Jessica Watson’s historic solo sail hits the screen in Netflix’s True Spirit

In 2010, Jessica Watson became the youngest person to sail around the world solo, non-stop and unassisted.

At just 16, the Queensland schoolgirl spent 210 days at sea battling six-metre swells before pulling into Sydney Harbor where she was met by thousands of supporters and hailed an Australian hero by then-prime minister Kevin Rudd.

One of those cheering fans was a then six-year-old Teagan Croft, who would go on to play the teenage sailor in Netflix’s new film about Watson’s remarkable journey.

‘It’s all still so vivid and real’

Directed by Sarah Spillane and based on Watson’s 2010 memoir of the same name, True Spirit charts Watson’s journey around the globe, including the media backlash she received and attracted worldwide attention her pursuit.

Now 18, Australian actress Teagan Croft (HBO’s Titans) stars as Watson, with Academy Award winner Anna Paquin (True Blood) and Australian actor Josh Lawson (Hoges: The Paul Hogan Story) playing her parents who come under fire for letting their teenage daughter hit the high seas by herself.

Jessica’s parents, Julie and Roger Watson, faced a barrage of criticism for supporting their daughter’s dream.(Netflix: Julian Panetta)

Watson, now 29, told ABC News it was surreal to look back on her historic achievement as an adult.

“It’s odd, right? It’s weird. I’m a completely different person. So much has happened and so much time has passed,” she said.

“At the same time, it’s all still so vivid and real. So it feels like a million years ago, but also yesterday at the same time.”

Croft’s audition was the first director Sarah Spillane watched in her search for a lead. And the filmmaker says she set a “high benchmark” that was never matched.

Jessica's pink boat pulls up at a dock while thousands of people watch on.
Thousands of fans gave Jessica Watson a hero’s welcome when she docked by the Sydney Opera House on May 15, 2010.(MONKEY: Tracey Nearmy)

While Croft was already familiar with Watson’s story and experienced that historic moment at Sydney Harbor herself, she said the filming process gave her a greater understanding of how challenging the voyage was.

“Being reintroduced to it and learning so much, just all of the details about how big the waves were and how intense the backlash was to begin with – there’s just so much about the story I didn’t know that just makes it all the more impressive and inspiring,” Croft said.

“What I’ve always loved about Jessica’s journey is that she’s not the youngest girl to be a solo sailor. She is the youngest solo sailor. It’s not a gendered thing.

“I think that’s what’s so unique, that it’s just such an inspirational story.

“And yes, it’s led by a woman and a young woman, but it’s inspirational, no matter her age, no matter her gender. And I think that is what is most powerful.”

‘Just make it genuine’

With Elvis and Blonde bagging Oscar nominations, biopics are big business in Hollywood, but Croft says imitating Watson completely was never the goal.

“What was really nice is we had a big sit-down meal — Sarah, Jess and I — right before filming began, and we had a big chat about how we wanted to create a character from the ground up, heavily inspired by Jess but not a mimic of her,” she said.

“And Jess was so great about saying, ‘Don’t worry about all the details and minutiae. Just make it real and make it authentic.'”

Tegan and Jessica smile for a photo on set with a pink sailing ship docked in front of a blue green screen behind them.
Teagan Croft and Jessica Watson on the set of True Spirit. (Netflix: Julian Panetta)

Spillane said Watson was “very open and had a great understanding of the filmmaking process in the sense that she was very flexible”.

“This is based on her true story,” Spillane said.

“The journey itself is very true to what she did.

“But certain character aspects, such as her mentor, are fictitious and are based on several advisers that Jessica worked with and, to be honest, my own mentor Jack Thompson.”

Just like Watson’s solo navigation, much of True Spirit is scenes of Croft alone on her boat as she attempts to weather not just storms, but total isolation, which is only made worse when there’s no wind and she’s stranded at sea for days at a time .

Teagan Croft, as Jessica Watson, crawls on the floor of her boat as water gushes in during a storm.
Teagan Croft admits she thought sailing looked “a bit boring” from the outside, but found “real beauty in the precision and the accuracy” after learning the ropes.(Netflix: Julian Panetta)

Spillane has known Watson personally since 2014, when she began her research for True Spirit. She said the film’s release came at an “interesting” time.

“We’ve just come out of COVID,” she said.

“I think a lot of people can really resonate with some of the themes … such as this sense of isolation that Jessica endured during her journey.

“Especially for a young person and how one not necessarily overcomes but deals with loneliness and isolation and being somewhat disconnected from the rest of the world.”

Watson’s story goes global—again

True Spirit is now screening in theatres, but it will reach a much greater audience next week when it begins streaming on Netflix.

“They are releasing this to 190 countries in over 30 languages ​​at the same time. That’s something that just wouldn’t have happened before the existence of companies like Netflix,” Spillane says.

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