A woman finds herself at sea

The Monday Interview: TRACY EDWARDS; For high endeavour, it is hard to outdo the deeds of Tracy Edwards, who led her all-woman crew to round-the-world glory and is about do things still more daring. The question is: why?
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The trouble with meeting someone like Tracy Edwards is you don't know whether to feel extraordinarily guilty or wonderfully inspired: she is so evangelically convinced that with just a bit more effort all of us could achieve a whole lot more. "I have a desperate need to succeed and improve myself," she says fervently. "When I wake up in the morning I need to know that I've got something difficult to overcome. When my life is running very smoothly I'm bored."

It is this single-minded determination that took Tracy into the record books in 1990 after she skippered Whitbread's first all-female yacht crew in the Round the World Race. When she left England there was barely a ripple of interest. Raising the sponsorship alone would have defeated a less driven woman. Yet by the time her boat, Maiden, returned she was hogging the headlines and being wheeled out to chat to Richard and Judy. The blokes in the sailing world were, to put it bluntly, gobsmacked. They had never expected Tracy and her "girls" to succeed. "They said we'd try every day and wouldn't hack it," Tracy recalls.

But not only did they complete the race, they won two of the legs and took second place overall. For this singularly focused individual there are still more challenges to take on. Next week she begins a Round Britain record attempt before embarking on the big one at the end of the year: a planned attempt to sail non-stop around the world.

This time sponsorship has come more readily - "Women have a lot of catching up to do, but it's happening" - and she's been able to get hold of the boat that was used by Robin Knox Johnson and Peter Blake when they broke the circumnavigation record in 1994. Nonetheless, she has still remortgaged her home. "How can you expect other people to put money into something unless you do yourself?" Unimaginatively named Royal Sun Alliance after the sponsor, the 92ft catamaran is, she assures me, "a big powerful machine, a beast". On the RSA, unless you're severely vertically challenged - under 5ft - you can't stand up in the cabins. At night, so Tracy cheerfully informs me, it's de rigueur to pee in a bucket. (So much easier when the temperatures have plummeted and you've just scrambled out of three layers of thermals). As Tracy babbles about its attributes - "she's a multi-hull so there's less wetted surface area in the water" - I'm struck that she does so with a passion you or I might reserve for the new love in our life. All matters romantic, though, are excluded from Tracy's current list of goals. "The sea for me fills up a lot of my time. I feel worthwhile at sea - I am in charge of my own life. On land I feel very ineffectual."

Short, slim but solidly built and friendly, Tracy is instantly likeable. Men, I suspect, don't know how to deal with her independent spirit and forthright manner. "They like it until they're married to you and then they don't," she says ruefully, knocking back a half of cider. Certainly she hasn't had much luck with them. Now awaiting a divorce from her second husband, she has reached the conclusion that she and marriage do not mix. "I'm not meant to be married. I'm not very good at it. I feel making one mistake is OK, making two is not and I don't want to make a third."

Before she left for her voyage on Maiden she was engaged to Simon Lawrence. Now she says that they married on her return largely because it was expected of them. "He is a really, really nice guy," she gushes. The way she explains it, she would have you believe the fault for the relationship's breakdown should be shouldered entirely by her. That characteristic of self-criticism runs throughout everything she says. "When I came back I'd totally changed. I'd become very much my own person. I had no tolerance level for anything anyone else wanted to do - including him. I guess I was bloody bolshy and bloody-minded. Three months later we both looked at each other and said, `What are we doing?' " Three months, oh dear. Any shorter and she might have wangled a refund on the frock. Do they ever speak now as friends? "Oh God, yeah," she replies.

She finds the breakdown of her second marriage, to a computer specialist, still a little too raw to talk about. That one lasted 18 months. It doesn't take a Mystic Meg to see that her decision to return to sailing in the same month as they married could well have been a sign of prescience over its ultimate outcome. "When I was younger I always used to have to be with someone. I thought I had to be half of someone else. I was quite insecure. But I don't feel that I have to do that any more. Now I'm happy being on my own, going home with a take-away meal and sticking on the telly or reading a book. I know that to be with someone else is to make them unhappy and me unhappy. It's selfish of me to be with someone if I can't give them 100 per cent of my time."

If she hadn't been expelled from her Swansea school, Tracy might never have stumbled upon sailing. After two months at a secretarial college she'd had enough, so picked up her backpack and headed for Europe. It was while she was working in a bar near the Greek port of Piraeus that she heard one of the boat owners was looking for a stewardess. "I was just a skivvy but almost immediately I knew it was what I wanted to do. It was a revelation to me. I couldn't believe I had been so lucky to stumble across the right path."

She says now that she was a "revolting teenager". The premature death of her father from a heart attack when she was 10 can't be unconnected. "I remember the night he died quite well. I said, `Don't worry mum, I going to take care of you now.' And then what I proceeded to do was let her down. I made her life a bloody misery. I was just so bloody full of myself." The appearance of a stepfather did nothing to improve matters. "I hated him," she says simply.

During our conversation she mentions her mother, Pat, a great deal. A former prima ballerina, Pat now has multiple sclerosis. "She has an amazing strength. She's everything I want to be and never can be. If I had listened to her a few more times I wouldn't have got myself into the messes that I did." In common with her mother she has a deep religious faith that she's always before been too embarrassed to mention. "I don't go to church but I do have a great belief in God. It's one of my points of motivation."

There was a time though when she lost motivation. Separated from Simon, she left their home outside Southampton and moved back to Swansea. "I don't really know what a nervous breakdown is, but I had a breakdown of some sort. When we had got back to England it was like `whoa'. It was too much all at one time. I was completely unprepared for it. I had no qualifications and suddenly there was this round of PR and media. I needed to be around people who didn't want to know every five seconds what the Southern Ocean was like." For the most part she didn't see anyone much at all and began to breed horses.

Kicked in the base of her spine by one of the horses, she subsequently spent six months on crutches. "After going round the entire world with not one injury except a rope burn on my leg," she laughs. She might well still be hiding in Swansea if Will Carling hadn't approached her to join him in his business, giving activational talks to companies. It wasn't before time.

Still paying off debts after Maiden, she badly needed the money. The royalties from her autobiographical book of the voyage weren't going to last indefinitely. "Will brought out the best in me. He woke me up and said, `You have something to offer.' I was coaxed out of my shell and I began to get my confidence back. I thought, I want to go sailing again. I couldn't just talk about it for the rest of my life." Naturally she wanted a "challenge". "I thought, `What have women not done?' "

As we talk, several of the new crew are busy getting the boat ready for the next trip. "The biggest surprise that most people have is that we're not all 6ft dykes. The girls are good-looking, they have nice figures and we don't hate men," she quips. A couple of the original crew from Maiden will be going on this voyage, but mostly Tracy has had to recruit from scratch. Sailing ability alone is not enough. Each contender has to bring such individual skills as rigging, engineering or sail-making. As they'll all be thrown together for two-and-a-half months with no land stops and precious little privacy, it's also imperative they get on. "People really have to want to do this 200 per cent," she emphasises.

She is still trying out potential members. "Women who have got this high sailing tend to be very strong and have had to fight very hard to get where they've got. Women like to set up relationships that work so getting the politics right is really important." What happens when there is a row? "You can't let something get to the point where you're going to have a row," she answers. "The thing we try to keep in mind is that we're all aiming for the same thing. I do encourage someone to say if there's something wrong otherwise you have this dreadful build-up. But women tend not to have as much of an ego problem as men. If a man admits to his crew he's made a mistake they all think he's a stupid idiot. I can sit down with mine and say I'm sorry."

After Maiden, one of her previous crew, Nancy Hill, went to a tabloid and complained about the treatment they had all suffered at Tracy's hands. Only weeks earlier she had been one of Tracy's bridesmaids. "It was a piece of shit," she says calmly. "They were complete factual errors like I didn't pay my crew. Yeah, right. That they were almost slaves. It was trash." Tracy sued the paper and won substantial damages, which was promptly passed across to her favourite charities.

"Every one of my crew stood up for me in court. She'd let the girls down. We'd worked for three years to prove that women can get on and sail together and someone goes and does something like that. Guys say time and time again, `All girls, you'll hate each other, you'll be bitches'. They're so wrong." She doesn't think their friendship will ever be repaired. "It's irretrievable. I found it very difficult to forgive. It's very sad."

On a sunny day with millpond conditions in Hamble marina it's easy to forget the very real dangers the crew will face. Was there an occasion on Maiden when she though they might die? "After Cape Horn, when we came across the worst storm I've ever seen. The waves were 50ft and we started to sink. We had enough radio power to make one call." I suppose, though, for individuals like Tracy that level of adrenaline-fuelled danger is what it's all about? "No, I'm not one of those people who likes coming close to death. But it's given me great confidence when I think about taking this trip on to know I've been through something as bad as that and I performed."

Astoundingly, Tracy has never learned to swim and doubts she could manage a length in the average local swimming pool. "I wear my safety harness a lot," she grins. But it's worse than that - she is actually terrified of water. "I can't even watch the crew diving into the water." I reckon a shrink could have a field day with this one. "It's the way of life I like," she offers. More likely I reckon it's what she calls her "inner demons". Spurring her on is this almost absurd need to prove herself. "I spent so much of my life being a failure and a waste of space that I really feel I have a lot of catching up to do."

Ah, this must mean still more goals in the pipeline? Next year she plans to sail to the Antarctic to make a series of television programmes, after that she doesn't know. Does she ever consider what she would be doing if she wasn't sailing? She chuckles. "Something different I guess." Something difficult for certain, I'd say. Although as the Americans would say, "Tracy, you really must stop beating up on yourself." There's definitely no need. Honestly.

Deborah Ross is on holiday

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