CAMDEN HARBOR — The sailing vessel Maiden, first made famous in 1989 during the Whitbread Round the World race as her first all-women crew distinguished themselves in a grueling competition, and again as a current ambassador for the empowerment of girls through education, made harbor in Camden last week, tying up at Lyman-Morse before embarking on a transatlantic voyage to West Africa.
On board, Skipper and New Zealander Sharon Ferris-Choat described the work of the Maiden Factor Foundation, the nonprofit behind Maiden’s mission to raise money for girls’ educational programs around the world, and especially embrace STEM subjects.
With millions of women worldwide lacking access to education, the Maiden Factor Foundation supports teens and young women to reach full potential. The Foundation’s vision is for a world where every girl has access to 12 years of quality education, and empower them to choose their future.
Maiden’s story is no less than remarkable. In 1989, and against all odds, the first all-female crew set sail in the 1989–90 Whitbread Round the World Race. Skippered by Tracy Edwards, and in a much smaller boat then their male counterparts, the women claimed victory on two legs of the voyage, and came in second overall in their vessel class.
Edwards was subsequently awarded Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and became the first woman in its 34 year history to be recipient of the Yachtsman of the Year Trophy.
In 2018, the documentary film Maiden was made about the teams' participation in the race.
Edwards went on to establish The Maiden Factor, with the sailing vessel as the foundation’s figurehead. Over the next three years, Maiden will sail more than 90,000 nautical miles, and visiting more than 60 destinations to engage female students.
Ferris-Choat is the skipper of this particular global leg.
“The whole emphasis of Maiden is to bring awareness as to the number of women in our world who do not have access to primary education,” she said, speaking on the dock at Lyman-Morse. “And it’s literally in the millions. It’s not a few thousand. It’s millions of girls. The Maiden Factor is about raising that awareness and providing opportunities, and scholarships, and funding for girls who don’t have access to that education. Educate a girl, change the world.”
A former Olympic sailor, Ferris-Choat has been with the project for two weeks.
“ I have two children in New Zealand and my priority is obviously my children,” said Ferris-Choat. “But I got my leave pass to come and join Maiden, which is an absolute pleasure. I couldn’t do it without my family's support.”
On board are eight crew members, including two who have been with the Maiden for more than a year.
“Heather Thomas and Amy Hopkins are very, very are important to this project because they are the glue,” said Ferris-Choat.
How did Ferris-Choat become a skipper?
“That’s a good question,” she said. “I’ve been very blessed in my sailing. I worked my way basically from the front of the boat to the back of the boat. I started on the bow at the Royal New Zealand’s Youth Training Program. Slowly, I got to represent New Zealand at different levels and then race around the world a couple of times. I’ve been blessed with doing a lot of racing on a lot of different boats.”
Ferris-Choat began as a helmsman, trimmer, and sail-maker.
“In the last 10 years, I’ve stepped up to the skippering role and I’ve really loved that step with concentrating on navigation, passage planning, and getting the optimal performance out of the boat I’m racing, or just delivering or sailing,” she said. “And I’m hungry to learn. Learn new tricks, new ways, learn from different people. Maiden is great because there are eight different crew members from five different nationalities from whom we can all learn. We take their strengths and bring it into our game plan.”
There are four skippers currently rotating through Maiden’s helm. The boat made harbor in Camden as a pause before traversing the Atlantic.
“Before we did our transatlantic crossing, we wanted to do some crew training and testing,” said Ferris-Choat. “Bell was here and she is here periodically and she recommended it as a beautiful place to come.”
Prior, Maiden was in Newport, Rhode Island. Their current destination is Sinegal, in West Africa, with the passage approximating 25 to 30 days.
“We have refuge ports we can use if we need them, or if there’s a chance we’ve gone over too quickly; we’ll just have to see what the weather brings,” she said. “This time of year, the weather is unpredictable so we monitor it every day.”
Water and food can be an issue on a 30-day passage.
“We have desalination units on the boat,” she said, “and we have x-amount of water we leave with. We don’t shower, so we’re a bunch of eight stinky girls when we get in.”
“The cuisine on Maiden is exceptional,” she said. “I eat better on Maiden then I do at home. On this trip we have vegetarians and one gluten-free. We spent yesterday, when it was raining, precooking meals, so the freezer is chalk full of precooked meals. We have lots of fresh veggies and when those run out, we’ll eat the frozen meals.”
She is encouraging of all young women.
The most important message I can give to a young lady today is to believe in yourself because you can do it,” she said. “I’m a girl who grew up in a tiny island in the middle of nowhere, and if I can live my dream, then so can you.”
She added: “We wish all the girls of Camden the very best in pursuing all their dreams and goals, especially in all the STEM subjects because we are really trying to encourage women into those male-dominated roles. We need to equal the playing field.”
Reach Chris Wolf at firstname.lastname@example.org