By Jazz Kuschke
“Every single human on this planet has probably had that sensation once or twice in their lives when they’re lying in bed at home, or in a tent, and they hear a very scary sound outside in the middle of the night. You think, If I lie really still, it will just go away. But when, 45 seconds later, you hear the grrrrrrghhh again, you know a very large fish with angry teeth is scraping its skin along the side of your craft, using its taste receptors to see if you could be breakfast.”
If that shark had taken even just a small investigatory bite out of the wrong part of Bertish’s purpose-built, 5.5-metre SUP (christened ImpiFish), it would’ve sunk. With no other humans for kilometres and a massive storm raging, it was almost too much for the man who doesn’t believe in the word ‘impossible’.
Says Bertish, “A very large fish—that’s hungry—has now taken a second pass at you; that’s terrifying to the nth degree, especially when you’re alone, 2 000 miles [3 200km] from the closest point of land. Few people will understand.”
Fear: the constant companion
When Bertish stroked into English Harbour on 9 March 2017, he’d been at sea for 93 days. But getting ImpiFish from Morocco to Antigua had taken over five years of meticulous planning and training—five years of listening to unbelievers. Then came the gruelling mentally and physically draining 93 days to complete the 4 050 nautical mile (7 500km) paddle.
He wasn’t entirely alone. Fear was a constant companion. It’s how he dealt with it that’s perhaps more inspiring than the journey itself. That also began long before the first paddle stroke. In the six months prior to his departure, Bertish worked with mental coach David Becker in preparing for every possible situation. “Coming from a sailing and a big-wave surfing background, I’ve always lived by the mantra: ‘Prepare for the worst, expect the best’,” Bertish explains. “So before I left, I had gone through pretty much every single scenario in my head. I had gone through how I was going to deal with it when it happened; what solutions I was going to work out and how I was going to process it.”
According to Bertish, if you don’t go through that mental preparation stage, when a situation does arise it becomes overwhelming, because you have to go through the process of unpacking it and dealing with it. “Whereas, if you’ve already ‘dealt’ with it—found solutions and different alternatives to that situation before it happens—and it does happen, you’re not in a state of stress and panic about it and you can deal with it better and far more efficiently to ensure a positive outcome.”
What Bertish hadn’t foreseen, however, was the ‘second lightning strike’. Some seven days prior to that pre-dawn double pass (thankfully, it did move off after the second bump), he’d had a run-in with another great white. “I had dealt with a potential encounter with a shark in my mental prep,” he says. “But that second encounter, in the dark, was an absolutely terrifying experience, just because I’d dealt with it earlier and put it out of my head.”
That second encounter played on his mind so much that he had to trick himself out of thinking about it. “I'm not going to go into detail, as it's bad for my mental state,” Bertish wrote about the incident in his captain’s log on 28 February. “I had to find ways to distract my mind to stop focusing on it all the time. I had to develop my own mental reprogramming—which was one of the greatest obstacles of my entire journey.”
While fear was a constant, pain (amazingly) wasn’t. “After the first seven to 10 days, your body’s sending you every type of pain trigger it can, because it’s basically going, What the hell are you trying to do? My body was saying, You need to stop! You’re breaking me! I got every conceivable pain signal across every part of my body, telling me to stop doing it and start resting.”
His hands, of course, as the first point of contact, took by far the most abuse. “I taped my hands like a boxer,” says Bertish, “with each finger individually wrapped. Then wore gloves over that. But, no matter how much you prep, you can never prepare your hands for paddling 12 to 18 hours. I was still getting blisters through all of that. That was already in the first three days.”
After about 10 days, something astonishing started happening. Bertish reckons his body said: Shit, this guy isn’t going to stop, no matter what signals I send him. He’s just going to carry on and do the same thing every day. So, no matter what I send him, he’s not responding to it so, obviously, I just need to conserve all my signals and everything else and need to focus on survival. “Your body just starts adapting. After two weeks, I started getting less and less pain signals, and eventually it got to the point where I did literally a full Ironman for 87 or so days of the 93 days. That shouldn’t really be possible.”
It almost didn’t happen at all
For 93 days, Bertish paddled between 12 and 15 hours a day. Often more. The physical output saw him burn roughly the same number of calories as an entire Ironman triathlon. Every day, for 93 days. On top of that, he had to deal with countless life-threatening situations and keep himself alive nutrition-wise on freeze-dried food and only 5.3 litres of water.
Most of the longer days—with three-hour graveyard shifts deep in the night if conditions allowed—happened in the first 10 days of the expedition when he was working hard to put a gap between him and Africa. “The very stark reality is that I could’ve been shipwrecked halfway down the African coast,” Bertish says of those early days. “I had to create a 50-mile [80km] gap, and the conditions weren’t doing what we were wanting them to do. I’d already gotten an extension to my visa—which is very unusual in Morocco—and the rest of my crew had left.”
He managed to get an extension to wait out the unusual weather systems (which demasted two yachts that week), but he was given only a week, so he had to leave. “There was no way I could go back and get another one [visa extension], so no matter what the weather did, I had to leave. Just not a situation you ever want to be in,” he says. “So I left and the weather wasn’t perfect, but it was as good as it was going to get. Picked the best day.”
Bertish paddled out of the port of Agadir at 04h30, after having been hassled and harassed by Customs until 01h30. “I got three hours’ sleep and then left on this incredible journey—with no one there to see me off.”
Some 93 days later, after 1 944 000 strokes, he cruised into English Harbour in Antigua, met by a small flotilla including his brothers Conn and Greg. The hardships he had endured were countless; the highs and lows too many to convey. Quite simply, it was the most epic solo journey ever undertaken and has redefined what’s ‘possible’ in adventure. And it’s not over. “Everything you do has consequences,” Bertish says. “I managed to catch all the monkeys at sea [see his captain’s log on www.thesupcrossing.com for his theory of the 12 Monkeys], but now I’ve come back to land and there’s a whole new jungle of monkeys that have jumped on my back.”
For the man who uses the word ‘impossible’ as fuel, the great irony is that the challenges and pressures he has faced since he’s finished have almost been insurmountable. “I’ve been mentally changed. I was in such an extreme state of anxiety and stress for such an extended period of time that it has actually carved new neural pathways in my brain. It’s almost like someone who’s gone to war.”
Bertish has been doing inspiring talks around the country and dealing with five weeks of countless media enquiries since the moment he set foot back in South Africa, and has had no time to deal with the post-traumatic stress as a soldier would. Mentally and physically, he’s pretty beaten up. “I have complete adrenal fatigue; I’ve been to the chiropractor four times; for acupuncture, like, eight times. I was on a vitamin C drip. I have to go for surgery on my shoulder in the next couple of months. I’m working on mending many relationships on every level of my life, as people don’t realise how much a project of this nature affects everything.”
If he’d known what he knows now, would he do it again? “For the impact it’s made on millions of people’s lives and the monies raised for charity—of course!”
So, then, what’s next for Chris Bertish? “For the next two years, my focus will be on delivering inspiring talks to corporates and working on my new book and film on the epic adventure. After that, I’ll be planning my 2020/21 around-the-world trip, which will impact the lives of millions. Everything is a natural progression; every task and adventure that I set out to achieve takes me a step further, as I’ve realised that one’s potential is truly limitless as to what’s possible—if you believe in yourself and have the courage to try.”
Learn more about Chris Bertish, his adventures and his causes at www.chrisbertish.com
Battle by the numbers
4 050 nautical miles - Total distance travelled
2 234 hours - Total time taken
1 944 000 - Number of paddle strokes
6 metres - Length of ImpiFish
612kg - Weight of ImpiFish
70.8km - Average distance travelled each day
5.3 litres - Quantity of water Bertish survived on
On the page and on the screen
Stoked! is the true story of Bertish’s personal quest to prove to himself that he was one of the best in the ‘big-wave brotherhood’. It climaxes with his becoming South Africa’s first Mavericks Big Wave Champion. With his infectious enthusiasm, Bertish tells how he pulled off death-defying antics time and again, overcame overwhelming obstacles and fears, and parried every blow that fate dealt him—all without ever losing faith or focus on his dreams.
Available from Penguin Random House SA: www.penguinrandomhouse.co.za
In 2015, Bertish released his film Ocean Driven—The Chris Bertish Story: a documentary in the same lines as Stoked!. With commentary from Kelly Slater, Greg Long, Mark Healy, Clark Abbey, Gary Linden, Carlos Burle and other surfing greats, this inspiring story of one humble man's journey to big-wave stardom will redefine the way you reach for your own dreams, be they on land or in the water.
Making a difference
Bertish is an ambassador for The Lunchbox Fund and Operation Smile; both initiatives are very close to his heart, as they have an immensely positive impact on South Africa and continue defeating countless obstacles, finding ways to put a smile on kids’ faces across the world.
Education is also something Bertish is extremely passionate about. He believes it’s a basic need and essential for all, as growing and challenging yourself is a non-negotiable. Building schools is one step in the right direction, since education is the key to unlocking continued success. The Signature of Hope project assists in achieving this to some measure.
Source: The Intrepid Explorer