Big-Wave Surfer Chris Bertish On His SUP-Transatlantic Crossing

An interview with the man who paddled across an ocean to raise money for charity

Last week, South African big-wave surfer, sailor, and SUP-er Chris Bertish finished a journey that most people would call insane. Starting in Morocco three months ago—let that sink in a bit—Bertish paddled a half SUP/half mini-boat over 4,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to Antigua. Without assistance. He broke a world record, unsurprisingly, and raised money for three different charities through the completion of this project. Two days after he took his last stroke into the harbor of Antigua, we called Bertish to get some insight into his day-to-day life at sea. Bertish answered our Skype call, his voice scratchy, but somehow full of energy. He’d grown a very, very hardy beard, like he hadn’t shaved in 93 days. He apologized for looking like a sea pirate still.

How are you feeling now that you’re back on dry land?

CB: I think I’ve been on dry land for almost 48 hours now and feeling really good. Interestingly, I just feel like I’ve arrived in the Caribbean for a trip. I’ve got all these amazing people around me and people are coming up to me asking me for my autograph. I’m just happy to be alive, honestly. It’s been an incredibly long journey and it’s taken every bit of strength–physically and emotionally–to be able to make this project happen. It’s taken every bit of experience and knowledge I’ve gained from big-wave surfing and sailing professionally all over the world to survive.

I’ll be honest: to the average person, paddling across an entire ocean seems completely nuts (and obviously impressive).

CB: To a lot of people it does seem pretty crazy. But most people who don’t surf take one look at a picture of me dropping down the face at 60-foot Mavericks and they say, ‘Well, that’s just crazy,’ because they don’t understand the progression it takes to get there. You don’t start out surfing 60-foot waves. You surf thousands of 2-foot waves, then thousands of 4-foot waves, then 6-foot waves, and so forth until surfing big waves is the norm. It’s the same thing with this project. It was just a natural progression. Once I reached the pinnacle of my big-wave surfing, I started looking for another sport that could give me another outlet for adventure. I started with a 12-hour paddle session, then progressed to 24 hours, then did a 3-day open ocean adventure, then a 5 and 7 day, and then a trip where I was completely unsupported for 7 days on a SUP with no cabin like the one I had this time. That was the proof of concept paddle for me. I thought if I could pull that off and survive that, which was 10% of what the transatlantic crossing, then I could do this.

The craft you paddled was pretty impressive: about 20 feet in length, it had a little sleeping cabin at the nose of the board, and included satellite communications, solar panels for charging electronics, and storage for food and water. How hard was it to paddle that thing in the open ocean and through storms?

Well, I started researching what kind of craft I could build that would be completely self-sufficient and could get me across in one piece. This was a craft that has never been built before. We [naval architect Phil Morrison and Bertish] implemented so many systems that don’t apply and don’t exist in other crafts. My normal SIC 17 [a paddleboard] that I ride weighs about 26 pounds. This weighed about 770 pounds, completely dry. Then there was another 330 pounds of gear, 50 liters of emergency water, and then myself on top of it. It was just really difficult to paddle. But I did so much training with the craft and honestly, after a couple weeks of paddling it, it became my norm and my home.

Bertish’s crib for the past three months. All photos by Marco Bava

Did you run into any problems with the craft at all?

[Laughs] You mean what problems didn’t I run into? A lot of the systems failed. I was consistently having to problem solve to find solutions to overcome numerous problems that were happening on a day-to-day basis. It was just about trying to survive and make sure I didn’t sink or flip over or lose all my electronics and food. The hatches on the deck were leaking dramatically (where I kept my food and my water) and I constantly had to fix them and make sure I didn’t take on too much water. I was constantly worried about having enough drinking water or not being able to charge my systems to get me through the next storm. During storms, sometimes my craft would be thrown around like a cork. But like most big-wave surfers and sailors know, shit goes wrong in the ocean all the time, and when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong, really quickly. You’ve got to have a strong mental state to be able to manage it, problem solve, and take action really rapidly in order to survive and not sink.

Were there times when you thought you actually would sink?

There were so many times I thought I might actually die. I got stuck in a massive storm system near the Canary Islands and almost got blown onto the 100-foot high rocks on the coast. I also had a giant squid or whale get stuck in my parachute anchor one time. It was trying to pull me underneath 4 to 6-meter waves and I couldn’t do anything about it. The craft has a buoyancy ratio of about 2 and a half tons and I was getting pulled down into the water.

How did you get out of the squid/whale situation?

It was a pretty scary night. There were waves breaking all around me and the wind was 30-to-40 knots, which is like a step down from a hurricane. Going out on deck in those situations is really life threatening, because if you go overboard, that’s it, you’re dead. This was like 3 o’clock in the morning, and I had to go outside with my knife up on deck to cut the line and pull the retrieval line- as soon as I pulled the retrieval line to reset it. Once I pulled the parachute anchor and pulled it towards me, I got released from its tentacles or claws or whatever it was [Laughs].

That sounds terrifying.

What a lot of people don’t understand is my craft was so small and so low to the water compared to other watercrafts that I was so vulnerable 24/7. I remember lying in the cabin at night and being hit by 5-to-6 meter waves side-on so it would knock me and the craft completely flat. It sounded like the craft was going to break completely in half. Some nights it felt like it would never end. I’d paddle miles and miles during the day and deal with that kind of stuff at night. By the time the morning came I was so physically, mentally, and emotionally drained, but I had to get up and do it all over again. I think about it now and I don’t even understand how I did it. I just kept thinking, ‘Just get through the next hour, just get through the day, just get through the storm.’ I had to break every minute down to the stroke.

Did you have a set schedule every day?

I had a rough schedule, but because I was dealing with the weather and the ocean, my schedule changed around the ocean and the elements. But the basic schedule was to be up before sunrise, make coffee, make food, prepare all my gear for the day, prepare my hydration and nutrition for the day, prepare what time to make water and when I was going to charge up my systems and maintain the craft. Then I would break my paddle into 4 shifts of three hours at a time. If the weather was really light I could add in shifts at night to make up.

Did you check in with your forecaster every day?

Yea I did. I had an amazing routing team and forecasting team who I was able to reach by satellite phone. I was fortunate to check in with Leven Brown [forecaster] every other day or two–for both emotional and forecasting support. He’s done a lot of transatlantic row races, so he knew what I was going through and he could help me with the routing because he did it before. Just being able to communicate with the outside world was crucial too, to keep me sane. Doing the Captain’s Logs [Bertish’s mid-route blog posts] really helped me continue, because with I was getting amazing feedback from people all around the world.

In addition to doing this for personal reasons, you also raised money for charity. Tell me a little bit about where the money is going.

I definitely wanted to add a charity aspect to this project. Basically, all the money that comes in [the fundraiser is still live] goes into three annuities, which will spread the money out for the charities to use over the next 20 to 30 years. We’ve already raised enough money that will pay for over 10,000 children to get fed a lunch box at school, every month for the next 20 to 30 years. We also raised enough money to pay for operations every month for kids with cleft lips and cleft palates for the next 30 years. The other annuity is set up to build 5 or 6 schools in Africa where there’s not enough money for education.

Was there one point during the trip where you thought, “Oh shit, maybe I should turn back?”

There’s no way I could’ve turned back. That option just didn’t exist in my thoughts. Once I left, there was only one plan and one outcome and that was to get to the other side in one piece. I think it helped mentally to just be all-in like that.

Did you miss surfing at all during those 3 months?

All the time. There were times I wished I was just getting barreled somewhere. But I actually went to Nias for 5 days about 3 weeks before I left for this trip, just to get into my happy space. I knew I wasn’t going to be surfing for a long time. I also have a really good surf trip planned in the next month. Surfing is my first love and always will be, so that inspired me to keep going–because I knew I’d be getting barreled sometime soon.

Well you deserve unlimited barrels for the next month after your journey. Thanks for taking the time to chat.

Next time we speak, I promise I won’t look like a sea pirate. I just needed it to protect my face from the sun.

Bertish, one bad ass sea pirate. Photo by Bava.