The Salt­wa­ter Cow­boy

Twenty-five years after solo cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tor Mike Plant’s death, di­rec­tor Thomas Sim­mons de­buts a fea­ture film cap­tur­ing the spirit of his late un­cle.

Sailing World - - Starting Line -

O On Oc­to­ber 16, 1992, Mike Plant left New York Har­bor on board Coy­ote bound for Les Sables d’olonne, France, with plans of a fourth solo cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion, the Vendée Globe. Plant ra­dioed a pass­ing cargo ship a few days later to pass on in­for­ma­tion that Coy­ote’s elec­tron­ics were down. It was the last time he would be heard from. Weeks later, the 60-foot Coy­ote was found 500 miles north of the Azores in­verted and miss­ing its keel.

Plant’s story is one of per­se­ver­ance and grit. After see­ing a film about cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion, Plant quit his con­struc­tion job to race sin­gle­handed around the world. His ca­reer was driven by his thirst for ad­ven­ture. In 1987, Plant won his class in the BOC Chal­lenge, the first of two in which he would com­pete. In 1989, he was on the start line again, this time at the Globe Chal­lenge, which, un­like the BOC, was a non­stop race. Plant was the quin­tes­sen­tial great Amer­i­can yachts­man; he was the only sailor of his kind com­pet­ing in the same arena — much less on the same level — as the French ocean rac­ers.

Thomas Sim­mons was 10 years old at the time his un­cle was de­clared miss­ing and pre­sumed dead, but his legacy res­onated with him into adult­hood. “He’s al­ways been at the fore­front of my mind be­cause he’s a guy who lived his life and fol­lowed his dreams,” says Sim­mons.

Like his un­cle, Sim­mons found in­spi­ra­tion to seek an ad­ven­ture — al­beit one less dan­ger­ous. Three years ago, leav­ing his se­cure fi­nance job, Sim­mons pur­sued his true pas­sion, that of doc­u­men­ta­tion. “I took a dead left turn to do this. I was work­ing in cor­po­rate fi­nance for a num­ber of years, and I was itch­ing to do some­thing cre­ative and some­thing that in­spired me to jump out of bed in the morn­ing,” says Sim­mons. Now, al­most 25 years later, the sto­ries in­ter­sect with the de­but of Sim­mons’ first film, Coy­ote.

On a rainy July night in New­port, Rhode Is­land, friends and fam­ily packed into the In­ter­na­tional Yacht Restora­tion School to see an exclusive screen­ing of the film — many of the same faces were present at his memo­rial. The weather, says Sim­mons, was a sign that “Mike Plant was send­ing us a mes­sage be­cause it rained like that at his memo­rial; he loved that weather in the Southern Ocean.”

Sim­mons tells Plant’s story with hon­esty, bear­ing Plant’s past in the drug trade, which led to his im­pris­on­ment in Por­tu­gal. Part of what makes Plant such an enigma is that he did not fol­low the typ­i­cal ca­reer path of a yachts­man. He had to over­come a ne­far­i­ous past in or­der to achieve at the highest level in his sport. Sim­mons por­trays his un­cle can­didly, a rough and tough char­ac­ter with a love for sail­ing and out­stand­ing per­se­ver­ance. “Mak­ing the film am­pli­fied my per­cep­tion of who Mike was and what he rep­re­sented to so many, es­pe­cially those close to his path. One of the rea­sons I have al­ways been drawn to Mike’s path re­volves around the fact that his life did not take a straight line to hero sta­tus. Amid some early ad­ven­tures, Mike strug­gled to find his way and col­lided with trou­ble along the way.”

The film con­tains footage of those who knew Plant sit­ting for in­ter­views, his­tor­i­cal footage sourced from cov­er­age of races, and mod­ern footage from var­i­ous film­mak­ers, in­clud­ing on­board re­porters dur­ing the Volvo Ocean Race. The archival footage Sim­mons un­cov­ered had a deep im­pact on him and his mis­sion to make a doc­u­men­tary on Plant, and to do it right. He de­scribes one au­dio clip, found on an old be­ta­cam tape, as be­ing “a mis­sile” to his be­lief sys­tem and in­stru­men­tal in Sim­mons’ abil­ity to trust his own jour­ney to make the film.

The footage cap­tures Mike and naval ar­chi­tect Rodger Martin on the docks in New­port, Rhode Is­land, in spring 1986, tin­ker­ing with Plant’s first ocean racer, Airco Distrib­u­tor. Plant had just launched Airco and was a few months away from his first race around the world. Ja­son Davis is be­hind the cam­era and asks Plant a series of ques­tions: “This is prob­a­bly the tough­est race on the planet. Why are you do­ing this?” A boy­ish, con­fi­dent Plant smiles into the cam­era and replies. “I just have a gut feel­ing I’m going to be very good at this.”

The de­ci­sion to use archival footage of his un­cle for much of the movie forced him and his fam­ily to con­front the loss of Plant once again. “It was re­ally hard and we did have a lot of break­downs, but the most amaz­ing thing about our film process is that [Plant’s friends and fam­ily] were in­cred­i­bly open with us. Peo­ple grav­i­tated to­ward him, de­spite the fact that Mike was super-pri­vate and some­times not nec­es­sar­ily friendly when he was fo­cused on his cam­paigns.” Plant’s fam­ily and friends al­ways felt his life was wor­thy of a film.

Sim­mons hopes the film will move its view­ers in a way Plant’s story did for him: “I think his story tran­scends sail­ing, be­cause he never sub­scribed to the con­ven­tional path. If I can af­fect one per­son to chase their dreams, then this has been a suc­cess.” Q


Mike Plant, pic­tured circa 1986, is the sub­ject of a new film set to pre­miere this fall.

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