In lining up this interview, I asked Chris if I can attend one of his motivational talks. He bends a few rules, and without realising it, I’m attending a reunion for his primary school which involves a jacket, a tie and a sit-down dinner. I’m squeezed onto the corner of his table, and one of his old friends tells me a story about young Chris:
“The art teacher gave us a massive sheet of paper and license to draw or paint anything on it. When time came to present, Chris had drawn a huge blue swirl across the entire page.
‘What’s this?’ cooed the teacher encouragingly. He’s not artistically gifted.
‘That’s a wave, ma’am.’
In the corner, there’s this tiny figure; it could have been a speck of dirt, or a blemish in the paper.
‘And what’s this?’ she asks again.
‘That’s me, ma’am.’ ”
There’s more too to Chris in this story than just his burning desire to take on some of the biggest challenges in surfing and the world. Whatever his endeavour, he does not put himself at the centre. He doesn’t see himself as giant killer, but just an ordinary guy. He believes his means for achieving the remarkable is not special to him, but in a self-belief that lies dormant in all of us.
Without fanfare, he’s gone about his life, doing what others have told him he couldn’t. Finally, an independent film maker in California has acknowledged this and is making a documentary on Chris’ story.
When I skype director Nadia Tarlow and editor Francis Battaglia, they tell me that they originally planned to make a documentary on someone else. This son of the bush got talking, and convinced them they had the wrong guy: Chris Bertish had a better story.
On introduction to him, they knew they had a story begging to be told. The challenge then became trying to sum up the legend in 50 minutes.
“He’s such a dynamic guy, it’s impossible to put him in a box. Every person we chat to in SA – who are all great characters in their own right – have another great aspect to add, a new twist in the tale.”
So I meet the man at Empire Café in Muizenberg for a coffee and a chat. And in the time it takes to sip a flat white dry, I barely scratch the surface.
Anton Louw: From what I know, there are two great Chris Bertish stories – one being the first to paddle Jaws, the other winning Mavericks with the universe seeming to be against you. Are there some other great stories that will come out in OCEAN DRIVEN?
Chris Bertish: Yes, plenty. They’re going to come out in OCEAN DRIVEN. There’re lots of things that people don’t know. And theres a lot of cool stories that have flown under the radar, I guess because I don’t talk about the stuff I do, I just go out and do it. A lot of people haven’t heard the real story about how certain things went down, and the hardships that go into making these goals and dreams come true.
Which of these do consider your proudest moment or do prefer not to compare them?
I can’t really single out a specific one, but I guess I’m proud of every moment where people told me something wasn’t possible and proving them wrong
With these achievements in mind, why have you not attracted a sponsor, or has it been a conscious choice on your part?
Coming from South Africa, and spending a lot of time here, it’s only really local brands who would be interested, and they really struggle to provide the money needed to go abroad
Are you hoping OCEAN DRIVEN will get you some international recognition and attract a sponsor?
It would be great, as I’m not actually sponsored at the moment and once it comes out, I hope it will open a few opportunities. But it’s funny, many of the brands here in RSA think they can pay you in t-shirts and a couple of wetsuits, but that doesn’t help get you to events and pay the bills. I do find it strange that I’m flying over to Mavericks, at the end of next week as the reigning champion without any sponsors at all. It’s quite amusing, actually. Yet, if it wasn’t for the movie, I wouldn’t be representing my country at all, for the event and for the opening ceremonies.
OCEAN DRIVEN is also crowd funded, through Indiegogo. Is this for similar reasons – that no-one seems willing to step up and sponsor this project?
No not at all, I was really fortunate to be contacted by Sean Dewil & Nadia Tarlow -Aurelia Productions, a small production company with award winning team members who found my story very inspiring and wanted to share it with the world, which is pretty amazing. They have put a great deal of their own time, money and resources into making this film possible and getting it to the post production phase and are hoping to now get further assistance through crowdfunding and/or other co-sponsors, which is quite normal these days. You would think that once the South African and surf community hear about this film, I would hope that people will be stoked and want to help out and get involved. It’s an inspiring story about one of our boys, narrated by legends like Greg Noll & Shaun Tomson.
I’d venture to say that modesty and humility are part of your defining features…
It’s probably also, in my game of surf bravado and self-promotion, my greatest weakness, as I’m not the kind of guy who talks about what I do, much, and I don’t big myself up. I’d rather stay humble & grounded. It’s just who I am and I’m happy with that. I studied marketing and I’ve enjoyed success in many big marketing positions of global companies. I guess I’m good in promoting and marketing everything besides myself.
What’s it like being the centre of attention for this film?
The funny thing is, I don’t really see it as being the centre of attention, it’s just about telling the story. I’ve come across people who just see this story as amazing and inspiring and they just want me to tell it. Which is fantastic. I don’t have change anything, I don’t have to do anything. I can just be me and tell the story.
I hear you’re re-enacting classic moments for the film.
Not many – just something about Alcatraz, and a few other things, but 90 percent of it has already been documented. And I’ve been filming little cut-aways over the last twelve years, which keeps it core. And having written the rough script, we actually did a lot of the scenes for it years ago.
So you haven’t had to whip out any acting skills?
[laughs] No, just a whole lot of interviews and a couple key scenes.
Having listened to you speak publicly, you have a message for the wider public away from surfing. Will this come across in OCEAN DRIVEN, or is it more a surf film?
No, it’s definitely not a surf film, its way more than that. Both Nadia and I wanted to steer the film as far away from being a surfing film as possible. It’s an inspirational story that has a global message told through the channel of sport and surfing. We hope to open it up to a wider global audience. We want someone who doesn’t surf to watch it and be inspired, not by the waves that they see, but just how the story comes across.
So apart from reclaiming your Maverick’s crown, what’s your next mission?
Well, if I can afford to go over for the actual contest, hopefully, I’ll do OK. Normally when I feel this way I do pretty well. A lot of people don’t realise what you have to sacrifice and put on hold to go to an event like that. You miss opportunities because an event like this is coming round. So, hopefully, if I get there, I can do well. My focus is not really to go over there determined to reclaim my title. I’ll always go over and do the best I can and whatever happens, happens. The nice thing is that, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve won the heaviest big wave invitational event against the world’s best, in the biggest waves ever ridden in the history of the sport, so I’ve got nothing else to prove. I’ve already moved on to a whole lot of different things in my life. Going over there now, I’ll be focussed on sharing a couple really epic waves with some great friends out there and if I do really well, that’s an added bonus.
And beyond that?
Still running my small business in Cape Town and working on a couple of other pretty cool projects and I’m doing a lot more motivational and corporate talks, which is great. I love inspiring others and inspiring others to do and be more. Being able to inspire confidence through talks at schools, and for under-privileged kids is awesome, it’s always so important to give back, whenever you can. Everything goes full circle in life!
Cool, Chris. Thanks for your time and looking forward to seeing OCEAN DRIVEN