Wakefield Doc Fest: Sailing into the future

Julie Stewart and her husband James Stanley brave the waves in their documentary We Are Sailor People.

Julie Stewart and her husband James Stanley were at a point in their lives together where they needed a challenge. So, living on the south shore of Nova Scotia, the idea of sailing surfaced. Julie Stewart is a well-known Canadian actor with TV credits such as Cold Squad and North of 60. While learning how to sail their boat, they decided to make a film. The result is We Are Sailor People, a documentary about their participation in the World Championships for this class of boat. You can see this film at the Wakefield Doc Fest on Feb. 15 and 16 at 2 p.m. Julie answered some questions about the making of the film and learning how to sail from ARTSFILE.

Q. Please tell me a little bit about yourself and your partner James Stanley.

A. I was born in Kingston, Ontario, and Jamie in Montreal. We’ve been together since 1994 (whaaat??). Upon visiting a small fishing town on the south shore of Nova Scotia for a regatta, we decided city life had run its course for us and moved here in 2015 – another happy thing that sailing brought us.

Q. Are you still acting or are you getting behind the camera?

A. As a matter of fact, I’ve recently decided that I want to return to the stage and have  begun preparations for a production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. It will be a crazy hard effort and we plan make these preparations the basis for our next film project. We’re very excited about it.

Q. What kind of sailing background do you have? James?

A. I had absolutely no sailing background when we started racing the albacore in 2010. None! Jamie raced lasers and 470’s from the age of nine to 16. He didn’t get back into a dinghy for 36 years when we bought the scrappy albacore, 6888, in the fall of 2010. So between us, we really didn’t have much experience when we started the campaign.

Julie Stewart.

Q. You sort of jumped into this at the spur of the moment, why? 

A. I had been struggling with my relationship to my work for a while. After completing seven seasons as the lead of Cold Squad, and directing in the last three, I found myself heading into my 40s with very few opportunities that were really enticing. There was a growing realization that I needed to step away and examine not only what it had to offer me, but what I have to offer it. It was around that time that Jamie started entertaining sailing again. He asked me if I wanted to join him in that effort and I thought, why not? and the rest is history.

Q. What exactly were you trying to accomplish?

A. Jamie and I are both a bit masochistic. All kidding aside, neither of us feel quite right if we aren’t engaged in some sort of challenge. For many years, before we started training on the albacore, we dedicated ourselves to distance running, participating in marathons once or twice a year.

So when the albacore campaign started, we were just trying something new together, to see how good we could get. It became apparent that in order to get as good as we could we had to set the bar high. Maybe impossibly high. Funnily enough, that challenge led us to making We Are Sailor People — another labour of love that pushed us to a different kind of limit.

Q. Explain the boat you were sailing? 

A. The albacore is a 15 foot dinghy. It’s a pretty simple boat — a jib and a mainsail, no trapeze, no spinnaker, but it’s also a tender boat. It can plane beautifully off wind, and it can capsize spectacularly. It’s not a hard boat to sail, but when you combine its capabilities with the depth of the fleet, it becomes a hard boat to win in.

Q. What did you learn about sailing, about yourself and about your partner?

A. I’d learned from marathoning that I could be very determined, but, while it isn’t easy, distance running is very simple. Sailing is complex. Racing in a sailboat is even more complex. There’s so much to learn. One could devote a lifetime to it and still finish a race saying “I’ve never seen that before.” I got pretty good at boat handling when we were at the peak of our efforts, sailing literally all the time, but I still struggle personally with race strategy. Jamie has an instinct for it that I don’t and never will. I hadn’t realized how deep Jamie’s feelings were about sailing until we did this together. I’d never seen him so happy. For me, I hadn’t realized what a bad loser I was, which may sound kind of amusing coming from a grown woman, but trust me, it wasn’t a pretty discovery.

Q. Why film it? 

A. Our decision to film it came from a dark night of the soul in the final approach to the World Championships. Burnt out and rootless, we started to question the entire effort, and thought that maybe, if we attempt to capture the story, we could remind ourselves of what that story was — what it was we were in the midst of doing. It was a way to help us through to the end and then took on a life of its own.

Q. You did pretty well in the end but you didn’t win. Disappointed, satisfied?

A. Ah – a spoiler. I remember before the regatta, being frightened of how it would affect us if we didn’t achieve our goal. We’d been trying so hard for so long, what will we do if we fail? At first I felt relief that it didn’t destroy me. We sailed really well, especially on the last day. Over time, that feeling of unfinished business grew. So while we did try our very best, and will always feel good about that, we also believed we had more, so there was an accompanying dissatisfaction. We both believe that trying is the most important thing — trying as hard as we can. So we do that. And that means that not doing as well as we want can sting, but that’s the way it goes. We have a lot that we’re proud of, and a lot of things that make us think ‘Oh damn, if only’.

Q. Are you a sailor person now and forever?

A. We have other things we want to do now. Sailing led us to this current exciting adventure making movies. But I cannot now imagine a life without sailing in it. I love being on the water, or in it. So we’ll continue to sail, just not with the same level of intensity.

Q. Where is the film being seen other than in Wakefield.

A. The film premiered in September 2019, at the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival in Halifax, which was wonderful. We are still waiting to hear from a number of other festivals. 

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.