Andy Cornah is Head of Sailing at Sevenoaks School and sails for Great Britain. Andy has represented Great Britain in sailing since the age of 15 and has won five gold medals at British University Championships as well as multiple national, European and global titles including winning the British Open Championships five times. In 2011 his team (including two former Sevenoaks students) won the ISAF Team Racing World Championships, the first time Great Britain had won this since 1995. Andy has also captained the GB team for the British American Cup six times.
Sevenoaks School is undoubtedly the UK school to beat when it comes to sailing, winning the school national championships 16 times in the last 20 years. Sailing continues all year round from Year 9 through to the Upper Sixth and complete beginners are welcome to have a go.
Sevenoaks School has produced a number of very successful sailors including Olympic medallists, America’s Cup sailors and many top team racers.
How did you get into sailing?
Aged 2, I was chucked into a boat with my toddler reins on, where I lived in West Kirby, in the North West of England. Both my parents sailed, so I wasn’t given much choice really. We had Newfoundland dogs, who would swim out and pull us back in. Sailing was my parents’ passion, so I think they were quite relieved that I liked it!
What can sailing bring to people’s lives?
Sailing is such great sport, and I love the fact that you’re always learning. That’s so great for developing as a person. Even personally, as someone who’s been competing at the highest level from the age of 15, I’m still always learning new things. There’s a really good learning curve.
There’s something really cool like being out on the water, in the fresh air, in charge of a boat. It has a sense of adventure. It helps kids with problem-solving, confidence and teamwork.
For some kids, who may have difficulties in other areas, sailing is an escape because it’s logical – if you do X, Y and Z you get A, B and C as an outcome. It’s a sport that’s about reflecting and improving – which is such an important ability for life.
I think sailing is also good for those sorts of kids who are who are a little bit intimidated by contact sports. It’s an essential part of a sport programme at a school like this, where we do have a complete range of sporting abilities, and it actually allows for all our kids to excel. At the beginning, people would joke with me that “he can’t throw or catch; he can sail then” – which I take with a pinch of salt, but I am definitely proud that anyone can get something out of our sailing programme.
Sailing develops your own confidence and teamwork abilities. There are two people in most of our boats, so learning to cooperate with the other person is really key. And then in terms of the racing, we do this in teams of six and developing the team skills and leadership skills is really key. So I think there’s a lot of benefit to sailing. And on a basic level, doing something you enjoy in the fresh air is pretty essential!
Did sailing take over your life quite quickly?
I probably didn’t take it seriously in terms of racing until I was about 14 or 15. And then it did become very time intensive, particularly living in the North, because all the events were on the South coast. I really appreciate my parents looking back, as on a Friday, straight after school, we’d get in the car, drive down south, sail for the whole weekend and come back Sunday night. And my dad was doing that on top of a long week of work. So I’m very grateful.
Did you ever imagine at that stage that sailing could become a job?
No, not at all. Obviously, I started succeeding in competitions and was drawn towards professional sailing. But in terms of a whole career as a teacher, I would never really have considered that.
I had thought about becoming a primary school teacher. I did a law degree at university, then a Masters in accountancy and finance. So I kind of had my bases covered in terms of options open to me after university, but my main passion has always been sailing, and I kind of fell into a perfect job that allowed me to spend my whole life in that environment.
How did you fall into that perfect job, Head of Sailing at Sevenoaks School?
I was doing a lot of sailing, and doing lots of random jobs to pay for it. I was doing white van driving, picking and packing in factories, temping and admin work. Bruce Hebbert, who was the previous Head of Sailing, knew me and gave me a heads up about the job.
I was interested as I was very aware of Sevenoaks being a strong sailing setup – but I’m not sure I knew what the job would entail.
Sevenoaks is quite unusual in having such a big sailing programme, isn’t it?
Yeah, and definitely in terms of having a full-time sailing coach. There are only maybe five schools in the country that have that. At many schools, it might just be that Mr. Bloggs the geography teacher has a passing interest in sailing. So having a dedicated sailing professional is unusual (two, in fact, at Sevenoaks) and allows us to run an incredible programme.
How has the programme developed since you joined?
So the job here, which was in 2009, was Head of Sailing. It was quite part-time because back then we only sailed Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. I had about 40 kids in the programme, and they didn’t used to take on beginners – kids had to have a pre-existing qualification, which I changed pretty quickly. I wanted to take beginners; I didn’t want to advantage the kids that had had the opportunity to go on a course. So quite quickly, I doubled the size and numbers to about 70 kids and added afternoons to offer the opportunity for every student in Year 9 and above to sail, all year round, if they want to.
And you also have some very elite sailors?
Yes, we do have a few who are in the national system, who will take Saturdays off school to go to squad training weekends.
I guess a recent example would be Nick Davies, who sailed for Switzerland, so he would go back to their training camps, but did all the school stuff as well. In Year 7, I coached him on his own on Wednesday afternoons.
Nick combined immense academic perfectionism and drive with his sailing ambitions. He worked so hard at everything, was School Captain and an academic scholar. He then achieved a place at a top Ivy League college in the US, Yale, where he’s able to combine a top academic education with the opportunity to sail at an elite level for the varsity team.
He’s blossoming there, as I would have expected. He’s said he loves Yale as he’s able to combine a challenging set of classes with the opportunity to participate in varsity level sport. In a way that’s similar to what we offer at Sevenoaks School – students can perform at a very high level in our programme whilst also doing so well in their studies.
What achievements are you most proud of at Sevenoaks?
If you’d asked me when I started here 10 years ago, I would have said probably to win the National Schools competition, which we do often. In 2017-18 we had an amazing group of sailors who went through the whole season undefeated, which was an unprecedented achievement. But what I would say now is my aim is to give every single kid who comes to really get that bug, that passion for sailing, which doesn’t have to be racing.
The great thing about sailing is that it is one of the very few school sports that both genders can do with and against each other. And also, it’s something that can stick with you for life. You can sail big boats, small boats and go on to be an instructor, which a lot of them do as summer jobs.
I want them to pick up that passion. To enjoy sailing at University because of the passion they’ve developed here. To make friends for life through the sport. To be able to make new friends when they move to a new place, because of the sport.
Actually, a number of our students go on to become captains at their universities; we’ve had Old Sennockians recently captain teams at Oxford, Durham, Edinburgh, Bristol and Southampton.
How has COVID affected your job?
Well in some ways it’s quite reaffirming, seeing the faces of the kids who haven’t been out on the water since March, just having a ball and so happy just to be back out there. We don’t have fixtures at the moment and, in some ways, it’s nice not to have a competition focus. I’m saying to them, there’s nothing on the horizon competition wise, let’s just get back to the basis of just loving being out on the water.
What makes your job fun?
It is tremendously rewarding. The rewards are really tangible, like, you teach a kid to do something and they pick it up and you see that light bulb moment they get it – and they smile about it. You can have a direct impact. It’s very different to an office job, where you might be questioning your impact.
I love taking them to competitions as it gives them a chance to shine and put all the hours of practice out on the line. When I race myself, I’m not that nervous because I’m in control. But watching the kids out there at National Schools, I do pace around and get nervous. But when I watch them go out there and execute the moves that we’ve practised and I’ve taught them, I don’t care whether we win or lose when I do it, but I’m so proud watching them do all that work as a team.
How has it been combining your role as Head of Sailing with your own sailing career for Great Britain?
The school has been tremendously supportive of that. I think they understand that if I represent Great Britain, that’s good for me and the school. I’m also now coaching one of our Olympians, Hannah Mills, so that’s a cool thing to be involved with. And it’s nice to be able to dip in and dip out of that Olympic world as a coach because that really pushes my coaching here, so it stays at the top level. I’m very lucky to be able to have had that balance of a job and sporting passion that bounce off each other.
What do you think is the most important quality to have as a coach?
I think the ability to inspire. And inspiration can come from many different sources. It can come from obviously the way you’re teaching, the way you’re acting or your own performance, I guess. So as a coach to inspire someone to improve. Also to be adaptable in your coaching, as different people definitely learn in different ways. So you have to be quite good at reading the person you’re coaching and understanding how they learn.
I have to flick between the two extremes; I could be coaching an Olympic gold medallist one day and the next day I could be teaching a Year 9 beginner. But at the end of the day, the basics are the same, and so is the process of reflecting, wanting to improve and putting in the work.
• Sevenoaks’ sporting heroes share their sporting lives. Each month, Sarah Eversfield brings you an insight into the lives of members of the community with an interesting career in sport.