A Reciprocal Heading

After a health crisis laid him low, voyaging icon Jimmy Cornell had a stark, dramatic impulse: Sell the boat. But on a "farewell" cruise down the coast of Croatia, he decided to alter course. A feature from our April 2008 issue

April 29, 2008

Cornell Venice 368

After 200,000 miles at sea, Jimmy and Gwenda Cornell’s 43-footer, Aventura III, reaches past Venice’s Piazza San Marco on the opening stretch of a “final” cruise to Croatia. Herb Mccormick

Listen carefully, please, because it’s not all that difficult. The secret to life, says Jimmy Cornell, isn’t about landing in the right place at the right time. No, that’s not it at all. Want proof? Try sailing, as he has, nearly 200,000 miles on all the world’s oceans without a single serious problem. The secret, in fact, is on the coin’s flip side, and it’s actually the underlying premise of his passage-planning bible, World Cruising Routes, a book that’s guided countless voyagers on safe, globe-girdling journeys: Avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Perhaps that’s why the sudden, violent electrical storm was so annoying and so unnerving, for our timing, and placement, couldn’t have been much worse.

It was a strange, gray morning last August in Croatia’s Iski Canal, a narrow waterway beset by rocky islands and outcroppings and, on a busy summer day at the height of the season, dozens of charter boats zipping to and fro under wildly divergent levels of command. Jimmy, his wife, Gwenda, and I were under way aboard the couple’s Ovni 43, Aventura III, on a lazy southbound sojourn down the Croatian coast. It’d been a mostly relaxing trip, right up to the moment that it all went to blazes.


The storm came, really, out of nowhere. One minute we were motorsailing in a zephyr of air, and the next we were scrambling to douse the main just ahead of a cold, 30-knot blast of breeze. The wind and rain came first, then the thunder and lightning, and finally the hail: big, nickel-size pellets of ice.

You learn a lot about people when you go to sea with them, and though I’d known Jimmy for the better part of two decades, I’d never sailed with him before this cruise. It was no surprise to learn that, as a seaman, he was orderly, precise, and bound by routine.

One flew the spinnaker off a pole triangulated with double downhauls and a topping lift; that way, you could set and douse it quickly, by yourself, leaving the pole in place in the event of a passing squall for the quick rehoist afterward. There was never a need to wake the off watch on a dark night. It was all about self-sufficiency.


Likewise, when things broke, you fixed them, that very evening if not before. Never add the job to “a list”: Lists are clutter, wastes of time, crutches for the procrastinator. The key was to have all the necessary tools and adhesives and spare parts stored properly and correctly, readily at hand. You slept easy when you knew the boat was shipshape and poised for strenuous activity, just like the skipper.

Knowing Jimmy, having worked with him on stories and projects over the years, none of this was particularly surprising. He brought the same head-down, painstaking, no-stone-unturned style to his writing and journalism, and even to his role organizing rallies across the Atlantic and around the world.

What was more revealing-and this was a side of him I’d never seen-was his interaction with Gwenda, the mother of his children, the love of his life. And at no time was their intertwined partnership more revealing than at the height of the blow.


Despite what she says, Gwenda Cornell is a fine, intuitive sailor. It’s just that, honestly, these days she’d prefer to be in her garden. She’s a seasoned circumnavigator, but unlike her husband, the reward for her was never in the journey but always in the destination, especially when it was her beloved South Pacific.

So when the storm raged on for an hour, then a second, then a third, with thunder so loud it rang the ears and multiple lightning strikes only a startling 100 yards away, it was abundantly clear that Gwenda would’ve preferred her sunny plot of earth with a spade in her hand. Yet even in the deluge, the Cornells were a team, trading places between the helm and the nav station, piloting Aventura III safely and efficiently through the hazardous waterway as the visibility closed down to nothing.

Was there a raised voice or two? Yes, there was, but it was always suffused by a quiet word thereafter. Tellingly, Jimmy’s greatest wrath was reserved for the things over which he had no control. “There’s something for you to write about!” he hollered when a charter boat loomed out of the mist, a boat that provided no return target on his radar screen, although it was unclear exactly what should be written.


And then there was, well, the weather.

“I’m so tired of people telling me it’s never like this around here,” he sputtered, his still-black hair plastered to his skull, a clap of thunder punctuating his point. “This always happens to us in Croatia. Every time!” He shook his head at the indignity, the disorder. Wrong place. Wrong time.

When Jimmy asked me why I’d decided to come sailing with him now, after the missed attempts and connections of the past, I looked him directly in the eye. And then I lied through my teeth.

“I’ve always wanted to see Croatia,” I said.

The real reason was that I’d learned that Jimmy was, as they say, “swallowing the anchor” and, unfathomably, selling Aventura III. It was like hearing that Eric Clapton was burning his guitars, or that the Lone Ranger had told Tonto to shove off. There’d been a serious illness, apparently, the exact nature of which is irrelevant. What mattered was the aftermath, when Jimmy-on the path to full recovery but in a diminished state of mind and body-decided that the 43-footer that had taken him to the farthest corners of the planet had become a bundle of burdens and no longer the vehicle that nourished his soul. So I’d more or less invited myself aboard for the “last chance” farewell sail from Italy to Croatia’s Kremik Marina, near Split, where she’d be put up for sale.

And that’s how I ended up in Venice, sandwiched between Gwenda and Jimmy in their 10-foot Avon inflatable-she with the map, he at the controls of the four-horsepower outboard-as we wended our way through the maze of Venetian canals.

It was a comical journey. Gwenda, in her proper British accent, called out the instructions. Jimmy-though he’s lived in the United Kingdom for many moons, he speaks with a distinct Eastern European inflection, a holdover from his boyhood in Romania-mostly followed her orders, though never silently.

“Turn here, Jimmy.”

“We are going west. Look at the sun. This can’t be right.”

“Check the map, Jimmy. Here’s the Grand Canal. We need to go right here, then left there.”

“OK, OK.”

It was a fascinating, uneventful boondoggle until we found ourselves in the middle of a gondola traffic jam near the Ponte dei Sospiri, the Bridge of Sighs. The fact that the outboard had no reverse was suddenly a distinct liability. Most of the gondoliers found us amusing. “Theees ees not the way to Australia,” said one. “Ees that way.”

One, however, did not. He let loose with a verbal tirade in his native tongue that he finalized with a not-so-gentle tap to Jimmy’s shoulder with the business end of his sweep. “He hit me!” said Jimmy, before extricating us successfully from the fray.

Alone again, finally, we took a collective deep breath. “He didn’t need to be rude,” said Jimmy, edgily. “OK, Gwenda, where now?”

“Well,” she said lightly, pointing at her map, completely nonplussed-apparently it wasn’t the first time she’d watched her husband work in and out of a jam-“I think if we just go back here, we’ll be OK.” It was the soothing voice of reason. She was right, of course.

“This is fine,” said Jimmy, the tension gone, as he pointed his rubber boat down the corridor to open water. “Hey, it’s just another adventure!”

Another adventure. The Cornells have never lacked for another adventure. Ours began in earnest the next day, at dawn, when Jimmy deposited me in the dinghy off the Piazza San Marco to snap some photos of Aventura III under sail, reaching before the famous waterfront tower. His cruising friend, Arthur Beiser, supposedly had a picture of his boat powering along in the same spot, and Jimmy reckoned it would be good fun to reconstruct the scene but with full sail flying.

He laughed when I was back aboard and showed him the digital images. “Ha!” he said, pleased by the one-upmanship. “Arthur will never speak to either one of us again.”

From there it was into the Adriatic Sea and the roughly 65-mile crossing to the ancient city of Rovinj, in Croatia. It was midafternoon before the breeze filled in properly from the northwest, but once it did, Jimmy hoisted his distinctive broad-shouldered, slotted Parasailor spinnaker, and the boat-and its captain-came alive.
“Cruisers don’t like spinnakers,” he said, as Aventura III surged along at seven knots in the puffs, a gleam in his eye. “They’re my favorite sails.”

Aventura III is Jimmy’s third boat, a hard-chine aluminum centerboard yacht built by the French yard Alubat. He’s sailed her from Antarctica to Alaska. To say that he has her exactly the way he wants her is a gross understatement. He’s shanghaied the former hanging locker in the forward cabin and lined it with Tupperware containers for his extensive inventory of spare parts. He carries two of most everything, including an extra prop and even a second dinghy and outboard. He purchased the boat empty and customized it with Harken hardware, a Lofrans windlass, B&G instruments, a diesel heater, and on and on and on.

“Everything I bought was the best on the market,” he said. “I did my homework. And it’s paid. It’s really paid.”
On passage, he strives to make an average speed of six and a half knots, or 1,000 miles a week. It’s all part of his orderly universe under way. The world is a messy place; Aventura III, most certainly, is not. But don’t, as I did, grab a pillow from the cabin to stretch out for a cockpit snooze. “That belongs down below,” he said, sternly, and I thought he was kidding until I met his stare. Back went the pillow to its bunk.

Our night in Rovinj was enjoyable, and Jimmy, who has a firm grasp of history and abiding respect for it, was an excellent tour guide. The next day, he was hoping to make some serious miles south toward our destination, but he ultimately changed his plans to lay over for a night in Pula, about 25 miles down the rugged coastline, so I could have a good wander through the remarkable Roman-era coliseum a short walk from the marina. Sailing, to Jimmy, is always the main point of the cruising exercise, but it’s also a means to an end.

Back on the boat after dinner that night, Jimmy laid his head in Gwenda’s lap, and she stroked his hair as they discussed the next day’s itinerary.

“When are we going tomorrow?” asked Jimmy. “What I mean is, how long from when I wake you up with coffee will you be ready to go?”

“Twenty-nine minutes,” said Gwenda.

“Twenty-nine minutes,” he repeated. “Really.” His tone was of total disbelief.

“Well, maybe 28.”

“I think,” said Jimmy, “we will stick
to 29.”

There’s a saying in Jimmy Cornell’s homeland of Romania that’s difficult to translate, but it goes something like this: In life, it basically doesn’t matter how stupid one is as long as he or she is lucky. Intelligence plays no factor whatsoever, nor do connections, good looks, or any other particular trait or skill. Sheer luck, baby. That’s what matters.

“And I certainly had, and have, a lot of it,” said Jimmy.

It’s hard to disagree with him. At 67, he has two talented children, Ivan, a sailor and filmmaker, and Doina, who manages the informative cruising website Noonsite (, which Jimmy launched several years ago. He’s quenched his wanderlust and his endless passion for the sea through four decades of safe, fulfilling ocean voyages all around the world. He carved out not one but two successful careers, the first as a book author and a magazine and radio journalist, the second as an organizer of cruising rallies, a business he sold in 2000 to afford him the means to enjoy an active, comfortable retirement. Of course, one can argue that a person makes his or her own luck in this world, but one thing’s for certain: Whether he played a part in his own good fortune or was randomly selected by a munificent Romanian god, fate has certainly smiled upon one Jimmy Cornell.
But of all those lucky moments in an existence that’s been full of them, the luckiest of all was no doubt when he met a curious English traveler named Gwenda.

She was roaming through Europe with a small group of fellow students, and the charming young Romanian who befriended them along the Hungarian border, with his grasp of English and willingness to explain the mysteries of his communist country, was an interesting chap indeed. That winter she returned home, and they became pen pals. She returned the following year. “And that,” said Gwenda, “is when it all blossomed into different sorts of relations.”

Heaven knows, life with Jimmy wasn’t always easy, though it was never, ever dull. Gwenda returned to Romania annually for visits, but it wasn’t until 1965, six years after they first met, that Jimmy received permission to emigrate to the United Kingdom. By that time, Doina was 2 years old; Ivan arrived a scant two months later. “I was prepared to live in Romania if all else failed,” said Gwenda. “I knew we had a relationship worth fighting for.”

It wasn’t until Jimmy arrived in England, however, that Gwenda fully realized why she’d been bringing her beau the sailing magazines he always requested. He wanted to take his young family to sea. “Well, yes, that took me a bit by surprise,” said Gwenda, a self-professed “city girl” who’d never so much as set a foot in a dinghy.
That would change. Boy, would it ever. She was there by his side for the six-year circumnavigation aboard the first Aventura, a 36-footer aboard which they left England with a grubstake totaling the equivalent of $100. By the time Jimmy was ready for his second spin around the planet, Gwenda was too busy overseeing the shoreside operations for their fledgling business, the World Cruising Club-which ran the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers events across the Atlantic and later expanded to such round-the-world jaunts as the Millennium Odyssey-to actually sail much of the voyage. These days, “Jimmy Cornell” is a brand unto himself: a voyager, lecturer, and author known by name to most every sailor. But make no mistake, without his very silent partner assisting and enabling him in every project and passage, few if any would’ve actually come to pass.

Naturally, on our trip down the coast, at times I felt like the proverbial third wheel. I was with them morning, noon, and night. But that’s how I overheard this small exchange on the morning we pulled out of Pula. They were the closing remarks of what had obviously been a private, ongoing conversation.

“By the way,” said Jimmy, standing behind the wheel, “I’m not selling the boat.”

“That’s firm?” asked Gwenda.

“That’s firm.”

When we finally got to Split several days later, I came clean about why I’d joined the cruise and what I’d heard. So I had to ask the question. What was it, Jimmy, that made you change your mind?

“When you’re sick, you start thinking differently,” he said. “You never know what will happen, you’re at home, and all you think about are the problems. But once I was back aboard, in my normal life, I thought, ‘What am I talking about?’ Then Gwenda saw that I was quite happy and much more physically able than she expected me to be. So when I told her we weren’t selling it, she quite agreed.

“I mean, this boat has grown around me. It’s part of me. I can’t sell this boat.”


We’ll finish this tale where we started it, in the stormy waters of a rocky sea. At the height of the maelstrom, soaked and miserable, Gwenda made a simple statement. It was barely a whisper, but it also had the ring of authority, the stolidity of hard fact. There would be no arguing this matter.

“Next year,” she said, almost to herself, her quiet voice strong and true, “we’re going to Greece.”

Herb McCormick is a CW editor at large.


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