Like some explorers of previous centuries, Justin Packshaw undertakes one compelling expedition after another. All of them are dedicated to feeding his appetite for adventure while raising money and awareness for philanthropic causes.
Fresh out of Edinburgh University in 1985, Packshaw joined the British army and went off to experience the first Gulf War. In 1989 and 1990, while still in service, he represented Britain in the Whitbread Race, a ’round-the-world sailing competition. In 1996, he crossed Mongolia on horseback in search of Tsaatan tribes and, in 1999, he motorbiked through East Africa.
In 2005, he won a 450-mile race to the North Pole. Three years later, he helped guide 15-year-old Camilla Hempleman-Adams when she became the youngest Briton to ski to the North Pole. That same year, he cofounded the De Roemer luxury clothing and accessories brand with his wife, Tamsin De Roemer. In 2011, he reached the summit of Mount Everest and, in 2012, he led a trek to the South Pole. He returned there two years later, when he replicated Sir Ernest Shackleton’s audacious 1914 sea and glacier trek from Elephant Island to the South Georgia Whaling Station.
Packshaw—who also travels the world, often by private jet, to spread his can-do message to businesses, schools, and others—sometimes seems larger than life. But he also comes across as down to earth. He’s just as quick to make fun of himself as he is to add another layer to the optimistic rhetoric.
When he spoke with me via Skype from his summer home in Malta, I asked him how he can stay so doggedly positive. “Well, for a start,” he said, “I’m just not very bright.”
It was the one thing he said that I seriously doubt.
Tell me about your childhood.
I had a fabulous childhood in Malta, a wonderful island in the middle of the Mediterranean that’s steeped in history. My siblings and I were sailing and diving almost before we could walk. We didn’t even have a television until I was about 10. My parents were very intrepid and were keen that their children grow up to be interested in life and interesting as people. So we traveled a lot. They were exemplary role models. I am the youngest of four, so I had to develop a can-do attitude early on.
Would you say you grew up privileged? Were your parents wealthy?
Well, yes and no. My parents sort of forged their way. Sometimes we were flush with money, and other times we were not. We had a house and a boat. My mother was one of those dynamic women who never seemed to have very much but made a lot with it.
You left Malta and got an undergraduate degree from the University of Edinburgh. Then what?
I took a year off and visited America for part of that time. I sailed up and down the East Coast. Even rode a motorbike from New York City to Biloxi, Mississippi, which was very eye-opening. Then I joined the army, where I served during the first Gulf War.
What was your experience in the war?
I was a liaison officer with the 7th Armoured Brigade, so my experience was pretty safe compared with some. What I learned was how to confront discipline at an early age. As an officer, you learn that a great many others’ lives fall under your remit. So you have to shape up.
What came after the Army?
I went back [to Edinburgh] for a masters’ degree in business and then got involved in a series of businesses, which I loved. From the beginning of my studies, I found myself drawn to entrepreneurial situations. I started a business-centric newspaper in Malta called The Trader, for example.
And now you own and run De Roemer with your wife. What pros and cons have you found to working with a spouse?
[Laughs.] If I’m honest, I have to say that is a seriously dangerous thing to do! Not to be taken lightly. But if you can make it work, there’s nothing better. Tamsin and I have been together for nearly 17 years and have had our business for 10 years.
The key is to have different roles. Tamsin is the consummate creative. She was a successful model, got into designing, and had a jewelry business with Jade Jagger, Mick Jagger’s daughter. And I like building things, putting them together. We’re the ideal business partners. Similarly, marriages are built on trust and respect. With all my time spent adventuring, if I am honest, the unsung and most magnificent hero in my life is my wife.
Let’s talk about those adventures.
I have been lucky to have led expeditions to both Poles, summited Mount Everest, ridden horses across Mongolia, motorbikes through Africa, jet skis in West Africa, sailed around the world, to name a few. Adventure is when I truly feel alive, and it impacts enormously on all other facets of my life. Around all of this I am a big believer in being accountable, and through my expeditions we try to generate impactful awareness and money for social and environmental issues.
For example, I’m very involved with Walking with the Wounded, a charity involving soldiers wounded in service with the British army. I’ve led a couple of trips with them to the South Pole. The second one, in 2014, was to honor the 100th anniversary of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition. With two wounded soldiers from my old army regiment, I followed the same route taken by the Shackleton expedition.
What’s your definition of “adventure”?
To me, adventure means stepping out of your comfort zone and breaking from the monotony of what is expected. It means confronting risk and challenging yourself. If the thought of what you’re about to do doesn’t leave you with butterflies in your stomach, whether that be due to excitement or fear, then you’re not doing it right. In the process, you will learn more about yourself, what you’re capable of, and about the world around you.
How do your adventures get started?
I’m a very big believer in dreaming big. I’ve gotten to where I can come up with these mad ideas. They start as a sort of framework, and then we slowly put meat on them. I try to get really smart people involved, and also new people who can cut their teeth on learning about the world. Then suddenly it’s “yeah, this might happen.” Predominately, things start with a glass of wine or a beer in your hand. And good banter going on, as in, “Do you think we could…?” On the back of a scrap of paper you start drawing things and planning. My home is full of maps and equally full of scheming people.
How does the business environment compare with climbing Everest and sailing around the world?
Much more than one might imagine. Both start with a dream and belief; but their overall success will ultimately come down to grit, resilience, persistence, patience, humility, respect…and luck. Humans are meant to excel, and when you see how capable we are and how adaptive the human spirit is, you realize that anything is achievable.
You advise people to embrace adventure. What’s your advice for those with more limited means than yours, in terms of money and time?
Adventure is a state of mind, a calling almost. A deep-rooted desire that will metaphorically smash all hurdles in its path. It’s about wanting to go and confront something —travel, learning music, a career move—to test yourself. None of this will come easily, and one will always have to be tenacious. So set goals, work hard, and have as positive a spirit as possible.
How has private flying fit into your world?
It’s about becoming more useful. For example, when I have three or four events in a tight sequence, and I’m trying to fit as much in as economically as possible, I sometimes charter out of Farnborough [Airport, outside London]. I also do quite a bit of flying with individuals I’m involved with who have their own planes. It is always so easy and you can arrange everything on your mobile and bypass all the chaos of a commercial terminal as you glide through your FBO and onto your plane, all in a matter of minutes, saving an enormous amount of time and, often, stress. The only barrier is that it’s expensive. But when you weigh that up against time wasted and other things, you can see it’s good value for money.
As an environmentalist and a strong believer in combating climate change, how do you answer critics who argue that business jets have an impact on
First, I believe strongly that we need to be responsible in how we treat the environment. All aspects of transportation are part of the problem. Just going places puts a strain on the planet. We need to keep pressing for lowering our carbon footprint. But you mustn’t clip people’s wings. To implement change, you need to be able to move. But you need to be efficient at it. I take umbrage when it isn’t done efficiently.
Have you ever experienced anything involving aviation that you would describe as an adventure?
Flying anywhere in the high Arctic or Antarctica is most certainly an adventure. All the pilots who fly in those regions are exceptional. I cannot help but marvel at their skill, as the weather can change incredibly quickly and they constantly have to put up with very testing situations.
I can include skydiving in Perris Valley in California or Deland in Florida. [I’ve jumped] from small Cessnas, de Havilland Twin Otters, Sky Vans, Turbine Porters, and a whole host in between, including the odd helicopter. Fantastic fun!
I understand that you have done some flying of your own.
Flying is my new love. I am in the process of getting my license, so I’m a baby pilot. Having said that, I have spent rather a lot of time in small planes and helicopters throughout my life, either through soldiering in the British army, or skydiving, or with friends and my father-in-law, who are all mad keen aviators. As I become more proficient I am looking forward to planning some fun trips with a friend who has a setup in Kenya. Africa is a joy to fly in, as there is always so much to see and it is still rather raw and unspoiled. I always feel that it takes you back to the days of [pioneering British aviatrix] Beryl Markham.
What has meant the most to you over the years?
Without question my family and friends. I am loving watching my two children growing up and hopefully they will be as excited about the road ahead of them as I have been with mine.
How do you envision your later years unfolding?
Hopefully, not too different from my first half. I creak a little more than I used to. I’m not the same person I was in my 20s, but not far off it. With any luck, I will continue doing what I am doing today across business, adventure, and philanthropy, maybe with my wife and children, as they get older. I am also excited about learning the art of flying, as the air and the sea are similar mediums. I’m quite keen to take a little submarine down into the Marianas Trench [the deepest part of the world’s oceans, in the western Pacific]. And equally, I’m quite keen to try to bust out of our atmosphere. I think what Richard Branson is doing with Virgin Galactic is brilliant, and it’s going to open up a wonderful chapter for the next generation of explorers, which fascinates me.
I am writing a book, which I am thoroughly enjoying, so maybe going forward I will do some more of that, too—alongside trying to get my golf handicap down!
Name: Justin James Packshaw, MBE (Member of Order of the British Empire)
Born: March 13, 1965 (age 52) in London
Education: Undergraduate and master’s degrees from Edinburgh University in Scotland
Business: Cofounder (with his wife) and managing director of De Roemer fashion label
Military Service: British Army officer, 1985–1994
Transportation: Charters jets and shares private flights with associates involved in philanthropic fund raising. Working on his private pilot’s certificate.
Philanthropy: Princes Trust, Defence National Rehabilitations Centre, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards, Walking with the Wounded, United Nations Environment’s Clean Seas campaign.
Personal: Lives in London with wife Tamsin De Roemer; daughter Lula, 11; and son Blake, 9.