In the last few days of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, a three-man boat of American rowers was closing in on a solo boat helmed by 35 year-old Irishman, Gavan Hennigan.
It was time for Hennigan to dig deep and find something within himself to close out the race. After rowing 5,556 kilometers from San Sebastien in La Gomera to the English Harbour in Antigua, Hennigan came in on February 1st in third place behind two four-man boats. In the process, he crushed the Irish record for a solo Atlantic crossing by finishing in 49 days, 11 hours, 37 minutes. His final push was 14 hours of straight rowing.
The ocean crossing marked a return to a backdrop that has long held a special place for the extreme environment adventurer. In the years leading up to it, Hennigan completed a solo crossing on foot on frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia, the Likey 6633 foot race (350 miles) near the arctic circle and the Yukon Arctic Ultra foot race (300 miles).
Add to that adventures in snowboarding, mountain climbing and trail running in locations ranging from Alaska to Nepal to Svalbard to the French Alps.
Hennigan grew up near the water in Galway, Ireland and was always outdoors playing in it. There was competitive swimming and a lot of open water swimming until everything changed at 16 years-old when he went on rollercoaster ride of drug and alcohol abuse. At 21 years-old, he entered rehab and turned to sports to help his recovery.
“I started surfing at locations along the Irish coast and it was a big foundation for staying clean and sober,” says Hennigan. “The adventuring that followed grew out of the surfing.”
He would also find work for ten years in deep sea saturation diving, working on oil rigs all over the world. The work didn’t always sit well with him in terms of the impact on the planet, but the physical demands of working at a depth of 200 meters would set the tone for he was going to accomplish as an extreme athlete.
“At one point I was having an identity crisis and started gravitating towards the mountains and snow adventuring,” Hennigan says. “You could say that I went off into the mountains, but the ocean was always on my mind. It was like a never-ending struggle between the two.”
Nine months before the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, Hennigan answered the calling from the ocean and spent his life savings on a boat for the solo crossing. With no experience in rowing or navigating the ocean alone, Hennigan turned to a sailor friend for technical advice on everything from engineering to meal preparation. His training began on Irish lakes and advanced to 100 mile rows along the Irish coast.
“I think there was an advantage to not having rowing experience prior to the race,” Hennigan says. “Rowing on the ocean is more crude than typical competitive rowing. There are times when you only have one oar in the water.”
Though he spent many years on the sea with his diving work, the race was the first time he would be alone in the middle of the ocean. It wasn’t unusual for help to be as far as two days away.
“The ocean is a wild dynamic place and the vastness makes you become so attuned to the environment. Even the subtlest changes become noticeable,” says Hennigan. “After experiencing 50 sunrises and 50 sunsets, I was constantly aware of everything from changes in the water color to changes in cloud formations. The ocean oversaw whether I would complete my targeted miles for the day.”
It was the racing component of the crossing, along with taking advantage of opportunities presented by the ocean, that produced the crazy mileage from Hennigan. There were days where he rowed for 19 hours straight.
“The racing aspect definitely added another dimension to the rowing,” says Hennigan laughing. “When I found out that the three-man boat had closed to within 10 miles of me, I decided to crack on for the final push to the finish line.”
After finishing the crossing, Hennigan ventured off for some snowboarding with another ocean adventure swirling in his head. This coming June, he will make another trek across the Atlantic from Irish-centric Battery Park in New York City to his hometown of Galway, Ireland.
“I had this idea in my head to go back across to Ireland. I waited until I had a bad day and asked myself again,” Hennigan says. “I wanted to do something different from other adventurers. The North Atlantic represents a different beast and it’s close to my own heart. This will be like a homecoming.”
Hennigan has already shipped his boat to New York City and his training this time will focus on rebuilding his strength and regaining muscle memory through stationary rowing.
While most people may be trying to figure out how someone can endure the extreme situations that make up Hennigan’s adventures, the man himself shrugs it off as his lot in life.
“I enjoy the suffering – it brings out the best in me. My deep-sea diving job was brutal and I have built up a resistance to extreme situations,” says Hennigan. “I am incredibly privileged to be here in the first place and this is my one life to live. I feel like it’s my calling.”
Don’t think the man is all brute machismo though. When asked about the storm-petrels and white-tailed tropicbirds that joined him daily on his row, a huge smile spreads across his face. Also, his participation in the race was done to recognize two charities, Jigsaw Galway (mental health for youth) and Cancer Care West.
“It puts the whole thing in perspective and it’s important to make it about more than myself,” Hennigan says. “I want to use these adventures to get people to be bolder about their own lives.”