Helen Fretter, November 23, 2021
Helen Fretter talks to the doyen of bluewater cruising, Jimmy Cornell, to find out why, after 46 years of sailing, he’s no longer going to sea.
“In my entire life I have never given up on any of my projects, but… reluctantly I decided to abandon my plans.” So wrote Jimmy Cornell in his most recent blog post, as he explained his decision to abandon his most recent circumnavigation – an around the world loop following in the wake of Magellan on an all-electric Outremer catamaran.
Cornell had been preparing to set off on a project known as ‘Elcano 500’, marking the 500th anniversary of Portuguese skipper Ferdinand Magellan’s ground-breaking voyage, which was completed by Juan Sebastian Elcano in 1521. The circumnavigation, due to be Cornell’s fourth, was attempting to break new ground itself by being a fossil-free voyage.
Unsurprisingly, the experimental technology involved had experienced teething problems and, having initially set off in late 2020 and sailed to the Canary Islands, he decided to return to the Outremer yard in France to improve some of the power regeneration systems on the boat, and wrote frequent updates on the project’s progress.
What few knew at the time, however, was that after returning to London for the winter, Cornell had suffered a subdural brain haemorrhage. “One day, while walking to an appointment, I suddenly felt dizzy, lost my balance and fell. My head hit the ground, but with my rugby past I didn’t think much of it, and returned home.
“Later that day, I didn’t feel well and was referred by our family doctor to the nearby neurosurgery hospital,” Cornell reported.
A procedure to drain the haemorrhage was successful, but Cornell was forced to re-evaluate his plans. “What would have happened if I had continued the voyage and this had occurred in some remote location, or more likely on the high seas?” he pondered. At the request of both his doctor and his family, Cornell decided to step back from his Magellan circumnavigation. His Outremer 4 Zero is now in the process of being sold.
“I have a great advantage,” he tells me, “In that I take difficult decisions quickly. I don’t often have doubts about either the decision or what I’ve done because I always tried to avoid regretting things I haven’t done. If I want to do something, I do it – and I would have completed this voyage, but Covid played a part in it. The fact that we were not generating sufficient energy was another thing.
“Eventually a very simple thing happened: when we arrived in Tenerife, one of my crew left and I was thinking maybe we should not sail to the Caribbean, but stay the winter in the Canaries and have some improvements done on the system. Just by chance I looked at Predictwind and for the Canaries there was a forecast for southerly winds, sustained. “So I said, ‘Well this is crazy, we’re leaving tomorrow. Not to the Caribbean, but back to France.’
“I was right, we had following winds almost all the way to Cadiz, which is amazing in December when the winds are from the north-east. So it’s strange how in life sometimes you take a major decision not by the most important fact, but something which is just coincidence.”
Readers of Cornell’s many books will recognise the trait. While he is a staunch advocate of the need for proper preparation, Cornell also embodies the saying that a true sailor trims their sails to the wind, and his sailing plans have fluttered and flexed with the breeze. “Maybe because of my Latin side I’m quite impulsive,” he muses during our conversation. An early trip to South America involved a whimsical diversion to Peru because of his children’s love of Paddington bear. His successful Northwest Passage transit followed a last minute decision to divert from a planned voyage to Tahiti but instead ship Aventura IV to Seattle. Cornell’s approach has not always made for the easiest working relationships, but is a masterclass in adapting and embracing every opportunity that presents itself.
Now aged 81, Jimmy Cornell has lived a life that is, by anyone’s standards, truly remarkable. He was born in communist Romania in 1940. Aged nine, he witnessed his father being seized by police for his political beliefs. Aged 19, Cornell attempted to escape Romania by swimming to a merchant ship in the Black Sea, but was shot at in the water by Romanian soliders, and was hit in the leg.
The following year he paddled down the Danube by kayak – not to defect, but to explore, wild camping along its banks. The adventure sparked a love of voyaging that would go on to shape Cornell’s entire career.
A talented linguist, Cornell met, and fell in love with, an English woman; Gwenda. In 1969 the pair married, moved to London, and had a daughter, Doina, and son, Ivan. Cornell found work in the Romanian section of the BBC World Service, and began learning to sail through the BBC employees’ yacht club. He purchased a part-finished Van de Stadt-designed 36ft GRP ketch, and in 1975 the Cornell family set off on a bluewater adventure in Aventura, living aboard, homeschooling their children and sailing the Mediterranean.
That voyage turned into a remarkable six years spent afloat, during which Cornell became a roving reporter for the BBC World Service, submitting tapes on everything from African history to sustainable farming from all over the world. Aboard Aventura the Cornell family explored the eastern seaboard of the United States, cruised extensively across the Pacific, and returned home via Indonesia, the Gulf of Aden, and even Romania, under Ceausescu’s regime.
Yet his adventurous urge was far from satisfied. In 1986 Cornell launched the very first Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) and formed the World Cruising Club, which was later sold. The following year he published his first of 13 books, World Cruising Routes, and launched his second yacht Aventura II, a steel-hulled Bill Dixon design.
Cornell organised multiple other rallies, including a circumnavigation, which he joined aboard Aventura II. More yachts, more books, and more extreme expeditions followed, as well as the creation of Aventura IV, the Garcia on which Cornell twice attempted – and ultimately succeeded – in sailing the Northwest Passage, in 2015. There is almost no element of modern bluewater cruising which Cornell has not experienced, influenced, researched, or been published on.
Reflecting on his 46 years of cruising, Cornell believes that his background was a driving factor. “I grew up behind the Iron Curtain under a dictatorship in a communist regime, my father died in prison as a political prisoner, when I was 19 I tried to escape but I was shot. I couldn’t get out of the country.
“What is liberty? What is freedom? We really only know what it is when we lose it. Once you’ve tasted freedom – and I hadn’t tasted freedom when I was young – but once I had, I realised that a career is not what matters in life. In life what matters is to take advantage of that hard won freedom. And it’s what I’ve done for the rest of my life.
“I’ve given up things, but I don’t care because I always wanted to be free to do whatever I wanted. I did not want to take freedom for granted.”
It is why he believes he has found recent restrictions, swapping the planned circumnavigation for his flat in London’s Bloomsbury, bearable.
“I’m extremely fortunate to have done this for all of my life. This is why I’ve put up with lockdown much more easily: because I’ve done what I wanted. I wasn’t frustrated, it wasn’t as if I had three or four weeks a year to go on holiday and then come back for 11 months of drudge."
“I’ve learned a lot from participants in my rallies. I would say maybe 80% of participants in the round the world rallies were men, over 60, very often retired, very often successful in their careers. Countless times they came to say to me: ‘Jimmy, my sole regret is not to have done this earlier in my life, because my career and sometimes my family took precedence, but I should have done it because I love it.’ And now they are 60, 65, 70… But I can’t say that, because I’ve done it since I was 35.”
Ahead of his time
Cornell has long been ahead of his time. When he and Gwenda completed their first cruise aboard Aventura in the 1970s, foreign yachts were an unfamiliar sight in many of the island nations they arrived in. Entire families cruising and living aboard were even rarer.
Cornell was also a trail-blazer as a travelogue broadcaster. While now the vast majority of cruising yachts will have some form of blog, Instagram or YouTube channel, he admits to being jealous of the ease with which such content can be produced these days.
“I am quite envious. We had to post tapes back to the BBC via diplomatic services wherever we went, and tapes got lost and so on. Now everything is so easy, and that is why we have such a proliferation of information.”
Is there now too much information out there? Besides Cornell’s own comprehensive library of cruising guides (World Cruising Routes, World Voyage Planner and more) and the cruising community website noonsite.com (launched by Cornell in 2000, later sold to World Cruising Club, and still an invaluable resource today), sailors can now access a plethora of social media groups, open source data and much more.
Cornell thinks not. “No, it makes it easier to plan ahead. Maybe it takes some of the excitement away because you already know what to expect.
“But you should be able to find information you can trust – certainly not on social media.” Cornell holds robust views on many topics, but says he has always aimed to hold firm to his original BBC journalistic principles of objectivity and trusted sources. “I always stand back and ask, can I justify it?”
His data based approach includes in depth analysis of the routes taken by active cruising yachts, the prevailing wind directions at different times of year for locations all around the world, and the frequency and intensity of tropical storms. Cornell, often working with his son Ivan, updates the information religiously. He has recently completed a new version of his part-biography, part-cruising reference guide 200,000 miles: A Life of Adventure, to include his learnings from catamaran sailing with Aventura Zero, and will next begin updating Cornells’ Ocean Atlas.
“This will keep me busy!” he notes, “I want to bring it up to date on the high latitudes and North Atlantic, and what has happened in the last 10 years. If you look at tropical storms and the areas they have covered, you can see now very clearly that every month there are more and more and more, and stronger.
“But this is not work! It’s so enjoyable. I love to do all this research.”
Learn not to panic
Cruisers return to Cornell’s tomes and flock to his seminars because they are crammed with real-life, practical advice on how to prepare for all eventualities, with lists of everything from medical spares to carry to how to avoid piracy. In his five decades of sailing, Cornell experienced many situations that would have rattled even the most experienced skippers, including gear failures in high winds and nearly becoming trapped in an ice floe. When I ask him what, if anything, he feared while at sea, he takes a long pause.
“I’m not a very panicking person,” he muses. “When something goes all wrong I become extremely calm. Something I learned from an airline pilot was to always stop, think through all the possibilities, don’t be rushed.
“Maybe this is where my Romanian side comes into play, it’s a fatalism: if it’s going to happen it’s going to happen anyway – but when things happen, fortunately I can stay calm and find the source of the problem, and ideally a solution.”
Nevertheless, there was an incident during his Northwest Passage attempt in 2014, when he was sailing with his daughter, Doina, which scared him. While motoring towards Greenland, they picked up a thick rope around the propeller, so Cornell donned his drysuit to dive under Aventura IV to clear the propeller. As he was going to be working underneath the hull he did not add tanks, only a snorkel mask.
But, having cleared the prop, Cornell realised he was rapidly becoming hypothermic in the freezing waters. “I am a qualified diver, and I had a drysuit on, but not a head covering, and I could feel that I was getting cold. I knew that as the blood starts going away from your head you lose your sense of rational thought, and I knew I had maybe one minute to get out.
“I didn’t panic. But when I came behind the boat, I couldn’t take my fins off. I was tethered to the boat with a line, but now I had 12 kilos of weight around my waist and these large fins and I couldn’t take them off. I could see my daughter on the platform and I realise that the worst thing that can happen to me now is that I drown, attached to the boat, with my daughter there. So, amazingly – and I still can’t understand how I imagined to do it – I managed to lift my feet up to the swim platform, and she took one fin off and I took another. Then I climbed up, she helped me up the steps, and then I collapsed. I was incoherent. It was maybe half a minute or one minute, but I was aware of it.”
Sailing with family has always been Jimmy Cornell’s ideal. While he says choosing a favourite of his yachts is near-impossible (“No, I couldn’t say. The big problem is that they have been an evolution. Every boat was very much based on the previous boat.”), his favourite voyage will always be his first, sailing with his wife and children on a journey of discovery.
“The whole family was all the time on the first boat, a lot of the time on the second boat, half the time on the third. So it was less and less. and I missed my family. Once you get used to cruising with family, there’s no substitute.
“The two most important factors contributing to the success of a voyage are mental attitude or mindset, and crew. Many more voyages have been abandoned because of problems with the crew than because the boat was too small or too large, or equipment failures, or the financial side and so on. If you cannot sail with your family and you are forced to sail with crew, this is more precarious. I found it very, very difficult. But sailing with your wife or family is the ideal – you can be yourself.”
Jimmy Cornell has ‘retired’ several times before. In 2010, at the age of 70, he sold Aventura III and planned to give up long-distance sailing to spend more time with Gwenda and his family, only to go on to launch the Garcia Aventura IV and complete his high latitudes adventures. This time, however, he says he’s hanging up his sea boots for good.
“I never say never, as James Bond said that! But I can’t see myself going cruising. I have to accept it. It’s very difficult because I am very active, I live on the fifth floor and there is no lift. Maybe I might charter something… But I like having my own boat. I have to face up to the fact that I’m 81 years old. I have to stop somewhere.”