South African paddler Chris Bertish crosses the Atlantic and proves that anything is possible
By Evelyn O’Doherty + Images by Brian Overfelt, Jeff Clark, Marco Bava & Greg Bertish
The morning after Chris Bertish monumentally arrived in Antigua, I phoned Mavericks big-wave legend Jeff Clark, Bertish’s close friend and tow-in partner. Ninety-three days prior, Chris had launched from the coastline of Africa to standup paddle across the Atlantic—solo and unsupported—to raise money for charities. I asked Jeff what went through his mind the day Bertish pushed off from Morocco. Clark simply responded: “And then the madman began paddling…”
And so, he did
By now you’ve heard the story about the 42-year-old South African big wave charger, Chris
Bertish, who endeavored to paddle across the Atlantic Ocean solo on a craft of his own making. Chris left the coastline of Morocco on December 6, 2016, and successfully completed a standup paddling transatlantic voyage in the heaving seas and punishing winds of the Atlantic with absolutely no on-water assistance, crossing a distance of 4,050 miles, alone. Jeff Clark, Chris’s brothers Greg and Conn Bertish, and America’s Cup yachtsman Shannon Falcone, along with an entire fleet of supporters, were there to greet him when he arrived.
Jeff Clark flew into Antigua one day early. He (and the rest of Chris’s welcoming team) knew the final moments of Chris’s journey would likely be the most harrowing because the wind had picked up to 25–35 knots, creating 8 to 10-foot “Victory at Sea” swell conditions. Navigating Chris and his 20-foot long paddle craft, the ImpiFish, to land on a specific beach in Antigua where the flotilla would be waiting, would be no easy task. That’s why Jeff Clark was determined to go out, find Bertish and usher him to shore.
“I saw this boat come out to greet me, and I thought, ‘Who are these crazy bastards out on a day like this?’ The waves were so big that the welcome boat wasn’t even in the water half the time.” -Chris Bertish
The first thing “Mr. Mavericks” did upon arriving from California was to go to Turtle’s Surf Shop, located along the waterfront, where he ran into two-time America’s Cup-winning crew member Shannon Falcone. Shannon, interestingly enough, began doing transatlantic sailboat crossings when he was 19 years old, and also completed a full circumnavigation of the world. He began racing in the America’s Cup in 2000 and was a solid crew member during the victorious 2010 and 2013 America’s Cup Team Oracle campaigns. Shannon, an expert yachtsman of international caliber, coincidentally keeps his home base on this shoreline of Antigua, making this a fortuitous meeting for Clark.
Jeff explained to Shannon why he was in Antigua—that he wanted to go out, find Chris and see him safely to shore. Clark’s efforts, it turned out, could not have been more timely, because the island’s Coast Guard ended up being delayed in their planned supporting role the following early morning. Jeff was vibrating to put a crew together to get out there with Chris’s brothers into some snotty seas to go find the man who had just paddled across the ocean. Shannon immediately offered to pilot Team Bertish on his powerful Intrepid 34 with twin 350s.
“If you want an assault vehicle for the ocean, this is it” -Jeff Clark on Shannon Falcone’s Bertish-seeker craft
Now, it bears saying that Chris Bertish had managed his 4,000-plus-mile crossing under the guidance of his navigational team member and world-famous ocean rower, Leven Brown. Leven is a British open-ocean rower who holds five Guinness World Records and a North Atlantic crossing record as skipper of an ocean rowing crew who completed the journey in 43 days. Leven has crossed multiple oceans, some with fouled steerage and other navigational difficulties. His knowledge of wind patterns, currents and open water mishaps is perhaps unsurpassed in the world of oceanic crossings. All along Bertish’s quest, Leven had been his daily liaison via sat phone, helping Beritsh navigate through severe storms, problematic equipment failures, and physical hardships. But Leven was now—on the eve of Chris Bertish’s historic arrival—nowhere to be found, and Jeff knew that if anyone could find a cork bobbing in tumultuous ocean conditions, Shannon Falcone could.
Crack of dawn quest to find Chris
They departed at 5 a.m. in a rain squall the next day. The swells were out of control, surging off the harbor cliffs. And Clark estimated the winds were up around 25 to 35 knots. In order for him to avoid drifting passed Antigua, Chris’s closing chapter demanded that he push into the headwinds for the final days of his approach…the last few miles were going to be the most punishing.
“If anyone could find a cork [like Chris Bertish] bobbing in these conditions, Shannon Falcone could” -Jeff Clark on the chance meeting with the America’s Cup crewman who took the welcome crew out to search for Chris
The concern onboard the Intrepid 34 was that with such giant swells and heavy winds, they could be within 50 feet of Chris and still not be able to spot him. “It was heavy,” Jeff remembers. Tension mounted as the crew scanned the horizon at the top of each swell, then death-gripped the handholds as Falcone’s boat plunged into the dark troughs of what Clark called “a violent ocean.”
Fortuitously, America’s Cupper Shannon and marathon paddler Chris Bertish are both strategists. Armed with Chris’s latest coordinates, Falcone—accounting for current, ocean and wind strength—plotted the South African’s track. Still, Jeff Clark remembers feeling doubtful that they would ever find his friend. That’s when Shannon looked up and said, “If we stay on this course, we should find him in the next two and a half miles.” There was no doubt. No concern. Just calculated, driven action.
Chris’s brother saw him first
Conn caught first sight of Bertish, and then Jeff recalls seeing his friend paddling the ImpiFish into and around those monster swells, “looking like a bullfighter, stepping aside when the hits came and leaning into it when the weather allowed him to move forward.” There he was: Chris Bertish, hunkered down in foul-weather gear, digging in. Jeff was so relieved! His friend was about to conquer an open ocean that—in a multitude of ways—had threatened his life daily along the journey.
The initial welcomes, although heartfelt, were fleeting in the heaving seas. Chris still had to manage his craft safely to shore at English Harbour. There was 5 to 10 miles to go and a dangerous, cliff-lined point to navigate before anyone could rest. What’s worse is that if Chris paused to rest or to greet his brothers even for a moment he would actually be dragged backwards in the current, and potentially risk upsetting the craft (which almost happened a mile from shore).
It was in that moment that everyone began to realize what they were witnessing. Chris Bertish, big-wave charger and a man with passion and purpose who believed anything was possible, had just traversed 4,050 miles on a standup paddle craft to cross an entire ocean alone. He was determined to do it shore to shore under his own power.
“His relationship with the sup boat that he had been standing on for 93 days was total. It was like he was dancing with the greatest power on earth: the ocean. He knew its quirks and personalities.” -Jeff Clark
Back to work: navigating Chris to shore
Bertish had just crossed the entirety of the Atlantic with his trusted friend Leven Brown navigating him via satellite phone, so naturally Chris quickly scanned the greeting boat, and, puzzled, shouted out “WHERE IS LEVEN?!” Clark had to explain that Leven was on the Coast Guard boat that was on the way but had been held up at the harbor. Jeff even had to explain who Shannon Falcone is and why he was here and not Leven.
Chris, rightfully so, did NOT want to cross the entire Atlantic only to be misguided, end up drifting below the island and be forced into the impossibility of having to paddle straight upwind into a 25 knot wind to get back to Antigua! What if Chris had missed Antigua? The next possible island is Montserrat, 40 miles away, and after that? The wide open Caribbean Sea with no landfall for hundreds of miles!
In a matter of minutes, Jeff convinced Chris that Shannon was now the guy to get him home. As they came around the point, Chris was literally within 25 yards of the rocks and the swell surging against the cliffs. He had to tuck in against those rocks in order to make the turn in that wind. Jeff identifies with how scary this move must have been on a craft like the ImpiFish, which, due to its size and weight, has very slow turning ability.
“The last thing you want to happen is to crash against the rocks and have to be rescued after having traveled across the ocean” -Jeff Clark
On a paddling craft that Chris had designed 90 percent by himself, across an ocean that was anything but friendly, Chris Bertish came around that point and into English Harbour. There were so many people there to greet him. A fleet of superyachts started honking their horns to celebrate and welcome the weary traveler who had just proved that nothing is impossible. He was powered by his skill and preparation and he was driven by the desire to raise money for children in South Africa who needed care.
Part II: Chris Bertish had arrived
How does one man find the strength, courage and tenacity to take on the Atlantic Ocean alone? To paddle across its fathomless depths to bring smiles to the faces of children? To raise money stroke by stroke and create possibilities where there were none? Chris Bertish can tell that story.
The forty-two-year-old former big-wave champion, yachtsman, surfer and paddler is no ordinary man. On December 6, 2016, Chris Bertish began his journey to impact the lives of others by launching from the shoreline of Morocco on a standup paddleboard to reach the opposing shore in Antigua: 93 days with no one to rely on but himself for problem-solving, forward momentum and, ultimately, survival.
“Impossible. I’ve learned to love that word,” Bertish says. “It has become my motivator, my catalyst for change, my inspiration to transcend normality and do extraordinary things.”
Chris’s journey began when he announced his plan to paddle across the Atlantic Ocean in June of 2012. His purpose: to make a solo and unsupported voyage in order to raise one million dollars for underprivileged children in South Africa.
“It’s an important lesson: don’t let somebody else’s frame of reference dictate yours. That’s why I ignore anyone who tells me that something is impossible. It may be impossible for others, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for me. Nothing is impossible unless you believe it to be.” -An excerpt from Stoked! by Chris Bertish
Chris’s extraordinary success in completing that transatlantic voyage on a paddleboard comes from a depth of preparation, a lifetime of extreme waterman’s experiences, and a positive mindset that held no room for failure. Chris Bertish believed he could make it. In fact, he nicknamed his paddlecraft the ImpiFish as a way to remember that the word ‘impossible’ holds within it the phase “I’m possible.”
Paddling with a purpose
Chris’s mentor and father, Keith Bertish, had taught his sons from an early age that it was only common decency to give back whenever they could. He encouraged them to walk the uncommon path, to look at the world through their own eyes, and to give the very best they could to a life that was worth living.
This decision to make his voyage an effort to help others became the powerful motivation behind Chris’s passion, a strength he would draw from again and again in his three-month passage. Chris chose which charities he would support: the Lunchbox Fund, a charity that feeds and educates thousands of students in South Africa; the Smile Foundation, which provides cleft lip and palate surgeries for children born with facial disfigurations; and the Signature of Hope Trust, an organization that builds schools in the poorest regions of South Africa. He visualized the possibility of it all…and then he went to work.
Preparation: Building a paddleboard to cross the Atlantic
Along with leading experts in the field, Chris Bertish hydrodynamically engineered something akin to a space craft. The ImpiFish was a vessel the world had never seen before, and it was designed to do something no one had ever done.
Using the outline of a 17-foot SIC Bullet sup board upon which Chris had completed several oceanic adventures, Chris began to build a standup paddle board that would withstand Atlantic Ocean conditions.
Chris’s extensive background in sailing helped him lay down the next phase of development for the ImpiFish. He studied designs of successful transatlantic row boats and researched the hulls of crafts that set the fastest records. Then he called Rannoch, the renowned racing row boat builders in the UK, and set up a meeting.
“I did a little dance and jig on the deck of the ImpiFish and laughed hysterically…has been a great mental distraction to help me get through to today and a huge secret weapon to my journey.” -Bertish’s captain’s log, January 27, 2017, describing how working to keep up with the annual transatlantic row boat racers (and actually beating one!) kept him keen. Chris was in the ocean at the same time as this year’s annual transatlantic rowing race, the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge. This year, the winners completed the race in just 35 days (the last place finisher took 96 days). After pursuing the last boat on his radar for over a month, Chris managed to pass this competitor and complete the journey ahead of the final challenger—a fact that gave him much glee.
At Chris’s initial meeting to compare his own design with Rannoch’s ocean racing rowboats, specifically their solo open-ocean mold, he explained what he had planned. In a collaborative effort, they designed a new type of vessel: a paddleboard that would become the world’s first ocean-crossing standup paddle craft: the ImpiFish.
Safety features aboard the ImpiFish
A previous attempt to cross the Atlantic via standup paddleboard had been crushed within 24 hours of the launch when Frenchman Nicholas Jerossay’s rudder line snapped after only one day on the open ocean. A swell had capsized his craft, and a critical flaw in Jerossay’s design had left him unable to self-right. After hours of holding onto his craft in the water and hoping he wouldn’t be eaten by something large, Jerossay was rescued by support crews and brought home—his dreams dashed. Learning from his predecessor’s mistakes, Chris sought out the leading experts in hydrodynamic design.
“I had to double up on everything to make it safer. No matter what happened, I was going to have a solution.” – Evelyn’s interview with Chris Bertish, March 11, 2017
One of the most critical aspects of the craft’s design is the placement of the watertight main cabin at the front of the craft. Chris worked with a military engineer to design the forward cabin in order to increase the overall buoyancy and to sharply enhance the craft’s ability to self-right. This cabin is just big enough for Chris to lie down to sleep, his shoulders touching the sides and his nose four inches from the ceiling.
Once Chris had his overall design in place, he added the necessary safety, navigational and communications equipment that he would need to cross the Atlantic. This included investing heavily in satellite communications and adding solar panels to recharge onboard electronics. Chris would communicate with his navigator, Leven Brown, every day and stay in touch with his donors and fans through social media with regular updates. His Captain’s Log entries were posted frequently on Facebook and on The Sup Crossing’s website in order to inspire viewers to make donations to his charities throughout the trip.
“There was never going to be a reason that I wouldn’t finish”
– Bertish on working out every possible “what if?” prior to launching from Morocco
Safety specs included an alternate steering system, tiller, rudder system, and navigational gear over and above the AIS (Automatic Identification System). He included an Eco-Vac to amplify his craft’s signal to larger ships in the area. Four backup Rams were included to support the ImpiFish’s steering system; however, within the first two weeks of his journey, his main foot-steering system broke. Then, things got interesting when his auto pilot navigation went down. In the middle of the ocean, he had to jerry-rig multiple systems to keep the ImpiFish on track.
He never once considered that he would not make it. Chris Bertish jerry-rigged, duct-taped, and devised various ways to keep his craft safe and moving forward. As he says, “When you put everything on the line to make a project like this happen—my business, my house, my marriage—you have a greater sense of purpose. You have no other option but to succeed, because if you don’t, you’d go back to a life that was a disaster.”
When giant rain squalls were dragging him backwards on his sea anchor, Chris Bertish pressed on. In a monumental moment in his journey, when Chris was paddling into headwinds for 16 hours a day only to discover he was being dragged backwards when he dropped his sea anchor for the night, he decided to lean into the storm and ‘surf’ the ImpiFish into those stormy swells in order to maximize his mileage.
The man, the truths, the adventure
The ImpiFish has a design like no other. We might say the same about the man atop the craft as well. Chris Bertish is perhaps best known for his incredible win at the 2010 Maverick’s Invitational Big Wave contest—the surf that year was the largest ever recorded for that contest. But there is so much more to him than that.
Chris sacrificed much to make history happen. He gave up his passion for big-wave surfing for over 18 months in order to devote his time to training and equipment prep for this epic voyage. He dove into a rigorous schedule that included 15- to 18-hour work days, 7 days a week.
“I put absolutely everything on the line for this project. I almost lost my business, I almost lost my marriage. Just getting to the start line was as insurmountably difficult as the actual trip.”
His driving force, his WHY, was his absolute passion for proving that the journey was indeed real and possible. He layered that passion with his purpose to help those young children in South Africa receive the help they needed through his chosen charities. Together, with support from sponsors like Carrick Wealth and Ke Nalu Paddles, Chris developed a perpetual annuity that would fund his specific charities: The Lunchbox Fund, Operation Smile, and Signature of Hope Trust will continue to grow year after year.
“This incredible journey, which is going to change the lives of millions of children in Africa, is what will keep driving and inspiring me right till the end.”
-Captain’s Log, Dec. 22, 2016
Chris’s voyage was immense. His trials were non-negotiable. Either he figured out a way to get through the moment, or he died. He was tested by failing equipment systems, giant swells, 35-knot winds, and deadly sharks—and yet he held it together.
A great sense of purpose
Throughout the voyage, through the dark nights when swells were pitching the ImpiFish from side to side, Chris kept his calm, assessed and reassessed his situation, made the appropriate adjustments, and carried on.
He perpetually reminded himself of his WHY…his purpose. Chris claims that stacking all the reasons for why you’re doing something on top of one another is a powerful driving—and survival—force. Chris focused on getting from one hour to the next. His life skills and reasoning were his only companions, and as he says, he had to “ship excuses out the door to get back to my purpose.”
“I wanted to prove to the world that this project would redefine what’s possible.”
-Evelyn O’Doherty’s interview with Chris Bertish, March 11, 2017
It was a journey that we will never forget. Four thousand and fifty miles later, and after 93 days at sea, Chris Bertish came around the point to arrive at English Harbour, Antigua, having faced 35-knot headwinds for the last 2 days of his journey. He was greeted exultantly by his brothers, the reverberations of superyachts sounding their horns in welcome, and a worldwide audience who stared in disbelief as Chris Bertish stepped back on dry land and asked for a cheeseburger.
Chris’s goal for his charities was to raise one million dollars. At last count that amount had exceeded 4.5 million. Chris is currently at work building a hospital in South Africa from those funds. You can continue paying tribute to the man who did the impossible and his dream to help kids by going to thesupcrossing.com. –Evelyn