Come, Sail Away

Deephaven director documents renowned sailor’s life in Coyote.

From The New York Times, November 26, 1992: “Mike Plant, the 42-year-old solo ocean sailor whose disappearance at sea while en route from New York to France produced an extensive two-week search in the Atlantic Ocean, was declared missing and presumed dead yesterday.
The United States Coast Guard called off its search for Plant after divers from a French vessel examined the capsized hull of the sailor’s racing yacht, the 60-foot Coyote. There was no sign of Plant in the overturned hull. His life raft, which was partly inflated, was attached to the cockpit.

‘We search until there is no longer a reasonable possibility that someone is alive,’ Coast Guard Petty Officer David Silva said yesterday.

Coyote was discovered adrift by a passing tanker last Sunday in an area about 700 miles southwest of Ireland.”

Mike Plant, who grew up along the shores of Lake Minnetonka in Deephaven, had evolved into an experienced, professional yachtsman. He departed from New York on October 16, 1992, to Les Sables d’Olonne, France, where he was to begin the Vendee Globe Challenge, a single-handed, nonstop, round-the-world race.

Though it’s been over 25 years since that fateful voyage, a new feature documentary film, Coyote, was developed and directed by Plant’s nephew, Thomas Simmons, formerly of Wayzata. The film explores Plant’s life and love of sailing.

Plant began his career racing on Lake Minnetonka and at the time of his death was the country’s premier single-handed sailor, racing 60-foot open-class yachts around the world and logging more than 100,000 miles at sea. He solo-navigated the world three times and was preparing for his fourth attempt when he was lost. Some of his adventures were more harrowing, including escaping Greek authorities on a drug trafficking charge and time spent in a Portuguese prison.

It is Plant’s life in its entirety—the crests and troughs—that Simmons was compelled to share. The story, for Simmons, begins with one of his earliest memories of Plant. “I was a young 5-year-old in Newport, [Rhode Island] in 1987 when Mike was finishing his first race around the world,” Simmons says.

“I remember seeing Mike on his boat.

It’s a special moment in his life and in our family’s history.” As Plant made his way into the harbor, Simmons, family members and friends loaded onto a tugboat to greet him. Simmons remembers watching cans of beer, set sail in celebration, hit Plant’s sail and roll down into his sailboat and into Plant’s arms. “He was
a larger-than-life person,” he says.

A journey of his own Simmons, a graduate of the University of St. Thomas, began a career as a certified public accountant with Deloitte in New York City. After moving to San Francisco in 2009 for an investment banking job, Simmons set a new course for himself: telling Plant’s story with film as the vehicle. “I’ve always had an urge to do something creative,” Simmons explains.

While he loved documentary filmmaking, Simmons also had the most important element—a powerful story with an even more impactful message. “Mike’s story deserved to be told,” he says. “From the very beginning, I knew it was possible to achieve.” After all, he had access to copious amounts of archival footage, most of the “players” were still alive and the time was right to reflect on Plant’s legacy—it was approaching 25 years since his death.

With the support of producers, including Matt Walker, Minnesota native Ryan Lynch, and Johnny DeCesare, director of photography, the team of four began work on the film in 2014 and premiered it in 2017 to a sold-out audience at the newportFILM festival in Rhode Island. Coyote has been shown at film festivals from Napa Valley, Calif., to Nova Scotia. It played at the Twin Cities Film Fest, receiving the Audience Award for best documentary, and at Excelsior’s Dock Cinema, where proceeds went to the Mike Plant Center (see sidebar on page 38).

Simmons is hopeful more audiences will experience Coyote. “We’re doing everything we can do to find broad distribution for the film,” he says. Whether audience members are sailors, adventurers, dreamers or just lovers of archival sailing footage, the 107-minute film speaks many languages. “We feel lucky from responses early on that we’ve created something special,” Simmons says.

Professional accolades and positive audience reactions aside, there was another group Simmons was most concerned about impressing—his family. “It’s been really special for them to look me in the eyes and say, ‘Mike would be really proud of you,’” he says.

Simmons lives near San Francisco with his wife, Victoria, son, Jack, and daughter, Hayden. Directing his first documentary film has whetted his creative appetite. “The experience has opened my mind up to something else,” he says.

“I can tell you, I’m not going back to investment banking. I think it’s healthy for everyone to take a left turn in life.”