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Two Sailing Movies: 'True Spirit' and 'The Sailor' Now on Air

11th March 2023
The story of round-the-world sailor Jessica Watson is told in the Netlfix movie, True Spirit
The story of round-the-world sailor Jessica Watson is told in the Netlfix movie, True Spirit

Dublin Bay round-the-world sailor Pete Hogan reviews two sailing movies now on air via Youtube and Netflix

Two yachting movies are doing the rounds at the moment. Netflix has released True Spirit, the story of Jessica Watson, the youngest sailor credited with circumnavigating solo, unassisted and nonstop around the world.

It has received a lot of critical attention. The other movie, which I paid to see about a year ago, has now popped up, free, on YouTube and is The Sailor, a low-budget documentary about the veteran cruiser Paul Erling Johnston who died shortly after it was made.

The two movies are quite a contrast to each other. Both movies, in my opinion, while having their flaws, were more enjoyable to watch than the current Oscar contender, ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’.

True Spirit

Jessica Watson was 12 years old when she listened to a bedroom story and then determined that she would be the youngest person to sail around the world solo, nonstop, and unassisted. Perhaps only in Australia do parents encourage such aspirations in their children. By the time she was 16 she had somehow acquired and fitted out, to a very high standard, an S&S 34 and was setting off to achieve her dream. (I was happy and fortunate, to have the use of a Mirror dinghy at this stage of my life).

True Spirit is available to view on NetflixTrue Spirit is available to view on Netflix

The resultant movie, now released on Netflix, resembles a lengthy episode of the Australian soap Neighbours. Admittedly it is aimed at a general audience rather than a knowledgeable yachting one. Sailing movies usually satisfy neither a general audience nor the sailing cognoscenti, especially when they aim to please both. The computer-generated scenes of big waves and knockdowns are fine examples of the tech wizard’s art. The movie struggles to maintain interest while it flips from pop music-backed feel-good scenes to repetitive episodes of cliff-hanging drama and near disaster. One fictional knockdown is so farfetched as to turn the yacht into a submarine.

Jessica Watson in True SpiritJessica Watson in True Spirit

There is some dispute over the actual record, which Jessie Watson claims. The world body which records such attempts does not accept Watson’s voyage as qualifying because it was not long enough on the distance sailed. (They also have discontinued listing age-related records) Sailors in the southern hemisphere who want to sail around the world and set records are required at some stage to turn north and cross the equator. Also, they must sail a minimum of 21,600 nautical miles (the earth's circumference). Watson crossed the equator but did not sail far enough.

True Spirit, the movie, was generally panned by the critics for being a bit wooden and boring. But it did get a lot of attention in mainstream media and the yachting press.

Here is a piece in Yachting World. In his excellent blog Charlie Doan has a critique of these age-based sailing records.

Plus, comments about the Watson movie are here 

The Sailor - A very different movie

Paul Johnson was born in England in 1938. He died in 2021, aged 83, following a varied and exciting life. Having crossed the Atlantic aged only 16 years of age in a tiny boat, he simply did not stop sailing. He designed boats, built boats, sailed boats and apparently had a wonderful time with a girlfriend in every port. Johnson spent his last days on the Caribbean island of Carriacou aboard what was left of his trusty self-built and designed sailing boat 'Cherub'.

This documentary, filmed a few months before his passing, is a moving testament and reminds us how fragile we become in later life. He allows the Slovakian film unit to follow his daily routine as he lives aboard in the popular anchorage of Tyrell Bay, Carriacou. As the blurb for the film says, ‘After a life of freewheeling adventure spent sailing all over the world, Paul Johnson, now 80 with a frail body, a litre of vodka and a broken sailboat, contemplates his life and the cost of fulfilling an uncompromising dream.’

Paul Johnston was quite famous in the cruising confraternity in the Caribbean. He would be a close contemporary of the better-known, now Irish resident, Don Street. There is a picture of him and his tiny boat, Venus, in Bernard Moitessier’s second book, The long Route. Sailing royalty.

Paul JohnsonPaul Johnson

There is very little sailing in the movie. It is more concerned with scenes of domestic strife and day-to-day problems of boat maintenance. The film-makers are skilful in suggesting non-verbally with their beautifully shot film, the squalor and struggles of Johnston’s existence - the cockroaches scurrying across the cabin table, the crumbling paint, the mess of spliced ropes holding everything together, the silent rusting motor, the simple task of getting ashore in the dinghy. Best are the vignettes of island life, visiting the shop for supplies, usually alcohol. The changing face of Tyrell Bay as a new supermarket is built is a leitmotif. The modern world is catching up. The locals know and appreciate Johnston as one of their own, almost like a piece of flotsam washed up on the shore of their paradise island. He idly speculates that he may sail away someday. But he knows, and they know that he never will.

Paul Johnston's trusty self-built and designed sailing boat 'Cherub'Paul Johnston's trusty self-built and designed sailing boat 'Cherub'.

It’s a serious business for the sailor, any sailor, growing old if he has cut ties with the conventional ways of the world. That is really the message of the movie. In fact, Johnston had a friend on a neighbouring boat. She helps him along and does not appear in the movie. Her name is Angie Wolfe, and she inherited Johnston’s boat and has restored it, and it is now a museum piece in Tyrell Bay if you happen to be sailing that way.

The contrast between the two movies is striking but perhaps it is a bit unfair to draw too many conclusions. Jessica Watson went on to return to school and graduated with a degree in marketing. She was awarded many honours. As a youth sailor, she had further sailing adventures competing in the Fastnet and Sydney Hobart races. Her round-the-world boat also ended up in a museum. She is still only 30 years old.

Pete Hogan

Published in Maritime TV Team

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