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Chris Bertish’s Wild Journey Across the Atlantic On A Paddleboard

Inside the South African Surfer’s 4000-Mile Solo Trek From Morocco to Antigua by Katie MacBride

March 15, 2017

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In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles from land, a rogue wave knocked Chris Bertish off his paddleboard. The impact partially inverted the entire craft and pulled him under as he clutched onto his satellite phone. “I was dragged underwater in my full foul-weather gear by my harness tether, still attached to my safety lines on deck while trying to still keep the sat phone above water, trying to ensure I didn’t lose my most valuable tool for communication,” Bertish later wrote in his captain's log. The loss of the satellite phone would have been devastating. He still had almost two months—and over 2,000 miles—of paddling ahead of him.

Bertish had departed Morocco on December 6 in a customized stand-up paddleboard with a plan to cross the Atlantic. The vessel, called ImpiFish, was designed specifically for the journey, outfitted with navigation tools and a cabin in which he could take cover when the waves got unruly. The ImpiFish would be Bertish’s home for the next 93 days. During that time, Bertish would paddle close to 4,000 miles (the equivalent paddling distance of a marathon every day for 120 days) between Agadir, Morocco, and the Leeward Island of Antigua in the Caribbean. He called this “The SUP Crossing.”

Bertish planned to survive on freeze-dried meals, protein bars, and jerky, and he would paddle mostly at night, to avoid excessive sun exposure. If capsized, the ImpiFish was designed to right itself–a design that saved him a few times. He found himself inverted twice and completely capsized once. Problems with the ImpiFish did arise. In mid-February, he told the The New York Times, “Everything that could possibly have gone wrong, went wrong. It’s been constant stress.”

Bertish expected the journey to be difficult, but rewarding. He left Morocco with the goal of raising over a million dollars for three charities: Signature of Hope Trust, the Lunchbox Fund, and Operation Smile. The second reason for taking on the dangerous trip, at least to those who know him, is because Chris Bertish is Chris Bertish.

“Crispie (Bertish) is an incredibly brave, community-minded person,” says Steve Morris, who has known the Bertish family since their childhood together in Cape Town. “Their father was quite the waterman,” Morris says, “those kids grew up kayaking, sailing, surfing, anything to do with water.”

It’s not just an affinity for water sports that the three brothers have in common–-they’ve all found ways to turn adversity into inspiration. The oldest Bertish, Greg, had two heart surgeries between the years of 2002 and 2007, and was hospitalized for over 200 days. Now, Greg uses a small dinghy called The Little Optimist to inspire sick children. Conn Bertish also used an illness to help others. After he beat cancer in 2013, he created The Cancer Dojo, a global cancer-fighting platform which aims to “empower people facing cancer with the tools and techniques shown to strengthen the human immune system and ultimately enable a more positive cancer outcome.” With philanthropy running deep in the family, Chris has big plans for the money he raised during The SUP Crossing.

When I left Morocco in December of last year, I had put pretty much everything on the line for this project.

When I spoke to Chris via Skype, he had been on land for less than 48 hours. The first subject he wanted to talk about were the initiatives for which he raised money. “We’re giving kids lunchboxes to go to school. Most people around the world don’t really know what that means. They say, ‘Oh, cool, kids get lunch at school, that’s great.’ But in the poorest areas (in South Africa) the only reason why kids go to school to get education is because they know they're going to get a lunchbox. Most kids haven’t had a breakfast or a dinner the night before.”

Bertish set up the funds in an annuity that will continuously give. “Starting next month, every month for the next 25 years 10,000 lunches will be paid for.” The funds Bertish raised for Operation Smile will function similarly; they will pay for 5 to 10 children’s cleft lip and palate surgeries per month for the next 25 years. The rest of the money will go to The Signature of Hope Trust to build between 5 to 7 schools which, Bertish says, “I’ll probably go and help build myself.”

Back on land for the first time in three months, Bertish will also have to rebuild his life. “For the last five years, I put everything I had into planning this. It can be challenging to dedicate your life to something like this. I almost lost my house, almost lost my business, almost lost my marriage, every bit of personal funds I had went into this project. When I left Morocco in December of last year, I had put pretty much everything on the line for this project.”

A former professional surfer, Bertish has a history of putting everything on the line. After qualifying for the 2009 Mavericks Big Wave Surf competition, which was canceled due to lack of waves, Bertish waited for news on the 2010 competition. When he got word the competition would be taking place, he didn’t have the funds to make the 35-hour journey from South Africa to Northern California. He quickly scrambled, borrowing money from family and friends, and hopped on a plane.

Once he arrived in California, Bertish had a new set of challenges. His surfboard and wetsuit had been lost in transit and he was forced to borrow both. The day of the competition, the waves were over 40 feet high, something even seasoned Mavericks’ goers had never seen. During the first heat, Chris paddled to the outside of a giant wave break, sure it wouldn’t rise up that far and he would be safe. Usually an excellent gauge of the ocean’s movements, Bertish miscalculated and found himself directly under the punishing force of the wave. After being pushed deep into the water, he was dragged an estimated half-mile before he was able to come up for air.

As he was being revived, everyone--including Bertish himself–-thought he had made his last attempt of the day. He told the Santa Cruz Sentinel, “By the time I got picked up, I was like a lifeless corpse. I thought I was done.” He soon changed course. "In life, sometimes you only get one chance to live your dream. So, I just put it in my head that I had to get back up." By the end of the day he had won the competition.

Bertish has no intention of slowing down now that he’s completed The SUP Crossing. “With this trip, I was able to help 3 million kids. With my next project, I’m hoping to help more like 50 million kids.” Bertish explains. “I’ve found a way to do what I love and to contribute in a way that makes a positive impact in the world. So, why would I stop and take a break when I love what I do? Besides, the more I do it, the less I rest, the more people I can impact. I just want to keep doing it.” 

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