Early in his adult life, it came from fleeing communist Romania and finding his way to England, where he worked as a radio correspondent for the BBC. After he got married and began to help his wife, Gwenda, raise their two small children, it came in finding his way to the sea.
"I was, to be honest, a hippy and I did not want a career in the BBC. I did not want to become a rich man when I was 50, I didn't care about this," Cornell recalled. "Coming to the free West, the free world, I wanted to put that freedom to some use."
With the blessing of his wife, an English woman whom he described as "a wanderer," Cornell took off with the family on an eight-year journey in a 36-foot boat that covered nearly 70,000 nautical miles. Cornell filed reports for the BBC from around the world to help support his family.
Back in London in the early 1980s, Cornell started organizing what became known as rallies — multi-boat cruises from the Canary Islands across the Atlantic Ocean. The first organized Atlantic Rally Cruise was held in 1986, and it became a yearly event that is still in existence.
"That decision shaped my life," Cornell said Thursday during an appearance at the United States Sailboat Show in Annapolis, which runs through Monday.
Now 72, Cornell still travels the world, helping others trying to find the same path and freedom that he did decades before. He has become a guru of sorts on the subject of long-distance cruising — having written 17 books and recently finishing an ocean atlas that charts sailing routes and wind patterns around the world.
"It would be hard to care about recreational boats and cruising and not know who Jimmy Cornell is," said Dave Skolnick, an Annapolis sailor who attended Cornell's eight-hour seminar Thursday.
Cornell's daughter, Doina, has fond memories of a childhood spent on the family's boat, "Aventura," sharing a tiny cabin with her younger brother, Ivan. Now 45 and the mother of two children herself, she recently had her own book, "Child of the Sea: A Memoir of a Sailing Childhood," published.
It looks at her life through the eyes of a child.
"You have so much freedom," she said of her own sea travels, which began when she was 7 years old. "My mum trained as a teacher so we got schooling, but you learn to row a dingy, you made new friends, spent half the time swimming around in the sea, having new adventures, seeing these fantastic places like the ancient ruins in Egypt. We got to go to Disney World and all the rest of it. It was really exciting."
Doina Cornell said her father's books became so popular because they weren't necessarily about himself.
"I think he got quite frustrated with people who wrote for sailors, it was always their own personal anecdotes, 'This is what I did,'" Doina Cornell recalled. "Before we sailed and while we sailed, he read all the books and everything about it. Maybe it was his BBC training, taking a more impartial view. He did a survey in Fiji of 70 boats and what was important and put it in an article. I think he's kept that going with the weather information, looking at it objectively and what the sailors need to know."
Jim Merritt has been reading one of Jimmy Cornell's books since he started planning his own sailing adventure.
Merritt retired earlier this year after spending most of his adult life as a commercial pilot in the Northwest Territories in Canada. He is about to embark on his own voyage with his second wife, Isabel Bliss. The couple met shortly after Merritt's first wife, a flight attendant in their native Canada, died in a plane crash. Bliss was helping him move one of his smaller boats.
"We have very ambitious plans, we're here to validate it — or scratch it," Merritt said during a break for lunch for Cornell's seminar. "Jimmy Cornell, through the world cruising community, has made data available for guys like me to get going."
Merritt said the atlas Cornell developed is "incredible" and includes "thousands and thousands of observations for every point in the world." Merritt and Bliss plan to leave later this fall from Hawaii and sail on their 46-foot boat, "Sonsie Victoria," around the world "for years. … unless I run out of money and have to go back to work."
Skolnick first crossed the Atlantic Ocean with a crew of four in 2006, calling it a "life-changing" event. It caused him to quit his 9-to-5 job in Northern Virginia, move to Annapolis and work "on the edge" of the boating industry by developing communication systems, as well as working as a yacht delivery skipper.
"I've been focusing on boats and less on working in an office ever since," Skolnick said.
Cornell can relate to what Skolnick and others have experienced, given how his own life was transformed decades ago.
"If you look back into history and you look back at sailors like Ulysses or whoever you want to go back to, they had to adapt to the sea, not just a physical way, but also mental," Cornell said. "In order to have a successful long voyage — not just a two-week trip to the Bahamas — you have to change your lifestyle. If you don't change your mode, your thinking, you will not be successful. It's not like going on a fishing trip to the Great Lakes. If you have to become one with the sea, the sea with punish you. You grow into it. Without noticing it, you become a changed person."