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Crew member Angela Heath attends the Maiden New York premiere earlier this summer.
Crew member Angela Heath attends the Maiden New York premiere earlier this summer.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

Icebergs, death and a tornado - The remarkable story of an Irishwoman who sailed around the world

Angela Heath reflects 30 years on from her momentous 167-day trip as part of the Maiden crew.
Aug 18th 2019, 7:15 AM 4,608 1

IT’S 30 YEARS since Angela Heath and her crewmates made history.

The Dubliner was part of the legendary Maiden crew, who became the first all-female team to sail around the world.

This weekend, the Dun Laoghaire sailor has been reflecting on her success in the 1989-90 Whitbread Round The World Race.

She has been competing at the Irish Sailing Pathfinder Women at the Helm event, while on Friday evening, there was also a screening of the film ‘Maiden,’ which looks back on the famous feat undertaken by Yachtswoman, Tracy Edwards MBE and her crew.

“So much has happened since and I never thought I’d hear about it again. I’d forgotten about it, but for it to loom its head up now, I’m thoroughly enjoying it,” Heath tells The42.

A lengthy love affair with the sport began for the Dubliner during childhood, with her engineer father key in inspiring this passion.

We just had sails in the bones. We were six kids. He built a 40-foot boat in the back garden. At the age of 12, I’d come home from school and be sitting on his boat, helping him build pieces on.

“We used to just pop into [the boat] and sail down to the south of France — dad was retired at that stage. I’d be home in the boat doing watch systems at the age of 13, just the two of us. There would have been loads of adventures, but it was kind of just normal for me.

“In terms of ocean stuff, they were small oceans, but they were still oceans.

“I was in the junior section of the Royal St George Yacht Club. I was a very average sailor — just ordinary, I didn’t even go for instructor. But once I got to big boats, I just took off, I couldn’t get enough of it. I adored off shore [races] and I did a lot of them. Just the ones around Ireland. Then I got involved in an all-girl crew and did the ‘Round Ireland Race’.

“In terms of sailing around the world, I thought people were mad. I wouldn’t have dreamed of it. Around Ireland, no bother, I’d go for that one.”

Despite these initial reservations, Heath had a life-altering moment one evening at an event down in Cork. She was there to welcome home her husband at the time, Brendan Farrell, who was doing a transatlantic journey. She met Tracy Edwards at the bar and the two got casually chatting about sailing.

A couple of weeks later, Heath received a phone call at the insurance company in which she worked. It was Edwards, offering her the chance of a lifetime.

“It was just pot luck, I suppose,” Heath explains. “There was a bit of shifting around in her crew at the very last minute. I was probably in the right place at the right time. I was a late blow in.”

Despite Heath’s belated arrival, it seemed like a perfect fit quite early in proceedings.

“When I met Tracy, I realised: ‘My God, there are women doing things like this, that’s extraordinary.’

“I had never met women with skill levels of that calibre. I thought: ‘Jesus, golden carrot here, I’m going to learn a truckload.’

“I got on brilliantly with them and I’d good sailing skills, but compared to them, I was halfway down the rankings. It was how you got on with them personality-wise was 80% of the job. It just clicked for me. The Irish make everybody laugh anyway, so that was a winner.”

The prospect of an all-female crew attempting to sail around the world prompted scepticism in certain sections of the media. Edwards and her colleagues were targeted by the British tabloids in particular, both during and after the event.

A lot of it was ‘banter’. We were well used to banter and we gave as much as we got. There was scepticism, especially among the poorer journalists, who were looking for anything to sell a newspaper. When we came back, it was particularly bad. People were trying to dig up dirt on Tracy. That was something I learnt a lot actually [in dealing with the media] — keep your mouth shut.

“It was all just thought of as flash, or a bunch of girls trying to get famous. You don’t do that to get famous — it’s too hard.”

Such disrespect only served to motivate Edwards and her crew. It felt like nothing was going to stop them from completing this arduous challenge.

“I’ve talked to Tracy and if you watch the movie, you’ll see it so strongly. What she had to go through in getting the money together, getting the team together, that woman is a sensation in her own. What she had to achieve getting us there was phenomenal, and she’s like a terrier dog, she does not give up.

“The more you say ‘no,’ the more she will fight it. She was the real driving force there and still is. I’m going over to San Francisco next Tuesday with Joe, a cook, just the two of us. I’ll be sailing Maiden, it’ll be flipping brilliant. And that’s Tracy again, pulling the strings and making it happen.”

The build-up to the event, meanwhile, was nothing compared to the challenges posed by journey itself.

“There were different types of [tests]. In the first leg, you were trying to prove yourself to each other, that we were worthy of being in that boat and sailing together. Then, once the first leg was over, and we went into the second, we had just achieved a state where we didn’t have to talk to each other, we were so in tune. 

“The second leg, we we won in our class. Then we went on to win the third leg as well. It was a very tactical short leg. I think it was only two weeks. The other one was five weeks. By that stage, the bond was so incredible. It was just phenomenal, a bunch of people like that.”

Maiden Yachtswoman Tracy Edwards (right) reunites with her crew (left to right) Sally Hunter, Jeni Mundy, Dawn Riley, Tanja Visser, Jo Gooding, Claire Warren, Mikaela Von Koskull, Angela Heath, Sarah Davies and Mandy Swan Neal to celebrate ahead of the 30th anniversary since they became the first all-female team to sail around the world. Source: Matt Alexander

For all these positive experiences though, at times, the level of danger was genuinely life-threatening.

“The worst moment was in the southern ocean doing iceberg watch. Two very bad moments. The first one was when two guys went overboard. One didn’t make it and another guy was saved — we had a doctor on board and she was on the radio for at least 24 hours. She basically saved his life. She got truckloads of awards for that.

“But every time you looked overboard, you’d think: ‘Oh my God.’ You were on such a high. That just brought it home to you. You knew in your head, if you go over, forget it, that’s it. But this got into the bones of you. It made you realise you were like a leaf out there.

“In the ocean, the submerged icebergs didn’t show up on radar, because in those days, there were no restrictions on how far south you could go. And there are now in the Volvo [race] for safety purposes.

So you risked it without overdoing it, but it meant that you were in serious iceberg territory. We had to go [on] watch. I’m trying to remember was it 10 minutes you could last or 15, but it was short. You had three layers on you. Literally, the slits of your eyes could only be exposed. There was no cloud cover, so the odd time, with the moonlight shining on the crest of a wave, you didn’t know whether that was an iceberg or moonlight.

“If you called ‘iceberg,’ that’s mayday on the boat, and it’s everybody hands on deck immediately — all the people who would have been asleep. Just the level of responsibility was horrible. It was scary.”

And the tragic death of the aforementioned participant was not even the first of the competition.

“Prior to that, on the previous stopover, one guy [died by] suicide. The pressure was so great on the boats. It was just part of the race, all these different dynamics. It was like a huge community. I certainly didn’t know all the guys, there were too many in the whole race. But if one of you is in trouble, it affects everyone’s psyche.”

While Heath insists she was never going to quit “in a million years,” there were some real lows during the 167-day trip, including an encounter with a tornado and a five-day period without food.

“There was one leg where we were taking on an awful lot of water and the air squadron were flying aeroplanes over just to keep an eye on us.

“That was in the second southern ocean leg, which was the pits, because we’d already done the southern ocean and on top of that, we were doing so badly that morale on board was awful.

“Morale on a board is paramount. Sailing is just sailing and you can cope if you’ve got good morale, but we were all miserable that leg, and then to get the very bad leak didn’t help.

“[Our mood] didn’t improve at all on that leg until we were finished. We said: ‘Well, we’re not doing that one again.’

So we arrived into Florida. Tracy, I don’t know whose idea it was to this day, but she produced 12 bathing suits. We turned into Florida, fit young 26-year-olds, bronzed in bathing suits, and the Florida media went berserk, and that was a good ending to a very bad leg.” 

She adds, with a laugh: “I suppose, if you can’t win, arrive in bathing suits.” 

Another challenge for Heath, who was married two years at the time, was going so long without family and friends.

“Homesickness was one of the biggest cripplers. It’s emotionally really hard.

“There was no such thing as mobile phones then. My dad’s boat sank. The one he built in the back garden. We were in Florida. I think we just arrived into Florida once we got word. Whatever way Tracy said it, I thought: ‘Oh my God, dad’s gone.’ But she said ‘no, no, your dad’s fine, it’s just the boat’. But the boat was like a family home.

“You couldn’t afford to ring home, so there was a lot of letter writing, pen-pal stuff. Now, it’s WhatsApp every five minutes.”

But despite the various hardships the crew had to endure, sadness rather than relief was Heath’s overriding feeling upon completion of the trip.

“Coming into port after every leg, what we found was that we really didn’t want to speak to anybody. We had become so in tune with each other. The idea of having to talk to other people was weird. Not just media stuff, but anybody. We’d got used to silence and chatting about anything and everything — a curious mix of both.

“The end of the race was different for each person, because some people were ready to go and do it all over again, and they did it a couple of times. Our American watch leader, Dawn Riley, she’s done America’s Cups and Whitbreads [since]. 

“The French watch leader is still sailing around the world with her husband. A lot of them never stopped.

“I was ready to go home and be a good Irish girl [she laughs], have babies and things, so I did that. I’ve got two boys now who are grown up.”

Having been written off by many critics, at the end of the 32,018-mile journey, Heath and co had secured the best result for a British boat since 1977, and their feat has not been surpassed to this day. They finished second in their class, eclipsing many all-male crews in the process.

Source: hollywoodstreams/YouTube

Nevertheless, a somewhat introverted personality, Heath was not totally comfortable with the attention that being part of an unprecedented achievement garnered.

“My memory is of people coming up to me after the race in Ireland,  saying ‘my God Angela, I can’t believe you did that’. These are pals. They’d say: ‘You’ve inspired me.’ I was gobsmacked, because I was just doing what I like doing. 

“So on a personal level, I withdrew from the whole thing, because I found it unbelievably hard to adjust when I came home, for ages. I put the whole thing into a box with a padlock on it, and put it into the attic metaphorically.

“Every time you went down to the yacht club, it would be like: ‘Oh Ang, tell us about the Whitbread.’ It was like: ‘Oh God, put the dictaphone on and I’ll just repeat [what I previously said].’ I just wanted to get back to my ordinary old self and do the ordinary things that I’ve always done in my life.

“There were so many deep reasons [for the retreat away from the spotlight] there that were very personal. I wanted to knock the whole thing away and get back to ordinary life.

I was very shy before I did the race. When I came back, I could walk into a room with 50 people with my head up high, and that was fabulous. It was: ‘Ang, come on, you’ve got that under your belt, you can go and do an interview.’ I hated them. And I kind of wanted to hide away in the background a bit, like I’d always done.”

As she has grown older, however, Heath has started to feel better equipped to handle such demands.

“It’s only in the last two years that I’ve brought the box down and been looking at it and thinking: ‘Wow, we did that, that’s amazing.’ Now, I want to give back all the stuff that was given to me and maybe help others if I can in anyway. And also, my kids have grown up now, so I have the time.”

This September, Maiden will set sail from Southampton to Jordan on the first leg of a three-year world tour raising awareness for girls’ education

“We hope the next chapter in Maiden’s story will inspire and empower a new generation of young girls to fulfil their dreams and reach their potential,” Edwards said recently.

Heath is also very much enjoying this extended reunion with her old friends.

“Because there were several different nationalities [involved], we were living all over the world,” she recalls. “So until two years ago, I had lost complete contact really. Now, I’m back as if we’re doing the race again.

Only a couple of weeks ago, we all went to New York [for the film premiere], bar two of the girls who couldn’t. We were walking around the streets of New York and we were almost tacking. It was hilarious. You’re so aware of your peripheral vision of your other crewmates. Somebody would go to walk across the street and we’d all automatically follow like a bunch of ducks. It was priceless.

“Two of the girls I’m deeply close to now — Jo [Gooding] and Tanja [Visser]. And like any large group, different personalities would click better with others. Yet we’re all really close. It’s pretty extraordinary.

“Sally [Hunter]‘s dad died during the race, so she had to go home for that obviously. One of the girls, Sarah Davies, she was first reserve, she did one of the legs. Sarah used to be in the army. She said it’s like whenever a group go through extreme danger together, they form bonds that are beyond words. It was a beautiful way of describing it.”

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