Hennigan laps up tough Atlantic conditions to be third in race
Twenty days into ocean crossing, the Co Galway man is in third place of 12 boats
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Galway man Gavan Hennigan, alone on the Atlantic Ocean, chose not to brood on missing the festivities of recent days but to instead consolidate his position in the Taliskey Whisky Atlantic Challenge. After 20 days he is – extraordinarily for a solo oarsman – in third place of 12 boats, most of them fours, trios or pairs, crossing from the Canaries to Antigua.
His aim is to join the handful of solo rowers who crossed an ocean in 50 days or fewer, but he took the ball on the hop and has been the story of the race so far.
“I never really thought I’d be in third place. I thought some of the boats behind me would definitely be faster than me. I’ve had a really good showing so far.
“It was actually day three that it all happened. There was a big following sea, probably four metres of swell and 25 knots of wind.
“I’ve done a lot of training off the west coast of Ireland, I’ve rowed a lot of sessions there in hairy conditions. I’ve rowed from Dingle to Galway, along the Cliffs of Moher in October. So I’ve definitely experienced some pretty wild seas.
“So when day three came and everyone [else] was just getting their sea legs, I just went for it. I did a huge day and just jumped up the leaderboard.
“The race is won or lost in the first 1,000 miles, so if you can establish yourself in the first 1,000 miles your averages don’t change that much, it’s such a long race. So I thought I’m going to go for it now, put in some big shifts, do back-to-back days and see how I go.
“Here I am now, over a third of the way through, and I’m 60-70 miles ahead of the guys behind me.
“It’s been an incredible few weeks. None of the equipment has failed on me. Henry [Lupton – a sailor, engineer and friend who is in constant contact] has helped me every step of the way. My body has held it together with a schedule which has me rowing nearly 16 hours a day.”
“Oh, absolutely. The mentality is really the main thing. The distance is irrelevant; it all comes down to the mind, how you manage yourself. And I just have that experience. And not just the ultra-marathons, but from my job as a deep-sea diver.
“I’ve done that for a number of years and it’s one of the toughest jobs out there. I just have, sort of, a good mental resilience. In tough situations I seem to be able to thrive.
“I enjoy being stuck into this sort of thing – being at the wall and pushing myself, I really excel as a person. I wouldn’t do that normally, in everyday life.”
New Year’s Eve provided spectacle.
“It was a completely clear night. The Milky Way was just absolutely jumping out of the sky. I was almost dizzy looking up at it.
“I just turned off all the lights and just sat on the deck for five or 10 minutes. I had my own little New Year’s Eve party.”
Christmas he saw as an opportunity.
“I actually did a huge day’s rowing on Christmas Day. I rang my mum and rang around in the morning. I have one Christmas tune with me, Fairytale of New York, and I had a little cry to myself – it’s one of those tunes, isn’t it? – and then I got back rowing and it ended up being a massive day.
“I made really good ground. I had that plan, anyway: I was going to push it. I knew others would be taking it easy.”
Hennigan tested his limits from the start and worked up a different pattern: he rests less, putting in up to 15 and 16 hours on the oars every day, taking just half-hour and hour-long breaks.
“I row all day, pretty much, and into the night. I sleep from about half-two in the morning until about seven.”
Although it is pretty light sleep, he wakes every hour to check his course. Last Sunday night sleep had to be postponed: a huge ship crossed his path and he had to steer away from it.
The amazing cloud formations and a pod of dolphins have been welcome distractions, but he expects more extraordinary sights as he nears Antigua.
“I’m hoping the Atlantic will reveal herself more to me as I go.”