A LIFE AT SEA
Yachting World|November 2021
HELEN FRETTER TALKS TO THE DOYEN OF BLUEWATER CRUISING TO FIND OUT WHY, AFTER 46 YEARS OF SAILING, HE’S NO LONGER GOING TO SEA
JIMMY CORNELL

“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 groundbreaking 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.

BREAKING FREE

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.

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