Wisdom states that when faced with eating an elephant, you do so one bite at a time. For South African Chris Bertish the feast begins next November when he begins his epic, solo, unsupported standup paddle crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Chris is paddling to support the children of South Africa through the Lunchbox fund (a charity that helps feed hungry students) and the Smile Foundation, which provides surgeries for children with cleft pallets.
Chris Bertish is a known player in the world of big wave surfing. He won the Mavericks Contest in 2010 surfing against such big wave chargers as Carlos Burle, Greg Long and Twiggy Baker. His standup cred is similarly rock solid completing grueling long distance stand up paddle trips along the coast of South Africa and charging huge, offshore peaks on his custom made Jeff Clark big wave SUP boards (an untold story that needs to be explored).
Chris is soft-spoken, he is a man who chooses his words carefully, punctuating points of emphasis with smiling eyes that can quickly become exclamation points when things get heavy. Sit down for one of his story telling sessions and you quickly figure out that phrases like, “I can’t” and “It’s impossible” simply aren’t in his vocabulary. I was fortunate to catch Chris on a California stop over for a quick chat about his upcoming trans-Atlantic crossing.
CB: Yes. I will be standup paddling from Morrocco to Miami, by myself, without a support boat. I will be unsupported; I will be on my own.
I’ll be carrying everything I need, 4 months of freeze dried food, a water maker, satellite communications, navigation equipment, everything I need on a custom built, one-off stand up paddle board. If I find myself fishing for food along the way, I’ll know I’ve made some miscalculations.
I’ve sailed this passage before, I know the water, I know the route. The board’s been designed; I wish I were leaving tomorrow.
CB: It’s a specialized piece of equipment- obviously, I can’t discuss too many details, there is another team considering the challenge so we’re keeping some of the design features quiet right now. The basics are similar to the open water rowboats that have been used to make big crossings. The board’s displacement hull will have water ballast tanks that I can pump up for stability or remove water from if I need to lighten the board.
At night, I can crawl down into the hull, pull a cover over myself and I’m sealed into the board. The board can withstand storms at sea, it won’t be comfortable but it will keep me dry and safe through anything I’ll run into out there.
JA: And fear? Or maybe I should rephrase that as “concerns”?
CB: If I were forced to identify something that concerns me, I’d have to say that I do think about cargo ships at night. (Long pause)
The thing is, for me, I don’t look at this as a fear, it’s just something that is a reality out there at sea.
Look, out there, I feel most happy, that’s where I belong. Out there is where I fit. When you look at the water, my home waters, off of Cape Town, that water is so brutal. It’s raw. We paddle the Cape of Storms, it’s rough, rough water with conditions that change instantly. Those conditions are what I identify as normal. Do I have huge respect for the open Atlantic? Absolutely. I would be foolish not to respect any part of the sea- but I’m prepared. I can see the end.
JA: And that was my sense as soon as I asked you that question- the question, about fear, I get the feeling that what you and I see are two different things. I see hardship, I see suffering, I see sharks, I see storms tossing you around in what’s basically a cigar tube with your nose four inches from the ceiling. The only thing you see is yourself running up the beach in Miami, am I right?
CB: And that’s exactly it… I see it and I know I’ll do it. I only see the possible.
JA: I have to ask, how does preparing and surfing huge waves both in South Africa and here at places like Mavericks (Chris won the Mavericks Contest in 2010) tie in with long distance stand up paddling?
CB: I don’t see a disconnect between the two…If it’s in the water, it’s for me. I surf stand up boards, I flatwater paddle them- just like I surf big waves and small waves, sailing, paddling, surfing- it’s all the same.
JA: I agree with you there but I’m trying to get at where your head has to be to take on waves the size of three story buildings and how that translates to getting your head around paddling three thousand or so miles by yourself?
CB: Big wave surfing is dealing with what happens when things go brutally, horribly wrong. At the 2010 contest the surf was so big that a giant wave washed through the contest scaffolding, it pushed people off the jetty and into the water. It hurt people.
Out in the water it was huge, there were rideable waves but there were also bad moments, getting caught inside. When you get caught inside in surf like that… what you go through underwater is horrific. You’re twenty feet underwater, you’re being pounded and at the same time you’re being dragged across the bottom so fast that you’re covering football fields in seconds. If you’re really unlucky you find yourself going over the waterfall. This is an underwater waterfall over a ledge at Mavericks and you’re falling deeper and deeper.
Your eardrums feel like they’re going to explode inward and it’s dark and it’s cold and the question becomes what are you going to do now? At that point you’ve got to know, without question that you’re okay, that you’ve got a lot more in you than you think you do.
Do I know this? Yes- absolutely. I think about it every day. There will be some tough moments during the crossing, there will be some bad times. But I know what I can do- I don’t consider the alternative.
Look for Chris to begin his paddle in November of 2016.
All Photos by Manny Vargas of www.mannyvphoto.com