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Chris Bertish is all about big wave surfing and ultra distance SUP
By Neil Pearlberg
Chris Bertish will be the last person to brag about how he won the 2010 Mavericks Invitational in some of the biggest and heaviest surf ever. Or that his victory came right after an exhausting 48 hour journey from South Africa to San Francisco and just hours after he realized that all his surfing equipment had been lost in transit.
Borrowing a wetsuit and surfboard from contest organizer Jeff Clark, Berish paddled out to his heat, and was greeted by monster waves with 40 foot faces. Acting on impulse, the 28-year-old waterman wasted no time and paddled into the first wave he could.
Fully committed and dropping in late, the four-story mountain of water collapsed around him and drove him to the seabed floor. Held under for a sickeningly long period of time, Bertish quickly found himself in a survival situation. Seconds from blacking out, the ocean finally released its iron grip and he fought his way to the surface.
His rescue PWC was there to greet him, but due to lack of oxygen his body began to shut down, and he couldn’t move his arms or legs enough to grab on to his rescue craft. Seeing he was in dire straits, his rescuer risked disaster and pulled him to safety just as another wall of whitewater bore down on them.
Counting on prize money to fund his plane ticket back to South Africa, Bertish dug deep and found the energy to summon the jet ski driver to take him back to the line up, to recover and take a shot at one more try to survive a Mavericks drop and stay on his feet.
Bertish sat some 50 yards away from the pack, who were ready and waiting at the ideal take off spot, and noticed on the horizon a huge set bearing down like a freight train. As would luck would have it, he was lined up perfectly, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Quiet and unassuming, Bertish focuses his attention on seemingly impossible challenges in the world’s most treacherous waters, and his list of accomplishments are jaw dropping. Besides winning the Billabong XXL Big Wave award in 2001, he also was the first person to paddle into a wave at the notorious Hawaiian break known as Jaws.
More recently Chris Bertish has turned his attention to long distance SUP, with a string of ultra distance journeys that have redefined what’s possible in the dangerous realm of solo, unsupported paddling. Besides traveling 200 miles along the rocky west coast of South Africa, Bertish is the current record holder for the English Channel on an SUP, with a blazing fast time of 5:26:03. In December of 2013, Bertish left many in the adventure SUP community shaking their heads by paddling 80.84 miles to nab the open ocean 12-hour world record.
Recently ASJ surf editor Neil Pearlberg was able to sit down with Chris while he was a guest on Neil’s KSCO Santa Cruz radio show, Off The Lip.
ASJ: What were you thinking when you saw the huge set coming right down main street towards you?
CB: I felt like I only had enough energy to make just a single stroke with each arm. Everyone knows it takes a lot more than just one stroke to paddle into a wave at Mavericks, especially being so far away from the bowl. In a freakish turn events, I took my one stroke, and like a willing bull, the massive wave picked me up, set me down gently, and let me ride her all the way to the finals – and the winners trophy.
ASJ: Where did the ambition come from to be an ocean pioneer?
CB: Without question, my father – he was an adventurer, a pioneer, and stuntman, and shared his zest for life with my brothers, Greg and Conn and me. When I was just a baby, he would take us all out onto his homemade catamaran into the midst of the ocean’s wild elements, and it has stuck with me, and I am proud carry on the torch. Then later when I was eleven I began to set goals for myself, like he showed me, and one by one, I set out to achieve them. Mavericks became the top of my list, and I dreamt and focused on surfing that wave for over ten years.
ASJ: Your next project is pretty much insane, and most would consider it impossible. Your thoughts?
CB: Casting off from South Africa in March 2016, I will paddle due west on a 5,000 mile unassisted transatlantic crossing on a specially designed SUP, via the Canary Islands, and the Caribbean, before finishing my journey on the beach in Miami.
The results of my calculated planning have me paddling three to four months straight, one marathon (26.2 miles) per day, on a specially designed SUP with a small concealed cabin on the bow in order to sleep and escape the elements, with the goal of becoming the first solo, human powered transatlantic crossing.
Learn more about Chris Bertish’s workshops, projects and upcoming adventures at chrisbertish.com.