Imagine taking part in a 33,000-mile, nine-month sailing race around the globe. Imagine the jangling nerves, the barely suppressed sense of facing an insurmountable task. Still not challenging enough? Then imagine as many people doubting and ridiculing you as cheering you on.
This is the odyssey chronicled in “Maiden,” a documentary look at the eponymous yacht’s British skipper, Tracy Edwards, and the pioneering all-female crew who joined her for the prestigious — and decidedly patriarchal — Whitbread Round the World Race, in 1989.
Writer-director Alex Holmes (“Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story”) absorbingly recounts the story of Edwards and her team in an unfussy linear style that effectively recaptures the tension of their gutsy undertaking. Unless you’re familiar with the various particulars, you’ll likely find yourself experiencing the film in aptly wavelike fashion, cresting with optimism about the crew’s prospects before plunging into apprehension, again and again.
It’s not just the sailing that does it, although Maiden’s voyage across the indiscriminately treacherous, iceberg-strewn Southern Ocean in particular inspires both dread and awe. (Onboard footage is uneven, but it’s plenty.) The wild ride is also about Edwards and company’s interaction with chauvinist opponents, uninterested potential sponsors, and condescending reporters more inclined to ask about their emotional state or sexual orientation than their navigational strategy. The media also, to a man, call them “girls,” a time-capsule touch that’s allowed to speak for itself.
The venture’s highs and lows partly mirror Edwards’s fascinatingly mercurial character. We’re told straight off about the adversity that marked her later childhood and adolescence, and the rebelliousness that led her to leave home at 16 and eventually fall into a steward’s gig on a charter yacht. Still, she wandered with a bit of direction, clearing gender hurdles to land a cook’s position on a Whitbread boat, then coolly setting her sights on working the next race as a skipper herself. Now 57 and comfortably confident in front of Holmes’s lens, Edwards displays a flintiness and charming unease in vintage interview clips that paint her like a twentysomething, camera-shy Judi Dench.
Or is Ginger Rogers a better comp, in a funny way? Looking back at everything Edwards had to go through to accomplish her precedent-setting goal, we can’t help recalling the old line about Rogers being able to do everything that Fred Astaire could, backward and in heels. It’s more like Top-Siders in this case, but the Maiden crew’s skillful achievement couldn’t feel more enduringly empowering. “They were heroines,” one former media detractor offers as a mea culpa. “Well, heroes by then.”
Written and directed by Alex Holmes. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 93 minutes. Unrated (some language).