The only window most non-sailors will ever get into our sport comes through a movie or TV screen, but only a tiny handful of films have portrayed sailing in anything like a realistic or positive light. For every Thomas Crown Affair capsize scene or White Squall or Master and Commander gun battle, there are unfortunately dozens of Dead Calms, Waterworlds, Captain Jack Sparrows, or god forbid, “whompers” making sailing look insane and sailors look like idiots – or gilled fishpeople.
So when a documentary has so much interest that it has to add a third and then a fourth showing at a major Midwest film festival and goes on to win the Audience Award at said festival, it’s worth our time to tell you all about it and get you as stoked as we are. If you’re in Napa for the Film Festival in a few weeks, go and check it out. if you’re in the entertainment business and want to help a great movie about sailing reach serious audience sizes, get in touch with them and see if you can help find some wide distribution. And now, since it’s not every day our sport gets portrayed honestly and realistically on the big screen (and since you can’t watch this thing unless you’re actually at the right film festival), we devote a pile of text to three different reviews we received about Coyote, the Mike Plant story.
First, from longtime rock star Midwestern racer Sam Rogers:
“It’s a pity your son [Mike Plant] was born 100 years too late… there’s no frontiers left.”
There are countless stories about chasing dreams, many of which are cliche’ justifications for unremarkable pursuits. Occasionally, there are stories of chasing dreams that elicit change in people, leaving them inspired and believing they can run through a brick wall. A recent screening of the newly released documentary – COYOTE – at Twin Cities Film Fest, gripped the community, and with few dry eyes the audience witnessed the life of iconic American adventurer Mike Plant and his dream to become a legendary, around-the-world, solo sailor.
Like his Uncle Mike Plant did at age 34, COYOTE Director Thomas Simmons took an abrupt turn in life, leaving a secure finance job to become a filmmaker and for the purpose of re-telling Mike’s story. Learning on the fly just as Mike did, and piecing together archival footage of Plant during each of his campaigns along with a catalog of informative interviews from family and industry experts, Simmons successfully re-creates the life, challenges and passion of Mike Plant. The film transcends sailing, capturing the essence of chasing dreams and highlighting Plant’s prowess as an adventurer alongside his pioneering sailing career.
The documentary picks up Plant in Newport, Rhode Island amidst the spark for his dream to build a sailboat and race around the globe; a movie – called The Ultimate Challenge – on the 1982-83 BOC Challenge, an around the world sailing race. Confronting Plant’s dark side, Simmons includes his checkered past, highlighted by an incarceration from an outstanding warrant for drug trafficking that puts his solo-sailing dream in peril. Throughout the film, Plant transforms from a bold rebel with nothing to lose, to a talented solo-sailor that circumnavigates the globe three times, challenging the vaunted French contingent for solo-sailing supremacy.
In a quest to win the 1992 Vendee Globe, Plant commissions a radically designed Open 60, Coyote, and as noted sailing journalist Herb McCormick colorfully comments in the film, Plant and his team “are on a mission from God to kick some French ass.” At this stage, Plant is one of five people in history to solo-circumnavigate the globe three times and his sailing cache’ of talent, courage and fortitude are undeniable.
As Coyote pushes design, technology and boat building technique to the limit – combined with a funding shortage and a deadline to get to the starting line – Plant sails himself into a situation that even he is unable to escape. On October 16th, 1992 Plant departs New York for a routine transatlantic trip to Les Sables d’Olonne, France, for the starting line of the Vendee Globe. Billy Black’s famous photo captures Plant looking back as he blasts off on Coyote, the last image of Plant the world would see.
Despite Plant’s impressive track record, there are some that argue he should have never departed with Coyote – that he was reckless, unprepared and that he should have pulled the plug. Pulling the plug was not an option…Plant accepted the consequences of the life he had chosen, good or bad, as a solo sailor or adventurer is forced to do. Call it reckless, but if Coyote had been successful it would have been a legendary feat and could have spawned a generation of bad ass American solo sailors, much like the impact Bernard Moitessier had on generations of French sailors from his epic display in the 1968 Golden Globe Race.
As the film tracks each of Plant’s campaigns and we clench our jaws wondering when disaster will strike – and if he will beat the French – we also get insight into Mike Plant’s true character. In his first non-stop Globe Race when he makes a pit stop at Campbell Island near New Zealand to make a repair, which is grounds for DSQ, Plant debates whether to continue racing or retire. In a solid display of sportsmanship and integrity, Plant radios that he has received help and withdraws from the race.
99% of sailors at this stage would find the nearest safe harbor with a cold beer and call it quits, but despite being disqualified, he finishes the race for the pure sense of adventure while earning the respect of French sailors and scores of sailing fans as he is welcomed back to Les Sables d’Olonne to a huge crowd. Much like Moitessier did decades earlier when he abandoned The Globe race and continued sailing, it seems the races were just an excuse for Plant to be on the water and ride the towering waves of the Southern Ocean.
The parting shot in the film is perhaps the most powerful, as Plant speaks candidly to the camera in what could be considered the first ‘go-pro’ footage. Throughout the film, Plant is asked why he sacrifices everything to chase his dreams at sea, and he repeatedly struggles to provide a solid answer – even showing annoyance with the question at times. As the credits roll an at-sea shot of a happy, relaxed Mike Plant behind the wheel explains; ‘it’s gorgeous out here’, ‘the ocean is such an incredible color, it’s so deep blue’, ‘the bird life gets better and better everyday’. While he doesn’t pinpoint his exact reasons, Plant touches on why we all sail; to experience adventure outside of our daily lives, to feel the changing wind and get beyond the rough seas to enjoy the smooth seas, even if short lived.
The next Coyote review comes from Anarchist “QBF”:
Yesterday, I attended the showing of Coyote at the Twin-Cities Film Festival. The audience seemed filled with Mike’s family, friends, supporters, and those who knew him. Having so many people that were close to Mike in attendance allowed me to observe reactions to the film that would not have been otherwise.
The Director of the Coyote documentary is Thomas M. Simmons who is also Mike Plant’s nephew. Mr. Simmons family relationship works well as he was able to have “conversations” with Mike’s family, and not just interviews. A lot of archival footage used throughout the film, and was supplied by Mike’s family, friends, and supporters. A local TV station in Minnesota covered Mike’s races, and also supplied film footage.
The first part of the film is dedicated to Mike’s early years leading up to his involvement with offshore racing. From being diagnosed with very poor eyesight as a youngster and having to were coke-bottle glasses, to dinghy sailing on Lake Minnetonka, to his wilder years as a teen and in his twenties. The film also documents Mike’s involvement as an instructor at Outward Bound, and his journey through South America. The time-line moves to when Mike purchased a boat in Greece, and his involvement in drug smuggling which would come back to haunt him during his qualification sail for his first BOC race which landed him in a Portuguese prison.
Mike’s first BOC race in Airco Distributor was covered well with segments on each section of the course. The loss of Jacques de Roux who was leading Mike on the second leg of the race, greatly effected Mike, and he considered not stopping at Sydney but continuing around.
Duracell was next and the first Vendee Globe race. It was in this race that a rigging part broke forcing him to stop at Campbell Island south of New Zealand. Duracell dragged and Mike received help from some meteorologists there in order to save his boat. A film clip showed Mike informing the race committee of his disqualification. Mike’s continued on to les Sables d’Olonne unofficially finishing seventh, and arriving to a cheering crowd.
The film moves on to the building and loss of Mike’s last boat, Coyote. This was a somber section as everyone knew what was coming.
There are interview segments in the film with Helen Davis (Mike’s fiancée), Mary Plant (Mike’s mother), Julia Plant (Mike’s sister and the author of “Coyote Lost at Sea: The Story of Mike Plant, America’s Daring Solo Circumnavigation”), Tom Plant (Mike’s brother), and audio segments with Frank Plant (Mike’s father). Interview segments from friends and sailors include Rodger Martin (Designer of Airco Distributor, Duracell, and Coyote), Billy Black (Photographer and Mike’s friend), Philippe Jeantot (Founder of the Vendee Globe), Ken Read (North Sails), Herb McCormick (Executive Editor of Cruising World magazine) and Mark Schrader (BOC Challenge Race Director).
Interview’s with non-family members that were most interesting to me where those of Billy Black who I met briefly in 1999. When I mentioned Mike, Mr. Black was visibly moved. Mike’s loss was still very much alive within him. Hopefully, this film will alleviate that loss. Philippe Jeantot’s words reflected great admiration for Mike, both as a sailor, and as a man.
This documentary is a fitting tribute to the accomplishments, and to the memory of Mike Plant.
The final review comes from Wayzata Community Sailing Center Director Matthew Thompson:
Full disclosure, I never met or knew Mike. He passed when I was four. His mother Mary was a small (but perhaps larger than I knew) part of my childhood in sailing. A well known face with a supportive smile. I’ve known of Mike’s sailing exploits on some level since I was seven, through his mother and snippets of stories. As I grew older, the rougher side of his coin from folks in our community who perhaps never really saw the life he found after he left MN. One I guess I used to pretend didn’t exist. So he could stay on a pedestal, unmoved from my childhood memory.
I just walked out of the theater, locked in some weird emotional limbo. In my head – I expected an epic tale. Crashing waves, uplifting music, a true sailors battle. While watching the movie, that changed, expecting to feel a true “gutted” moment when we reached the end of his story, where he inspired thousands. Neither really came. I think that’s what really works out of the whole movie. Too often we expect the stories we create to have an impact on someone else, to share it, to proliferate some ideal or sense of adventure. As charismatic as Mike seems to have been, it’s clear that his adventures were not for us. Coyote captures this selfish and unrelenting drive, through humor and the family that was perhaps a bit in tow. It means more than an epic tale could have. Easily the best sailing movie I’ve seen. Not because it provides us with some dream or some epic tale but because I spent tonight feeling confused and torn, but drawn towards the screen. I watched a struggle that has never been truly laid out, from a family of folks who loved him, and walked away considering what I really care about. The loves of his life were unflinching and left him at ground level, as one of us. Thomas captured what we all really want to be able to verbalize about sailing.
Go see it. But don’t expect an epic or uplifting tale. Let it wash over and just listen. I didn’t feel like we were supposed to mourn Mike, but neither did it ask you to celebrate his life. Instead we shared moments with his family, friends, and Mike himself. Its the history we want to hear but often gets drowned out in our collective race to capture every moment. We get to make our choice and play in the grey space.
Coyote is worth every second.