Gwenda Cornell is an extraordinary woman. 35 years ago she packed her family and set out on a journey across the Pacific Ocean. She shares her adventures in an engaging memoir called ‘Pacific Odyssey’. If you want to know more not only about her book but also about her time spent in the Blue Continent, just read the interview.
Pasifika Tales: Let’s start with the ending. You’d spent three years on a boat cruising the Pacific Ocean. Then you decided it was time to go back to England. Did you have a hard time getting used to leading a ‘normal life’?
Gwenda Cornell: In fact we had spent a total of six years roaming the oceans before we returned to England. Personally I had no problems getting back to shore life and enjoyed meeting up with family, old friends and luxuriating in a bath. Our children however had a much more difficult time, although they had looked forward to going to ‘proper’ school. They were regarded by other children as being a bit strange as they did not know the characters of popular TV programmes or which football team (soccer) to support. After many years my daughter Doina has written about all this in her memoir of growing up at sea called ‘Child of the Sea’. Her book also includes quite a lot about her experiences in the Pacific.
PT: Now let’s get back to the beginning. Why did you decide to set sail in the first place?
GC: My husband Jimmy had always wanted to go to sea since he was a child and he persuaded me that this was the best way to see the world. We had both always enjoyed travelling, but did not have much money, so he fitted out the boat himself and that way we could get to see a lot of extraordinary places that were not easy to reach in those days, when air travel was much more expensive than nowadays. Many of the places we visited did not even have airports.
PT: Didn’t you hesitate to take your children out of school for such a long period of time?
GC: At the time, I thought that the experiences they could have would be so much more than anything they could learn in the classroom. Also they were at a good age 5 & 7 when we left. I prepared for the voyage quite carefully, qualifying as a teacher and had the full support of the school in London that the children were attending. When we first set sail we only thought of staying away for 2 or 3 years, spending one year in the Pacific, but our life was so entrancing we ended up spending much longer. Also the children did enjoy going to school in a lot of places, six months in New Zealand, one month in the Gambier, a week in Aitutaki and one day in Pitcairn.
PT: Would you say that your adventure taught Ivan and Doina more than they’d have ever learnt while sitting in the classroom?
GC: Absolutely, there is no question of that. For a start we had no TV, so they read voraciously. We always made sure we had topical books, so they read Thor Heyerdahl on the way to Easter Island, ‘The Mutiny of the Bounty’ on the way to Pitcairn and so on. They learnt so much about other cultures by making friends with local children and also a lot about nature, from tropical islands to free diving on coral reefs.
PT: And what did you learn?
GC: I learnt a tremendous amount about geography, nature and Pacific culture, plus an abiding respect for the Pacific peoples who have so much to teach us about how to live life fully and care for the less able members of our society.
PT: You described some of your experiences in ‘Pacific Odyssey’, which is an amazing book. How did that happen?
GC: I started while still in the Pacific by writing small pieces for the magazine Pacific Islands Monthly (I believe it no longer exists). When I returned to England, someone suggested that I expand these articles and turn them into a book. Fortunately, I had kept a detailed journal about our voyage so it was not difficult.
PT: I’m sure there are stories you didn’t include in your memoir. Would you care to share one of them?
GC: I have been trying to think of some instance, but could not come up with anything. The voyage I describe took place 35 years ago, so some of the memories are unfortunately fading a little.
PT: I understand. Let me ask you about the people you met. Do you keep in touch with any of the Islanders?
GC: Again 35 years ago communications were much different. There was no e-mail, Internet, Facebook, etc. We even made the first phone calls out of some places. Pacific Islanders were not very good at writing letters, especially where there was no post office on their island. But when we did meet up with some of them again, such as at the Pacific Festival of Arts, friendships were easily renewed. In the epilogue I wrote to the book after 30 years I do describe some of the people we encountered again.
However we have kept in touch with many of the people from different nationalities that we met on other sailing boats and the French Bouteleux family described in the book are still among our closest friends today.
PT: Would you say the voyage changed your life?
GC: Yes, it certainly did. We became much more involved with sailing and the cruising life. It also changed my view of the world and its various peoples and cultures.
PT: What advice would you give people who’d like to follow in your footsteps and set out on a journey?
GC: Just get out there and do it while you can. Some of these places may change or even disappear as a result of climate change. Make a plan and stick to it, be prepared to live a simpler life, less dependent on all that stuff you can have these days, that way it becomes more affordable.