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The Hudson River Project: an interview with James Bowthorpe

James Bowthorpe thinks adventure is broken, so later this month he’s going to fix it – by travelling the length of America’s Hudson river in a boat made from rubbish. Jon Hawkins meets him

The Hudson River Project

If your idea of an adventure is taking the long route to Sainsbury’s, look away now. Because James Bowthorpe has set himself a challenge that’s not only brutally hard, but unites ideas about our connection with the wild, wastefulness and the nature of exploration. This month the British adventurer, who cycled around the world in 2009 (18,000 miles in 176 days), will set off to row the 300-mile length of the US’s Hudson river, from its source in the remote Adirondack mountains to New York City, where it meets the sea.

More impressively still, he’s doing it solo, in a boat he’s building from rubbish collected in the Big Apple. The whole thing will be documented in a forthcoming film – Hudson River Project – with a soundtrack by post-rock icons Mogwai. Ambitious? Yes. Possible? Bowthorpe certainly thinks so…

Can you explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it?

I’m going to build a boat from NYC’s trash, from the streets. Then I’m going to take that boat to the source of the Hudson River, high up in the Adirondack Mountains and make an unprecedented decent of the river back to Manhattan. It’s an 800-mile journey that starts at the end of October. I’ve had adventures before that happened on a global scale – I’m now interested in doing something just as epic that happens on a more local scale. Something you could do from your front door that is about exploring our relationship with our immediate environment rather than far away polar regions or mountain tops where it’s even difficult to simply breathe as you’re so high up.

Why did you choose the Hudson over, say, the Seine or the Thames?

I’ve done the same thing, on a much more experimental level, on the Thames. As soon as I’d finished that I wanted to do it again, and to make a film about it. I felt that to make the film as good as possible the river should be as varied an exciting as possible. The Hudson River has whitewater and very wild country at the source, becomes an international, tidal shipping lane, and ends next to Manhattan, one of the most recognisable cities in the world. To me the Hudson has everything in a relatively compact space, hopefully making what we’re doing as intense as possible, rather than a long leisurely trip down the Seine!

What can you tell us about your design for the boat? Given you’re making it from waste, what constraints have you set yourself?

I can only use handfuls, and I can only use what I find discarded on the streets of Manhattan. In terms of design, the boat needs to be all things to all conditions. So, whereas normally you’d have a whitewater kayak, and then perhaps something with more of a keel for the tidal sections, mine will be more of an ‘accumulation of compromises’. It’s really important that its as strong and as beautiful as possible – I’ll be spending at least 30 days in it!

Keep watch

An adventurer's friend

Bowthorpe will be accompanied on his trip by Tudor’s North Flag watch, which uses the brand’s new in-house movement, designed to be ultra-precise and ultra-reliable. Tudor has a history of supporting challenging endeavours: in the 1950s, members of the British North Greenland Expedition wore Oyster Prince watches in the hostile, Arctic conditions. “We’ll use the watches to synchronise the crew, particularly when we’re shooting the rapids section of the river, and we’ll also use them for navigation to a certain extent,” Bowthorpe explains. “For me, personally, the watch is also a bit of a talisman,” he adds. “It’s a reassuring piece of intricate metal and glass that’s become a bit of good luck strapped to my wrist.”

You recently said: “I want to make adventure and exploration less elitist, by doing something epic that is not on a polar ice cap”. Is there a gap between ordinary people and exploration?

It’s just too expensive and time consuming and I think we tend to just accept it and watch other people doing it on the TV. While I want people to watch Hudson River Project, I also want them to see that you can do things without much money or resources. I want people to realise that adventure or exploration is not necessarily about the fastest unsupported trip to the North Pole, or scaling unclimbed peaks – those things are great but they are not necessarily for everyone. Hudson River Project is quite specific to my interests, so I’d like to see people applying what they are interested in into some kind of adventure of their own. For me, adventure is about experimentation and finding out what you can do when you don’t know what is going to happen, and that is something I think is important not just in our personal lives, but in how we tackle the challenges we all face together.

The project draws together human relationships, natural and urban environments, waste and exploration. How will the film unite them all?

Filmmaking is a collaborative exercise and I think creating something good (bringing together all of the above) is dependent on a really good team of people all contributing their creative energy and ideas. Sound, picture, production, editing, music – they’re all going to be really important.

What part of the trip do you expect to pose the greatest challenge?

The Hudson River Gorge is a difficult-to-access 20 mile stretch of the river that is whitewater for the most part. It’ll be hard work for me and the crew, who’ll be facing the challenge in tricky conditions.

What will success look like, beyond reaching the end?

Creating a film and a broader project that is seen as widely as possible and gives people room to think about the issues we are raising. I think we need new narratives about our relationship with the world that aren’t doom-laden.

For more information visit and follow Bowthorpe on Twitter @james_bowthorpe