To those of us with access to the comforts that accompany 21st-century living in much of the world – same-day delivery, ceaseless streaming entertainment – it’s not unusual to feel a tug-of-war between the impulse to indulge these conveniences and a desire to escape. But while the fantasy of leaving the algorithms and economic systems that make modern life possible can sound appealing to many, few of us go further than disconnecting from a social media platform or embarking on an occasional nature incursion.
Perhaps this is what makes return-to-nature stories like that of the solo sailor Tassio Azambuja intriguing to so many. Originally from a landlocked town in Brazil, Azambuja was compelled by books about seafaring to seek out a life on the water. After working odd jobs on other peoples’ boats, he saved up for his own small vessel, called Yoyo, and, after five years at sea with an ex-girlfriend, began sailing alone. While Azambuja has never fully embraced the life of a Luddite, as evidenced by his Instagram account and the iPod that briefly provides the soundtrack during the opening minutes of the short documentary Sea Pilgrim, his life is, for the most part, uncomplicated and untethered from society at large.
But to say that Azambuja’s existence is simple isn’t to say that it’s easy. As the film moves along with a quiet, meditative intensity, we observe Azambuja spear-fishing for his meals and navigating a storm. Besides some radio announcements, the only words in Sea Pilgrim’s first seven minutes are on the embossed tape found stuck in a corner of the boat: ‘The sea is for sailing / Strenuousness is the immortal path / And sloth is the way of death.’ While the first line is the title of a 1957 ‘saltwater book’ by the British yachtsman Peter Pye, the rest is borrowed from When Men and Mountains Meet (1946), an account of an audacious and disastrous Himalayan mountain expedition, written by the British explorer Harold William Tilman. When Azambuja begins narrating, nearly eight minutes into the film, he observes ‘the wind, the wave, it can be difficult. But it is always true.’ And, as he notes, it’s lonely out there, too. There is a sublime beauty to his world, but there’s also danger and sacrifice.
The US filmmaker Will Mayer crafted Sea Pilgrim as an exploration of ‘silence in a day and age infiltrated with busyness’. As such, the film requires patience and, in the context of watching on an endlessly busy internet, perhaps even an active choice to fight the urge to click away. But in approaching the film with patience, there are substantial rewards. With his sparse, cinematic direction, Mayer slowly builds an immersive sense of space and place, allowing the audience to briefly access the mixture of aloneness, serene peace and sense of wonder that accompany Azambuja on his travels. And in this, viewers might find their own brief respite from busyness, or perhaps even a call to contemplate a different path.
Written by Adam D’Arpino
Director: Will Mayer
Producer: Isaac Karsen