Dave Cornthwaite is not as well known as other adventurers who take on challenges of similar calibre. This has always confused me. His Expedition 1000 project, which will take him on twenty-five 1000-mile human powered journeys is about as ambitions as they come. At 32, this gentle ginger lover of long distances has skateboarded over 3000 miles across Australia (setting a world record in the process), kayaked that country’s longest river, broken the world record for the longest stand up paddleboard journey on the Mississippi, and, most recently, swum the length of the Missouri River. He’s done all of this while receiving surprisingly little attention from the press, getting very little help from sponsors, and raising awareness for the breast cancer charity, CoppaFeel.
I just got off the phone with Dave. We talked for over an hour about his project, personal life, and goals. It has become clear that the main reason he’s received so little attention is that he maintains the highest of standards for his expedition. For him, it’s a personal journey. He turns down sponsors and documentary offers if he feels that they’ll restrict his ambitions in any way. Without financial support, Dave is left to handle hs PR himself and, no matter how ambitious he may be, there’s only so much one man can do.
After talking with Dave it’s easy to see that he’s an adventurer of the highest integrity. He also reminds me of my good friend Jeremy Taws I’m going to do what I can to help Dave receive the attention he deserves. Here is a brief first interview with Dave. I’m pitching several more to different magazines, so keep an eye out for them in coming months.
Your first trip was from Perth to Brisbane by skateboard. How did you feel at the beginning of that journey?
I felt like the world was at my feet. The distance and challenge ahead was incredibly daunting but I’d already leapt the biggest hurdle; by quitting my job, doing the UK warm-up, putting together a team, logistically preparing for the 5 months across Australia. All that was left was to do it and in many ways that was the easy part. There was no turning back. All that said, I had no clue what would come afterwards, I was just focused on getting to Brisbane, one step at a time…
Were any of the trips more intimidating than the others at the outset?
I’ve had fears about everything I’ve done. I’m a naturally cautious person but realised early on that my habits were very geared towards being comfortable and saying no a lot in order to maintain my utterly banal status quo. Since 2006 and taking the skateboarding journeys I’ve purposefully and gradually reversed my habits, so now I live in the moment, I say YES even if what it leads to terrifies me. I’m constantly aware of how fragile I am, my own mortally is linked intrinsically to these journeys I do. The swim I’ve just completed down the Missouri, and the Bikecar trip from Memphis to Miami both had hugely inherent dangers but I was prepared to face the prospect of dying or becoming extremely sick because had I not taken on the challenges I would have been lying to myself.
Of your seven journeys so far, do any stand out as being particularly difficult mentally, physically, or both?
The swim was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Towards the end the water had become uncomfortably cold, I was in it for twelve hours a day, never on land during daylight hours, shivering and approaching hypothermia on several occasions. Psychologically travelling so slowly and with such a narrow vantage point makes 1 mile, let alone 1000 so vast. The Bikecar was mentally exhausting because my life depended often on chance and was almost totally in the control of other people who had no awareness or inclination of what I was doing or my vulnerability. The skate across Australia was stressful and to a smaller degree the swim, in that I had to manage a large team at the same time as accomplishing my goals. On both occasions there were immense problems that completely took away from the enjoyment and satisfaction of the expedition.
Do you train in between expeditions to keep in shape? Or do you just let the expeditions themselves take care of that? If so, how?
I don’t train at all. I prepare mentally, in that I say I can do it. I get logistics together, find sponsors and do it. Never any doubts. Physically, the first days and sometimes weeks of an expedition are the training. You do something all day every day and it becomes what you do, no matter what you’re up to. Take the swim for example. I hadn’t swum solidly for more than 300 metres in my life before I jumped into the Missouri for the first time. Five days later I was front crawling 2 miles non-stop. A 10 mile day in no current became commonplace within a week. The human body is astounding as long as we allow ourselves to believe.
Swimming sounds to me like the most physically difficult way that you’ve tar 1000 miles so far. How did you train for this?
I opened up a Christmas present from my parents, some swimming goggles. I looked sideways at them and said, ‘you know what you’ve just done!’ I had a five mile float down the Thames, swam for about ten minutes that hour in small stages. Then two weeks before the journey I went to a lido in London and swam a kilometre in a 50 metre pool. I needed three minutes between each length to get my breath back. I couldn’t even get my breathing right because the ‘waves’ from the people in other lanes were catching me out. I knew it would be hard, but that my proper training would be in the first few days of the journey. I just believed I could do it and I wanted to continue to show that no matter how strenuous – and it doesn’t get harder than swimming – that anyone, no matter their ability, can achieve anything they want. It just comes down to a decision and the will to see it through.
How far were you swimming in an average day during this trip?
It took half of the expedition’s allotted time to complete the first 180 miles, 125 of which were in a lake system with no current at all. Average day was about 7 miles. Then we completed 820 miles the second half of the journey, once we were below the last dam and had between 2 and 3mph of current with us.
Can you give us an idea of approximately how much time each day you spent using different strokes?
First of all, I was towing a raft behind me that had all the basic things I needed to survive. In the lake system this took about 1 mph off my speed. In the river the pull was a little less and of course the current helped. It’s physically impossible to swim 12 hours a day for two months, so I rested on the raft at the same time as eating or when sewage deposits were high. To roughly break it down – 75% front crawl. 13% raft. 2% floating in water. 5% breaststroke. 4% backstroke. 1% butterfly (but that’s because I’m a showoff!
Did you see anything nasty in the river that made you want to jump out of the water?
There’s something about floating by a pipe that is literally gushing human faeces and urine straight into the river that makes you long for dry land. Most of the toxins and other chemicals in the water are invisible, thankfully. No big animals with teeth made themselves apparent, for which I was grateful!
Have you ever had a moments where you felt like giving up and getting a regular job? Do any of those moments stand out as particularly poignant?
Never. Never. Never. I gave up my job because I’m not built to live someone else’s dream. I needed to be my own boss, be passionate about life, say yes again and again and develop myself through challenges. Comfort kills ambition and the idea of going back to a world where I work simply so I can earn money terrifies me. However hard these journeys are, they are beautiful and I’m living my life to the very limit. I’ll never go back, I’ve found something that ticks every box for me.
Depression has been a bit of a recurring theme in discussions of your trips. In your recent interview on NPR you mentioned that before becoming an adventurer you were depressed with your workaday life. You recently wrote on your Tumblr blog about post-adventure depression. Do you feel that that you deal with depression more than the average person?
Oh goodness me, no! I’m just honest! We all have ups and downs. My highs are few and far between, but they’re sky high. My average state of existence is about halfway between my highs and how I used to feel when I was living a more conventional life. My lows now are incredibly rare, but they tend to come straight after expedition and sit a little lower than what used to be my median. I’m always happy to share how I feel, that’s what really counts and makes us who we are and through the past few years I’ve become very familiar with who I am and the states I go through. It’s important to share this.
I’m a bit of a bipolar person, and I think that is definitely liked to my propensity to take on epic and arduous adventures (not quite as crazy as the ones you choose, but still pretty tough). There are more than a few endurance athletes who have this personality trait. Do you feel that this applies to you as well?
Perhaps. I don’t consider myself an endurance athlete, I just do stuff rather than collect it. I’m not someone who lives in the gym (I hate the gym), I don’t like routine, I love my freedom and ability to take an opportunity even at the last minute and I’ve shaped my life as such. I like a challenge, I like my downtime, I’ve just cursed with not wanting to waste any time so I’m not sure I’ll ever have another holiday!
Like many adventurers, you’re also a writer. Hemingway often noted the difficulty of maintaining discipline in writing. How does the mental challenge of writing compare to the physical and mental challenges of your expeditions?
It’s different in that a written goal is so open ended. You’re done telling your story when you’ve exhausted all angles and once you start writing a book there’s no telling when that might be. For all the challenges and discipline one needs to complete a large expedition you’ve set yourself a goal in distance and perhaps time, and you just need to make it. It’s much easier to break down logically. The key with writing is to switch off all distractions, don’t have a view, affix ones arse firmly to a seat and start to write and don’t finish until your done.
Have you written any pieces that you’re particularly fond of?
I have two books on the shelves at the moment as well as hundreds of articles online about topics ranging from living an unconventional life to following your dreams to preparing for a skateboarding expedition. I suppose my favourite piece so far is called DATE, a book about finding a girlfriend by trying to date 100 women in 100 days. It’s out on Kindle and 10% of proceeds go to the breast cancer awareness charity CoppaFeel! for whom all of my adventures raise money, too.
You’ve mentioned that you’re taking six months off to write. What are you going to work on?
I have two books partly completed that need finishing off, about journeys down The Murray and Mississippi Rivers, and I’ve just started work on ‘Are You The Swimmer?’, which you might guess is about this most recent Missouri River expedition.
Do you know what expedition you’re going to do next? Or do you have an idea?
The only distraction I have from writing for the next few months is a small speaking tour around the States. I’m taking bookings now and will be speaking through November and December about my story, adventure and the importance of saying yes more. It’s a wonderfully feeling that beyond this year I have nothing planned for the rest of my life.
Which of the remaining expeditions are you most looking forward to?
I have 18 remaining of the Expedition1000 series. I think rowing the Pacific Ocean solo is the hardest endurance challenge left to humankind and I’m thrilled to be taking on that challenge in a couple of years, but every journey will have a place in my heart. I just don’t have them lined up yet!