Aussie man left with just the clothes on his back after tragedy at sea

Mark, 64, was luckily able to save his daughter's ashes before his beloved home sunk.

A Victorian man who embarked on what would've been the trip of a lifetime, sailing from Australia to Indonesia on his fully self-restored yacht, has been left with just the clothes on his back and a handful of personal items after unimaginable tragedy struck at sea.

Mark Cornell, 64, said he was "fed-up of being locked down" when he decided to "sell up" everything he owned to fund the full refurbishment of his 16-metre yacht — which he bought from a Queensland couple 18 months ago — "to it's former glory".

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, Mr Cornell said the process of restoring the boat Escapee cost in excess of $120,000. It was the only home he had and it housed priceless possessions ranging from his late daughter's ashes, to irreplaceable childhood photographs, his personal collection of Melbourne Storm jerseys and vital personal documentation.

64-year-old Mark Cornell is seen beside his beloved yacht Escapee.
The 64-year-old Victorian man restored the yacht completely on his own, which cost more than $120,000. Source: Supplied

After leaving Cairns last week, Mr Cornell, an ex-prison officer, had planned to sail "leisurely" to Indonesia, before he, and his single crew member ran into rough seas.

"All we were doing was basically going island hopping, going from anchorage to anchorage," Mr Cornell told Yahoo. "So after Cairns, we went to Port Douglas, and then we went to Cooktown for another four days. So a very leisurely trip. We left Cooktown on Wednesday morning, and headed for Lizard Island."

Tragedy days after journey of a lifetime kicks off

It was on this leg that would spell tragedy for the duo, merely days after the journey began.

"We were 10 nautical miles out of Lizard when we had a gear problem with the mainsail, so we dropped the mainsail and started to motor and thought 'let's just motor the 10 kilometres'," Mr Cornell said.

"So we started motoring, and five nautical miles out, the motor died — contaminated fuel."

The yacht Escapee is seen docked at a wharf.
Mark Cornell, 64, was on the journey of a lifetime before tragedy struck. Source: Supplied.

The plan was to anchor in about 20 metres of water overnight, which may "have been a bit bumpy", but Mr Cornell was certain he'd be able to fix what needed repairing.

"I just couldn't do it at night in the dark and with the boat bouncing all over the place," he said. "We got bounced by a couple of big waves and next thing you know the gypsy on the anchor winch gave way and pulled out another 30 or 40 metres of chain.

"That just pushed us straight back onto the reef. We were in about two metres of water and our keel's bouncing off the bottom. We couldn't get out of there, we didn't have a motor.

Skipper decides to abandon ship

"We were getting bashed by the conditions, we couldn't pull ourselves out. I made the decision that we would abandon ship. I put out a mayday call."

The pair remained on the boat when the Australian Marine Safety Authority (AMSA) in Canberra picked up the distress call. Authorities on Lizard Island also responded to the call, but struggled with motor issues of their own, so "they weren't able to do anything".

"I managed to throw a couple of belongings overboard, not much, but a couple and they (the Lizard Island crew) grabbed those for us. Then the boat started to lean," Mr Cornell said. "If you can imagine that you're talking about a 16-metre yacht, and it's it's bouncing on the bottom, you get a hit by two and a half metre waves.

The yacht, Escapee.
The yacht Escapee did not survive the ordeal. Source: Supplied.

"A wave hit me sideways and flipped the boat over and put me in the water. I struggled to get back to the ladder my crew member put down, so we were in danger."

In complete darkness and fully submerged in the ocean, anyone else may have lost their nerve, but Mr Cornell said he simply "didn't have time to be scared".

"As the boat finally keeled over the helicopter came into view," he said. "You just had time to do what you needed to do. I've been in dicey situations for years. I'm an ex-prison officer."

Everything lost to the sea

Selflessly, Mr Cornell threw the belongings of his crew member overboard before his own. The items he managed to save for himself included, mercifully, his daughter's ashes, who he'd "been charting around for years" after her death in 2013. He also managed to save his passport and wallet, "but not much else".

Asked how he felt about the daunting reality of losing everything, the 64-year-old said "not good, but you can't dwell on it".

"I'm not anxious. You just have to get up and and start again," he said. "Don't have a boat. But, you know, something will come up. You just can't dwell on it, you have to be positive about these things.

"A couple of mates have contacted me and said, 'keep your chin up', you know, 'let us know what the next adventure is, we can't wait'."

Now back in Victoria living with his sister, having bought some clothes to live in and a few other items to get by, Mr Cornell said he's aware the boat is now fully submerged in the sea and in the same spot where he left it, unable to be saved.

He thanked those who helped save his life and that of his crew but maintains "he'll get by". A fundraising campaign has been launched to help Mr Cornell get back on his feet.

Love Australia's weird and wonderful environment? Get our new weekly newsletter showcasing the week’s best stories.

Banner reads 'What on Earth' with 'Subscribe to our new weekly newsletter' and a collage of images of australian natural wildlife.
Click here to sign up to our newsletter.