Meet the man who overcame drug addiction to row the Atlantic solo

By Joe Ellison

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From heroin addict to adrenaline junkie, Gavan Hennigan used adventure travel to turn his life around. If his story doesn’t inspire you to see the world, nothing will…

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 and did so with a devilish twinkle in their eye? Well believe us, even for someone whose CV features the words ‘extreme environment athlete’, Gavan Hennigan, whose story is one of steely determination, inner demons and equal parts 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 face of 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, pulling a sled in minus-30 and placing second with the third fastest time since the maiden race in 2003. Though even those challenges paled into insignificance with what the 36-year-old achieved last year: rowing the Atlantic solo, becoming the fastest solo competitor of the Talisker Atlantic Challenge with a time of 49 days, 11 hours and 37 minutes. Incredible, right. Well, here’s’ the thing – he had a fractured back… “I had a knot in my back while I was out there,” he says. “Unbeknownst 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.”

But to pin down the greatest success of Hennigan 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, and by the time he reached his twenties he was living in various bedsits and addicted to heroin. He recalls being in a tough place: “It was a fairly dark existence, 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 twenties. 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.”

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After a few stints in rehab, and the support of family, he 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. 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. 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. I went to Bali and got better at surfing, and 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 thought it would be good for someone quite athletic and physical like me. Then it all exploded. I started working offshore, and have since spent the last 12 years travelling the world, working three months on, three months off, allowing me to trek around the globe for adventure when not doing it for work. I’ve been to places people have probably never heard of.”

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Without fully knowing it, that same commercial diving work would be a massive help with last year’s rowing challenge, in so much as knowing mentally that he could 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. 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. I remember finding it odd to be near land again – I could smell the vegetation before I saw actually land, which was an odd experience.

And sharks? “I saw a few on my route, but I don’t see them as a danger having seen plenty with my commercial diving work. I think people watch too many Jaws movies. Sharks unnerve me but they’re just part of the environment. My biggest threat was probably from shipping and I came pretty close enough to a few ocean-liners.”

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Right now, Gavan is preparing for another foray into the great beyond, this time back on land with another herculean race in Alaska come February: “I’ve not raced this one before. It’ll be between 25 and 30 days, so I’ve started mailing food packages ahead to post offices along the route so I can pick them up on the way. I can’t wait to get out there and see more of the world.”

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 and life experience to boot: “Three years ago I didn’t know how to row [laughs]. It’s funny how things snowball – from surfing I got into snowboarding, and then mountaineering and before I knew it I was travelling the world and running ultra-marathons in sub-zero temperatures.

“Escapism is everything for me. 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 I love who I am.”

Gavan is an ambassador for young people’s mental health charity Jigsaw. Click here to read more.

Photos: Gavan Hennigan and Unsplash

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