Mike Plant movie doesn’t tell whole story

Reviewed by Molly Mulhern
For Points East

Coyote: The Mike Plant Story

Sparkplug Films LLC 2017, director Thomas M. Simmons, runtime 105 minutes. Stars, among others, Mike Plant (archival footage), Philippe Jeantot (French solo sailor), Ken Read (president of North Sails), Herb McCormick (executive editor of “Cruising World”), Billy Black (marine photographer), Mary Plant (Mike’s mother), Rodger Martin (Coyote’s designer), and Helen Davis (Mike’s fiancée).

I am blessed to live in a small coastal Maine town with a tight little harbor and a vibrant community of sailors. Many of us settled here for the easy access to cruising grounds, a watery world at our door that never ceases to satisfy our sailorly souls.

In summers, we exchange pleasantries on the harbor launch, or maybe gather at the end of a racing evening at a community sailing center and review the wind and weather on that night’s racecourse. Wherever we get together, we share our experiences, and many of us bring a card catalog of sailing stories – either our own, or perhaps those we have read: those of Moitessier, Slocum, or Isabelle Autissier, who made five attempts at a solo-circumnavigation victory. Mostly these stories are recalled with awe and reverence.

For sailors from North America one name often comes in and out of this pantheon of singlehanded endurance sailors – that of Mike Plant, the Minnesotan-born scow sailor who quickly rose to fame in the mid-1980s, sailing out of Newport, R.I. What many of us remembered about him was the mystery around his disappearance, the odd circumstance of his last boat, Coyote, being found upside down in the November Atlantic with no trace of the bulb keel nor the vessel’s skipper.

Mysteries often demand investigation, and while the Coast Guard undertook theirs for this, so did the press at the time. And, more recently, 21 and 25 years, respectively, after Coyote’s sinking, by members of Mike Plant’s family. In 2013, Mike’s sister Julia published “Coyote Lost at Sea,” and this year Mike’s nephew, Thomas Simmons, directed and released a film entitled “Coyote: The Mike Plant Story.”

Julia’s book is a biography of Mike, from his youngest days to his last. As his sister she had access to a wide range of knowledge of the influences and pressures on his life, and she presents the sailor in all his complexities. And there were many: his boyhood coke-bottle glasses that attempted to correct his near blindness, to his concussion on the hockey rink and resultant brain trauma that was never fully diagnosed, to a family struggling with a parent’s depression, and Mike’s fleeing first to South America and then to Greece where running drugs became his escape and livelihood.

“Coyote Lost at Sea” wrestles with the forces that lead both to Mike’s huge success and his tragic death. Appendices even go into detail about the attachment of the keel bulb and the potential design and construction flaws that may have contributed to its failure. As sister and brother, Mike and Julia had a deep and at-times troubling relationship, like most sibling bonds. Julia lived the events as a contemporary of Mike, and a uniquely close one, who could see and feel all the ripples and tidal waves of impact that Mike’s big, daring life had on the family – in particular, their mother, Mary.

The nephew’s movie is a different sort, a piece of hero worship from the mind and heart of a young boy, with sweeping drama of big seas and big dreams. The movie touches upon some of the troubles: Simmons can’t ignore the influence of the drug dealing, as when Mike’s boat Airco is impounded and Mike is arrested as soon as he touches shore in the Azores after his qualifying sail for the BOC Challenge in 1986.

The four weeks of diplomatic string pulling is alluded to, as is the triumphant return of Mike to Newport, with a Phoenix-rising-again adulation as Plant sets to reclaim lost ground and restart his bid to beat the French in the round-the-world singlehanded sailboat racing. We see clips of Mike’s father and mom as they deal with the shame, stigma, and practical difficulties of Mike’s prison stay in Portugal.

Plant by this time is well in his 30s, way beyond the age when parents should be bailing out their son. But the nephew-director pushes the story along, swelling in worship and pride as Mike rises again, races again, achieves victory, and carries on, designing a bigger and better boat to reach the pinnacle of sailing.

Along the way, Mike brings in family and friends, as investors, builders and lovers, and the nephew interviews them, too, eliciting their remembrances and admiration. The entire communities of Newport, and Wayzata, Minn., are also drawn in, wrapping Mike in adulation and resources to keep pushing toward the next boat and race. Mary, Mike’s mom, is interviewed, confessing that there was not much anyone could do to stop Mike or change his mind. She lovingly smiles with remembrances. There are no recent interviews with Mike’s father, who has passed on, but we see him in archival clips, taciturn, businesslike.

And on the movie rolls, to the dramatic scenes we all know are coming – an aerial shot of Coyote overturned, then search planes, then press conferences in the family living room pleading for continued searching for Mike, discussions of EPIRB signals missed by the search agencies. All brought to the screen for us, reminding us of the tragedy.

We watch Helen, Mike’s last partner, work with the authorities to retrieve the hull of Coyote as it washes near the Irish coast. We see the keel stub on the retrieved upturned hull, and we watch a section of it get removed for what will be a court case, although the director doesn’t delve into Helen’s lawsuit against Concordia, Coyote’s builder.

I watched a showing of “Coyote” at the Camden Opera house this fall, presented by our acclaimed Camden Film Festival. The nephew-director was introduced with great admiration, and in his introductory remarks he beamed, speaking of his transformation from accountant to film maker. He excoriated us each to live our dreams, like Mike. He repeated his trite aphorisms in the Q&A after the film, glowing in the praise from the crowd, which asked mostly benign questions, until the young teen behind me asked if they ever found out why the bulb fell off.

The director refused to give a straight answer, neglected to even discuss the Coast Guard findings into the accident, or the lawsuit against the builder. It was as if he couldn’t stand tarnishing the glow.

There was so much I wanted to say to the audience, and so many questions I wanted to ask the director – now in his mid 30s, or older, I’d guess – as he walked off the stage after the showing. Simmons seemed taken aback when I introduced myself by telling him I had worked for International Marine/McGraw-Hill, and had published Julia’s book, “Coyote Lost at Sea.”

He confirmed he and Julia were not on speaking terms. Unabashedly, I said that was too bad. I didn’t allow him space or time to defend his position. Nor did I ask why he had neglected to credit a book so central to the movie.

There was no need, for the truth was as plain and solid as the ground we both stood on in the November night. Yes, it was a scolding, and I was angry. My heart sank at the thought of the Plant family again dealing with Mike as the pivotal/divisive character.

Why my anger, why my head shaking as I left the theater, chatting to my sailing buddies? Here we had had – and the family, had had – a chance to come together, to work on healing from the tragedy of Mike. This is the tragedy of all of us, to address our collective inability to probe and address the deeper questions: Mike’s reckless, risk-taking; Mike’s corralling those who loved him without understanding that he was asking them to sanction his unnecessary risks.

I am not sure if director Simmons is a sailor, am not sure if he knows the meaning of seamanship – that intangible set of skills, judgments and experience that takes decades to master, especially the perception of areas of elevated risk. Mike’s final weeks, as he ill-advisedly pushed on from Annapolis back to Manhattan, and then hurriedly across the November Atlantic to make the start of the Vendée Globe, were a reckless drive to death, and those of us who knew him and loved him should have called him on it. Some did, but they have been forgotten in this movie.

The movie could have dealt with the complex emotions and tugs that Mike put us all through. It would have picked apart the notion of risk-taking and adventure and helped us explore the responsibilities we have to one another when pushing our limits and striving for the next challenge. I am all for that spirit and a life of nudging limits. But I am frustrated by our inability to explore and expose what happens in the lives of those who are left behind in these heroic adventures.

Nephew-director Simmons missed an opportunity, and in this he has done us all a great disservice. We need to explore the paradoxes of the Mike Plants of the world, and to do so we need courage to probe the risks of adventuring with greater depth.

Molly Mulhern is a nautical publisher, writer, editor, and champion of all things book-related. As editorial director at International Marine, North America’s largest nautical publishing company, she spearheaded the line’s conversion to ebook publishing. Currently, Molly is helping the Rockland (Maine) Yacht Club set up a sailing-mentor exchange, volunteering her services as Women’s Sailing Mentor.