McClean is born on February 12, 1941. Having been abandoned as a baby, he starts life as an orphan at Bethany Home in Dublin. He spends much of his teenage years working on a farm until he becomes bored and enlists in the British Army. After Chay Blyth and John Ridgway row the Atlantic in 1966, he announces to both that he is going to complete this alone.
McClean starts his military career in the Parachute Regiment and then progresses into the Special Air Service (SAS). Following his retirement from military service, he gains fame for numerous feats of endurance. He holds the world record as the first man to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean from west to east which he does in 1969. In 1982 he sails across the Atlantic in the smallest boat to accomplish that crossing. The self-built boat measures 9-feet and 9-inches, and because of the weight of the food takes seven weeks to cross. His record is broken three weeks later by a sailor manning a 9-feet and 1-inch long boat. In response, McClean uses a chainsaw to cut two feet off his own vessel, making it 7-feet and 9-inches long. During the return trip he loses his mast and the journey takes even longer than his first attempt but he regains the record.
He is a survival expert who lives on the island of Rockall from May 26 to July 4, 1985 to affirm the United Kingdom‘s claim to it. This is the third longest human occupancy of the island, surpassed in 1997 by a team from Greenpeace which spends 42 days on the island, and in 2014 by Nick Hancock who spends 45 days there. Two years later, the then 44-year-old McClean sets about regaining his transatlantic rowing record and achieves his goal crossing the Atlantic in 54 days, a record still held.
In 1990 McClean completes a west-east crossing in a 37-foot bottle-shaped vessel, which had been constructed at Market Harborough by Springer Engineering, a firm with a past history of steel fabrication and narrowboat construction. The Typhoo Atlantic Challenger sails from New York to Falmouth, England. This vessel is now preserved at Fort William Diving Centre.
McClean’s most recent feat is the construction, in 1996, of a boat shaped like a giant whale, which completes a circumnavigation of Great Britain. The boat, ‘Moby’ Prince of Whales, stands 25-feet high and 65-feet long. It has a spout which can launch water as high as 6 metres in the air. The Moby Dick, as of 2017, is in the process of conversion to electric power for an Atlantic crossing.