Irish ex-addict in world’s toughest rowing race - the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge

Gavan Hennigan hugs his sister before setting off in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. Picture: Ben Duffy/PA Wire

A seasick entrepreneur, a former heroin addict, and a mother of two are among the competitors of an epic endurance challenge, said to be the world’s toughest rowing race.

Twenty-nine athletes — including 18 from the UK and Ireland — set off under cloudless blue skies from La Gomera, in the Canary Islands, yesterday, bound for Antigua, in the Caribbean.

The crews are all raising money for charity. They are rowing the 3,000 miles (4,828km) of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, battling extreme fatigue, sleep-deprivation, and crushing waves.

While many of the athletes are in teams, four are soloists — taking on the challenge without assistance on board.

They include Elaine Hopley, an outdoor instructor from Dunblane, in Scotland, who will be missing both her children’s birthdays while she is at sea.

The 43-year-old, who won the inaugural women’s Scottish mountain bike cross country series in 1990, said: “Guy turns seven on the 23rd of December, and Harvey is going to be nine on January 21, so I am missing their birthdays — I will be calling them both from on board.”

Fellow solo rower, Gavan Hennigan, 35, from Galway, has become an endurance challenge veteran after recovering from a heroin dependency and a suicide attempt, while living in a squat 15 years ago.

The professional diver said: “I would wake up in the morning and smoke heroin and then go back to sleep. It was a pretty dark place — I just couldn’t deal with the fact I was gay.

“But I feel like, having come back from the brink, that dark place in my mind, I don’t feel like something like this challenge could faze me too much — this is just for fun.”

Angus Collins, from Burnham, in Berkshire, is hoping to make it back-to-back wins, having set a new record in last year’s challenge, with a time of 37 days and nine hours.

His Anglo-American foursome, Latitude 35, is tipped to be among the first to arrive in English Harbour.

The 27-year-old said: “When I was halfway across last time, I said to my girlfriend, ‘if I ever say I wanted to do this again, kick me in the shins’. And then Jason, who did the race last year, said he wanted to do it again and asked me to get on board.

“It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. The hardest part of rowing an ocean is getting to the start line. It would have been stupid to say no.

“I’d love to win. There’s some things I’m very relaxed about in life — rowing is the one thing I’m really competitive about.”

To follow the race, visit TaliskerWhiskyAtlanticChallenge.com


Lifestyle

It won’t come as news to mothers-to-be that they are not eating for two, as the old saying goes, but the number of extra calories needed may come as a surprise. And it’s much fewer than you might think.Eating for two: It's quality not quantity of food that matters during pregnancy

No. It is such a small word, yet at times, something many of us find difficult to utter. The inability to say no to work, friends or family can cause so much stress in our lived lives.Learning Points: Just say no, there’s power in that little word

Fiona Kelleher has set some of the works of Múscraí poets Seán Ó Riordáin and Séamus Ó Céilleachair to music, writes Pet O'ConnellPoetry and music combine in reimagining of works of Seán Ó Riordáin and Séamus Ó Céilleachair

I fear I might be getting to that stage with my daughter Joan, who is 8, whereby I am the needy one! I fear I might be getting to that stage with my daughter Joan, who is 8, whereby I am the needy one!Mum's the word: I’m the needy one... I get the kiss off from my own daughter!

More From The Irish Examiner