Adventurer Gavan Hennigan: ‘I don’t particularly identify as a gay role model’
Extreme adventurer Gavan Hennigan is currently preparing for his third expedition of this year, a 5,000km solo row across the Atlantic Ocean in December. It will be yet another experience that will test him to the limit, requiring vast reserves of mental and physical strength.
It’s hard to square up this alpha male image with the backstory of his life so far. The son of an alcoholic father, Hennigan had, by the time he was a teenager, become an alcoholic and a drug addict.
There’s a tattooed line of poetry that snakes up and around the Galway man’s left arm. It’s the words of a love poem written by his grandfather to his grandmother and read out at his funeral when Gavan was just 15.
Hennigan can remember watching his sister read this poem in church completely in awe of her strength and courage to stand up and deliver the lines. He vowed he would have the courage to do the same for his grandmother when the time came. “When I was 23 I was in Australia on a deep-sea diving course and I flew home and I did manage to read those lines at her funeral.”
It all sounds very straightforward, except for the life that Hennigan led in those intervening eight years.
His teenage years were marked by serious alcohol and drug abuse that had kicked in by the time he turned 16. “Pretty much as soon as I started drinking alcohol, initially to get more confidence, it was heavy bingeing from day one. The first night I drank heavily, I blacked out and it went on from there.”
Deeply unhappy as a teenager, he had a tumultuous time growing up with his father and was struggling to cope with the realisation that he was gay. “It was a struggle to reveal my true feelings for sure and I was just a raging, angry mess.”
He is keen to use his adventurer profile to help raise awareness on mental health issues in young people today. It is almost impossible to sit in front of this healthy and super-fit man now and imagine the drug addicted teenager he describes.
As we speak, Hennigan, now 35, is in the midst of planning and preparing for his trip as one of three solo entrants in the Atlantic Challenge. Considered the world’s toughest rowing race, from the Canary Islands to the West Indies, it starts on December 15th and can take up to three months to complete.
It’s a far cry from those wayward teenage years. “After I got clean in my early 20s, I started surfing and snowboarding and that developed into doing more extreme sports.”
In between periods of working as a commercial deep sea diver, Hennigan mountaineered in the Himalayas and travelled to Antarctica.
He acknowledges the high octane adventuring is a good replacement for his earlier life. Living in a squat in Amsterdam at 18, he was addicted to heroin. That was followed by a period in London in an unfurnished flat. “I was so far gone, I didn’t see the point of furniture. If I got paid on Friday, the money would be gone on drugs and drink by Monday. I remember thinking I didn’t want to be like my dad, so I somehow rationalised that the drugs were different to drinking.”
After overdosing on MDMA powder at 20, he blacked out. It should have been a wake-up call but he left the hospital and went out to drink a pint.
He acknowledges that he couldn’t deal with his emotions and the extreme behaviour masked it all.
“I was afraid to admit I was gay, I had huge abandonment issues around my Dad’s behaviour and it was only when I hit rock bottom that I could look up and try to deal with it.”
Today, Hennigan is keen to speak out about his own experiences to make sure other young people don’t feel so lost.
“You know as a man it can be difficult: ‘here’s another fella with a good sob story’. But I just felt I did not fit in and I had so many anger issues. I don’t particularly identify as a gay role model but if one person can see that I have survived all that, it will be worth it.”
Ironically, his rock bottom came after a stint in rehab when he should have been free from pain; he was drug and alcohol free but still with huge emotional issues. “I technically had a clean slate at 21, sorted and out of rehab but that’s when I started getting suicidal thoughts.”
It was after this, he started surfing.
“It tapped into something inside me and helped me to reconnect. I used to go down to Lahinch in Clare and somehow getting blasted by the Atlantic was helpful to me. It’s so wild out there.”
What’s amazing about Hennigan today is the level of mental torture he can endure in the name of adventure.
Just this year, he has completed two gruelling extreme adventures that involved massive amounts of time alone in hair-raising situations.
In February, Hennigan travelled 300 miles in -30 degrees to finish second in what is widely known as the world’s toughest adventure race, the Yukon Arctic Ultra. Setting the third-fastest time in history, he raced non-stop for five days, completing the event in 123 hours with only six hours of sleep.
A glutton for punishment, he headed off again in March on a solo traverse of Lake Baikal in Siberia. He completed the 700km walk across the oldest and deepest lake in the world in 17 days.
He’s most definitely addicted to the buzz of extreme situations and has raised thousands for charity in the process.
He is clearly happy in his own company; his chosen career as a commercial deep sea diver is a very solitary and, at times, stressful occupation. And his time off involves more stress.
“Yes, I see your point,” he laughs. “I like the mental challenges and I like to test myself. I remember what I felt like when I was younger and this is the exact opposite. I know I don’t think like a lot of people but I do like pushing myself. Even at the lowest points, I know I can make it through.”
This new adventure is no different, and was sparked by an airport book purchase – Salt, Sweat and Tears by Adam Rackley.
“I was working out in the North Sea and reading this book and the author described rowing out in the middle of the ocean at night and seeing phosphorescent plankton stirred up with every oar stroke and then looking up to the sky to see the Milky Way and that made me want to sign up. With hindsight, a bit more knowledge would have helped.”
For now, he’s concentrating on training in his boat Doireann and getting sponsorship sorted – he has a double challenge in his sights: to complete the row and raise at least €20,000 for his chosen charities: Cancer Care West and Jigsaw.