Putting this awful lockdown to a use, I roam both the cupboards of the virtual book shops as well as the streaming services to seek out for new material to read or watch. In this I was happy to come across such masterful movies like “Kon-Tiki” or “Pirates of Somalia” lately which have made a profound and deep impact on me. Another such movie is “Coyote – the Mike Plant Story” although I must say that this one took a day or two to grow in my head, to release its active agents, make me think about it and the meaning it may have for my own life.
“Coyote” is a documentary and not a motion picture. No actors enter the stage, no elaborate art of theatrical acting. It´s a chronological account of Mike Plant´s life, told by those who accompanied him on his way like his mother, his sister and sailing comrades. They give testimony of what made Mike Plant, what drove him and what – maybe – finally cost him his life. “Coyote” is not an easy film – but it is most certainly capable of transporting the fascination, the drive, the motivation and sheer endless energy that in a way empowers all sailors to set out for new sailing adventures. A property that unfortunately “The Mercy”, Donald Crowhurst´s story played by Colin Firth so tremendously failed to convey.
Who is Mike Plant?
Admittedly, I did not knew how this Mike Plant was. I know, it´s a shame, especially facing the fact that almost fifty per cent of NO FRILL SAILING.com´s readers are US-american. So, apparently Mike Plant was a kind of outsider, a hotshot. The “James Dean of sailing” in a way, something we learn way into the film when his mother reveals that her son, upon returning from a walking trip to South America learned how to be a drug smuggler. He got arrested in Lisbon on charges filed by Greek authorities, but luck (and maybe something little more) helped to evade prosecution. He returned home – cleansed, purified. And eager to pursue his dream of professional sailing.
In this he apparently got fascinated by sailing legends like Bernard Moitessier, who´s “The long Way” inspired generations of sailors – and still is, indeed. Scratching together all money he could make, motivating friends, family and companies Mike was able to acquire a designer and build his first Open 50 racing yacht with his own hands. A truly amazing story! AIRCO DISTRIBUTOR won him first place in then famous BOC Challenge, a multi-stop singlehanded race around the world. Another boat, another trial: DURACELL was conceived. This time it was his first Open 60 racer. The ever growing hunger for success, for the thrill is apparent in the documentary. Slowly the friendly, loose, blonde man is replaced by a more and more introvert, reflective and serious person.
Originally just a kind of placeholder race, Mike Plant sails to Les Sables d´Olonne to take part in this one race that is right now taking place as well: The Vendeé Globe. Being part of the French – who then as well as now ruled the seas of professional racing – changed him profoundly. Loosing his French counterpart and friend, a well-respected pro sailor, presumed dead all along off Australia, was a deep shock. He carries on, his boat suffers from a 5 Dollar part failing and he seeks shelter on a small Island. Two guys come to his rescue and instead of trying to keep it secret, instead of lying, he disqualifies himself – and goes on finishing the race. This honesty earned him much respect, admiration and true heroic status upon returning to Les Sables. But he was far from retirement.
Taking off in COYOTE
Learning from the French, who at that time had multi-million-Dollar budgets to spend on the latest hull designs, material technologies (it was the advent of Carbon fibres). Their racing boats are the creme of the crème, their sailors are top of the pops. Mike Plant had a plan, of course. This plan was COYOTE. Another Roger Martin design, but this time they went all in. Looking at the boat now, some 30 years later, reveals the modernity, the radicalism and the huge step up from the predominantly mostly conservative designs Plant utilized beforehand. But COYOTE also may be understood as a manifestation of the new land Plant was about to enter – a land that was still uncharted and maybe a bit too unfamiliar to both Plant, his designer, the yard that built the boat and the team. Look at COYOTE: She is so extreme in so many ways, like upgrading from VW Jetta to a Tesla in one giant leap.
Plant failed to secure another sponsor. Duracell company left the train after the last campaigns, as we learn, COYOTE was just a place holder to name the boat to be substituted by a name of whatever company would be willing to pay for the new adventure. As the documentary goes on, Mike´s companions who met him during this last tragic chapter of his life, like Ken Read, begin to paint a very different picture of Mike Plant. The tone is getting more somber, as if Mike was already beginning to slowly drifting away from this world.
COYOTE was put together more hastily than it should have been. The new design proved to be fast as hell, but also kind of intimidating. He was able to ride the stallion but it feels like all who are talking about that new boat seem to withhold something. A step too far? Time is running out, the clock is ticking without mercy. This is where Mike Plant seems to have lost control, or maybe lost his clear and factual brain. Running aground in the mud of the Perseverance Bay on a sea trial, it took hours to get the boat clear again. Was it that running aground, the twisting and yanking to get the yacht out of the sludge that damaged the bolts holding the keel? Have it been these hours which twisted the new fibres once too hard? We never know since Mike simply ignored that incidence and went on with his campaign – finally getting lost at sea a couple of weeks later.
What I like about “Coyote – the Mike Plant Story”, and what not
“Coyote – the Mike Plant Story” is a fascinating story about a boy who grew into a man but never gave up living his dream. In one scene his father says “I pity my son as he was born 100 years late – there was simply no frontier left for him.” It´s a tragical story about a talented, rousing character of a man who was able to spark excitement in people, who was able to gather around him people who were willing to work for him simply because they believed in his ideas and visions. In a way, it´s also a story of Saul turning Paul, from a drug-smuggling vagaboud to a thorough, respected sportsman. In this, the arc of the main character is as classical as it can get, a full-bred tragedy.
It´s a long film, 1 hour 46 minutes. It takes its time to take off and some might like this slow pace and would argue that´s needed for character development, for understanding what drives Mike and what made him become who he was in the end. And I perfectly understand why the American filmmakers wanted to exploit every minute of original film material. I might say, the film would have needed a bit more speeding, a bit less – sometimes – cheesy emotion but more drive, more (sailing) details, because this, to me, was something the film could not convey very much: The huge steps Mike Plant did accomplish in becoming a thorough sailor, the sheer mass of specialized expert knowledge he had gained over time. I´d say it would have made this film much more of a sailing film rather than just focusing on the emotional factor.
… and there is always a woman left alone to tell the story.
But I also understand why the filmmakers didn´t do that. On the one hand, that makes the film much more accessible to a wider audience, people who might not be interested in sailing per se, but interested in watching a hero´s story. And this it is indeed! I was in so many ways reminded of the story of Donald Crowhurst which still is the most tragic sailing story I am aware of. It´s heartbreaking to watch his wife crawling through her memories and trying to retain countenance. It´s always the grieving wife left over to tell the story …
The film takes so much time to explain who Mike Plant was, what drove him and what kept him going, that it feels almost harsh and brutal how fast, after such a long exposition, the film ends. It´s as brutal and abrupt as the loosing of a keel bulb might feel aboard: Instant capsize, sudden death. Music stops, nobody´s talking. Just the hard reality of a boat floating upside down in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. Mike Plant´s death is a mystery. His body never recovered, no explanation as of why exactly COYOTE suffered that catastrophic failure of the keel structure. I would have wished that the filmmakers had decided to spare some of the lengthy exposition and invest more time into this final chapter. It felt like being closet too fast, leaving me sit in front of the screen feeling left alone.
Now, what can a sailor learn from Mike Plant´s story? First of all – pursue your dreams, keep on going, believe in yourself and make it happen. This man is an awe-inspiring example of how it´s done: Never give in, keep onto your ideals, fight for your ideas. But this story also shows which sacrifices had been made in order to be able to live a life like this, including leaving behind a beloved wife, a broken mother, friends in tears. I liked that film very much, this movie about a true American hero of whom I did knew nothing beforehand. A film worth watching, a film that will make you think for a long time after.
My overall assessment of “Coyote – the Mike Plant Story” is 9 of 10 points
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