Across The Atlantic: Behind The Scenes on Chris Bertish’s Unprecedented Open-Ocean SUP Crossing
Words by Jack Haworth
Photos by Jason Pickering
Chris Bertish Captain's Log, February 6 – Boom! I don't even have time to brace for impact, [the wave] flung me across my cabin hitting the opposite wall hard. The ImpiFish shook and shuddered… Over 1,500 kilometers out in the middle of the Atlantic, alone at night, in weather to be afraid of… And this was just the beginning. The first five minutes of the longest 12 hours and then 72 hours of my life!
To the average person, standup paddling across the Atlantic with no boat for backup, sleeping in a 'cabin' shorter than yourself and withstanding the fury of the ocean day in and day out on a 20-foot SUP seems like just that: impossible. But South African Chris Bertish—known for winning a surf contest at Mavericks in 40- to 50-foot surf, setting open-ocean standup paddling records and spreading his unbridled passion as an author and inspirational speaker—has devoted his life to conquering feats that transcend normality.
In 2012, he began planning his greatest feat yet. The now-42-year-old was going to standup paddle, solo and unsupported, across the Atlantic Ocean. Most people—from online commenters, to SUP weekend warriors, even some SUP media—thought the voyage was impossible.
"I've learned to love that word," Bertish said. "It has become my motivator, my catalyst for change, my inspiration to transcend normality and do extraordinary things."
The expedition was so daunting that it had only been previously attempted by one other person—ending in rescue after a single day.
Simply getting to the start line was a task that nearly cost Bertish everything. After spending 18 months meticulously planning and training for every possible scenario he might encounter, a lack of funds forced him to take a loan against his home to keep the project alive. His craft alone, nicknamed ImpiFish, was custom-built to the tune of $100,000 and modeled after transatlantic rowboats and kayaks. He was also raising money to build schools, repair cleft palates and provide lunches for underserved African children.
Before long, the stress of the mission began to take a toll on his personal life.
"I may sacrifice the relationship with my partner, I may lose my business, I may lose my house," Bertish said. "I had to let go of the fact that I might lose everything in my life and literally put everything on the line for this project."
Why put so much at stake for such a high-risk adventure? "I wanted to prove to the world that this project would redefine what's possible," he said.
So, with his motto, "I'm Possible" inscribed across the bow of his vessel, Bertish set off from western Morocco's Agadir Marina during the quiet, early morning hours of December 6. He was all alone, no big crowd to send him off or wish him well (his support team had departed early due to visa issues) just the quiet determination of a man focused on making history.
Captain's Log, February 23 – [Being out here] is like life, just intensified and magnified twentyfold. With life-threatening, intense moments and emotions swinging from one extreme to the other, as what seems to have become a daily norm…
Survival is far from guaranteed while attempting to standup paddle over 4,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. Volatile conditions, loneliness, equipment failures, injuries, infections, the list of things that could kill you goes on and on. Just ask Nicolas Jarossay.
The Frenchman made an attempt to SUP across the Atlantic in April 2015. Inspired since childhood by stories of nautical explorers from the past, Jarossay had spent three years preparing for his journey. Before leaving he was optimistic: "I hope to have a beautiful experience, a beautiful dream if the weather and ocean cooperate with me."
The ocean would crush those dreams in a matter of hours.
After only a single day, Jarossay's rudder line snapped and a swell capsized his craft. A flawed design left him unable to self-right, leaving him helplessly stranded and hoping rescue teams would find him before something else did. By a stroke of incredible luck, teams spotted him mere minutes before calling off the search.
There may not be a less inhabitable place for human beings than the middle of the ocean. Few people understand this danger better than transatlantic rowers. While Bertish may be the first to successfully cross by SUP, adventurers have been crossing the Atlantic via paddle power dating back to the 19th century.
Over the course of his journey, Bertish would be ravaged by 30- to 40-knot trade winds, rocked by 10- to 15-foot swells and stalked by two different great white sharks.
Norwegian fishermen George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen completed the first recorded human-powered crossing of the North Atlantic in 1896. Their oak-built boat was a far cry from today's high-tech paddle crafts, but nevertheless, their record of 55 days stood for 114 years. It was finally broken in 2010 when a crew completed a 3,500-mile crossing in 43 days. The skipper? None other than Bertish's daily weatherman and routing specialist, Leven Brown.
"There have been a number of crossings pre-1990s, but they were all independent and low on technology," said Lee Fudge, another former transatlantic rower. "That very much built the basis for 1997, which was the first Atlantic rowing race."
Since then, the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge has continued to grow as an annual transatlantic rowing race. This year, the winning team finished the race in a mere 35 days. The final finisher took 96 days and was eventually passed by Bertish, who had been pursuing him for a month.
Captain's Log, January 27 – I did a little dance and jig on the deck of the #ImpiFish and laughed hysterically… [Racing the rowboat] has been a great mental distraction to help me get through to today and a huge secret weapon to my journey.
Victories like catching and passing a transatlantic rowboat are paramount when facing the perils of crossing an ocean.
Over the course of his journey, Bertish would be ravaged by 30- to 40-knot trade winds, rocked by 10- to 15-foot swells and stalked by two different great white sharks. He also endured an encounter he would later describe as "something out of science fiction", when a large, unknown sea creature became entangled in the sea anchor (a parachute-like device deployed underwater to keep position into the weather) and dragged his craft under massive waves during a large storm near the Canary Islands.
"It is volatile, deadly and constantly changing out there," Bertish recalled. "It is not a place to be messed with and if you aren't able to keep your head, you're not going to come out in one piece."
Keeping it together while alone at sea for three months is a tall task. With debilitating problems constantly arising, sometimes it's the small issues that can send someone over the edge. "My mustache became so annoying that I tried to use my knife to cut it off," Bertish said.
Yet for all the minor annoyances, major problems threatened to derail his mission on a near daily basis. His deck was constantly under water, his food storage compartments flooded, his cabin leaked, his solar panels began to fail, and his three steering systems malfunctioned. Nothing came easy.
"Most of the steering systems I used were jury-rigged myself on this journey," Bertish explained. "Very few systems on the craft are ones that I originally started with."
If that wasn't enough, Bertish also managed to paddle month three of his journey with a torn rotator cuff, strained finger ligament, and various cuts and burns. His cabin, which smelled quite ripe by the time he arrived in port, was three inches too short and his shoulders touched both sides when he tried to sleep. To survive, Bertish consumed 8,000 calories a day with a diet consisting of three different freeze-dried meals, protein shakes, energy bars, nuts, coffee, and by making approximately six liters of water daily through a solar-powered desalination system.
Every single day was a milestone," he said.
His main lifeline to the outside world came in the form of a satellite phone. In addition to maintaining his sanity by calling friends, family and team members, he relied on the phone to discuss routing strategy with his weather forecaster, Brown, on an almost-daily basis.
Captain's Log, December 29 – I got knocked overboard with the satellite phone in hand, dragged underwater in all 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 one most valuable tool for communications …
Amongst those names that are remembered by history, whose stories of lore and bravery are passed on through the generations, there is a shared commonality. They are the ones willing to take a chance, to trust their own instincts, ignore inhibitions and redefine what was previously thought to be impossible.
"Chris and I became fast friends and we quickly found ourselves in situations that most people would shrink in," said big-wave surfing legend Jeff Clark. "We just looked at it as an opportunity to have more fun than anyone else because it was riskier than anyone else."
Taking risks is programmed into Bertish's DNA. He comes from a family of steely watermen that essentially raised him in the wild waters around Kommetjie, a small community near Cape Town. Despite being the youngest of three brothers, the frothing little grom was on the water as soon as he could walk–sailing at four, waterskiing at five, windsurfing by eight.
"I just became so accustomed to the ocean," Bertish said. "I didn't even get taught how to sail, it just got entrenched in me from such an early age."
Saltwater became his second home and the man that taught him about it became his idol. It's been 20 years since Bertish lost his father to a massive heart attack, but the lessons he learned are as significant as ever.
"It was [our father] who put this belief in Chris that you can achieve anything if you believe it," said Greg Bertish. "You can see that has made Chris who he is."
Captain's Log, March 6 – My late dad and the ocean have been my greatest teachers…I learn so much constantly from nature and the lessons the ocean constantly provides.
To truly understand Chris Bertish, it's essential to first appreciate the unbreakable bond he holds with his two older brothers, Greg and Conn. The trio spent years sailing together, chasing big waves around the world and sharing fond memories of their late father.
That is until two life-threatening conditions shook the brothers' bond to its core. In 2001, Greg caught a tropical bacteria that attached to his aortic valve and forced him to undergo two open-heart surgeries. Conn was diagnosed with brain cancer 11 years ago. Despite the odds, both were able to overcome their conditions and make full recoveries.
"I like to say we are three brothers who are remarkably hard to kill," said Conn. "The things Greg and I went through just added more energy to Crispy's belief that anything is possible."
Call it divine intervention or strokes of luck, but the Bertish boys are certainly tough—something that became increasingly apparent as Bertish neared Antigua. Conn and Greg's brother would spend 93 days alone at sea on a craft that was encountering failures on a near-daily basis, taking over two million paddle strokes to cross a distance greater than that of the continental United States, losing over 26 pounds in the process.
Bertish set off celebratory red flares, howled like a wolf, looked like a wolf and realized a dream four years in the making.
I was at the mouth of Antigua's English Harbour, watching a man on the verge of completing the greatest expedition our sport has ever seen. The ocean was churning with overhead swells that made our 14-foot dinghy feel vulnerable; for Bertish it was just more of the same. The previous day he'd paddled just over 60 miles in similar conditions, nearly breaking his 24-hour open-ocean SUP distance record of 62 miles, which he set one month earlier. After three months at sea, he was ready to be on land, to be with his family.
The final half-mile was a well-deserved victory lap: Bertish set off celebratory red flares, howled like a wolf, looked like a wolf and realized a dream four years in the making. After paddling some 4,050 miles alone, an emotional Bertish embraced his two brothers aboard the ImpiFish and paddled the final two hundred yards together.
"Trying to keep up with [my brothers] has made me so driven and so determined," Bertish said moments after making history. "If it wasn't for them, there is no way I would have pulled off what I just did."
Despite the magnitude of his accomplishment, Bertish was not interested in rest. His fervent energy was apparent even then. Once safely on the dock, he spent the next hour inspiring the crowd with stories from the crossing, highlighting the impact his expedition will have on children in Africa and discussing that favorite word of his.
"So next time you think there is something you want to do and someone says it can't be done or is impossible, remember there's no such word," Bertish said. "It just got deleted from the dictionary, forever."
This coverage of the first-ever Atlantic SUP crossing comes from our 2017 Gear Guide, on newsstands now!