How Adventurer David Cornthwaite Is Discovering the World, 1000 Miles at a Time

David Cornthwaite
Approach­ing Helsin­ki after cross­ing Scan­di­navia on a ped­al-pow­ered Hobie Kayak—photo by Leif Rosas | Pho­to by Leif Rosas redstar

Eng­lish adven­tur­er David Corn­th­waite likes to do things his own way—from sleep­ing in weird places to rid­ing a tan­dem bicy­cle from Van­cou­ver to Las Vegas, to choos­ing a boat over an apart­ment to live with his wife, Emma, in London.

Corn­th­waite is best known for his Expedition1000 project, a plan to under­take 25 sep­a­rate jour­neys of at least 1000 miles each, always using some type of non-motor­ized trans­port. The project start­ed in 2011 and has so far includ­ed both land and water trav­el, includ­ing a 2,340-mile stand­ing pad­dle­board jour­ney down the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er over the course of 82 days.

We talked to Corn­th­waite about what inspired this project, what adven­ture is all about (it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly what peo­ple think it is), and what’s com­ing up next.

THE CLYMB: Have you always loved adven­ture? Is this some­thing that start­ed at a young age?

DAVE CORNTHWAITE: Hon­est­ly, I wasn’t very adven­tur­ous at all as a kid. My fam­i­ly is con­stant­ly sur­prised at where adult­hood took me. I was obsessed with foot­ball and com­put­ers, was (and still am) ter­rif­i­cal­ly short-sight­ed so as a child wore thick-rimmed, thick-lensed glass­es, and I wasn’t so good at dream­ing. Look­ing back, I do remem­ber a fam­i­ly car­a­van hol­i­day in the south of France when we kayaked across a lake and slept on an island, but that’s weighed up against that time I refused to go sky­div­ing for my birth­day because it was too dangerous.

THE CLYMB: Was your trip to Ugan­da after high school an a‑ha moment that helped you com­mit to adven­ture more fully?

CORNTHWAITE: It was def­i­nite­ly an ah-ha moment which made me real­ize that the world was way big­ger than the bub­ble I’d been used to, and for a lit­tle while I guess I was real­ly excit­ed about life’s poten­tial. I back­packed a bit through Uni but nev­er real­ly with a pur­pose, and I think after a while if you’re not led by rea­son then mind and moti­va­tion slow down. It didn’t take long to start spend­ing more time at home and then, ulti­mate­ly, to get a job that kept me sta­t­ic and on the ham­ster wheel.

David Cornthwaite
Leav­ing Kirkenes to begin a 1243-mile water­bike jour­ney along the Nor­we­gian coast­line in July 2017 | pho­to by Tor­ben Kuhle

THE CLYMB: Can you tell our read­ers more about the inspi­ra­tion behind your Expedition1000 project? How did you get the idea for it? 

CORNTHWAITE: I’d got a job straight out of Uni as a graph­ic design­er, even though I hadn’t stud­ied graph­ic design and was bloody awful at it. They were des­per­ate back then, in Swansea. For 18 months I just went to work, did poor work, went home and played Playsta­tion. I had a house with a mort­gage, a long-term part­ner who didn’t like me very much, which wasn’t sur­pris­ing because I didn’t like me very much either and look­ing back I lived under a cloud of depres­sion and boredom.

On my twen­ty-fifth birth­day my cat, Kiwa, jumped on my head and woke me up, and I looked into her eyes and it hit me. “Crap, I’m twen­ty-five years old and I’m wast­ing my life away. My cat is enjoy­ing life more than I am. I have to get out of this spi­ral. I have to start say­ing yes more.”

That day I walked out the front door with a spring in my step, look­ing for oppor­tu­ni­ty. It felt great, being opti­mistic, and I spent the next few weeks try­ing new things and one of those hob­bies was long­board­ing. I’d nev­er done it before so learned by skat­ing around Swansea, and all of a sud­den this town I’d live in for six years was alive with pos­si­bil­i­ty. Two weeks lat­er, I skat­ed to work, quit my job, skat­ed out and decid­ed to try and break the world dis­tance record on a skate­board, it just felt like a long jour­ney would take me to wher­ev­er I need­ed to go.

So I did it, with an 896-mile warm-up from John O’Groats to Land’s End, and then over 3600 miles across Aus­tralia, from Perth to Bris­bane. That trip changed my life. I got a book deal, a cou­ple of world records, and felt like I could now make a wild deci­sion, act on it, and go. It felt like I’d final­ly worked out what being alive, for me, meant, and I just want­ed more of it. So I went on a mis­sion to chase this life­time goal of tak­ing on twen­ty-five dif­fer­ent jour­neys, each at least 1000 miles in dis­tance, each using a dif­fer­ent form of non-motor­ized trans­port. Main­ly so I’d nev­er have to get on a bloody skate­board again.

THE CLYMB: How do you choose destinations/transportation for each one of the trips in the Expedition1000 project? Is there a method to it or is it more of “what­ev­er inspires you at the time”?

CORNTHWAITE: I’ve com­plet­ed 14 of these so far and there’s no rhyme or rea­son. Some­times the jour­ney comes from anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty like a speak­ing gig or a film job, and while I’m there I’ll do a trip. Some­times it’s a con­ver­sa­tion in a pub, some­times I read a news­pa­per or mag­a­zine and see a ran­dom form of trans­port and the bell starts ring­ing, a switch is flicked, and I can’t focus on any­thing else until the jour­ney comes togeth­er. I don’t train for any of them, usu­al­ly the first time I’ve tried the trans­port is on the day the jour­ney starts. Then take it slow, train on the job, and after four or five days it feels like you’ve been doing it for a lifetime.

David Cornthwaite
Tak­ing a moment to enjoy the sun­set on the first Stand Up Pad­dle­board jour­ney along the length of Lake Gene­va | pho­to by Sebas­t­ian Terry

THE CLYMB: Of all the Expedition1000 project trips so far, any in par­tic­u­lar that you loved more than the others? 

CORNTHWAITE: They’ve all had their moments but I just love trav­el­ing on water. It’s like choos­ing between your chil­dren, but if I had to choose a favorite it would be Pad­dle­board­ing the length of the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er. It starts off as a tiny stream that slow­ly builds into a great riv­er, miles across in places. And that pic­ture is repeat­ed in your mind, you can start as a com­plete novice and slow­ly grow and grow until you’re unstoppable.

Trav­el­ing in an odd way is a won­der­ful ice break­er, and in 2011 Stand Up Pad­dle­board­ing hadn’t yet become the glob­al phe­nom­e­non that it is now. I dug the con­fused faces and ques­tions all the way down the riv­er. “Why?” “What is that thing?” “Why are you stand­ing on a kayak?” “What about the alli­ga­tors?” And on and on and on.

David Cornthwaite
Tak­ing on the long road across Aus­tralia. Cross­ing the Nullar­bor on Day 13 of a 156 day, 3618-mile skate­board jour­ney from Perth to Bris­bane | pho­to by Hol­ly Allen

THE CLYMB: Any that turned out to be noth­ing like you expected?

CORNTHWAITE: All of these trips start out as a glo­ri­ous idea but all come with their unseen obsta­cles and chal­lenges. Some­times this is part of the fun, get­ting through the crap and then car­ry­ing on, real­iz­ing you’re prob­a­bly a bit stronger than you thought before­hand. Swim­ming 1000 miles down the Mis­souri Riv­er was tough for many rea­sons. First, swim­ming isn’t easy, espe­cial­ly when you’ve nev­er swum 100 meters in your life before, so it took a while to get going, espe­cial­ly drag­ging a 35kg raft behind me. I had a team of pad­dle board­ers along­side me on that one, help­ing to raise mon­ey for char­i­ty, but most of them hadn’t left their vil­lage in Eng­land before and the plains of South Dako­ta sent them all loopy. Every­one was at each other’s throats and there’s noth­ing more exhaust­ing than falling out with peo­ple in an intense sit­u­a­tion. It hap­pens, but it’s not fun. I was glad to get to the end of that trip.

In 2017 I rode a water­bike along the Nor­we­gian coast, some 1240 miles from Kirkenes in the North almost to Bergen in the south­west. The Nor­we­gian and North seas are bru­tal, and while the wild island camp­sites were epic and Nor­we­gian peo­ple are amongst the kind­est, hap­pi­est peo­ple I’ve met, the ele­ments slow­ly wore me down. My butt was a mess, sit­ting on a buck­ing bicy­cle seat on the ocean isn’t pleas­ant, and I’d land at the end of each day with salt in my beard and peo­ple just star­ing at this weird water­bik­er. I end­ed up about 90 miles short of my goal and a two-week hur­ri­cane was blow­ing in from the Atlantic and I just called it a day. These trips are for liv­ing, not dying.

THE CLYMB: How do you pre­pare for trips like these? Do you have a sys­tem in place to deal with food, sleep­ing stops? Or do you have to research/plan for every trip com­plete­ly from scratch?

CORNTHWAITE: Every trip is dif­fer­ent so the basic plan­ning is from scratch. Some are down rivers, oth­ers across deserts, along coast­lines, or hap­haz­ard­ly fol­low­ing roads in a rough direc­tion across a coun­try or con­ti­nent. Each of my jour­neys takes a dif­fer­ent route and draws a new line across the sur­face, so while I approach them all in a sim­i­lar way, that method is large­ly based upon a basic belief that things will just work out if I approach it with a smile! Not train­ing, wild camp­ing and trav­el­ing on a non-motor­ized vehi­cle keeps the costs down, and most of my trips come in at under £1000. My out­er lug­gage is always water­proof, whether pan­niers for a bike or dry duf­fels for riv­er jour­neys. And I eat what­ev­er I can find. I pre­fer social jour­neys with peo­ple at the cen­ter of the plan, which means there’s usu­al­ly a store or food source at least every few days.

I think the key is to work out what might hap­pen that could cause harm or stop the jour­ney short and be aware and pre­pared for this. Every­thing else can then just hap­pen. There’s so much of our lives and social sys­tem that is more or less planned—or at the very least, easy—and you have to choose your approach on these things. Either you wing it, or you turn your adven­ture trip into a glo­ri­fied pack­age tour, rid­ing between hotels each night. All approach­es are fine, but if you’re after a good adven­ture then too much prepa­ra­tion is a sure­fire way to ster­ile a trip.

David Cornthwaite
Kayak­ing along the Mur­ray Riv­er in South Aus­tralia, Decem­ber 2009 | pho­to by Peter Dodds

THE CLYMB: In addi­tion to your long-dis­tance trips that are part of the project, you also do a lot of oth­er adven­ture trav­el­ing. Any favorite thing type of adventure/travel you enjoy?

CORNTHWAITE: I men­tioned peo­ple, above. What­ev­er my jour­ney, whether an endurance trek or a film trip, if you have a rea­son to be there it’s so much eas­i­er to strike up a con­ver­sa­tion. I trav­el because it reminds me that humans are good and kind. I trav­el with a pur­pose because it keeps me focused, cre­ative and gives some hooks to hang mem­o­ries on.

There are some small, insignif­i­cant things that I crave when not on the move. That feel­ing like you’ve real­ly earned a cof­fee, even if it’s a rub­bish gas sta­tion cof­fee because you’ve already rid­den 30 miles that day. Or when dusk is com­ing down and you still don’t know where you’re going to sleep, and then a dis­used barn comes along, or a grassy flat spot with an amaz­ing view over a moun­tain range, or even the lus­cious shel­ter of a con­struc­tion site con­crete pipe. I love sleep­ing in weird places, it’s not always com­fort­able but it’s some­where, and when I get home the ‘real’ bed feels so so good. As soon as we start tak­ing the basics for grant­ed, it’s time to get away again.

THE CLYMB: You’ve bro­ken a num­ber of world records. Tell us about some of them!

CORNTHWAITE: There have been some weird ones! Dis­tance records on skate­boards and pad­dle boards. A speed record on an Aquask­ip­per. First cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tions of Caribbean islands by pad­dle­board, which is much hard­er than it sounds! And in 2013 I cap­tained the los­ing team in what was at the time the longest game of five a side foot­ball, ever. We lost 896 to 547, which is galling after play­ing for 46 and a half hours!

David Cornthwaite
About to start anoth­er day, swim­ming down the Mis­souri Riv­er pulling this 35kg raft.

THE CLYMB: What’s your next adven­ture all about and when are you leaving? 

CORNTHWAITE: In 2015 I real­ized I didn’t know my Face­book fol­low­ers so decid­ed to see if they were real peo­ple by invit­ing them camp­ing. The 19 strangers that turned up under a Lon­don train sta­tion clock that June evening were the first mem­bers of a com­mu­ni­ty called the YesTribe, which is now over 15,000 mem­bers strong and is grow­ing around the world. I spend a lot of my time run­ning a team of 80 vol­un­teers, who set up free events that bring peo­ple togeth­er, often out­side, to low­er social iso­la­tion and recharge men­tal health with the end goal to help each per­son live a full, cre­ative and adven­tur­ous life. SayYesMore has become a big part of a lot of people’s lives now, and I admit, run­ning this non­prof­it meant that for a while I lost out on my own trips.

But now, with eleven thou­sand-mil­ers left to go, I’m start­ing to plot them out. Towards the end of the sum­mer, I’ll ride a recum­bent bicy­cle 2000 miles in a month from San Fran­cis­co to Mem­phis. And next year I’m look­ing to swim 1000 miles under­wa­ter, start­ing with a pathet­ic breath hold of less than a minute and then, bit by build­ing up to four or five min­utes. Come up for breath, go swim anoth­er hun­dred meters. Then again and again until the 1000-mile mark. Bit by bit, keep on going, the view keeps chang­ing. That’s what I live for.

David Cornthwaite
Still swim­ming down the Mis­souri Riv­er, this time in water less than 46F (8C) degrees, approach­ing St Louis on the final week of a 1001-mile, 58-day jour­ney | pho­to by Miguel Endara