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Gavan Hennigan: 'Sport kept me on the straight and narrow - I still have an addictive personality but now I use it in a positive way'


Extreme-environment athlete Gavin Hennigan. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Extreme-environment athlete Gavin Hennigan. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Extreme-environment athlete Gavin Hennigan. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

I'm not a great sleeper in the mornings, so when the alarm goes off at 6am, I'm always keen to get out of bed. The first thing that I do is make coffee. Then I'll check the weather. I can see Galway Bay from the balcony of my apartment. I check the conditions - the wind and the tide - because the aim is to get out rowing. If I'm not going out straight away, I'll do a two-hour session on my rowing machine. It's right in the middle of the living room and takes up a lot of space.

Most of the time, I get on the machine before breakfast. This helps me to burn fat. All of this is preparation for the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. It's a 5,000km row from the Canary Island of La Gomera to Antigua in the Caribbean. I'm doing it solo. I'll be starting it on December 15 in a carbon-fibre ocean rowing boat. I've been on plenty of expeditions, but, up until this challenge, I hadn't rowed before. This is my first boat. It's good to jump in at the deep end but I'm not going into it blindly. I've been preparing for the last 18 months.

At the moment, I'm trying to put on weight to bulk up before the expedition. I'll have 5,000 calories a day in food on the trip but I'll be burning off about 10,000 calories each day, so I need to have additional weight. I don't want to be dependent on carbohydrates. I want to be able to row for two hours and not need a sugary drink, because there will be times out on the sea when I'm not going to have one. On the boat, I'm going to be doing two hours on with one hour off, so I do the same in training. I wear a heart monitor and I keep my heart rate low. It's low intensity because I'm going to have to do this day after day.

At the moment, there is no set routine to my day because it's very weather dependent. I work everything else around that. Some mornings I do a lot of admin about the trip. This includes looking for big sponsors. When people see what I do, they think that I'm an adrenaline junkie, but I tell them that there is no adrenaline going out and rowing on the Atlantic. It's possibly going to be one of the most boring experiences of my life. Some days when I start rowing, I think, 'Here I go again', but once I'm moving and the blood is flowing, I'm OK. I have a target. I have a TV here in my flat and a sound system and I can put on music, but other times I just stay focused on the actual rowing.

I'm going to be out on the Atlantic for 90 days. I will have music with me but it's better to prepare myself for the real thing because I'm not going to have a 40in flat-screen TV with the morning news on it when I'm out there. For breakfast, I usually have poached eggs, smoked salmon and bacon. My diet is high fat. I think of food as fuel.

I'm an extreme-environment athlete and for my day job, I'm a commercial diver. I do contract work - a few months at a time. I dive down to 200m doing heavy construction in oil rigs all over the world. In the North Sea, when I'm deep-sea diving, I get to see monkfish as big as cars. In my time off, I've done high-altitude climbing in the Himalayas and snowboarding in Antarctica.

Why do I do this? It goes back to when I was 21 and had a suicide attempt. I had a really hard time from the age of 16. I had grown up with the dance scene in the late 1990s. Almost every time I drank alcohol, I blacked out and I was using lots of ecstasy, heroin, cocaine and crack. There are wild teenagers and then there are people who end up in rehab. I got into a fair bit of trouble and had to leave Ireland. I lived in a squat in Holland and ended up sleeping on the streets in London. Also, I had a lot of trouble coming to terms with the fact that I was gay. I used to headbutt the mirror because I didn't like what I saw.

Not long after coming out of rehab, I had a botched attempt at taking my own life. I realised that my life was going nowhere and I couldn't stop the carnage. Alcohol and drugs were my safety net. I felt raw and vulnerable, like a cornered animal. Then I got clean at 21. I'm so lucky because it's such a hard thing to do. I had to start a whole new life. Gradually, I put my life together bit by bit. Then I started surfing. I found great solace in sport, so I went 100pc at that. It kept me on the straight and narrow. I still have an addictive personality but now I use it in a positive way - with sport.

Rowing across the Atlantic is going to be tough but it's not going to be as bad as some of the stuff I've been through personally. All of those experiences with the drink and drugs and the suicide attempt have made me resilient. Now I have the mental and physical toughness to face challenges. There are highs and lows, but now I know that they are just part of life. I want to row the Atlantic because I read a book about a man who said that late at night when he was rowing, if it was still, there was phosphorus and plankton stirring up from each oar stroke. And he was able to see the Milky Way. I thought it sounded amazing. That element of romanticism appealed to me. I am a daydreamer and that's what went through my head. That's why I signed up for this challenge. I know I will be hit by storms but to do something like this, you have to be part ignorant, part confident.

I get some good-quality sleep at night but soon I'll be doing sleep-deprivation training. I need to adapt for the rowing trip. It's all about adapting. I've taken a huge gamble with this project - I've been out of the loop with my career and I've put a lot of my savings into it. Some nights when I put my head on the pillow, I'm full of fear and doubt about my life. But then I realise that this is normal. Everybody has these thoughts. I am getting there, one step at a time.

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Gavan is rowing the Atlantic solo this December in aid of two charities - Jigsaw Galway (Young People's Health in Mind) and Cancer Care West. To make a donation, see gavanhennigan.com

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