In 2010, Jessica Watson became the youngest person to sail solo, non-stop, and unaided around the world.
At just 16 years old, the Queensland schoolgirl spent 210 days at sea, battling six-metre waves before entering Sydney Harbour, 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 later play the teenage sailor in the new Netflix movie about Watson’s remarkable journey.
“It’s all still so alive 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 world, including the media backlash she received and the global attention her pursuit attracted.
Now 18-year-old 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 because their teenage daughter went out to sea on her own.
Watson, now 29, told ABC News it was surreal to look back at her historic achievement as an adult.
“It’s weird, isn’t it? 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 alive and real. So it feels like a million years ago, but at the same time yesterday.”
Croft’s audition was the first director Sarah Spillane saw in her quest for a lead role. And the filmmaker says she set a “high standard” that was never matched.
While Croft was already familiar with Watson’s story and experienced that historic moment in Sydney Harbor herself, she said the filming process gave her more insight into just how challenging the journey was.
“Getting reacquainted with it and learning so much, just all the details of how big the waves were and how intense the backlash was to begin with – there’s so much about the story I didn’t know that just makes it 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’s the youngest solo sailor. It’s not a gender issue.
“I think that’s so unique, it’s just such an inspiring story.
“And yes, it’s led by a woman and a young woman, but it’s inspiring regardless of her age, regardless of her gender. And I think that’s the most powerful thing.”
‘Just make it authentic’
With Elvis and Blonde garnering Oscar nominations, biopics are big business in Hollywood, but Croft says it was never the goal to completely imitate Watson.
“What was really fun is we had a big sit-down meal — Sarah, Jess and I — right before filming started, and we had a big talk about how we wanted to create a character from the ground up, heavily inspired by Jess but no impersonation of her,” she said.
“And Jess said so well, ‘Don’t worry about all the details and details. Just make it real and make it authentic.'”
Spillane said Watson was “very open and had a good understanding of the filming process in 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 fictional and are based on various advisors Jessica worked with and, to be fair, my own mentor Jack Thompson.”
Like Watson’s solo navigation, much of True Spirit consists of scenes of Croft alone on her boat as she tries to weather not just storms, but total isolation, which only gets worse when there’s no wind and she days successively stranded at sea. .
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 just got out of COVID,” she said.
“I think a lot of people can really resonate with some of the themes… like this sense of isolation that Jessica endured on her journey.
“Especially for a young person and how you don’t necessarily overcome loneliness and isolation and being somewhat disconnected from the rest of the world, but deal with it.”
Watson’s story goes global – again
True Spirit is in theaters now, but will reach a much wider audience next week when it starts streaming on Netflix.
“They’re releasing this simultaneously in 190 countries in over 30 languages. That wouldn’t have happened before the existence of companies like Netflix,” says Spillane.
“So many people around the world have access to this story, which is very true to when Jessica made this journey and completed this incredible circumnavigation.
“It caught the attention of people all over the world because there’s something deeply universal and global about what she did that I think everyone can relate to.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Croft.
“I think there’s so much rich Australian history that we don’t tell that much, and I think we’re starting and I really like that,” she said.
‘I don’t really know what to think or feel about it’
For Croft, she’s eager to tackle more Dolly Parton (“I do a cracker impression”) biopics and name checks, but Watson dismisses the idea of giving her solo journey another go.
“You can’t beat your own youngest record,” she said.
“But it actually had quite an impact on me in a way that I really didn’t expect.”
In 2021, Watson’s partner of 10 years, Cameron Dale, died six weeks after suffering a catastrophic stroke.
“Hear Teagan [Croft] saying these things about how the world is really hard but it’s also really beautiful and to see that play out and talk about how you can be really vulnerable but also really strong is really nerve wracking and pretty incredible for me right now, and quite inspiring,” said Watson.
“It’s kind of strange, and I’m actually not quite sure what to think or feel about it. But it definitely makes me go, ‘Wow,’ and almost get a little bit re-inspired.”
Watson is still humble about her achievements and the story of her life on the big screen.
“It’s really absolutely extraordinary,” she said. “I mean, this stuff, I don’t think it’s going to happen again for me, that’s for sure.”
“It could happen to you again,” Croft said.
“Who knows what you’ll do.”
True Spirit is now in cinemas and can be streamed on Netflix from February 3.