyle. For a while she believed it was the best action to take. "It seems I find it difficult to settle down," she continues. "I left home at 16, went travelling and never gave things a chance to work at home. Since then I've tried, I really have. I've given it my best shot but it hasn't worked and it's not going to."

Which is why she finds herself back at the helm of another epic sailing adventure. For during her self-imposed absence from the sea, the penny finally dropped. "I genuinely thought I needed a very long, and quite possibly permanent break away from sailing. Now I understand that I was never running away from the sea, but merely preparing myself to come back. All I've been doing over the past few years is recuperating for this next trip."

As she says this her eyes fill up with excitement and anticipation. I ask her if she has found happiness, despite all the professional and personal upheavals in her recent life. Her answer is emphatic.

"I'm very content, probably the happiest I've ever been in my life," she says. "I feel no stress at all. I'm really relaxed and confident and, for the first time in my life, have a real sense of direction." She pauses to consider her self-analysis for a few seconds more. "Yup, I've really sorted myself out. I now know that my life is sailing."

The plan for the next three years is extensive. Edwards and her crew intend to put the rechristened "Royal & Sun Alliance" into the water at the end of the month, with an official launch in the first week of May. They will then go for an immediate crack at the transatlantic record which, at six days, 13 hours and three minutes, has stood since 1990. After that it is straight on to the round Britain and Ireland, and round Ireland records, before going on standby for the Jules Verne attempt in December.

"As we are the first all-female crew to even attempt these records then, whatever happens, we will be setting our own marks, but we intend to break the existing records and, in the process, get the team together in readiness for the Jules Verne," Edwards explains.

But she is looking ahead even beyond this. "Once the Jules Verne is out of the way I will be sailing down to the Antarctic with Skip Novak to film a travel documentary for the BBC, and after that I will be planning for the Millennium Race in 2000, which is a non-stop circumnavigation race for specially invited people like myself in any boat they like."

It is a lesson learned from Maiden. "I'm not going to make the same mistake again," she vows. "I saw Maiden as absolutely everything. There was nothing beyond Maiden. When it was all over I barely had a reason to live which, looking back, was so stupid. Now I am putting my heart and soul into the Jules Verne, but it is one project, and there are others to follow."

What lies ahead for Edwards and her crew will sound, to most sane people, like hell. Seventy-foot waves in the Southern Ocean, temperatures so cold that six layers of thermal underwear are required and not removed for six weeks, the most desperate living conditions aboard a boat designed to sail quickly, and not be a hotel, and the constant dangers lurking courtesy of the elements.

Incredibly, Tracy Edwards gets sea-sick. This, I tell her, is like Damon Hill getting car sick, or Chris Bonnington suffering from vertigo.

"I know," she laughs. "and it's just the worst thing, isn't it? I don't just get sick, I get chronically sick, but it only ever lasts day or two. That's why I never go on day sails. It has to be at least two or three to get over the sickness."

Nevertheless, she cannot wait to get going. The boat is just a few hundred yards away on dry dock, and the Solent just a leap further. She knows that soon all the waiting will be over.

"It feels like we've all been on a long voyage already just to get to where we have," she adds as we stroll along the marina and gaze up at the huge catamaran she is pinning her hopes on.

"But the best bit is going out to sea and sailing round the world. It always has been, and it always will be."