Jessica Watson talks to Helen Fretter about what her round the world journey was really like and how accurate the Netflix film True Spirit is
In the late Noughties and early 2010s, sailing garnered astonishing levels of attention due to a series of teenagers bidding to become the youngest sailor to sail around the world. One of the most high profile was Jessica Watson, who set off from Sydney in 2009 aged 16, and completed her loop of Antarctica – and a dip north across the Equator in the Pacific – to return an all-Australian hero after 210 days at sea.
It was a remarkable story, much of which was told in real time in Watson’s blog and video diaries. Thirteen years on, Netflix has made a feature-length sailing film based on her voyage, called True Spirit. Following the film’s release in the UK, we spoke to Watson about the experience.
Jessica Watson in the spotlight
In the film version of True Spirit viewers are introduced to the teenage Jessica Watson aboard her S&S 34 Ella’s Pink Lady on a trial solo sail, when a violent collision with a 63,000 tonne cargo ship off Queensland leaves the yacht dismasted, and both Watson and her family ashore shaken.
It’s the same opening scene Watson begins her autobiography with, and it’s as shocking to watch as it is to read her written account: “I grabbed at the tiller, flicked off the autopilot and tried to steer us. It was hopeless.
“There was nowhere to go, nothing I could do. Shuddering and screeching, we were being swept down the ship’s hull. A glance told me that the ship’s stern, with its bridges protruding, was fast approaching. The noises were getting louder and, knowing that the mast and rigging were about to come down, I rushed back below hoping for some protection.
“The cupboard next to me ripped apart as the chainplate behind the bulkhead splintered it into a million pieces. The boat heeled to one side then suddenly sprung upright with the loudest explosion yet as the entangled rigging suddenly freed itself and crashed to the deck.”
While the collision would be a terrifying experience for anyone to go through, let alone a teenager on their own, the film highlights how the media storm that met her ashore was even more intimidating. Many commentators questioned the judgement of Watson’s parents, an additional pressure which the film captures neatly.
Watson, now 30, admits that the prospect of being the centre of attention once again with the film’s launch didn’t entirely fill her with joy. “I certainly went into this with mixed emotions. I enjoy my life, I like not being recognised very often, and so there was a bit of trepidation. But at the same time, I’m just so grateful and hopefully this is good for sailing.”
An ethical dilemma
The teen solo sailor trend was a remarkable phenomenon. Australian Jesse Martin was one of the earliest, when he completed a non-stop, unassisted solo around the world voyage to and from Melbourne in 1999 aged 18. Martin recounted the trip in his S&S 34 Lionheart, also the title of his book, which was a major influence and source of inspiration for Watson.
With increasing unease and debate on the ethics of encouraging young teens to take on such potentially dangerous challenges, both within the sport of sailing and across newspaper columns and chat-show sofas around the world, the World Sailing Speed Record Council discontinued recognition of its ‘youngest’ sailor category. Martin has since remained the perpetual record holder, despite the flurry of much younger skippers which followed.
Much of the debate ignored the fact that the teenagers were often extraordinarily experienced yachtsmen from remarkable families. Certainly that was the case for Dutch sailor Laura Dekker, as well as American brother and sister Zac and Abby Sunderland, who both attempted circumnavigations (Zac successfully, Abby’s Open 40 was dismasted).
Jessica Watson also had a fairly nomadic childhood with years spent living on boats or converted buses. Ironically, her father had a television hire company but the Watson family never owned one, as she recalled in her autobiography: “I think Dad saw how dependent people became on them and how they restricted the lives of their owners – keeping them inside and inactive – and he decided he didn’t ever want to be like that.”
The Watson family’s unconventionality gets a little lost in the film, so keen were directors and scriptwriters to make them relatable, and show the toll Jessica’s attempt took as an emotional undercurrent tugging throughout the film. For Jessica herself, however, the family storyline was a powerful one to watch.
“Seeing the emotional experience that [my family] went through is pretty intense. I think I’ve appreciated it better in the years since, particularly when other sailors I knew have been in trouble at sea and I’ve had to sit on shore. It’s far worse waiting for news, I would rather be out there in the thick of it. So it is really a reminder of the one extraordinary thing they did by reluctantly letting me go.”
Other figures who had a huge part in Watson’s story – including Golden Globe Race organiser Don McIntyre, who secured her S&S 34 – are blended into one single character who becomes her mentor, shore team, and sounding board.
How close to reality is True Spirit film?
While it’s gratifying to see sailing in a mainstream family film, sailing hasn’t always succeeded on the silver screen and there are elements of True Spirit which will rankle. It’s something Jessica Watson is well aware of.
“Of course, as sailors there’s parts of the movie which will be a little bit maddening for us.
“I was never relaxed about the details. I always wanted the details to be right where possible. So I have mixed feelings [about some of it]. But there’s so much I love about it too, that it showcases how beautiful it is, how special it is [to be at sea], and there’s nothing better than a little S&S sailing along for me.
“It was a case of spending a lot of time with the director and the cast, talking about the inspiration behind it and helping them understand that world. And then I had to step away when it came to shooting some of the details and left them to do that.”
There is one scene – a knockdown which Watson did experience in real life – that involves a degree of suspension of disbelief. “That massive wave did happen in the Atlantic, but it probably didn’t happen quite that dramatically,” Watson says. “Though they did capture the essence of the feeling that time does stand still when you’re upside down in a knockdown.”
There are other moments where dramatic licence takes over, including one where Watson is nearly swept overboard through the lifelines. The reality was rather more boring. “I had a furling headsail and then a staysail on an inner forestay, where the storm jib went as well. That all worked incredibly well. As the weather picked up, I was able to just furl the headsail away and have the storm sail ready to go,” she explains, “Something I’m quite proud of is I that I never went on the foredeck – in fact I never left the cockpit – in over 30 knots of wind.
“Sure, I maybe sacrificed a little bit of speed, but that was part of the really conservative way that I was sailing. I could put my fourth reef in from the cockpit, but very often approaching really bad conditions I’d have the mainsail stitched and away.”
Unsurprisingly there’s little in the movie to show more mundane tasks, such as waiting for GRIB files to download. In fact, Jessica Watson was very well supported for weather routing by New Zealand meteorologist Bob McDavitt, who sent multiple daily updates which Watson would overlay with her own weather charts.
While routing has always been accepted for solo record attempts, with no official governing body to answer to, the question of what counted as ‘unassisted’ for youth sailors was open to interpretation. In 2007 British teenager Michael Perham became the youngest person to solo sail across the Atlantic aged just 14, while his father shadowed him sailing in a separate yacht.
For Watson, there was controversy whether her 23,000-mile route ventured far enough north of the Equator to count as a true around-the-world. “It certainly doesn’t worry me,” says Watson. “The biggest thing for me is that there’s no official record, as none of the bodies recognise the youngest records, which is perfectly understandable. So I don’t understand how there can be a debate about whether or not you comply with a rule that doesn’t exist.
“The route I took, chosen with my team, was about making it as safe as possible. It put me in the right oceans at the right times, and it did the things that are generally recognised as sailing around the world. I’m very at peace with that.”
The next Jessica Watson?
While Watson was inspired by reading about Jesse Martin’s adventures, would she welcome new young sailors inspired to tackle a circumnavigation after watching True Spirit? “Absolutely, if people are serious,” she says.
Such a project is, however, very reliant on having the right yacht. “People do ask me if I would do it again, and my answer is only if the boat was exactly the same and I had the same support crew, otherwise it’s a resounding ‘No!’.
“It was absolutely that boat and how she was set up that enabled it to be possible. Someone said almost as a criticism, ‘lt was just the boat that got her there.’ But I agree with them.
“The S&S 34 is just such a gorgeous little boat. There’s nothing quite like the way that they sail beautifully upwind in a bit of a blow.”
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