Less than a week ago, Mark Cornell was on the journey of a lifetime, taking on the open ocean in his 15-metre yacht with his eyes on Indonesia to resume his pre-Covid life there.
Today however, he has nothing but the shirt on his back.
In an interview with news.com.au he explained that his yacht, Escapee, went down in bad weather on Friday, leaving him and his crew member with no choice but to abandon it along with everything he owned.
All of Mr Cornell’s possessions went down with Escapee when it capsized at Lizard Island, on the Great Barrier Reef, including irreplaceable photos, thousands of dollars in equipment and tools, priceless rugby collector cards and his beloved Melbourne Storm jumpers.
The 64-year-old did manage to save an urn containing the ashes of his late daughter who passed in 2013, but everything else was lost.
His friend, Russell Leishman, has established a GoFundMe account in support of Mr Cornell getting on his feet and ultimately back doing what he loves.
In preparation for his journey, which began in October 2022, Mr Cornell sold his home in Geelong and funnelled all his funds into Escapee – living on the vessel while he renovated and modernised it over the course of three years.
It had been his dream to return to Indonesia and re-establish his dive shop on the Gili Islands, which he had to leave behind when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
While he originally set off last year, he got held up in Cairns due to bad winds and ended up staying for six months, before leaving for what was meant to be the final journey three weeks ago.
Disaster initially struck with an issue with one of Escapee’s sails, prompting Mr Cornell to switch the motor on. A few miles later however, the motor unexpectedly shut off due to, as he later discovered, its fuel being contaminated.
Mr Cornell planned to fix the problem the following morning when he could safely drop the anchor, but the anchor’s winch let out an extra 40 metres, leaving the yacht dangerously banging around in huge swell.
“That’s when I called the mayday, we were going to be in a lot of trouble in a few hours. The tide was running out and we were bashing the concrete hull on the bottom,” he told news.com.au.
The swell by that point was so big it threw him off his tender boat, and on subsequent attempts to climb back onto the yacht, he was turfed three times before he made it back on.
Two boats came to their rescue – the first lost its motor when it was flipped in the swell and the second arrived safely, anchoring in a quieter bay nearby.
Mr Cornell was instructed by Australian Maritime Safety Authority to stay with his yacht until a helicopter arrived, but as the situation became more dangerous, he and his crew member had no choice but to abandon it.
“We managed to throw some stuff up with life jackets on it which got picked up on the other side of the reef,” he said.
“But when the chopper was about five minutes out, it [the yacht] started to lay over and at that point I said, ‘nah we’ve gotta go or the ramifications could be deadly’.”
Moments after the pair jumped off for a final time and swam to safety, Mr Cornell said Escapee “laid right over”.
They were rescued by a couple on the second boat and flew back to Cairns the following day.
Having since travelled back to his sister’s house in Albury, the gravity of Mr Cornell’s loss has begun sinking in.
“Everything I owned was on the boat. That was my house. Three years of work – gone,” he said.
“I’m just starting to come down off the adrenaline, but I’m alive, that’s the first thing, and nobody got seriously injured.”
As Mr Cornell assesses his next move, he will keep watch of a friend’s husband – living with dementia – in Geelong while she is overseas for a month.
In the meantime, he said he would “get up, shake it off, and get going again”.
While he had obtained insurance that covered damage Escapee caused to other vessels, no insurance company would insure his yacht because of its concrete hull.
Historically, a concrete hull concealed rusting metal which expanded and caused dangerous cracks in the hull over time.
Escapee however was in tip top shape, having been professionally built in Adelaide and while it was more than 50 years old, it was “as sound as the day they put it in the water”.
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