Like many high school teens, Sarah Evans packed as much into her four years at Stowe High School as she possibly could and was in no rush to head off to college.
These days, she’s not in a rush to get anywhere unless there’s a strong tailwind. As you’re reading this, she’s somewhere between Dakar, Senegal, and Cape Town, South Africa, having set sail Monday for a month-long leg of a three-year global voyage.
Evans is part of a nine-person crew aboard Maiden, a sailboat with an all-female crew with a mission to sail around the world while raising awareness of the importance of girls’ education. The circumnavigational tour, which started with a different crew in Dubai in January, aims to sail 60,000 nautical miles, visiting upwards of 30 countries, with the crew acting as ambassadors for girls all over the world.
The message: Yes, you can do this, too. Yes, you can do pretty much anything.
When Evans joined the crew in Newport, only two people of the nine-woman crew had already been on the boat, meaning seven new people just met each other.
“We were strangers at the beginning of this and now we’re a family, so we’re all excited to do this last trip together because we’re so close,” she said.
The Maiden voyage is the brainchild of Tracy Edwards, a legend in the sailing world who in 1989 led the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round the World yacht race — the race comes from an English brewery and is nowadays just called The Ocean Race.
Four years earlier, in the same race, Edwards had been a cook on a different vessel, and one of only five women on an overall crew of 200.
Perturbed by the lack of female representation in such adventures, she mortgaged her home to buy a decade-old 58-foot yacht that she rechristened Maiden. She led her 12-woman crew to a second-place Whitbread finish and into the history books.
Edwards went bankrupt after Maiden’s Qatari sponsor refused payment, and Maiden was sold off in the liquidation. However, in 2014, she learned that Maiden was sitting abandoned in a marina on the Indian Ocean, and she successfully saved her from obsolescence and embarked in 2018 on a new three-year mission: raising money and awareness for girls’ education.
According to Evans, the Maiden mother’s sailing days are over — Edwards gets terribly seasick these days — but when she shows up at events or in port to greet the crew, she’s treated like a legend.
Evans grew up learning to sail dinghies on Lake Champlain and, up until her current adventure, taught sailing during the summer. Her decision to take a gap year — she plans to attend the University of Connecticut next fall — coincided with her learning about Maiden’s world tour, and she applied to be part of the boat’s apprenticeship program.
Evans was invited on a week-long trial sail in late summer, sailing from Mystic, Conn., to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Soon after, she was invited to the three-month apprenticeship. That has now grown to seven months, and instead of coming home for the holidays, she’s sailing to Cape Town and beyond and will be part of the Maiden crew through March.
“I’m loving it so much,” she said. “It’s definitely pushing me past any limits I thought I’d get to.”
After a couple of short stints along the East Coast to prepare, Evans and her Maiden crewmates embarked on their Atlantic Ocean crossing, a 12-day trip from Camden, Maine to Horta, on the Portugal archipelago of the Azores. That was followed by a seven-day sail to Cape Verde and a three-day sail to Dakar.
Along the way, the weather has been mostly favorable, but Evans said there was a 70-hour period during the Atlantic crossing where things got choppy, with sustained winds of 35 knots and gusts up to 48 knots resulting in 20-foot waves that Maiden and her crew pushed through.
“There were pretty big rainstorms, and the pelting rain really hurt your face, so that wasn’t very fun,” she said.
On clear days, there have been several up-close encounters with marine life. There have been lots of flying fish, some whales, a shark and a sea turtle at various times. There have been a lot of dolphins, which like to play with the rudder and keel.
“Actually, on my birthday, a pod of dolphins came up and said hi,” she said.
While much of the time in Newport and Horta was spent on boat maintenance, the crew spent a lot more time in various communities during the docking in Dakar. The women visit schools and talk to girls — and adult women — about educational opportunities. They also show off Maiden to locals who have never seen or been on a sailboat.
Sailing on the open ocean with water depths reaching thousands of feet means there is no setting anchors and catching shut-eye, so the crew maintains regular watch shifts throughout the night, and everyone takes their turn. Over the course of a month at sea, everyone takes a lot of turns.
“My favorite part of sailing so far is the night sails, even though it’s really difficult to wake up,” Evans said. “It’s my favorite time to be on the boat because it’s just so peaceful and all you see is the dark waters, the night sky, all the stars and the moon. It’s very intimate.”
Updated Monday, Dec. 19, 2022: a previous version of this story misspelled the Whitbread sailing race.