New-look master and commander: Aussie teen learns to sail for Jessica Watson biopic


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Sydney-born actor Teagan Croft shares a secret – she didn’t know how to sail before being cast to play Australian adventurer Jessica Watson, the youngest person to sail around the world, in new Netflix biopic True Spirit.

Croft, 18, who cemented her acting career in the DC Universe with four seasons playing a human-demon hybrid Raven in Batman-style series Titans, has Watson and a team of sailors to thank for developing her sea legs and getting inside Watson’s mindset.

And True Spirit director Sarah Spillane.

She couldn’t look past Croft’s first audition, knowing straight away the rising star would nail her first feature-length film in the famous 34-foot pink yacht.

“I just couldn’t get past her. It was almost like she set this benchmark that no one else was able to touch,” Spillane said.

Croft told The New Daily how she transformed herself into a master and commander of the tricky, unpredictable sport that is ocean sailing.

“It was such fun to learn how to sail, and I experienced that corner of the world that I have never been involved in … being a part of that was incredible.

“I felt like I mastered sailing, but you’ve got to remember, you never master the boat, the boat is your bestest friend … that was the aspect of sailing I really enjoyed … feeling a connection to your boat.

“All of it is due to Ella’s Pink Lady, that tough little boat … insanely.

“I loved the sailing. I found an unexpected love in the precision, going towards perfection, [and] finding the optimal angle and speed. It wasn’t as tricky as it seems. Once you get your hands around the ropes and you figure how the sail works, [with] solo sailing you are so in control, so in charge.

“As long as you know your stuff, you can do it.”

Croft channeled Watson’s spirit

On October 9, 2009, Watson, who grew up in a yachting family, sailed out through Sydney Heads and spent the next 210 days navigating some of the most challenging oceans around the world, surviving seven knockdowns on her dangerous, deadly journey.

She was 16 years old.

She sailed unassisted, solo and non-stop and only had satellite phone support via her coach and mentor Ben Bryant, and parents Roger (played by Josh Lawson, Mortal Combat) and Julie (Anna Paquin, True Blood).

There were critics, sceptics and naysayers who criticised her parents for “sending a kid out to sea” and expected her to fail among the hordes of supporters from inside and outside the global sailing community.

Many people said it was too dangerous.

Seven months later, Watson arrived back in Sydney at 1.53pm on May 15, 2010.

She was surrounded by the cheers of tens of thousands who lined the shores and crammed onto boats, yachts and ferries to catch a glimpse of the teenager who became an overnight national hero.

She made world headlines.

Croft as Jessica Watson leaving Sydney Harbour. Photo: Netflix

Croft was determined to portray Watson’s incredible achievement.

“She doesn’t have a fearful bone in her body … she was wanting to climb up the mast … do all her own sailing and stunts where possible,” Spillane said.

Adds Croft: “I wanted to find that love of sailing that she would’ve had … she didn’t do it for the record … she did it because she loved it and wanted to … I wanted to find that emotional trigger.

“I did that through excessive sailing and really bonding with my little [replica] boat.”

Croft said she found Watson’s sea legs and an emotional connection while filming.

“Knowing Jess now, she is someone who is so focused and so driven … as a 16-year-old, a part of the reason why she could do it when you’re young, you’re not focusing on the negatives [and she would recall] the words her dad wrote: ‘Stay strong, love Dad.’

“I had moments of real emotional turmoil because I hadn’t seen my family in so long. It was COVID. I felt really alone. It was my first feature, first time having a lead.

“I felt just so stressed, and I just didn’t know how to cope with it emotionally, and there are similarities there where I could channel that into putting that into the film and showing that in the performance.

There were moments in Watson’s epic journey of sheer excitement … and fear. Photo: Netflix

Magic at sea

Filmed over 41 days on the Gold Coast [and three days on Sydney Harbour], the film captures Watson’s best and worst moments at sea, from witnessing the beauty of whales, dolphins and birdlife, to hitting rock bottom with zero wind and despair for several days.

After one particular phone call with Paquin, Croft goes up on deck, regroups and looks at the stars, feeling connected to home.

Spillane says they secured the rights to David Bowie’s Starman [singer Sarah Blasko covered it] as a track to run over the incredible vision that night.

“Half the crew had tears in their eyes because it was so beautiful,” she said.

“The Bowie [track] was awesome. It was Sarah’s way of showing how delirious sailors can get. You hear about sailors seeing mermaids … delirium,” Croft said.

“Watching the film, [it] shows how harrowing it really was … if you’re not a sailor, you don’t know what sailing looks like. You don’t know what solo sailing looks like. You don’t know what the Southern Ocean looks like.

“You can read the book, and Jess said she had been trying to describe these words … for years and years … [but] finally people will be able to see – and I saw – how crazy it was … how really deadly it could have been.”

Croft admits she tried to ‘park the boat’ one day in reverse during rehearsals, and let’s just say it all didn’t go to plan. Photo: Netflix

What’s next?

Croft says she’d love to score a role in a legal drama or be a “decky” [deckhand] on someone else’s boat, or get into cinematography at some stage.

“I’d love to do a legal drama. I’d love to do something with [screenwriter and director of The West Wing, The Newsroom] Aaron Sorkin, that’s my dream,” she said.

“There’s so many aspects I’d love to explore.”

True Spirit is in select cinemas from January 26 and on Netflix from February 3 

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