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The insult that lives in sailing history

2020 January 1

Among the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written in pursuit of my calling as an ink-stained wretch, I can’t think of any combination of them that has achieved the status of a deathless phrase, no short expression I could Google and see my name pop up.

I’m at peace with this. When you trade in words, you never know what you’re going to get praised for or blamed for, and if it’s the latter, it can be a heavy, smelly albatross to carry around one’s neck. To my point, consider the British sailing journalist Bob Fisher.

The other day I was looking for some information online about a sailboat that had figured in the story of a historically significant around-the-world race 30 years ago when I came across a reference to Fisher. He was identified as Bob “Tin Full of Tarts” Fisher.

“Tin full of tarts” is Fisher’s deathless phrase. His ownership of it is so complete that, on one internet site at least, it has become part of his name. He wrote it three decades ago, but it won’t die because, of course, it’s deathless and, it seems, as difficult to shed as the albatross that haunted Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

Fisher is himself an ancient mariner, a sailor who has written about sailing for the London daily newspaper The Guardian and other boating publications for eons and seems to be going strong at 84. Widely known and respected in sailing circles, he has more than once been referred to as the dean of yachting writers. But then there’s that albatross.

Those four immortal words became newly relevant in the past year when the release of the movie “Maiden” revived the marvelous story of how Tracy Edwards and her all-woman crew sailed in the 1989-1990 Whitbread Round the World Race and triumphed over the forces of the sea and the resentment of the male-dominated universe of sailing.

When Fisher used the expression to describe Edwards, a feisty 26-year-old, and her crew of a dozen other young women (including, as the sole American, Dawn Riley) who were going to sail the Whitbread race in a beat-up old metal boat, no one who read it thought he was comparing them to a cookie tin full of sweet pastry. It’s hard to say which of the two Cambridge Dictionary definitions of “tart” referring to women he intended, but both are flagrantly offensive, and one is flat-out libelous.

The phrase, nonetheless, probably seemed cute to some readers at the time. I can imagine the writer’s mates standing him a pint or two at the yacht club bar to celebrate his clever way with words.

The phrase may have been the most colorful expression of misogyny thrown at the women sailors, but the mean spirit of the words was echoed widely in UK pubs and newspapers—until Edwards and her crew made their critics look small and foolish by winning the New Zealand leg of the Round the World Race. Judging from what passed for his mea culpa, though, Fisher still didn’t get it. He modified his deathless phrase to “a tin full of smart, fast tarts.” 

The arrival in Auckland of the yacht Maiden in the movie “Maiden”—greeted by a horn-blowing flotilla of Kiwi boats in Waitemata Harbour and cheering throngs of Kiwis on shore—is a thrilling scene in a film that is much more than a well-told story of brave women defying male chauvinism. It’s also the great sailing film we’ve been waiting for. 

The dearth of good movies about a subject as rich in beauty and drama as sailing has long been as disappointing as it is surprising. “Maiden” fills the void in bracing style.

Granted, it’s a documentary, rather than a work of artistic invention, but it reminds us that truth can be more compelling than fiction.

“Maiden,” through articulate and frequently delightful narration by Edwards and her crewmates, recounts the challenges of preparing for a daunting ocean race in an atmosphere of ridicule if not hostility toward women who had the temerity to compete against men on their liquid turf. That’s a gripping tale in its own right, but then the film goes to sea and stirs emotions and imaginations of sailors in a world far away from the politics of gender.

The original film footage of the race, grainy and gaudy in a Technicolor sort of way, is more dramatic than anything that could be cooked up in a studio and in some ways more electrifying than the modern images of extreme ocean racing we’ve become accustomed to.

Sure, digital video of Volvo Ocean 65 race boats flying over waves at 30 knots through cascades of spray can be exciting. Yet sometimes in its pixelated glory it almost seems too fantastical to be real compared to the gritty reality of the filmed pictures of a heavy beast of a boat powering through seas, climbing mountainous waves and skidding into troughs barely in control.

Maiden was the vessel I was researching when I bumped into references to the “tarts” phrase. The boat was 10 years old when Edwards entered it in the Whitbread. A Bruce Farr design built of welded aluminum in 1979, the 58-footer weighed 45,000 pounds. The massive winches and blocks on her deck signified the enormous displacement-boat loads the Maiden women had to deal with on their nine-month, 

33,000-mile circumnavigation.

By the time Edwards bought the boat with borrowed money, it had been raced twice around the world by previous owners and, as the movie footage makes clear, was quite a mess before its crew spent months rehabilitating it in a Hamble boatyard. 

The Maiden crew made the old campaigner look beautiful, not just with a new paint job, but with their history-making performance—the first all-woman crew to race around the world, winning two legs of the Whitbread race, finishing second in their class in one of the most difficult and dangerous of all sailboat races.

The women’s fighting spirit comes through in the film, but thanks to the deft touch of director Alex Holmes, not in a score-settling way. The late Peter Blake adds a grace note as a gentleman competitor who cheered the women’s success. Bob Fisher even gets to make a cameo appearance in which the director is kind enough to not make him repeat his deathless phrase. 

In a remarkable sign of mellowing in interviews she gave after the film’s debut, Tracy Edwards extended an olive branch to her old nemesis.

Google isn’t as forgiving.