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 the worldwide attention her pursuit attracted.
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.
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.
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 authentic’
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.'”
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 .
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 does not necessarily overcome 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 theaters, but it will reach a much larger 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.
“So many people around the world can access this story, which is very true to when Jessica did make this trip and accomplish this incredible circumnavigation.
“It did attract the attention of people throughout the world because there is something profoundly universal and global about what she did that I think anyone can relate to.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Croft.
“I think that there’s so much rich Australian history that we don’t really tell as much, and I think we’re starting to and I think that’s really fun,” she said.
‘I’m actually not quite sure what to think or feel about it’
For Croft, she’s keen to tackle more biopics and name-checks Dolly Parton (“I do a cracker impression”), but Watson waves off the idea of giving her solo voyage another go.
“You can’t beat your own youngest record,” she said.
“But it actually has 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.
“Hearing Teagan [Croft] say these things about how the world’s really tough, but it’s also really beautiful, and seeing that play out and talking about how you can be really vulnerable but also really strong is really unnerving and quite incredible for me, currently, and quite inspiring,” Watson said.
“It’s kind of strange, and I’m actually not quite sure what to think or feel about it. But it definitely is kind of making me go, ‘Wow,’ and sort of almost be a bit re-inspired.”
Watson is still modest about her achievements and having the story of her life hit the big screen.
“It really is 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’re going to do.”
True Spirit is in cinemas now and is available to stream on Netflix from February 3.