Ex-heroin addict sets record as fastest solo rower in world's toughest race

Updated: 

A former heroin addict who fought back from the brink of suicide to become an endurance athlete has rowed his way into the record books.

Clean-living endurance athlete Gavan Hennigan, 35, has become the fastest solo competitor in the history of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, dubbed the world's toughest row.

He pulled into Antigua's English Harbour after a punishing 3,000-mile journey across the ocean in a time of 49 days, 11 hours and 37 minutes.

It meant he also smashed the record for the quickest Atlantic crossing by an Irish rower, beating the previous best by Sean McGowan by 69 days.

Mr Hennigan, from Galway, fought mental and physical challenges during the crossing, which began on December 14 in the Canary Islands, to come in third ahead of a fleet of two-, three- and four-person teams.

Speaking as he arrived to a hero's welcome in the Caribbean, Mr Hennigan said: "It was pretty tough those last few days holding off the team behind me - I was rowing non-stop, but I was determined to finish third. 

"Coming into the finish line tonight was just an incredible atmosphere. 

"It was an epic adventure, and I'd absolutely want to do it again."

The 35-year-old was used to the isolation, having been a saturation diver on oil rigs for the last decade.

And the mental challenge was an altogether different battle to the anguish he suffered while addicted to hard drugs in a bedsit in London in the early 2000s.

Mr Hennigan said he turned to heroin after struggling to admit he was gay. 

But after fighting back from the brink of suicide, the Irishman channelled his energies into clean living and endurance challenges which have seen him travel the globe in pursuit of his next thrill.

Speaking to the Press Association on the eve of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, Mr Hennigan said: "I had a lot of personal struggles. 

"I feel like having come back from the brink, that dark place in my mind, I don't feel like something like this challenge could faze me too much - this is just for fun."

Praising Mr Hennigan for his detemination, Carsten Heron Olsen of race organiser Atlantic Campaigns said: "We're thrilled to see Gavan in safe and sound following a record-breaking row. 

"From the start, Gavan has been one of the most organised participants in the race and I'm not surprised to see him finish third - clearly his preparation and hard work has paid off. 

"Gavan's a fantastic example of someone who has used difficult moments from his past to motivate himself to achieve great feats and inspire others in the process."

His crossing - making him the fastest solo racer in the three-decade history of the competition - saw him raising money for Jigsaw Galway and Cancer Care West.

Mr McGowan, the only Irishman to have previously completed the challenge, did so in 118 days.

The overall race winners, Anglo-American quartet Latitude 35, arrived in Antigua after just 35 days, itself a challenge record.

British foursome Row For James arrived four days later and raised more than £500,000 for pioneering suicide prevention crisis centres.

:: For more information, visit taliskerwhiskyatlanticchallenge.com