Gavan Hennigan (35) is an extreme environment athlete from Knocknacarra, Galway who is about to row, solo, across the Atlantic. This year he has already finished second in the 500km Yukon Arctic Ultra running race and also completed, in 17 days, a 700km trek across a frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia.
Q: How did you first get into adventure racing?
A: I’d played a lot of sport when I was younger and had been a swimmer, but then I spent a few years getting drunk and stoned and barely went outside.
That drained the spirit out of me until I was 21. Then I went to rehab, got clean and a few months later met a guy in the weekly after-care programme who, like me, was trying to stay on the straight and narrow.
He was a DJ but had sold all his equipment and wanted to try surfing.
He bought a board and I bought the wet-suit and we took off down to Lahinch in a crazy December storm.
The whole rawness of that ignited something in me and was the catalyst for everything I’m doing now.
Q: Is there a connection between your unusual job and these extreme adventures?
A: I worked as a saturation diver on super-deep water construction all over the world until I was made redundant last year when the price of oil dropped.
You’re in a compression chamber inside a boat for 28 days at a time.
A diving bell takes you down into the ocean where you work for 6-8 hours and then back into that chamber, squashed in with six or eight lads.
From the adversity I’ve faced — staying clean as a 21-year- old, my job, and being gay in an industry where no one’s gay — I figured I’d gleaned some strength.
Q: What does your latest challenge involve?
A: It is a rowing race from the Canaries to Antigua, 5,000km long or the equivalent of going around Ireland three times.
I’ve worked out it’ll involve at least 1.5m strokes and I’m hoping to do it under 60 days. To do that, I’ll need to row 100km a-day.
Q: How will you physically manage to row 100km every day for several months?
A: It’s done in manageable chunks, a few hours at a time. I have an autopilot (and two back-ups in case it breaks) to keep me on course, but it drains a lot of (solar) power, so I won’t have it on all the time and will use my feet and hands to steer too. Everything on the boat works off solar.
The most I’m planning to sleep per day is four hours.
Q: Will that cause hallucinations?
A: Yes, I’ve experienced that before.
In the Yukon in Canada this year, when I did 123 miles in five days with just six hours sleep, I was hallucinating something rotten after three days.
You’re so sleep-deprived that you’re dreaming while you’re awake. It passes, but the only real solution is to get some kip.
Q: What’s the most dangerous element of rowing solo across the Atlantic?
A: Shipping, large mammals, and big waves. I have an automatic identification software alarm (AIS) which will go off if anything comes within 10 miles of me.
The boat is designed to self-right and the chances of getting over-turned by a whale are less than by a big wave.
It’s down to me to make sure to steer the boat into the weather and to shut the cabin hatch.
Q: What happens if you hit a massive storm and have to batten down the hatches?
A: I’ve got a sea-anchor. Its 12ft in diameter, like a giant parachute and goes out on 70m of line and is weighted so it sinks deep and stabilises the boat, but you might still be doing 0.1 of a knot.
The race was hit by three storms last year, so there could be times where we’ll just have to wait it out.
The organisers will contact us every day at the same time with weather reports and I’ll also have my own weather feed.
Q: How will you stave off the boredom?
A: I’ll have lots to do every day in terms of rowing and preparing food, drinks and admin but I’ve got a stereo system installed on the boat, with speakers on the deck.
My iPod and iPhone are loaded with audio books and music. I’m into dance music, so have loads of techno-mixes!
Q: What are you most afraid of?
A: Not finding my limit. The environmental and physical stuff I know I can deal with. It’s the mental side of things that’ll be harder.
Sean McGowan (from Limerick), the only Irishman to complete this race solo (2010), told me that the rowing’s the easy part! But it’s the mental side of it that interests me most. The whole buzz for me is going into the unknown.
Q: How are you funding it?
A: I have some sponsors locally, but this expedition is 90% self-funded, I’m spending all my savings on it. I was a bit naïve and went looking for sponsors when budgets were already gone, but I don’t mind, because I was always going to do this.
The boat was custom-built for me in Rannoch Adventure in Essex and I brought it back to Ireland in the spring and trained with it all summer.
Q: Is this expedition just about testing yourself?
A: I’m also raising a bit of money and awareness for two organisations: Cancer Care West and Jigsaw, the youth mental health charity.
A couple of people close to me at the moment are suffering from cancer and they’ve helped me immensely to get this row together.
As for Jigsaw, I was definitely on the brink for a number of years and came back from it and try to be an example to young people of what’s possible.
Q: Have you replaced your previous addictions with just another healthier one?
A: That’s valid alright.
I was crippled by zero self-esteem and addiction when I was younger. Coming from that place, where I tried to kill myself at 21, to a place where I believe I can row the Atlantic, I feel like I have had a second chance and I’m not going to squander it by just living a mediocre life.
Q: We can’t let you off without asking: How will you manage bodily functions on the high seas?
A: Great question! Basically it’s the old bucket-and- chuck-it system.
I’ve actually brought a toilet seat with me so I can pop it on top of the bucket, do my business and then it’s over the side!
The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, which begins on December 14, starts in La Gomera in the Canary Islands and finishes in Antigua, 3,000 nautical miles (5,000km) away.
Hennigan is one of four solo competitors among this year’s 12-boat fleet.
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