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Jessica Watson’s historic one-sail comes to the big screen in Netflix’s True Spirit

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

Aged just 16, the Queensland schoolgirl spent 210 days at sea battling six-metre waves before entering Sydney Harbour, where she was greeted by thousands of supporters and celebrated an Australian hero by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

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

“It’s still so alive and real”

Directed by Sarah Spillane and based on Watson’s 2010 memoir of the same name, True Spirit chronicles Watson’s journey across the globe, including the media backlash she received and the worldwide attention her quest garnered.

Australian actress Teagan Croft (HBO’s Titans), now 18, plays Watson, with Oscar winner Anna Paquin (True Blood) and Australian actor Josh Lawson (Hoges: The Paul Hogan Story) playing her parents, who come under fire because she left her teenage daughter herself ended up at sea.

Teagan waves to her wave as Jessica Watson as she sets sail on the Pink Lady.
Jessica’s parents, Julie and Roger Watson, have been heavily criticized for supporting their daughter’s dream.(Netflix: Julian Panetta)

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

“It’s strange, isn’t it? It is strange. I’m a completely different person. So much has happened and so much time has passed,” she said.

“At the same time, everything is still so alive 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 leading role. And the filmmaker says she set a “high standard” that has never been equaled.

Jessica's pink boat docks at a dock as thousands of people watch.
Thousands of fans gave Jessica Watson a heroic welcome as she docked at the Sydney Opera House on May 15, 2010.(AAP: Tracey Nearmy)

While Croft was already familiar with Watson’s story and had witnessed this historic moment firsthand on Sydney Harbour, she said the filming process gave her a better understanding of just how challenging the voyage was.

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

“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 gender thing.

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

“And yes, it’s directed by a woman and a young woman, but it’s inspirational, regardless of your age, your gender. And I think that’s the strongest part.”

“Just do it authentic”

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

“What was really nice is that right before we started filming, we sat down – Sarah, Jess and I – and had a long chat about how we wanted to create a character from the ground up, heavily inspired by Jess, but not an imitation of her “, she said.

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

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

Spillane said Watson is “very open and has a great understanding of the film making process in the sense that she is very flexible”.

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

“The journey itself is very faithful to what it did.

“But certain aspects of the character, such as her mentor, are fictional and based on several advisors Jessica has worked with and, to be honest, my own mentor, Jack Thompson.”

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

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

Spillane has known Watson personally since 2014, when she began researching 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 relate to some of the themes…like this sense of isolation that Jessica had to endure during her journey.

“Especially for a young person and how to not necessarily overcome loneliness and isolation and a certain disconnectedness from the rest of the world, but how to deal with it.”

Watson’s story goes global – once again

True Spirit is showing in theaters now, but next week when it starts streaming on Netflix it will reach a much larger audience.

“They are releasing this simultaneously in 190 countries in over 30 languages. That just wouldn’t have happened before companies like Netflix existed,” says Spillane.

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