TRUE SPIRIT: A Jessica Watson Movie and the Teen Sailing Craze


Feb. 7/2023:  Maybe this counts as progress. The new sailing flick that just dropped on Netflix—True Spirit, a dramatization of Jessica Watson’s 2009-10 solo non-stop circumnavigation—is not actually cringingly inaccurate as to the details and nuances of ocean sailing. They have, for example, done an excellent job of recreating Jessica’s boat, an S&S 34 she christened Ella’s Pink Lady. And the opening segment is fantastic. This depicts the Hollywood Jessica, played by Teagan Croft (see image up top), getting run down by a container ship—a crisis Jessica herself in fact experienced while shaking down her boat—and it is quite realistic.

Not that the film is a laudably accurate representation of what ocean sailing is like, but it is nowhere nearly as preposterous as All Is Lost, arguably the worst Hollywood ocean-sailing movie ever made.

But in the end, all things being equal, True Spirit is simply not a very good movie. Alas, it’s all downhill after the collision with the container ship. Taken as a whole, the film is trite and cliché, with a clumsy contrived plot, poor character development, and very wooden dialogue. All in all, I have to say I largely agree with this scathing review in the Guardian, which describes the film as “gloppy, goofily executed and terribly twee.”

Yup, I had to look that up too. “Twee” is British slang, defined as “excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental.” An appropriate term in this case. But as the Guardian’s reviewer, Luke Buckmaster, rightly points out, it isn’t exactly easy making an interesting dramatic film about a lonely 210-day solo ocean voyage.

Critical niceties aside, the film does recall tangentially what was in fact a fascinating phase in the history of bluewater sailing. Robin Lee Graham, of course, was the first “youngest solo circumnavigator,” way back in the 1960s, and nearly 20 years passed before Tania Aebi embarked on her voyage and vied for the same crown. Then, starting in the mid 1990s, there was a mini tsunami of teenagers crowding into the game.

Robin Lee Graham sailing out of Darwin in 1967 aboard his 24-foot Lapworth sloop Dove


Tania Aebi aboard her Taylor 26 Varuna


The wave peaked during the years 2008-10, when no fewer than five teen wanna-bes set out to sail around the world on their own. These were Zac Sunderland (US), Michael Perham (UK), Jessica Watson (AUS, NZL), Laura Dekker (NED, NZL), and Zac’s younger sister Abby Sunderland (US).

It was not a necessarily healthy trend. The stakes steadily increased, starting with Jesse Martin (AUS), who from December 1998 to October 1999 sailed non-stop east-about, through the Southern Ocean via the five great capes, and completed his voyage at age 18. The World Sailing Speed Record Council and all other formal entities, to their credit, stopped recognizing such voyages after Jesse’s feat. This did not dissuade Jessica, who also sailed non-stop, east-about via the Southern Ocean, and completed her voyage in May 2010 just a few days shy of her 17th birthday.

The real Jessica Watson aboard Ella’s Pink Lady, during her triumphant return to Sydney Harbour in May 2010. Jessica prepared the boat with help from Don McIntyre and Bruce Arms (her coach in the new film is actually a fictional character), and it is now enshrined as an exhibit at the Queensland Maritime Museum


Personally, if I were to make an upbeat Hollywood movie about one of these characters, I’d put my money on Laura Dekker. She never aspired to sail around the world non-stop, but she was just 14 when she launched her bid. She also had to fight the Dutch government tooth and nail to do what she wanted. (In the True Spirit film they steal a bit of this plot point and insert an entirely fictional suggestion that the Australian government considered passing special legislation to thwart Jessica’s voyage.) At one point Laura ran away to St. Maarten in pursuit of her dream and was arrested and dragged back to the Netherlands against her will. In the end, however, she succeeded in completing her voyage and was, whether officially recognized as such or not, the youngest ever to do so (at age 16 years, 123 days, when she returned). One particularly interesting non-fiction plot point in Laura’s story would be her paranoid dad, who for a while, according to Laura’s publicist, was convinced that the Dutch government had sent an agent to rape Laura, that they were following her, were trying to get her to kill herself, and were out to sink her boat.

Laura Dekker aboard her 40ft Jeanneau Gin Fizz Guppy, with no Dutch agents in sight


The next best bet, I suppose, would be a tragic film about Abby Sunderland. She never finished her voyage, but it was a very dramatic, overly ambitious fire drill from the start. Probably she was pushed into it by her publicity-hungry father, who at one point was angling hard to turn the whole mess into a reality TV show, to be titled Adventures in Sunderland. Quite palpably, Abby was not capable of handling her boat, an Open 40 racing sled named Wild Eyes, without constant sat-phone coaching from home. And she was sailing through the Southern Ocean at the wrong time of year. In the end Wild Eyes was dismasted in very remote waters and Abby (thankfully) abandoned the boat and was rescued.

Abby aboard the dismasted Wild Eyes in June 2010


After Abby’s debacle, the teen sailing craze abruptly came to an end, which is, I would guess, not merely a coincidence.

For a complete list of teen circumnavigators see this Wikipedia link here.

If you dink around here on WaveTrain, using individual names as search terms, you will also find I have previously bloviated long and hard on this subject.

The great irony, really, is that Robin Lee Graham is probably still the most influential and inspirational of all these characters. This in spite of the fact that for a long time he dodged publicity, became a devout Christian, and retreated to the wilds of northern Montana, where he raised two children and made a living building houses.

Robin is a bit more willing to talk about his life these days. I urge you to check out this very interesting On the Wind podcast he did last year with Emma Garschagen of 59 North. You’ll also find there some very cool images, including this current one of Robin (check out the ‘stache!) and his wife Patti:

Robin and Patti met during Robin’s great voyage, and their relationship became a point of friction between Robin and his dad and National Geographic, the sponsor of his voyage.

These other images Emma gathered during her interview are of the log Robin kept during his voyage. The drawings are just incredible!

Here’s another excellent, very relevant On the Wind podcast, just dropped today, of Emma talking with Tania.

And, at the risk of seeming self-serving, I will remind you there is yet another semi-relevant On the Wind podcast, of me discussing my most recent book, The Boy Who Fell to Shore, with Andy Schell. The book is a non-fiction biography of the ultimate (and ultimately most tragic) sailing teen, Thomas Tangvald. You can check it out and buy a copy if so inspired right here. And yes, of course I think a film about Thomas would be a grand idea… also, if done properly, a great success.

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1 Response
  1. Kimball Livingston

    Spot on as always.
    The only thing I ever wrote about Abby Sunderland was a suggestion that her father be horsewhipped.

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