The true story of True Spirit : What really happened on Jessica Watson's solo sail around the world
Warning: This article contains spoilers about True Spirit, now streaming on Netflix.
True Spirit, Netflix's latest book-to-movie adaptation, is an inspiring tale about Jessica Watson, a teen who endeavors to become the youngest person to sail alone, nonstop, and unassisted around the world. Starring Titan's Teagan Croft and based on the book of the same name, the film follows her harrowing journey as she attempts to sail 23,000 nautical miles around the globe in 8 months — something no other 16-year-old had ever accomplished before. But what makes it even more amazing is that it actually happened in real life.
Below, EW breaks down the biggest moments from the film and the true story behind them.
Is Jessica Watson a real person?
Yes! Watson exists, and she wrote the book about her own experience circumnavigating the globe upon which the movie is based. "There's so many layers of emotion in it for me," Watson tells EW of watching the film for the first time. "It's amazing, and Teagan's performance is extraordinary. It's me, but it's also something else, which I just love."
After playing half-demon empath Raven on the DC Comics series Titans for years, Croft was excited to finally take on a role closer to home. "Playing Raven on Titans, it's purple hair, very sullen," she says. "And the [True Spirit] producers needed to double-check that I wasn't like that in real life, that I'd be able to play Jess. I cracked a couple jokes, made a couple remarks, and they saw I'd be able to pull off perky. It's much more in my wheelhouse. And being able to act in my own accent was something I hadn't had the opportunity to do before. It was nice to have that burden lifted."
Watson and Croft met in person for the first time over dinner before the movie began filming, and they had a conversation with director Sarah Spillane about how the onscreen version of Watson wouldn't just be an imitation. "Then we also went sailing the next day altogether, and we met a few times up after that," Croft says. "It was so weird and awkward at first. I felt a weird guilt, like, 'Hello, I'm playing you.' But she was so lovely about it, and we get on really well now."
Did she really attempt to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world?
She sure did — Watson, now 29, departed from Sydney, Australia,, on Oct. 18, 2009, and returned on May 15, 2010, just before her 17th birthday.
Did she succeed?
Well, it's complicated and depends on who you ask. Watson sailed an estimated 18,582 nautical miles, crossing through the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans, all on her own and without stopping. But ultimately, the World Sailing Speed Record Council (WSSRC) ruled that Watson was ineligible for the record, having traveled just short of the minimum 21,600 nautical miles necessary to claim circumnavigation of the globe. In response to the decision and criticism, Watson wrote on her blog at the time, "If I haven't been sailing around the world, then it beats me what I've been doing out here all this time!"
The movie notably doesn't mention the controversy about whether or not she earned the title of the youngest person to sail solo, nonstop, and unassisted around the world. Once she returns to Sydney Harbour amid a massive celebration, the credits roll immediately. "The movie and what Jess is all about is not about the record," Croft says. "That's not what drove her. That's not what she was sailing for. She was sailing for the love of it. The point of the movie is about this girl who had a goal that was crazy and dangerous, and what she did was incredible."
"The thing is, it's a bit of an invented controversy because there actually is no record," Watson tells EW. "There's no 'youngest' record because the body that does official sailing records doesn't recognize youngest records, which is understandable. So I don't really understand how there can be controversy over a record that doesn't exist. The voyage and the way I sailed around the world was very similar to what other people did, but there's actually no official rules, so it's a bit hard to not comply with rules that don't quite exist."
All these years later, Watson isn't concerned about any official records or titles. "It really doesn't worry me because it was about the adventure," she adds. "But also, gosh, people really feel the need to add some drama or find a way to almost diminish it slightly. And I'm like, 'Cool, you guys do that. I'm cool with that.' Maybe I think about it too simplistically, but I'm just like, 'Why are we arguing about the number of nautical miles for a record that doesn't exist?' There is no set nautical miles. You can't argue over a rule that doesn't exist."
Did all the characters in the movie exist?
All except for two — and those two were still based on real people. In the film, Avatar: The Way of the Water's Cliff Curtis plays her sailing coach Ben, but Watson reveals he was just a "beautiful representation of a few people who otherwise wouldn't have been able to be portrayed," from the crew who helped her repair her boat to the group of people advising her over the phone about the weather during her voyage and more.
Her parents were pretty much exactly as they appear in the movie, played by Anna Paquin and Josh Lawson. "Mum was the one who firstly read me Jesse Martin's book from the get-go, which was what inspired me to do this," Watson says. "She had the same curiosity and inspiration for the voyage as me, whereas dad really didn't believe it was going to happen for much longer. And then, obviously, he was quite reluctant, as you see. That is probably pretty accurate in terms of mom and dad's dynamic."
Croft struggled the most filming the scenes where Jessica talks to her family over the phone during her journey. "At that point, the other actors were gone, and it was just me, so sometimes that was really difficult to get into the scene," she says. "But what was lucky in a twisted way was that COVID was really big in Australia at that time, and so the borders between my home state and the state we were filming in had closed. I'd just come from filming Titans, I hadn't seen my sisters or my dad for seven months by the end of shooting True Spirit, so I was able to pull a real, genuine emotion from my real life from the real phone calls I was having."
Watson adds that the reporter, played by Todd Lasance, was fictional but represents all of the members of the media who were aggressively and publicly criticizing her plans. "There were some that were pretty damn similar to him," she adds with a laugh. "I was protected slightly from some of the intensity of it at the time because I was just so single-mindedly focused on this thing, which you need to be to do something like that. It was my team and my poor family who caught the worst of that, but it was intense."
She continues, "I can really understand where people were coming from, and it's kind of beautiful that there was so much concern. But at the same time, I don't think people really understood that there had been years and years of preparation. And this is a really safe boat, it's done this a number of times. It's not as crazy as it seems if you've got no idea about that world."
Did her pre-voyage trial run really end in a massive collision?
Unfortunately, yes. Watson forgot to turn on the proximity alarms before taking a quick nap, and a few minutes later, her boat (named Ella's Pink Lady), crashed into a cargo ship. "That collision scene's one of the ones that's really accurate, so that one's pretty intense for me," Watson says. "That was something I still have the occasional nightmare about, but it's so important to the story. It really made me in a way because having to go through that and find the strength to continue really set me up for being able to deal with the storms at sea."
Did she really leave her hairbrush at home?
In a moment of levity in the movie, Jessica realizes she forgot to pack a hairbrush for her long journey and tapes two forks together to detangle her hair for months. That did happen ... but not on her long trip around the world. "That happened on a sea trial," Watson admits. "So not quite the whole voyage. And actually, I got the idea from Jesse Martin who did forget his hairbrush for his trip and used a fork."
Did she battle dyslexia during her journey?
Watson is dyslexic in real life, and she loves how the movie accurately portrays the struggles she faced whenever she got stressed and messed up her longitude and latitude coordinates. "So many people can relate to this, and it's not far off from my reality," Watson says, before admitting with a laugh, "I mean, I like to think that I was never that bad with my lats and longs and getting muddled up. But at the same time, it's also based on the truth that mum did used to call me out when I'm tired or flustered, and I was getting stuff like that wrong."
Did she get knocked out during a storm?
In the first big storm she faces at sea, Jessica is hit in the head with a frying pan and gets knocked out. But it turns out that entire scene was made up for the movie. "I feel bad calling out some of the things that weren't quite true, but no, no frying pan," Watson says. "Although there was legitimate danger with stuff flying around inside the boat in a storm — household everyday objects become deadly. Keeping your cabin tidy is something I should have been better at."
Did her boat get stuck for a week without any wind?
In the movie, Jessica hits an emotional low point when there's no breeze for an entire week. She gets frustrated and ends up arguing with Ben over the radio. That was all fictionalized for the film but was based on real emotions Watson felt throughout her trip. "In reality, you never get such long stretches without wind," she says. "Often, it's more like a couple of days. And even within that, you might get a few puffs along the way. It is, however, very true to what that experience is like for a sailor, how incredibly frustrating it is to just be at the mercy of the elements and just waiting for the wind to come back. There's nothing you can do. Emotionally, they were some of the really tough days out there."
Did a massive storm temporarily sink her boat?
Onscreen, Jessica's journey ends with her biggest test yet, as multiple major storms merged into one. The giant waves flip her boat upside down, and she gets stuck 15 ft. underwater for an extended period of time. It's a terrifying scene, and it turns out, the movie version isn't even the full story.
"There were seven knockdowns," Watson reveals. "Not all of them were quite that bad. A lot of the time, it's just the boat being knocked over. But the 15 ft. underwater is real because my emergency beacon did self-activate as the boat sank. That happened. But the time I was upside down for, it certainly felt like a long time. I haven't really got a concept of how long it was in reality, but we are talking seconds compared to what we see in the movie, which stretches on forever in minutes and minutes and minutes. That's a little bit of an exaggeration there, but it was real to the experience of it feeling like forever."
Was her return to Sydney as epic as it appeared?
Absolutely! When Jessica arrives in Sydney Harbour at the end of her journey, it looks like all of Australia came to celebrate her accomplishment. And as the credits roll, real footage from that moment plays, showing the real Watson reuniting with her family. Incredibly, a young Croft was there in attendance that day.
"I was actually there in Sydney Harbour when she came in, but I'd forgotten since I was only six," Croft says. "When I came across this script, my parents were like, 'We were there!' I've been trying to figure out where we were in the crowd to see if you can see me in that footage. Maybe I'm there in a little pink skirt or something ridiculous."
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