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Insight: Matt Cornwell

By Mark Chisnell

© HARRY KH

There are many ways for children to get interested in a sport – having a family that’s already involved is probably the likeliest – but what if you get inspired by something that your parents aren’t into? And what if that something is sailing? Well, there’s always the Sea Scouts.

Fortunately for Land Rover BAR sailor Matt Cornwell, Robert Baden-Powell’s trusty youth movement had a particularly strong branch of its sea-going arm in the coastal town of Lymington. “There was a huge waiting list to get into the Sea Scouts and it was really good. All my closest friends did it and it was a brilliant experience, just an excellent few years of my life. They had a base near the water and a few boats in the marina there. We would go sailing and just muck about on the water. That would be Friday night and then on through the weekends too – I just spent all my spare time on the Lymington river. A lot of the time sailing, but sometimes in a canoe, in a rowing boat, all sorts really.

“All my close friends from school and from Lymington were into boats, their parents were sailors, having grown up there. It’s part of the town that we live in, but it impacted me rather than my parents – although my dad has now got into sailing since I got involved. And my grandfather on my mother’s side was a keen sailor. He learnt to sail when he was with the Royal Navy and he had a little sailing boat up in the Wash. That was the first time I ever went sailing I guess, when I was about four or five. But, growing up in Lymington it was something that we did through school and the Sea Scouts. I was a keen member, they’ve got a great Sea Scout troop down there, the 9th Lymington did a lot of sailing.

“I don’t ever remember having good kit back then, not like the kids do now. We would just be freezing all the time. We’d never have a wetsuit, gloves or anything, just come up with different solutions like you would wear the woollen gloves underneath the washing-up gloves... you would just get freezing cold hands... but they were good times, and I absolutely loved it.”

The path into competitive sailing came a little later, when Cornwell was 14, and he did his work experience at a local boatyard. “They used to go racing on this yacht every Thursday night through the summer. The Thursday night race in Lymington is a bit of a big deal and great fun to do. I started racing with them on that work experience, but then carried on sailing with them afterwards. The first race we did, we went out and won it and I thought, ‘That’s pretty good’ – I really enjoyed that side of it, the yacht racing side of it and it progressed from there really.

“I didn’t ever own my own boat, because I wasn’t really from a sailing family, but the yacht racing, I found that was something that was really easy to do. Teams were quite keen to have a young guy involved and I was more than happy to do the foredeck. That seemed to be a role that I could easily slot into. Then as I got towards the end of school and into college at 16 or 17, I started to realise that there were a lot of guys out there who were making a living out of this sport, and I thought it would be cool for me to do that for a little while.”

Land Rover BAR sailor, Matt Cornwell. Credit: Harry KH
© BAR

“I definitely didn’t have any ambition to push ahead with dinghy sailing, but we used to go over to Cowes for the Admiral’s Cup, and see all the rock stars like Paul Cayard or Lawrie Smith and I thought I’d love to do that one day. So I went through college, finished my A Levels and then went to University with a view to doing something in the marine industry, with a course in Yacht Manufacturing Management at the Southampton Institute. I was already making money by delivering boats, working on boats, cleaning them, you know, whatever I had to do to make a few pennies at the weekend and during the summer holidays.”

And then, in time honoured fashion, like many a young sailor before him (but not so much in these days of Academies, development squads and structured pathways), Cornwell packed a bag, flew to the States, and walked the dock looking  for a ride or a job. “I’d done some sailing with some Americans when they had been racing over in the UK and that gave me an opportunity to go and get some work... much to my parents’ angst. They were sort of, ‘Well, what are you going to do with your life?’ and I said I was going to go yacht racing. ‘Well, okay, once you’ve done that, what are you going to do with your life?’ and I had to reply, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ They do get it now, and even though it was all new to them, they were always really supportive.”

“The thing was that, even without a great dinghy racing background, you could progress in yacht racing with some dedication and hard work. If you could fit in with a crew and you worked hard and you concentrated on what you were doing and you weren’t the last guy out of the pub every night. There were opportunities to move up through yacht racing and just incrementally, little by little, getting opportunities and taking those opportunities.”

When he returned to the UK, Cornwell found jobs with people that are also part of the Land Rover BAR story, the Shore Team Manager, James Stagg, and boat builder Jason Carrington. He was just at the right point in his career when Peter Harrison challenged for the America’s Cup in 2003, it was the first British team to compete in 16 years.

Match racing onboard Team Origin

“Originally, I was hoping to do the Whitbread Round The World Race, because that’s what the top British guys did. I was doing as much offshore racing as I could, along with deliveries and anything to get offshore miles. And I was talking to a Whitbread team when I got the opportunity to join Peter Harrison’s challenge. I knew some of the guys involved in it and managed to get a trial – I hadn’t met the skipper Ian Walker before, but I did a couple of week’s trial and got the nod to go down to New Zealand with the team. It was a huge opportunity, great timing for me because they were looking for young guys. The idea was to kick start Britain back into the America’s Cup. They weren’t looking to win anything, they were just looking to get us back into it. So it was a perfect opportunity.”

Cornwell raced for most of the Louis Vuitton Challenger Series as bowman. “I wanted so badly to just do one of those races to say that I was an America’s Cup sailor, or a Louis Vuitton Cup sailor, and yes, fortunately I got to do it. It was brilliant. It is still a very proud moment, representing the country.”

The 2003 challenge got as far as the quarter-finals before being eliminated. Peter Harrison carried on for a couple of years afterwards while he tried to raise money for a second challenge, but it came to nothing. It was the beginning of another long, 14 year sojourn from the America’s Cup for Britain. “I think the real shame about that campaign was that there was definitely an opportunity to make the semi-finals in 2007. I think we would have been knocking on the door, which would have been fantastic for a British team.”

Once Harrison’s British team had withdrawn from the field, Cornwell joined the Areva Challenge. “I took the opportunity to sail with the French Team, it was fun but it was difficult. We always lacked funding, but we definitely stuck it out and had a really good group of guys. Yes, it was definitely an enjoyable experience and a fantastic America’s Cup.”

Matt Cornwell during the 2007 America's Cup with Areva Challenge

“I remember talking to the other guys after that Cup and saying, ‘This is it. This is the Golden Age of the America’s Cup. We’re going to be in this now for another ten or 15 years.’ There was a guy called Albert Jackson on the French team and that was his seventh Cup. I thought, ‘That’s how it’s going to look for me now. It’s just going to be Cup after Cup.’”

It turned out that Cornwell was wrong, the America’s Cup ended up in the courts as the teams tried to resolve a dispute over the format and boats that would be used in the future. It was only finally resolved when the court ordered a match between just two teams. Oracle and Alinghi settled their differences on the water in two giant multihulls. Oracle won, and set the new direction into smaller, foiling catamarans for the next event in 2013. Six long years had gone by.

“I got involved in the last Cup – the 34th – with several teams that didn’t quite make it. Team Origin was obviously the big one. We had a couple of really fun years of sailing, but after the court cases and the delays, and then the change of rule from monohulls into multihulls –  the people behind it decided to pull out. It was a real shame, another British team that was looking good and then had the plug pulled.”

Cornwell went on to sail with Team Korea in the preliminary rounds of the 34th America’s Cup. In the end they choose not to build a boat for the final rounds of racing in San Francisco. “It was fun to do the World Series and we had some great sailors come through. A lot of guys saw it as a good stepping stone to get involved in the big teams. We had Chris Draper (SoftBank Team Japan), Nathan Outridge (Artemis), Pete Burling (Emirates Team New Zealand) and Giles Scott (Land Rover BAR) all with us at one point or another, and some fantastic sailors came through the ranks.”

Matt Cornwell during the preliminary rounds of the 34th America's Cup with Team Korea

Cornwell had been sailing with Ben Ainslie on and off for a long while across a range of boats, and had been a permanent part of the Team Origin match racing team that had won the World Championships in 2010. “Ben was also living in Lymington so I used to see him all the time. We were good buddies. We would often be in the pub on a Friday night and I was always hearing about what was going on with his plans, certainly, I was keen to get involved should the opportunity be there. When they decided to do the Extreme Sailing Series in 2014 he asked me if I could do that. Then, halfway through that year I signed my contract for the rest of the Cup.”

“I think the biggest thing is the hard work and dedication. Plug away, be dedicated and turn up at regattas fully focussed. I always wrote notes on every event and every different type of boat, then read them back before the next event to make sure I was there with all the right kit and ready to go.”

“I love the technical side. I love the team side and the sport – that was what really attracted me. I love going for a sail, probably as much as the next guy but it is all about racing. Those days when you look behind you and you’re leading the whole fleet and that feeling, crossing the line knowing that you had won that race, won that regatta – that is very addictive. There is something special about winning.”

Off the water Matt has a family, two children, girl and boy. And a hobby that takes him back out on the water. “I really got into surfing during the 2003 Cup in New Zealand. I started body boarding there and had been doing it for a few months and then tried to stand up on a borrowed surf board. I remember the first wave I stood up on, at a beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. I caught a left, rode it for a while, nice clean wave, down the face and then that was it. ‘Okay, you can keep your body boards, I’m getting a surf board.’ I really got bitten by the bug.

“Of course, that first wave was a lot easier than the progression into actually learning how to do it. It’s just a fantastic sport, there is something about surfing that you just can’t explain. Sailing is still my main sport. I love what I do but you are always thinking when’s the next time I’m going surfing? Is it this weekend? Is it in a few weeks’ time? When’s the next holiday? Can we get surf on holiday? Will the family let me surf on holiday? It is such an addiction.”

Unsurprisingly, the family limit the opportunities to get to the beach. So he has a paddleboard for the river. “The kids sit on the front at times. They were a little bit frightened initially of sharks and deep-water and things. I think we have gotten over that now.” Mucking about on the river. It’s how their father started out, and look where that ended up.

Credit: Hijack/ Jack Abel Smith
© Jack Brockway