South African surfer and endurance athlete Chris Bertish has become the first person in the world to singlehandedly cross the Atlantic Ocean on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP). He paddled more than 7,000km in 93 days.
Following almost five years of preparation for the once-in-a-lifetime voyage, Chris Bertish’s epic trip began on 6 December 2016 in Agadir, Morocco, armed only with his will to succeed and a custom-made 6m paddleboard that incorporated a small living cabin powered by solar panels.
In addition to facing days and nights alone on the open water, Bertish encountered extreme weather conditions (hot, wet days and cold nights), 7m wave swells and relentless currents, giant cargo ships and close calls with some scary ocean creatures.
Travelling through the Canary Islands, Bertish faced off with whales and squid, inquisitive about his vessel. “I was getting pulled down through waves by a creature,” Bertish explained at a press conference at the end of his journey in Antigua, on 9 March 2017. “It was like something out of some science fiction film.”
This was not Bertish’s first foray into extreme water sport. Over the last 25 years, he has become something of a legend in South African and international surfing communities, being one of the few surfers to master and win the notoriously dangerous Mavericks Big Wave surfing competition in California, US, where some of biggest waves recorded reach over 16m.
Bertish also holds a number of South African and world records for endurance stand-up paddling. In preparation for his Atlantic crossing, in 2013 Bertish set a world record for the fastest English Channel crossing on a paddleboard in five and half hours.
During his Atlantic crossing, Bertish paddled an average of 70km, 12 hours a day, and up to 100km during the final week of the journey. In one 15-hour day, he paddled 115km, setting up another world record for distance travelled on a paddleboard in a single day.
“It was…pretty incredible, driven by a passion and a purpose greater than yourself, and that powered me to get through everything, day in and day out,” said Bertish in a Skype interview with National Geographic.
While he slept well in his small cabin, surviving on freeze-dried food packs and energy supplements took a toll on his body. Exhaustion can be a make-or-break factor in any human endurance endeavour, and Bertish needed to find a balance in physical and mental health to have any hope of completing the journey. He had to be prepared for anything fate and the ocean were going to throw at him.
“It’s more than the endurance side that was difficult to keep going. I had to manage the elements and manage myself mentally. I had massive system malfunctions that I was trying to troubleshoot myself.”
And his efforts were all for a good cause. Representing various charities, including the Signature of Hope Trust, the Lunchbox Foundation and Operation Smile, Bertish used the high-profile endeavour to raise funds to build schools in South Africa, fund youth feeding schemes and create awareness of life-changing cleft-palate surgeries. During his trip, he raised almost R6-million, even taking donations from fellow ocean travellers he met while at sea.
“Knowing the impact this would have,” Bertish told National Geographic, “made every day out on the open ocean worthwhile.”
At the end of his epic trip, Bertish, who is also a much sought-after motivational speaker, wrote on his Facebook timeline: “The more time I can spend in the ocean, in any shape or form, the better. I’m a waterman and the ocean is my inspiration. It’s where I truly feel alive, comfortable, content, happy and free.
“Nothing is impossible, unless you believe it to be.”
In between preparing a book about and a documentary on the record-setting Atlantic quest, Bertish has now got his sights on his next challenge: conquering the vast Pacific Ocean in 2020.
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