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.

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

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.” ■