In the next 24 hours, Chris Bertish, will paddle his ImpiFish SUP into English Harbour on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean and complete his epic journey across the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. He will do so nursing a torn rotator cuff, several bumps, bruises and burns from daily life aboard his tiny craft and with a beard and hairdo Davy Jones would be proud of. You can be sure that he’s coming in hot, woolly, wild eyes bulging and ablaze! Finishing strong is a Chris Bertish maxim. In the last few days there have been few updates as he puts his head down and drives for the finish line, clocking up marathon distances daily.
Chris Bertish, the South African hellman who all those years ago took himself, unsponsored, on an odyssey to surf the world’s heaviest waves (becoming a pioneer of sorts by being one of the first to paddle Jaws). A few years later he reinvigorated British big wave surfing with his solo missions at the Cribber while working for Gul Wetsuits just down the road. And finally in 2010, winning the Mavericks big wave event in some of the heaviest conditions to ever run a surf event… has now gone and pulled himself across the Atlantic Ocean, alone, on a modified SUP with a carbon fibre paddle, each stroke raising money for a bunch of worthy causes (The Smile Foundation, Operation Lunchbox) and writing himself into the history books, forever. Over 3 months at sea, over 7243 kilometers, 82 days, paddling West. Alone. Well that’s just nuts.
But let’s rewind a few weeks to when Chris was in the thick of it 1500 miles from his destination. My phone rings on a Saturday morning. A whatsapp call: Chris Bertish trying to get through. Although I answer immediately, the sense of wonder stays with me. When a man in a small life cocoon shaped like an SUP, a speck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, can phone you (at almost no cost) well that’s kind of amazing. One small piece of amazing in a cascading series of amazing events that have defined this epic endeavour.
Chris, alone in the Atlantic, has been on my mind for a while now.
He starts the conversation bitching about the confined space, how he burns himself trying to boil water to prepare his food and then has to nurse the wounds so they don’t get infected and disrupt his momentum. But soon enough he steers his thought process back to the idea that anything is possible and these troubles are but meaningless, temporary annoyances on the inevitable road to success.
“I have had a lot of stormy, overcast weather for the past three weeks which has been incredibly difficult to contend with. Probably some of the most heavy conditions I’ve dealt with in my life.” He says matter of factly. “What intensifies it even more is that it was over a 2-3 week duration. You can handle those kind of conditions if it’s only a couple of days. But not when it’s everyday relentlessly for a few weeks and I am on a craft that is really close to the water. So there are waves and little bits of water coming into the craft every 20 seconds. I am pretty much in the water the entire time. And then there are these rogue waves breaking over you and the craft. The magnitude and restlessness of everything when it’s everyday 24/7 for three weeks just had me on a thread, you know, just to get through to the next day.”
And he cackles that trademark insane laugh of his and immediately I know it’s alright. This is just fuel. Grist for the mill of the Bertish adventure machine.
“And the nights become monumentally long.” He continues. “They are like a mental endurance marathons. They feel so much longer when you are in this tiny little cabin. And when the autopilot goes off its a huge problem.” He enthuses over the perfect phone line. “I’ve burnt through three rams of autopilot just while I’ve been out here, thank goodness for back ups, but I am down to my last autopilot ram at the moment.
“When the autopilot goes out I won’t be able to steer which is problem when you’re in 4 metre waves and 25-30 knot winds in the middle of the ocean. When it goes out I am left side-on to the waves which break right on my little craft causing it to shudder so badly I feel like its going to fall apart and I spend the whole night working out when the next wave will hit and bracing myself for impact. By the time the morning comes I am physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted and I still got to paddle 12 hours during the day. Then copy and paste that for three weeks straight. How do you put that kind of experience into words?” He asks.
I’m not sure I can. So naturally, our conversation veers towards food.
“My whole standing area is going green because it’s just wet all the time. It’s pretty radical. I have the hatches on deck where I keep my food but I haven’t been able to get to them because they are underwater all the time. It is my last stash for the trip. If the weather clears tomorrow I can open it up and make sure that I have enough food. And also to see if they have been taking in water. That is the most horrendous feeling. When you are looking at you feet under water all the time and then you’re looking at these hatches which you are praying are not taking in water because you might sink in the middle of the ocean. All alone, miles from nowhere…”
Starvation and sinking… cue more maniacal Bertish laughter.
“Do you get to fish?” I ask, thinking with my stomach.
“I have a rod and stuff to catch fish but that’s in my emergency grab bag and I won’t use it unless I am forced. I am trying to minimize any possible risk of injury to myself at all times. It’s about risk management. Every day 24/7. That is why you have to be very mindful of cooking water and not burning yourself. Also the type of fish you catch out here are big fish. They will barely fit on the deck of my craft. When you’ve got a yellow fin tuna flapping around on your deck with barbs and big lures and hooks… it’s just not advisable really. You’re increasing the possibility of injury to yourself. Cuts can get majorly infected when you’re out here and you just don’t want to be in that situation. So I just try to eliminate all possible areas of risk.”
“You managing to play that little guitar at all?” I laugh. Bertish laughs back.
“I have had such good intentions. I have been wanting to play all the time. I think I have picked it up and played 20 mins but my hands have been so badly damaged from paddling so much and the cuts and scrapes from various things have taken so long to heal. People think I must have so much time but I just don’t. And when I do have some time, I am just so physically exhausted, I just want to sleep or try and take notes for the next log I have to write, checking the weather, keeping in contact with the team. I just don’t have the luxury. I thought I would be playing guitar everyday but I have only played once for 20 minutes.”
“Just to give you an idea, I need to make food and water and I need to plan that around when the sun is at its highest point, when the weather’s right. Everything revolves around cloud cover and managing my battery banks – which have been a major problem. With all the system failures, I’ve had to make new systems. I don’t really even know how to put it all into a hierarchy of all the stuff that has to get done and managed continuously on a day-to-day basis. There is no routine because things are constantly changing. The schedule has to change around the weather and the systems, the power, the sun and my physical and mental state. All on a daily basis.”
“So how do you get through it? Tell me about your visualisation exercises.”
“I have always done a lot of visualising. That’s how I have accomplished a lot of what I have done. When I first got that Zag cover, the headline was Power of the Mind! I spend a lot of time focusing on my purpose and ‘the why’ and stacking it all in layers to remind myself of what I am doing it for and all the different reasons. And every reason becomes a layer and every layer gives you mental strength to get through your day, no matter how bad you’re feeling.”
“”You are constantly having to remind yourself of stuff and visualising your next goal and your next milestone that you need to get to and then unpacking that picture and making it crystal clear and then working towards these mini-goals along the way, so you aren’t getting overwhelmed by the size and the magnitude of what you still have to achieve. If you only focus on the end goal, it’s too overwhelming for the mind to really comprehend, so you lose motivation and it’s very easy to get despondent. I have learnt through all of my adventures achievements that visualisation has played a massive role in me getting through the journey. Right now I can write everything about the day when I finish. I have visualised it and can map it out exactly to the colour, smells, the weather, to what my craft is going to be looking like to, the people that are going to be on at the harbour, what people are going to be saying. Everything. I’ve visualised how I am going to be feeling, seeing people coming out, tears of joy rolling down my face knowing that I have changed the lives of millions of people and inspired hundreds of thousands along the way. Like I can feel tears welling up right now just thinking through the process of the picture I have created in my head. What I have already lived in my head. Which is going to happen.”
“It’s my blueprint. It’s incredible. That kind of shit keeps me going for days. I am so passionate about it. I believe in it with every fibre of my being.This project is not about me. By following my passion and fulfilling my purpose I have created something that helps the lives of millions and millions of people in South Africa. It’s unbelievable. I figured out the metrics of how I can use my abilities to impact the world on a dramatic scale. And that is exponentially fulfilling. When you realise what you are here for and what you are capable of doing. The magnitude of how many people you can inspire and how many lives you can actually impact directly from the work you do. Nothing else matters. Money doesn’t matter. Work doesn’t matter. Taking a loan against your house and putting that towards the project doesn’t matter because it’s way bigger than you. I wish I could do what I am doing through surfing. Yes I have an amazing story and inspired a lot of people through that but ultimately that’s not even scratching the surface compared to the stuff that I am doing with this project. And this is just one project. There are more that I am planning in 2019 and 2020 which will take this project and ratchet it up to a whole new scale where I will be changing 30 million peoples lives instead of three million and I will be building ten schools and twenty schools instead of three.”
It’s just mind-blowing really. I see the potential of what I am doing now and just realise that I have a duty and responsibility, which is so huge. I have the weight of millions of little kids faces and lives on my shoulders. No matter what happens I will not let them down. It’s amazing having that sense of duty and responsibility that helps to power my purpose. It is so powerful. It’s like nothing can stop you. You’re like an unstoppable force.”
“So how is your body holding up?” I ask.
“My shoulder is a problem but there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve got to take anti-inflammatories every day. I have enough to get me close to finish and that will hopefully stop it from blowing up. It’s the same shoulder problem that I had with my other rotator cuff that I had surgery on a few months before I left. It’s just basically overuse from paddling and surfing and windsurfing and SUPing and sailing for the last 20 years. There’s nothing wrong with me it’s just that most people don’t have the problem of overuse with a joint. I have used my joints quite well over the last 40 years. But there is nothing I can do about it. It will just continuously get worse and more painful but the pain is something I have learned to manage and deal with. I just need to get through it day by day. All I can do is try and change my paddling a bit. I am not going to keep complaining about it because it doesn’t solve the problem. Instead of whinging I just need to suck it up and know that I will get through it, then I can have the surgery a month later.”
“Compared to when you left Morocco, how has this experience changed you?”
“I think a lot of people don’t understand how these crossings work. If I had to do the normal trans-Atlantic crossing I would have left from the Canary Islands. But I have never been one to take the easy route. I must admit that I definitely bit off more than I can chew. Just the fact of getting from Morocco through the Canary Islands was quite a monumentally, mind-boggling experience. That I actually managed to somehow pull that off, still surprises me. Like I have no idea how I did it. I must have my dad over my left shoulder or he’s made friends with the source up there – but the chances of me pulling that off were probably 10%. I had the scariest weather conditions imaginable. I did that because I wanted to use the Canary Islands as a checkpoint just in case we had major system failures so I could stop off there and get them fixed but by the time I got to the Canaries the weather was so bad that even though I had major system failures I couldn’t go in there because it was too dangerous. And that was an extra 21 days on my journey. Ridiculous. But what can I say from the time I left to now, I am still exactly the same I am just clearer in my purpose and more passionate about what I am able to achieve and how many people I am able to impact along the journey.”
We finish off the conversation in classic Bertish style. He basically bigs me up and makes me feel like a hero too. Makes me feel like I’m the one paddling myself to glory and he’s sitting at home in Durban wondering if it’s too early for a beer.
Later in the day, my whatsapp pings:
“Andy, you asked me how I have changed as a person on the Crossing. It was a good question as I’d never really thought about that before… I guess it’s pretty clear. It has made me analyse myself pretty deeply and focus on becoming a better person, in many ways it’s given me a clear and more focused vision on my path and purpose going forward. This adventure has humbled me. I’m more grateful for everything. Adopt an attitude of gratitude, I like to say. Learn to be more in sync and in flow with the source, with the elements and my purpose. Learning to let go more and just adapt in the moment. Be more giving and forgiving as a person and just re-affirm a limitless mindset that you can and will achieve anything you set your mind and focus on. If you believe in it strongly enough and if you have the courage to chase it, you’re powered by passion and driven by a purpose greater than yourself. Persevere and never give up! Then nothing can Stop you and literally, ANYTHING is possible! This mission has helped me to fine tune a positive attitude to everything, in order to see the good and the gift in every situation.”
Then he puts the phone back in his cabin and carries on paddling.