When’s the last time you came across an individual who made you feel guilty for even so much as *thinking* of a lazy day slumped in front of Netflix? A figure who triumphed over the odds, performed superhuman feats – all with a devilish twinkle in his eye? Well, believe us, even for someone whose CV features the words “extreme environment athlete” – Gavan Hennigan, whose story is equal parts one of steely determination, inner demons and wanderlust – is such a man.
To date, the Irishman is as well-travelled as David Attenborough. Exploring all seven continents and mountaineering in the remotest places on the planet, he’s even found time to complete two of the toughest winter ultra marathons in existence – the Likeys Arctic Ultra, a 566km inside the Arctic Circle, and the 500km Yukon Arctic Ultra. The latter event saw Gavan pull a sled in minus-30°C temperatures, placing second with one of the fastest times since the maiden race launched in 2003.
I spent my whole life trying to get away from who I was
Even these mighty challenges, however, pale in comparison to what Gavan achieved in February 2017. That fateful moment saw the adventurer complete an epic row across the Atlantic Ocean solo. In doing so, he became the fastest solo competitor of the Talisker Atlantic Challenge, with a time of 49 days, 11 hours and 37 minutes. Even more incredibly, it’s a feat he achieved with limited training – and a fractured back.
“I had a knot in my back while I was out there,” Gavan tells Flash Pack. “Unbeknown to me, I’d developed a stress fracture. It may have been bad technique – having only had a few rowing lessons. But then it’s hard to row in the ocean when you’ve got one oar in the ocean and another in the air.”
Yet, to pin down Gavan’s greatest success is to understand where he’s been and what he’s had to overcome. At age 16, dropping out of school and picking up drink and drugs, the Galway native’s life spiralled out of control. By the time he reached his 20s, he was living in various bedsits and addicted to heroin.
It was a tough time. “It was a fairly dark existence,” Gavan says. “I didn’t even have curtains in the bedroom, and just a mattress on the ground, a lot of drink and drugs – not glamorous. On one occasion I’d gone out and ended up in hospital after taking too much MDMA. I was in my early 20s. Mentally and emotionally, it was very bad inside my head. Much of it was me dealing with being gay – I hadn’t told anyone, I was hiding a lot of it and not really accepting it. I was angry. I also thought I was headed down the same road as my father, who had been an alcoholic.”
Adventure made me feel as if I didn’t have to run anymore
After a few stints in rehab, along with the support of family, Gavan and a friend scraped together enough money with a friend for a single surfboard and wetsuit – “we literally had to share” – and hit the waves for an experience that would change everything.
“It was incredible,” Gavan recalls. “It gave me a purpose to stay clean and sober, to surf, to travel.” Kickstarted by the power of the same ocean he’d end up rowing solo 15 years later, it would prove a catalyst for travel and adventure. “I felt as if I didn’t have to run anymore,” he explains. “That’s what adventure is. It gives you a time to check out and not be worried about bills and relationships or things like that. You’re in the moment. I completely urge people to find that.”
“The world suddenly opened up to me,” Gavan continues. “I went to Bali and got better at surfing, then went to Perth, Australia, and learnt how to be a commercial diver, with a view to working on an oil rig. I had no qualifications, so I thought it would be good for someone quite athletic and physical like me.
“Then it all exploded. I started working offshore in a commercial diving role and travelling the world. I worked three months on, three months off, allowing me to trek around the globe for adventure when not doing it as my day job. I’ve been to places people have probably never heard of.”
That same commercial diving work would be a massive help for Gavan as he came face-to-face with his 2017 rowing challenge. He knew he’d be able to cope with the mental side of being alone on the ocean for weeks at a time.
“As a saturation diver, we work in the most extreme environment imaginable to man,” Gavan says. “So basically, we go down beyond 100m and can’t come down and come back up. We actually have to go in a chamber and we’re compressed there for four weeks at a time, right inside a big diving ship. If I had a heart attack down there, I couldn’t just come back up. It’s a scary thought.
“Though nothing could quite prepare me for the solitude of the ocean row,” he goes on. “I remember finding it odd to be near land again – I could smell the vegetation before I actually saw land, which was an odd experience.”
I can’t wait to get out there and see more of the world
And sharks? “I saw a few on my route, but I don’t see them as a danger,” says Gavan. “I think people watch too many Jaws movies. Sharks unnerve me but they’re just part of the environment. My biggest threat during that solo rowing trip was probably from shipping – I came pretty close enough to a few ocean-liners.”
Of all his globe-trotting exploits, Gavan says his favourite trip was crossing into Antarctica from South America to go on a snow sports expedition: “Being able to snowboard down to the shore where there were penguins stood around was something very special. You don’t get that in Ireland.”
Indeed, if we can learn anything from Gavan – aside from the odd lesson in geography – it’s that being unafraid to put yourself out there, and try something new, can change your whole outlook – not to mention your life experience. “Less than a decade ago, I didn’t know how to row,” he says. “It’s funny how things snowball – from surfing I got into snowboarding, then mountaineering. Before I knew it, I was travelling the world and running ultra-marathons in sub-zero temperatures.
“Escapism is everything for me,” he adds. “I spent my whole life trying to get away from who I was. But it was only when I saw the world that I realised that I love who I am. I can’t wait to get out there and see more of it.”
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Photos: Gavan Hennigan