After battling the Atlantic alone for seven weeks in a record-breaking feat of ocean rowing, Irish adventurer Gavan Hennigan had a simple request when he finally landed on terra-firma in the West Indies.
The water-maker on the boat always made tepid water so I was dreaming about a cold drink. I hadn’t had one for 50 days,” he said after finishing third in the Talikser Whisky Atlantic Challenge, a remarkable achievement for a solo rower up against crews of two-to four rowers.
“The first thing I had was a Coke with some ice, then a burger and chips, then another burger, and then a pizza, all in the space of a few hours!”
Hennigan ate 8000 calories a-day to keep going and still lost almost two stone and, after surviving on rehydrated foods and lots of rice pudding and porridge in the final weeks, he was “looking forward to some vegetables and anything not cooked in a bag.”
The 35-year-old Galway man completed the 5,000km ocean race from the Canary Islands to Antigua in 49 days, 11 hours and 37 minutes, an average of 102 km a-day and the fastest time ever by a solo rower. He was only beaten by two four-man crews and finished nearly two and a half hours ahead of a trio called ‘American Oarsmen’ who got within six miles of him in the final days.
He usually rowed in four-hour shifts but to keep the Americans at bay he rowed non-stop for the last 14 hours. Eight other boats — a four, two trios, two pairs and three solos — were behind him and some are still at sea.
Hennigan has become a remarkable endurance athlete. Last year he finished second in the 500km Yukon Artic Ultra running race and trekked across a frozen lake in Siberia for 17 days and rowing was new to him.
“There were a few days where I really found it tough to keep going,” he admitted. “The weather conditions were very changeable which was very frustrating but I’d no choice but to get on with it.”
Perfect conditions in the final week allowed him to row 80 miles a-day and he said the greatest challenge throughout was mental.
“The body’s a machine. You just have to keep it fuelled and rested and it will literally keep going and going.
“But the mind can start to slip away and get ahead of the body so I had to keep pulling it back and get my mind and body in the same place.” The most terrifying aspect of the epic journey was the threat of capsizing.
“There was a point where we had a northerly wind and I needed to point the boat west while waves were smashing the side of it.
“The boat was completely tipped over on one side many times. I was tied in and getting knocked out of the seat but thankfully it managed to pop back up. That was definitely scary.”
He suffered bad blisters on his hands and backside, was regularly bruised and battered by waves and only slept an average of three hours-a-day, yet he said his achievement did not make him feel invincible.
“I feel the complete opposite, all the more fallible and human. I realised how powerless I was because no matter how hard I rowed I was sometimes going backwards. The ocean was the boss.”
Among his high points was swimming with a large pod of dolphins about 10 days before the finish and “the 50 sunrises and 50 sunsets.”
Hennigan, remarkably, is now contemplating rowing back across the North Atlantic, an even tougher route, but said that will “depend on how things pan out in the next few weeks.”
Several Galway primary schools followed his adventure closely and his priority now is to share his experiences with more youngsters.
“Kids aren’t like adults, they don’t have our limitations,” he said.
“Adults worry about what’s going to happen and how much it’ll cost.
“I’d really love to get around to schools now and share some of my stories with them.”
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