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A Passage from Florida to Panama with Jimmy Cornell

We are slicing south through the Bahamas on a warm March day, sailing on a delicious close reach flying a full mainsail, a staysail and a big laminated Code 0-type gennaker that furls on its own luff. We’re making good progress, maintaining an honest 5 to 7 knots of speed over the ground in a true wind of just 7 to 11 knots. It is, on several different levels, a significant moment.

Most immediately, it is the first time since we left Ft. Lauderdale two days earlier that we’ve been able to shut down the engine, and the entire crew—myself, owner Jimmy Cornell, and his companions Dunbar Lewis and Dave Keefe—are reveling in what I like to call the “orgasm of silence,” that wonderful moment when an auxiliary sailboat takes wing under sail alone. We are also now passing just a few miles west of the island of San Salvador, where almost 25 years ago I completed my first Atlantic circle, crewing on three different boats in two different cruising rallies organized by Jimmy Cornell. Finally, we are just now crossing the Tropic of Cancer, and this is the first time that Jimmy’s new boat, hull #1 of Garcia Yachting’s new Exploration 45 line, has sailed in the tropics.

Throughout his life Jimmy has prided himself on his careful balancing of pragmatism and adherence to principle. This is a valuable lesson he learned from the fate of his father, a loyal retainer of the Romanian royal family who refused to bow to reality after the Second World War and consequently died in a Communist prison. The balancing act is certainly evident in the design of Aventura IV, which was conceived through a close collaboration between Jimmy and Garcia Yachting, and just now Jimmy is explaining to me how the Code 0 sail was one of the things he had to be talked into.

“I was skeptical, but now I am very glad to have it,” he confesses with a happy shrug of his shoulders. “They showed me photos of a boat sailing with one, and I thought it looked pretty good. So why not try it?”

Other compromises include the lack of a self-steering windvane, a dinghy hanging in davits astern and the faux-teak decking, which nicely offsets the Garcia’s rugged-looking unfinished aluminum topsides. This last item in particular was an expensive option that Jimmy by nature was inclined to pass on, but his pragmatic side knew that one day he would need to sell this boat.

“I knew it couldn’t be too unique. I had to think of the marketplace. It had to be a boat other people would like too.”

On the “adherence to principle” side of the equation there is a fairly long list of features Jimmy insisted on that do make the boat quite unique, but that should also impress other cruisers with similar inclinations. These include the two watertight collision bulkheads fore and aft; the bulletproof companionway door; the raised standpipe through-hull fittings; the midships anchor rode locker that keeps weight out of the bow; the translucent day tank that lets you monitor fuel quality at a glance; and the integral line reels built into a dedicated locker on the transom.

This is a boat designed to cruise with authority in both the lowest and highest of latitudes, and I am thinking maybe now we are setting some kind of a record. Aventura IV was launched less than a year ago, has already crossed the Atlantic from Europe, and last summer ventured well past the Arctic Circle in an unsuccessful bid to transit the Northwest Passage. She has also appeared in two boat shows and now is plunging deep into the tropics en route to a Panama Canal transit. Before her first year is finished she will have sailed in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and in both hemispheres. I have to wonder: has there ever been a brand new production sailboat that has wandered so far in such a short period of time?

Our ambitious itinerary, more than anything, is a testament to Jimmy Cornell’s relentless energy. Since emigrating from Romania to Great Britain in 1969 he’s had a successful career as a BBC journalist and broadcaster, has circumnavigated the world three times under sail, has twice voyaged to Antarctica, has established himself as a preeminent bluewater sailing author, and essentially invented the modern cruising rally when he launched the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers in 1986. Now, at age 75, he shows no sign of letting up. Though he sold his first rally business in 2000, in the past few years he has started up again, launching four new events, including the Blue Planet Odyssey, an around-the-world event aimed at raising awareness of climate change.

In fact, what we’re doing right now is rushing to catch up with the rest of the Blue Planet fleet, which is already leaving the Galápagos. Aventura IV and one other rally boat were detained in Florida (Aventura IV so she could appear at the Miami International Boat Show) and the plan is to sail nonstop to Tahiti after transiting the canal.

Jimmy, when he isn’t hunched over his laptop computer at Aventura IV’s expansive nav desk managing his far-flung interests via satellite communications, has been laying out pilot charts for the Pacific, plotting how best to get across the equator to Tahiti with a minimum of fuss. For this is something else he prides himself on. Though he has often sailed on challenging passages, they have for the most part been uneventful.

“It is true,” he acknowledges. “I am a boringly cautious old-fashioned sailor.”

When plotting out a passage, Jimmy prefers to rely on archival data (one of his recent projects was to update old pilot charts utilizing the latest archived data) rather than long-range computer-modeled weather forecasts. And our seemingly circuitous route through the Bahamas, first due east from Ft. Lauderdale and then south along the length of the archipelago, reflects this. It is a good bit longer than the more direct routes to Panama around the west end of Cuba or through the Old Bahama Channel north of Cuba. But it conservatively avoids the strongest adverse currents and keeps us out of the heart of the traditional tradewind belt until we’ve made good all the easting we need to clear Cuba.

And though he is old-fashioned when it comes to passage planning, Jimmy is surprisingly up-to-date when it comes to technology. Yes, there are paper charts aboard, but for day-to-day navigation we’re carrying three B&G MFD chartplotters, an AIS transceiver, a forward-looking sonar array and broadband radar, plus we have a full suite of modern communications equipment. And no, we are not carrying a sextant “just in case.”

“I have no patience with these purists,” says Jimmy disdainfully. “Those who say it is best to navigate with a sextant, for example, because it is more authentic. I don’t think they are true sailors. A true sailor will always use the best systems available. Do you think Capt. Cook would not take the best navigation equipment with him on his great voyages? Of course he would!”

As a sailor, however, Jimmy also likes to rely on his gut instincts, something I get to experience firsthand as we approach the Windward Passage and the east end of Cuba. Jimmy is anxious to get through the channel between Cuba and Haiti before sunset, so we are flying the Code 0 again, except now the wind is a bit stronger than before, blowing up to 14 knots from the east.

Just as Jimmy wonders out loud if this breeze is a bit too strong for the big sail, we hear a loud pop at the masthead. The Code 0 flutters down the rig and is soon streaming in the water alongside the boat.

“Aha!” exclaims our captain, his face lit up like a child’s. “I am psychic!”

We rush forward, drag the sail back aboard without much trouble, and find the halyard has chafed through near the masthead. Three days later, as we are easing across the heart of the Caribbean basin in weak tradewinds, we experience another minor difficulty, and again Jimmy’s Spidey-sense starts tingling.
We are flying our Parasailor spinnaker and full mainsail on a broad reach in a fairly stable breeze, but the steering is strange and fluttery. I’m thinking we might have weed on our rudders (Sargasso weed has been an awful plague throughout the Caribbean this past season), and soon first mate Dunbar has confirmed this with an underwater GoPro video. To get rid of the weed, I suggest we drop the spinnaker, round up and stall the boat for a moment so that it falls off. Dunbar, meanwhile, would like to drop all sail and dive on the rudders himself.

Jimmy will have none of this. He doesn’t want to drop the spinnaker, and he certainly doesn’t want Dunbar in the water. His intuition is telling him to leave the weed alone right now.

“I really do feel I have some sort of psychic sense,” he explains to me later. “When I get a feeling I shouldn’t do something, I have learned it is best to respect it.”

Save for these small setbacks, our passage to Panama does indeed prove uneventful. Given the lighter-than-normal wind and the fact that when motoring we’ve kept the engine turning well below 2,000 rpm, it has also been remarkably efficient. We’ve covered the 1,300 miles of our route in just eight days and 16 hours, maintaining an average speed of 6.25 knots.

Our arrival at Shelter Bay, where yachts congregate prior to transiting the canal, is perfectly timed, as we land at the marina’s fuel barge shortly after sunrise just 30 minutes before the marina office opens. It’s now that Jimmy goes into whirlwind mode and becomes “Jimmy the Fixer” (a nickname he earned in Romania working as a gopher for a film crew), the man who knows everyone and can get anything done.

For most yachts it takes two to six weeks to schedule a transit through the canal, but Jimmy has Panama wired. This will be his fourth transit on a boat of his own, plus he has shepherded six different cruising rallies through the canal. He speaks fluent Spanish (one of six languages he has mastered), is friendly with the president of Panama and is very good friends with the administrator of the Canal Authority. Even before we arrived here, he was working his connections via satellite e-mail and has mapped out an amazing schedule.

Within hours of our arrival, an admeasurer appears to measure the boat and fill out forms. By the end of that day the boat has been hauled out at the marina’s yard and one coat of fresh bottom paint has been applied. By the end of the following day another coat of paint has gone on, and the boat has been launched and fully reprovisioned. By the afternoon of our third day in Panama we’ve brought two professional line-handlers aboard and are queueing up with four other yachts off the city of Colón, waiting to receive a pilot and enter the Gatun locks. By the very end of that day, as midnight arrives, we have cleared the locks and are lying to a mooring in Gatun Lake. As I settle into my berth I wonder if we might now be setting another record: fastest Panama Canal transit by a private yacht.

Our fourth day in Panama begins as a hot molten sun rises out of the surrounding jungle and paints the still waters of the lake a bright copper-orange. In the distance we can hear howler monkeys screaming in the trees. By 0730 we have another pilot aboard and Jimmy, who is a diligent host, is serving breakfast to him and the linehandlers.

The rest of the day is spent motoring across the drowned jungle of the lake, through the Gaillard Cut, and on down through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks, a distance in all of about 45 miles. By afternoon we are on the other side, and it is time for me to say goodbye. Jimmy doesn’t want to stop here, so I transfer with my luggage to one of the other boats that is heading into shore for fuel.

I watch wistfully as Aventura IV motors away from us. She rounds up briefly, and I see her mainsail climbing up her mast. Then she turns, spreads her wings again, passes under the great span of the Bridge of the Americas, and heads out into the broad waters of the Pacific.

Postscript: As we go to press, Jimmy Cornell has announced that “an unexpected matter back home” has compelled him to change his plans. Aventura IV has not rejoined the Blue Planet Odyssey, but has instead embarked on another attempt to transit the Northwest Passage. Look for Jimmy’s first report on this voyage in the September issue of SAIL.

Jimmy's Ideal Boat: Garcia Exploration 45 view it here.

August 2015



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