Gavan Hennigan, an extreme adventurer talks to Sandy Loder.
Gavan is currently doing his final preparations 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. Gavan is a highly qualified commercial diver who has spent a large part of the past ten years either working 8 hour days on the sea floor in the North Sea oil fields or sitting in a decompression chamber on a ship recovering before his next shift. This routine goes on for three weeks at a time.
It is hard to square up this alpha male image with the backstory of his life so far. The son of an alcoholic father, Gavan’s 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.”
Gavan, now 35, is in the final few days before he heads to the Canary Islands to take part in the world’s toughest rowing race, rowing solo from La Gomera to the Antigua. The race starts on 14th December and could take him up to three months to complete.
It is 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.”
I first met Gavan in March 2016 at GSK in West London where we were doing some cognitive assessments on him. He had just finished second in the Yukon Arctic Ultra and was about to depart on a solo traverse of Lake Baikal in Siberia - a 700km trek which he completed in just 17 days.
What was your first extreme adventure or race?
My first race was over 350 miles in the ‘6633 Arctic Ultra’ (@6633ArcticUltra), which they say is one of the toughest, coldest, windiest ultra-distance footraces on the planet. It has an extremely low completion rate. In its 8-year history, only 20 people, including myself have finished it. I completed it in 7 ½ days, pulling all my food and clothing in a pulk behind me.
Apart from the freezing conditions, what makes the 6633 race so tough are the long straight icy roads. The same roads you see on Ice Road Truckers. It was a real mental race due to the monotony.
How do you deal with this monotony?
I break the race down into blocks. In this case, each stage was about 50 miles long, which took me about 12 hours to complete. So I decided to stop every 2 hours. At each break, I would give myself a job to do – make a meal or eat a particular bit of food or do my personal ablutions.
Thinking ahead to this row. One of my biggest fears is the monotony. The storms do not worry me as much as the quiet days when the monotony could set in and my mind could drift off the race. I know once I am in it (the race), I am in it. I don’t give myself a choice. I know I will change and adapt over the first week of the race. That is the person that will get across the Atlantic and not the person sitting here talking to you.
Where does your mind go on these races?
I listen to music and podcasts, but I also go off into a fantasy world. I have a lot of opportunities to think about things but then I do come back and stay focused on what I am meant to be doing. It is definitely a real battle.
As you and I have discussed together over the past few months in preparation for the row, I will try not to let my head go too far ahead from the present. When I start to think how far it is to go or how long I have left, I start to lose my mind and focus. Keeping my mind and body in the same place, in the present, is the real challenge. It is natural to want to get out of there when on these extreme adventures.
How did you come to doing your first extreme adventure?
I had been doing a lot of mountaineering and snowboard expeditions on top of the diving which was my everyday job. When it came to the 6633 Arctic Ultra, I decided to stretch myself and have a go at one of the longest and toughest footraces in the world without any build-up races. Sitting in my decompression chamber, I read a Red Bull article (@RedBullUK) about the race. The cold really appealed to me. I just decided I was going to sign up for it. People say commercial diving is a tough job, but I wanted to try and test myself with something else. The Arctic Ultra was a test. They told me that its biggest challenge was the mental hardship. This appealed to me and that is why I went on to do the Yukon race and Siberia and now the Atlantic.
What drives you on in these races and adventures?
There is probably a bit more depth to this question. When I look back at my past and where I have come from with regards to drug and alcohol addiction, there is definitely a hint of going from one extreme to the other. Going from an underachieving low self-esteem teenager, I really wanted to prove to myself that I could do this stuff. I want to embrace these new challenges. I have the belief that I can complete something like this solo row. I am now able to take on these huge projects and organise them, prepare for them and complete them. Just believing I am tough enough to finish them is something really important to me.
Why do you do it?
Success – everybody has his or her version of success in their lives. The whole monetary and material gain to me is not success but for others it is. Success to me is being able to do things which I frankly see are bigger than myself. Before I enter this rowing race, I did not think it was possible. It is only through the preparing for it and training for it that I have had the belief I can do it. Taking on big things.
So you are coming to the end of all your preparation and training for the Talisker Atlantic Challenge (@TaliskerRace). You will row more than 3000 nautical miles across the world’s second largest ocean, the Atlantic, leaving La Gomera and heading west to Antigua. Once you exit the safety of the La Gomera’s harbour, you will be on your own on the vast ocean and at the mercy of the elements. So how do you prepare for your first ever rowing race?
Since Siberia in March, I have used most of my life savings to buy a race boat. I have had to learn so many new things. I am not a sailor. I am not a rower. I have limited engineering and technical knowledge. The boat has a lot of electricals on it. The preparation has been a huge learning curve, which I have really enjoyed.
Having never rowed an ocean, it is going into the unknown and doing what I can to learn as much about the boat as I can. Learning about the equipment; how to repair stuff; how to trouble shoot equipment, buying spares and prepping all the kit on board.
Have you ever entered a rowing race?
No, this is my first rowing race!
What excites you about this race?
Just getting away onto the ocean, being on my own. Once I am out there, there is no turning back. I will have to deal with what comes my way, to get to the other side of the Atlantic. What excites me is being cast into that arena and I am going to have to excel. I will be forced to cope and that is what happened when I went to Siberia. I was in the thick of it on Lake Baikal with a lot of decision-making, exactly what you had prepared me for. I do not feel I am pushed in my normal environment in the way I am out there on my own. I believe I come into my own when taking part in these adventures. The ocean, the storms excite me, the whole wildlife that I could potentially see, the sunrises, the sunsets. Just becoming really attuned to the ocean environment.
What are you nervous about this race?
Being a couple of days out into the ocean and realising I have forgotten something. The lists have been endless. I have tried to get my head around everything that I might need for this challenge. I am worried about something going wrong with the equipment; not completing the race. That is a bit irrational, however. I have tried to leave no stone unturned. Henry, my technical adviser, has even designed an emergency rudder plan for me, which can be made from various bits of equipment I have on board.
Why have you used Peak Dynamics?
Initially, I found your decision-making assessment fascinating. I found it had an uncanny resemblance to myself. I enjoyed the evaluation and your help planning a performance strategy for me. I am aware of my emotions and mental state. I do question myself and my behaviours quite a lot of the time. The support that you gave me when I was in Siberia, I found incredibly grounding. That is why I want you to be the rock for me when I cross the Atlantic. Between your expertise and your military background, there are a lot of practical solutions to what I am doing.
What has been your typical day preparing for this race?
5.00am Wake Up
5.30am Get on Concept 2 rowing machine for 2 hours
7.30am Breakfast and wash
9.00am Admin for such as social media, ordering equipment, sorting kit
11.00am Head to the boat and do some work on it such as the communications
12.30pm Lunch down at the harbour
2.00pm Go for a 2-hour row out on the Atlantic
4.00pm Wash down and tidy up the boat
5.00pm Go to the gym to do a strength and conditioning session
8.00pm Fall into bed
What lessons did you learn from the Yukon?
I know I can push myself a lot more than I think I can. There is a lot more in my tank. I do not need a lot of sleep. I feel the more fatigued and tired I get, the more I enjoy the experience. The deeper I get into it, the more I savour it. Typically, around day 4 and day 5. After I get used to the sleep deprivation, I get into a routine.
What lessons did you learn from Siberia?
The traverse of Lake Baikal was more of a day to day routine due to the limited daylight hours. Routine was hugely important and one that I stuck to. I could be mindless in that routine. The alarm went off at 4am. I would then light the stove to melt the snow for cooking and drinking. I had the tent down and packed by 6.30am just as the sun rose. It was like that every morning. During the day, I ran or walked depending on the conditions. In the evening, for the last hour or two, I was scanning the horizon looking for a suitable campsite. When I had found somewhere suitable, I had the tent up and shovelled some ice and snow next to the tent ready for the next morning’s cooking. I was fed and watered by 8pm and then pretty well ready to go to sleep. There were some days when I barely did 10 miles in 10 hours, whereas when the weather was good, I was doing about 40 miles on an average day.
The row will be all about adaptability as there are a whole load more of uncontrollables.
What are your future ambitions?
I would like to row my boat back from New York to my home in Ireland. The Pacific is appealing. On land, I would love to do the Yukon Arctic Ultra race again. I would love to do the North Pole in the winter, but I think North Pole adventures are probably over.
What can we all learn from what you are doing?
I had such fear over the basics of life and a really low self-esteem when I was younger. What I have shown to myself and hopefully others is that you can come from a pretty bleak and desperate situation and actually achieve some amazing things such as these big adventures I am now doing. You just need to have the commitment and drive. In the past, that would not have been my natural state. I was not born an adventurer or explorer. I am really keen to use my profile to help raise awareness on mental health issues in young people today.
What message would you have for a 16-year-old Gavan Hennigan now?
Whatever is going through your head – don’t believe it. Don’t define yourself by what you think of yourself now. Your horizon is so much bigger than you think it is. You can literally go out into the world and do anything you want, whether that is a college degree or a sporting success. There is a massive menu of things you can choose to do.
How is a teenager going to do that?
You need a plan, but above all else, you need the passion and drive. You need a real want to do it.
Thank you, Gavan. If somebody wants to follow you in this race, where should they look?
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