Delivered. goes on an adventure with thrill-seeker James Ketchell

The British-born extreme adventurer reveals why he’s always looking for the next thrill-seeking challenge, and why he’s on a mission to inspire young people to follow their dreams.

It’s hard to imagine when looking at him now, but as a teenager, record-breaking man of action James Ketchell felt lost and lonely. “I had no ambition, no drive, I was bullied, I was skinny, had a face full of spots and left school with no qualifications,” he says. “I was depressed and spent years in bed.”

But one day Ketchell found the motivation to go to the gym and soon developed a passion for working out. “I suddenly discovered routine and discipline,” he says. “My confidence grew and I ended up getting a job. By my late teens and early twenties, I’d changed a lot and was pretty fit.”

Ketchell also developed a taste for adventure and began racing motorbikes – although he broke both his legs in a bike accident in 2007. “The doctors didn’t think I’d walk again,” he admits. “But I did leave hospital, finally, and started seriously thinking about a dream I’d had to row across the Atlantic.” He couldn’t find anyone to join him, so in 2010 Ketchell completed the trip on his own. It took 110 days, battling freak storms and running out of food 230 miles (370 kilometers) from the Caribbean.

During that challenge he met a high-altitude climber who invited him to scale Everest. Ketchell accepted. “I thought: ‘If I can row across the Atlantic, why can’t I at least try?’” He left his job, started raising funds for the expedition, and in 2011 successfully climbed Everest to “stand on top of the world.”

In 2013, Ketchell cycled around the globe – an 18,000-mile (28,970-kilometer) journey – speaking in a school in every country he visited. It took him six months. “I spoke to 10,000 kids during that trip,” he remembers. “And my profile went up, because no one else had rowed the Atlantic, climbed Everest and cycled the world. The media started billing what I’d done as ‘the ultimate triathlon.’”

Ketchell is never satisfied, however, and always looking for his next awfully big adventure. This year he flew around the world in a gyrocopter, with logistics support and sponsorship from DHL. If this sounds like an easy challenge compared to the other three, think again. The tiny aircraft travels at just 70 knots with a cockpit that is open to the elements. The trip over Europe, Asia and North America lasted 175 days and was made up of 122 separate flights – yet, incredibly, it went almost without a hitch. “The only issue was that I had to land on a road in Canada during a thunderstorm,” he says matter-of-factly. Mentally and physically, though, it was a huge feat of endurance.

Ketchell is now a scouting ambassador and motivational speaker, regularly giving talks in schools. “That feels so right,” he says. “Kids say to me: ‘I wish I could do the things you do!’ My message to them is: ‘The person I used to be years ago was very different to the person I am now. So don’t worry about who you are now. Think about what you want to be and where you want to go. Because if you set your mind to it, you can do anything.’”

What drives you?

I’ve found something that makes me happy, that makes me feel complete. And I love working with kids. Probably 80% of the children I speak to think: ‘That was cool!’ then forget all about it. But I know for a fact that a few of them will say: ‘Right, talking to James has inspired me to do X.’ So I feel like it’s my duty, almost, to keep going. I’m not very good at doing a lot of things, if I’m honest. But I am good at staying alive, I’m good on expeditions – and I’m very, very good at interacting with young people. I don’t know why! The truth is I don’t know where this is going longterm, but I’m really enjoying it.

What’s the nearest you’ve come to real peril?

In 2015 I was involved in a project to row a boat across the Indian Ocean, which was a disaster. It all went wrong, my rowing partner and I had to be rescued and it was global news. I came back to the U.K. thinking I’d let myself down, but it was the complete opposite. Everyone wanted to know what it had been like and the invitations asking me to speak increased.

What was your hardest challenge?

Physically, the hardest was climbing Everest, but mentally it was the easiest because you’re never on your own. Trust me, though: When you fly around the world it’s mentally exhausting! You’re exposed, there’s no autopilot, and at the end of every day you feel as though you’ve just run a marathon.

What are your ambitions?

The thing I’m currently working toward is sailing around the world. The voyage is going to be split into seven legs – and on each leg I’ll be joined by a crew in their late teens and early twenties who desperately need a second chance in life. These are young people on a knife-edge. They’re either going to fall on the wrong side and go to jail – or they’re going to use this project to springboard in the right direction.

How do you keep positive? And what can businesses learn from your attitude?

As soon as negativity strikes, I try to shut it out and focus on things that I’m looking forward to. It’s about staying on an even keel and not getting too down or too elated. The trick is taking it one day at a time, and finding the discipline to do something when you don’t feel like doing it. Without discipline, you’re lost. And if you can develop the ability to not panic and stay cool and calm, you’ll do OK!   —  Tony Greenway

Published: January 2020

Image: Ian Homer/DHL