Jimmy Cornell sailing the open waters

Sailing: Jimmy Cornell’s electric dream

Long-distance sailing ‘guru’ Jimmy Cornell is preparing to circumnavigate the globe in a zero-carbon, fully electric boat. He explains to Paula Dear why sailors are environmentalists at heart

“Sailors are the closest to nature. There is no other category of person on earth that is more directly involved with nature and has a greater concern for the oceans and the future of the planet,” says Jimmy Cornell.

It’s a hefty claim, but as someone who has spent around a third of his adult life on the world’s oceans and witnessed first-hand the impact of climate change over 42 planet-altering years, Jimmy Cornell – described in the sailboat cruising world as a “guru”, a “formative influence” and “father of the sailing rally” – is, arguably, supremely well placed to make it.

A vocation that began with leaving his job at the BBC World Service in 1975 and sailing round the world for six years with his wife and two children – then aged five and seven – Cornell has notched up 200,000 sailing miles, including three circumnavigations and voyages to the Antarctic and Arctic northwest passage. He has written 19 cruising guides – some co-authored by his children Doina and Ivan – founded the ARC transatlantic rally and organised 38 transatlantic and five round-the-world rallies, plus a round-the-world race.

It seems that the only thing he’s not so accomplished at is retiring.

“I’ve been retiring ever since I was 35!” says Cornell, now aged 80.

After attempting to hang up his hat in the 2010, before resurfacing to traverse the Arctic northwest passage to highlight climate change in 2014-2015, then selling his “last boat” in 2017, he has again emerged to “set an example” to the sailing world that anything can be achieved without resorting to fossil fuels.

So, in October Cornell will take on a challenge that simultaneously references a pioneering voyage of the past, whilst looking forward to a renewable-energy-fuelled future.

As part of Spain’s official celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the first round-the-world voyage, Cornell and three crew mates will faithfully follow the historic circumnavigation route taken by Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano between 1519 to 1522.

Called the Elcano Challenge – in honour of the Basque sailor who went on to captain the ship back to Spain after Magellan was killed by locals in the Philippines – Elcano also stands for EL.ectricity. CA.rbon. NO! and it has a key focus on renewable energy.

Sailors are the closest to nature. There is no other category of person on earth that is more directly involved with nature and has a greater concern for the oceans and the future of the planet

Jimmy Cornell

Cornell has commissioned French yacht maker Outremer to adapt one of its catamaran models to make the 32,000-mile, eight-to-nine-month trip from Seville. While the vast majority of the trip will be carried out under sail, two dual-function electric saildrives, designed by Finnish company Oceanvolt, will provide propulsion when needed. They will also ensure the boat’s huge 56,000W battery bank recharges from the natural movement of the propellers while under sail. Solar panels totalling 1300W will also charge the battery. Every piece of kit is electric, from the cooker to the toilets and winches, to the on-board watermaker capable of generating 100 litres per hour. 

“There is nothing [at all] producing any carbon dioxide, nothing that is being put back into the atmosphere or the water,” says Cornell.

With a fully-charged battery, the boat – named Aventura Zero could motor for five or six hours; or up to two hours if extreme power was needed in an emergency, such as the boat being pushed towards a rocky shore.

“Basically I can sail [as they did] 500 years ago. We are not re-inventing the wheel. Sailing with a zero-carbon footprint is nothing new,” says Cornell, whose trip is self-funded.

It’s not the first time renewable energy has been used for a circumnavigation over water, but Cornell says his will be the first trip to use a 100 per cent electric boat. Without any kind of hybrid system, or an emergency generator, there will be no option to charge the batteries in the absence of wind or sun.

When we speak he’s in an ongoing stand-off with the boatyard, which wants him to take a back-up diesel generator for safety reasons.

“I accept the safety aspect, but I’ve said no. It’s not like falling out of the sky where if one parachute doesn’t open, you’re dead if you don’t have a second one. On a boat, you sail; you still can sail around the world without any batteries or anything.

“I want to prove this. Many years ago someone crossed the Atlantic on a windsurfer. But they had a powerboat in attendance all the time. Well, yes, they did cross, but they had this back up. It’s a mindset. If you do it to prove something you can’t compromise, it has to be 100 per cent.

“I will have another argument with the boatyard, but I will prevail,” he adds.

Cornell also plans to further demonstrate that no other battery top-ups are needed by avoiding using shore power at the stopovers en route.

AVENTURA ZEROS SCHEDULED STOPS

  • Tenerife, Canary Islands
  • Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Montevideo, Uruguay
  • Puerto Julian, Argentina
  • Punta Arenas, Chile
  • Puka Puka, Tuamotu Islands
  • Guam, Mariana Islands
  • Cebu; Palawan, Philippines
  • Brunei
  • Tidore; Ambon, Indonesia
  • Timor
  • Port Elizabeth, South Africa
  • Cape Verde Islands
  • Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain

October 2020: Depart Seville, Spain

ETA: July 2021, Seville

For more than four decades, Cornell’s concern for the environment has been a consistent thread running through every expedition and interaction he’s had with local communities.

“Very early on, in 1978, I was in Fiji and [a now multinational company] had a contract with one village, and they cut down the whole forest around it. I came back not long afterwards, and I was diving where I had been diving before, and everything had gone. All the top soil had come into the sea. The coral was dead, there were no fish, the water was murky. I have been three times around the world since then and I have been back to many of those places and every time I find more trouble.”

It was accelerating climate change that drove him out of his first ‘retirement’, when in 2014 he made his first attempt to traverse the northwest passage, only to be forced to turn around and make a second – successful, but often frightening – crossing in 2015.

With the Arctic described as the “canary in the mine for global weather”, Cornell and his crew talked to research scientists and local Inuit people they encountered about the changes they were witnessing, including the decline in sea ice, thawing permafrost and remarkable developments in the flora and fauna.

“When we arrived on Herschel Island, which is at the border between Alaska and Arctic Canada, there were a number of research scientists there. The day we arrived one of the wardens had shot a grizzly bear. This is quite amazing because it’s still polar bear country. The bear had swum across from North America onto this island. In other islands the Inuit people I met said foxes and grizzly bears are moving north. In one village they were amazed to have seen bats, and also the fish have changed.

“The worst part of it is the thawing permafrost… they used to have these ice houses where they dug a hole down into the frozen earth, and they could keep everything there. In the last five years, everything is gone. The ice in the ground is melting, the holes are collapsing. The biggest consequence is there is a lot of [the potent greenhouse gas] methane stored in the ground and as this ice melts it’s released into the atmosphere. A German scientist on Herschel Island told me that every year it’s worse and worse.”

But he’s also witnessed the symbiotic relationship so many communities have with nature, and their awareness of what’s happening to the planet has seen them take positive steps to learn from human mistakes and “do something positive to protect the environment”.

As for the role he can play, the veteran adventurer is confident that sailors are changing the way they travel and will continue to do more.

“You are virtually knocking on an open door. People who are going long distances are very much aware of the environment.

The price [of a fully electric boat] will be higher than a standard boat with a standard diesel engine. Electric cars are more expensive now, but not for much longer. Fortunately there are more and more people who are committed to doing something about nature and are prepared to pay [a bit more] to live a principled life.

“I am convinced that many people will follow my example. Already people have similar projects. An electric boat has crossed the Atlantic. I am going around the world because it’s something I want to do and because of the anniversary of this voyage. I know that once I can show it can be easily done then, of course, people will look at it seriously.”

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