Chris Bertish Interview: Meet The Man Who Solo Paddled the Atlantic

Jason Lock

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Updated 163d ago

The word impossible doesn't exist for Chris Bertish. A few days ago, the South African big wave charger completed the first ever 4,500-mile transatlantic SUP paddle from Morocco to Antigua, unassisted.

Chris’ mind-blowing accomplishment resonated all over the world when he finally completed the last stretch of his epic voyage on Thursday. We caught up with Chris earlier today to talk sharks, sleeping, eating the same four meals every day and the remarkable reasons he took on this once-in-a-lifetime challenge.

How are you feeling right now? Has it sunk in that you’ve just crossed the Atlantic on a SUP?
CB: Yeah, it’s pretty incredible. I feel remarkably comfortable and content. It’s almost like this massive weight off my shoulders and this massive responsibility that I’ve felt on me like a big gorilla for the past 18-months or so has gone.

The fact that I’ve managed to pull off the seemingly impossible and to be alive and help inspire hundreds of thousands of people around the world and change the lives of millions of kids is a pretty incredible feeling. (Chris has so far raised R5,460,030 for charity and counting)

And knowing I’ve fulfilled this project for myself is pretty special, even more so because I don’t think people realise the magnitude of what I had to go through and sacrifice and put on the line just to be able to start this project – always thinking about how do I cross the Atlantic. It was, pretty mind-boggling, you know?

For me, just getting to the other side and getting it done is the most incredible, the most relaxing feeling and I feel light. I feel like I’ve lost half the weight on my shoulders, I lost probably about 4kgs in weight and I’m now a skinny fucker from paddling for 93 days straight, burning 12,000 calories a day as I was doing the equivalent of an ironman every day. It’s just incredible now, being almost at ease because I’ve fulfilled something that’s going to have such a positive impact on people.

And how does that feeling compare to say, winning Mavericks in 2010?
Yeah, I can compare it to that. That was an unbelievable experience and it inspired millions of people with my story but it didn’t have a positive impact on a charity aspect that this project has.

It’s like taking the Mavericks event, feeling and story but just magnifying it 50 fold because of the impact the SUP crossing will make for charities. I don’t think I can really fathom it, everyone keeps on telling me about people talking about my journey, the likes of Kelly Slater and Richard Branson and Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the parliament in South Africa! It’s just indescribable the magnitude and impact the project has actually had.

Even though my vision was enormous, of the impact it could make, it surpassed even my expectations and that’s pretty rewarding.

What about your diet?
Well, the company I was going to use for the freeze dried adventure food went bankrupt the week before I was due to fly out. I wasn’t able to take any food with me to Morocco and my team had to find another manufacturer.

I was only able to see what they got for me at the last minute when we were packing the craft and it just so happened there were four dishes. And of those four dishes, two of them I never would have picked. One I hate, the other gave me the runs. And I had to eat them every single day - exactly the same thing for 93 days.

That sounds ridiculous. What were the four meals?
There was a ham pasta carbonara, a beef stroganoff with rice, a nasi goreng and a mash and leek dish. And those were my four meals every single day. Then I had some protein replacements, electrolyte replacements mixed with my water.

I had little protein endurance bars and some nougat raisins that I mixed in with that. Then some like, jerky-equivalent kind of bolt on that I added for protein. There was nothing else. You can think of how monotonous it is and your body starts revolting it doesn’t want to actually eat it.

And I started having to combine the dishes together and mix them up so they weren’t so horrendous. Just finding different creative ways to mix it up – and keep it fresh.

Shore day. The first steps back on solid ground.

Shore day. The first steps back on solid ground.

© 2017 - Brian Overfelt The Sup Crossing

How about the sleeping quarters on board?
Sleeping quarters! Makes it sounds like I’ve got a proper bed [laughs]. My sleeping quarters were not as wide as my shoulders. I had a bruise on my shoulder for the first two weeks from the paddles pushing into my shoulders – that’s how tight it was.

The sleeping quarters weren’t even as long as I was [laughs] it was super tight and uncomfortable. It was another one of those examples where you just shift into the space and that’s your norm and your reality that you get used to.

After a month or so, you don’t even notice it, that’s your zone. You become like an ocean caveman, an ocean pirate cavemen and that’s your little cave and you go in there and block out the rest of the world and what’s happening outside. When I went to sleep at night, I could be anywhere on the planet you know, it was incredible.

Talk us through some of the prep that went into the crossing?
Yeah it was about four years worth. Took about three to four years worth of prep then a full year to 18 months to actually put it together, to build and design the craft in the UK and ship it out. It took time.

Where in the UK was the boat built?
It was built in Burnham-on-Crouch [laughs] (town east of London). Bet ya didn’t know that one! So I flew to Burnham to go and get the design done and get it built by one of the craft builders there and got it tested there and shipped it to Morocco for the start.

But there’s nothing like it on the planet, it was built for one purpose and one goal only and that was to get me across the Atlantic Ocean in one piece. It could have turned out horribly wrong and there were so many times when it could have gone horribly wrong [laughs].

The mental prep must have taken some doing?
It was just about keeping a calm, clear head in radical and volatile changes in the environment. Having the right attitude to be able to get creative and flexible in order to find solutions in those situations especially when all of your major systems are failing and in life threatening situations. One stroke at a time, one hour at a time, one day at a time and one night at a timeBut just keep your head and keep a positive attitude, work through each problem. Day by day focusing on one stroke at a time, one hour at a time, one day at a time and one night at a time – yeah, 93 days is a long time because it’s 93 days and 93 nights and it’s absolutely terrifying a lot of the time.

93 days is an incredibly long time, how did you stoke the motivation?
I had so much that I put on the line for this project. I would have lost a lot of things from all different areas of my life if I hadn’t got it right. I would have come back to a complete disaster. There was a lot of motivation. In regards to me putting everything on the line, I was all in.

The most important thing that gets you through is the purpose of why you’re doing it and the charity aspect, while hopefully inspiring people to believe in themselves and what is actually possible – then overcome it.

The charity aspect here was for Operation Smile, who help change the lives of millions of kids by supplying lunches to kids who can't afford them. The donations will also help build five to six schools for children in South Africa – education, you know, I’ve set the donations up as an annuity fund, so it’ll pay out every single month for the next 20-to-30 years and those schools will be educating and inspiring our future leaders, teachers, doctors for generations to follow after I’ve gone. What drove me? I knew that every single paddle I took would put a smile on a kid’s face and provide food for themWhat drove me? I knew that every single paddle I took would put a smile on a kid’s face and provide food for them, literally every stroke was the equivalent of one lunch box. I ended up taking 2,800,000 strokes that’s 2,800,000 lunchboxes. When it’s a powerful purpose like that it’ll get you over any obstacle that life or the ocean can throw at you.

You mentioned earlier about things that could have gone wrong. Was there anything over the 93-days that stick out as a real, we might be screwed moment – or was it very much a mind over whatever came about experience?
The first two weeks I had my main steering failed. It took me a while to find other solutions. When I got stuck in the big storm and the retrieval line got wrapped around my centre board in the middle of the night and it was pulling my craft semi-inverted every time I got hit by a big wave, that was crazy.

I had to dive down in the middle of the night with my knife and cut the para-anchor line off. When I did that, it took off and got caught by a wave and my finger got stuck in between the centre board and the line and it ripped right through the side of my finger. If I didn’t have gloves I would have lost my finger If I didn’t have gloves and had taped all my fingers, because I was getting blisters from paddling 12-15 hours a day, I would have lost my finger or gone right down to the bone and if that would have happened, then that would have been the end of the trip for sure.

And when the great white came in for an attack on the craft, I guess if it had bitten through the side of the craft and water-proof compartments, that would have been an ender. I could take a small hit and plug the hole but a really big bite from a 25 foot great white would have been a bit of a problem.

Sounds like more than a bit of a problem!
I had multiple great white experiences [laughs]. That was terrifying. Well, I’ve always been ok with sharks and I do enjoy them. They’re beautiful creatures and I think they’re the most misunderstood creatures of the sea. But saying that, I do respect them.

I’ve had my encounters with sharks all around the world but when you’re in the middle of the ocean and you’re a thousand miles from land and a human being and you have a shark, in attack mode, trying to attack your craft very aggressively at speed...the shark is only two feet smaller than your entire craft and just as wide – then it becomes a very, very scary and real primal fear that I am not really able to describe in detail [laughs].

When a shark does that and it comes back for another turn, then you know it’s a pretty serious issue and you need to try and alleviate it or deal with it in any way you can to ensure your survival.

What did you do in that situation?
Well, it all happened so quickly. I had some special shark repellent stuff that I could use. But because these experiences were happening so quickly, you don’t have time to get that kind of stuff out and into the water. I am very fortunate that both those experiences happened and were quite brief and the shark didn’t come back for a third time and bite the craft or anything else. I didn’t need to deal with it further.

Those experiences are pretty dramatic though. When you’re lying in your cabin sleeping at 4.57am and you hear a bump and grind and scrape down the side of your craft and what you’re hearing is 3.5inches from where your head, is a pretty terrifying sound. That happened once, you know what it is, then again 40 seconds later. It’s a very difficult experience to describe but I’ll leave that for the book.

The continual paddling and your mental state, how does that compare to surfing big waves in terms of the headspace you need to get into?
I think that’s a really interesting question and I’ve never had that one before. It is pretty much using that same mental space and just staying resilient and getting through each hour.

That’s the one thing that’s different from the big wave side of things, when you’re putting yourself in that situation it’s because you want to be there until you decide you want to pull yourself out of that space. It’s a three or four hour space, then you go back to dry land and you carry on with your life and life is awesome. You needed the endurance to get through every single day, night and then the next day and the next day. If you stop paddling, you won’t surviveBut this (the paddle) is like, you’re never able to remove yourself from that zone. It’s not like, ok, I’ve paddled 12 hours today let’s go home. No matter how heavy or volatile it got, it didn’t matter because nothing was going to change. You needed the endurance to get through every single day, night and then the next day and the next day. If you stop paddling, you won’t survive and you won’t get there.

SoI guess it was an incredibly different headspace of making sure I had that mental fortitude and stamina to get through everything. One stroke at a time, one hour at a time, one day at a time, one night at a time. That took every bit of strength and courage that I’ve gained over the last 20 years of mental preparation and training.

What was the size of the support crew back on land?
We had people in Scotland and the UK and in South Africa, in the USA. It was massive. Everybody had a big part to play. I may have achieved something incredible but every person had a massive impact on what the results were and I couldn’t have done it without everyone else. This wasn’t a man is an island project, it was a team.

Being away for so long, was there any feeling of loneliness in the water?
There were definitely times when I was lonely. A lot of it I had visualized and knew how to try and deal with it beforehand. Then it was trying to get some human contact, whether by satellite phone every couple of days or the ships via VHF radio when they passed by me and that was good enough. I knew it was going to be tough and I just tried to make it work. Just focus on the experienes.

What was the feeling like when you reached dry land?
Shore day, oh it was pretty incredible. I don’t really know how to describe the most incredible feeling in the world in a sentence. Stay focused and determined and never give up, persevere, take actions towards your goals and dreams then you’ll eventually succeed. No matter whatIt was indescribably emotional and I was just really happy that I had proven my own philosophy and my own message, that nothing is impossible if you believe in yourself and have the courage to be able to follow your passion which is powered by a purpose greater than yourself. Stay focused and determined and never give up, persevere, take actions towards your goals and dreams then you’ll eventually succeed. No matter what.

Chris' feature documentary about the SUP crossing will drop on March 28.

Incredible. Thanks for your time Chris and congratulations on such an epic achievement.

Cover shot: Brian Overfelt for The SUP Crossing