Whilst the new Netflix True Spirit movie was being filmed, celebrating Jessica Watson's real-life teenage solo, non-stop global circumnavigation, the 29-year-old was battling her biggest-ever challenge ashore.
Jessica Watson – the real sailor behind the True Spirit film
“Generally, I actually am quite a risk-averse person, and don’t like doing crazy things, I know that’s really hard to believe.”
Thirteen years ago, in 2010, Jessica Watson arrived in Sydney, having sailed solo, non-stop around the world aged 16.
Now, as a film inspired by her adventure, True Spirit, is released on Netflix, Jessica shares insight into how it compares to the reality of navigating some of the world’s most remote oceans, surviving seven knockdowns and 210 days alone at sea aboard S&S 34 Ella’s Pink Lady.
“It’s so strange for me. Because I really have no idea what it’s like to watch as someone else who’s not so close to the story. For me, I almost can’t get past being so close to it, and then not really being able to watch it like a movie.
“I love so much of what they’ve done with it. It’s really cool to see the sport of sailing have this showcase, and hopefully, there are a lot of moments in the film that will really make people understand what is so amazing about sailing.”
Jessica Watson on the accuracy of the film?
“It has moments where it kind of jumps out and I think ‘Oh my gosh, yes. That’s exactly what it was’, like, in an expression or view in a sequence or a scene. But of course, there’s movie magic involved as well.
“There are some details that certainly don’t follow the reality, and sailors will, no doubt, pick them up. The big storm scene where the boat’s underwater for quite some time in reality, wasn’t that dramatic. But in that moment, it certainly felt like it. So maybe it’s sort of true to the feeling behind it.”
Repairs on board is one area the film isn’t quite so accurate on.
“There’s quite a leak in the movie that it looks like I’m fixing with blu-tack. In reality there was nothing major, which again, was a real testament to the preparation behind it and a lot of things going right; a lot of conservative decisions.
“There were torn sails, of course, that needed a bit of repair on the way, a solar panel that was warped in from the impact of a knockdown, which limited my power a little bit, and I had to replace the wind generator, and a fuel pump towards the end of the trip.
With the benefit of hindsight, Jessica would advise her younger self to go ahead, with provisos.
“People often ask, ‘Would you do it again?’ And I always do make it very clear that I would, but it’s with that boat and the way she was set up.
“It’s really that boat and the way she was set up that got me there safely. There’s absolutely no doubt about it.
“Without those conditions, and the preparation that was in place, I absolutely wouldn’t do it. It really was about that boat and the setup.”
Jessica is the second of four children of New Zealander couple Roger and Julie Watson, who moved to Australia in 1987. A focus of the film is the support her parents gave their teenage daughter to undertake the voyage, set against the reality of her facing towering waves alone in the Southern Ocean, and a media storm when she ran into a 63,000 tonne ship at sea.
Jessica said: “Some of the characters in my family are actually pretty true to who they are. But the main kind of character in the movie, Ben, who’s the mentor and advisor is actually an amalgamation of a number of real people that kind of represents a whole team of people.
“There’s not the opportunity in a movie format to give so many different people their own characters, so they had to go with this approach.
“There are so many real moments represented by those people in this character.
“I actually really love that mentor relationship Ben has with Teagon, who plays me, because that’s so important and such a big part of how it was possible; there were all these extraordinary people, predominantly men, who were so determined to see a young girl succeed.”
When asked about the long-term impact of her circumnavigation, Jessica says: “It’s absolutely a part of who I am, and I can’t imagine who I am without that adventure and everything that led to that.
“More widely, certainly I hope it has made people stop for a moment and think ‘hey, what can young people do when they put their minds to it?’
“I think it’s been part of a movement that a lot of people have put a lot of work into, supporting female sailors over recent years. And it’s been amazing to see such a change there and to see such a strong presence out in the water.
“There’s absolutely still a long way to go. But it’s really great to see that and representation of any kind helps in that regard.”
Talk of a film, inspired by Jessica’s book, True Spirit, has been on the cards since it was first published in 2010.
Jessica said: “There’s been discussions about making a film for years, but I don’t think I really ever believed it.
“So it really is only in the last week when I’ve seen it on the big screen that it’s actually starting to sink in a little bit that ‘Oh, my goodness, this has actually happened’.”
Attending premieres with friends has been a highlight for Jessica, who has faced a huge personal tragedy recently with the loss of her partner Cameron Dale.
Cameron, who she met in 2011 whilst competing in the Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, died of a stroke in August 2021, aged 29, as the result of undiagnosed high blood pressure.
Jessica wrote in The Weekend Australian Magazine “I’ve been called courageous for my sailing exploits – but the courage it’s taken to get through this is incomparable.”
She told Practical Boat Owner (PBO): “For us it completely came out of nowhere. It’s not something that’s on the radar for active young people; it’s the last thing on your mind to think about blood pressure or strokes.
“And I suppose for me, it’s just a real moment to hopefully get that really simple message out there. To get the check. It’s such a simple thing you can do. And don’t dismiss it as something that might not impact younger people.
“A lot of people ask if I was involved during the shooting of the movie. And actually, it’s not a tricky question to answer. Because obviously, I was with Cam in an ICU (Intensive Care Unit).”
Regular Cape 31 racing at weekends with a group of close friends has been a vital support.
“Cam and I met through the Sydney Hobart campaign, and probably actually knocked heads for quite a bit through that project. And then we got together at the end of it. Sailing was just the kind of core of our lives and something we absolutely did together.
“Sailing has just been the most extraordinary and probably the best possible way to help with grief, you know, sailing with a bunch of people who were all Cam’s best mates and mine as well.
“And that kind of environment on the boat and being part of that community and just being on the water, it’s good for focusing your head.
“Sailing is definitely very special to me, now more than ever.”
Jessica describes dark days and suicidal thoughts and how family, friends and sailing, in particular, has pulled her through.
“A particular moment that stands out vividly is one of slight chaos after we’d just broken something.
“Full of adrenaline, I found myself no doubt looking like a dork in Cam’s oversized hat, furiously trying to bail water out of the boat, everyone laughing at me as waves dumped over me and straight back into the cabin.
“Perhaps it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m still savouring that moment and the revelation it gave me – a sense of being glad to be living.”
Day to day, Jessica has “a sensible desk job” as a manager at prestigious management consulting company Deloitte.
She said: “People are often surprised by that. But it was important for me to go back and challenge myself in different ways and give myself a life away from constantly being known as that 16 year old girl who circumnavigated.
“I really love my role with Deloitte, one of the big four accounting firms in a management consulting team. It’s been really lovely to have some other challenges in my life and to keep sailing as something that’s absolutely the biggest part of my life, but something that’s a lifeline, hobby and passion, rather than day to day.”
Jessica was eight when her family first went to a sailing school. She particularly enjoyed messing about with trailer-sailers and sailing dinghies at her local club.
She said: “Mum and Dad wouldn’t claim to be sailors, but we sort of learned and got involved in boating and sailing as a family.
“My younger sister doesn’t sail, although my older sister is the first mate on a superyacht so she’s absolutely a water person and an avid diver. And I have a brother as well who’s a geologist so he’s into more land based things.”
Officially there is no ‘youngest record’ recognised by the World Sailing Speed Record Council (WSSRC) in a bid to avoid ambitious parents sending ever-more-youthful offspring out to sea.
Jessica’s unofficial title was usurped in January 2012 by Dutch teenager Laura Dekker, who at 16 years and four months, was nearly eight months younger.
Addressing criticism that her logged circumnavigation of just over 24,000 miles did not venture far enough north of the equator for her journey to count as a true round-the-world sail or that the orthodromic distance sailed was just over 18,000nm, less than the 21,600nm required by the WSSRC, Jessica said: “It certainly doesn’t really worry me.
“I think that the biggest thing there for me is that there’s no official record, as obviously none of the bodies recognise the youngest records, which is perfectly understandable. So I don’t understand how there can actually be a debate about whether or not you comply with a rule that doesn’t exist. I sort of struggle to get past that.
“I think it is a shame that there are people who just really feel the need to nitpick because there’s no official rule. So there was no way to comply with an official rule.”
She added: “The route that I took, chosen with my team, was just about making it as safe as possible. It did 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.”
Film director Sarah Spillane spoke to Jessica “a lot” over many years, to get “under the cover of what the circumnavigation was about, the inspiration behind it and the sailing.”
Jessica said: “As time went on, it became more about practical questions, and details of the script, ‘Could this have happened’, ‘Would this have been possible?’
“I did a lot of work with the scriptwriters, then when shooting started, I obviously met everyone, which was amazing, and I got to see a bit of it. But it was then a case of stepping away and letting them get on with it.”
The film manages to capture some key memories for Jessica: “There are some really beautiful moments that I think do translate in the movie. There’s a particular starry scene that is pretty extraordinary and real to what it was like.
“The thing I never got bored of was just watching the boat dance along through the waves on a breezy day, with the spray flying. I suppose maybe I got used to it as there’s not a lot else to look at but I honestly never, ever got bored of watching Ella’s Pink Lady sail along.”
Another vivid moment was her finish in Sydney Harbour.
Jessica said: “I think there’s still part of that emotion with me today. There was the extraordinary overwhelmingness of it, when you’ve been so deprived of everything for so long.
“It was just such a sensory overload, you’ve got colours and noises, and smells, and people and all these things you haven’t experienced for so long, all of a sudden, all at once.
“It’s just an extraordinary amount to take in but in the most beautiful, positive, exciting way.”
She added: “Maybe there’ll be another big circumnavigation again one day, but it’ll be stopping along the way. For now, I think as long as sailing is the biggest part of my life still, that’s awesome for now.”
True Spirit, now showing on Netflix, is described as: A tenacious Australian teen chases her dreams — and faces her fears — as she sets out to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Teagan Croft stars with Cliff Curtis, Josh Lawson and Oscar winner Anna Paquin in this inspiring drama based on a true story.
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This article was updated to clarify that Jessica Watson logged just over 24,000 miles on her voyage, but the orthodromic distance sailed was just over 18,000nm, less than the 21,600nm required by the WSSRC.
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