Fighting For Survival On A Paddle Board Across The Atlantic

In March, Chris Bertish completed the first solo, unsupported transatlantic stand up paddle boarding (SUP) crossing from Morocco to Antigua. The 7500km distance took 93 days and over 1,900,000 strokes to complete.

Chris, who hails from Cape Town, South Africa, took on the challenge to raise money for local charity initiatives, including feeding 10,000 children every month for the next 25 years through The Lunchbox Fund, paying for cleft lip operations through Operation Smile, and building five schools through Signature of Hope Trust. Fundraising is still on-going but to date Bertish’s project has raised approximately $420,000.

TRAIN spoke to the 42-year-old internationally acclaimed speaker, big wave surfer and Guinness SUP World Record holder to find out more about his amazing and highly dangerous expedition.

 

How did you train for the journey?

I have been training for this project pretty much all of my life. My experience and knowledge of open ocean sailing, navigation, weather, routing, forecasting, big wave surfing, sailing small and big boats and, of course, stand up paddle boarding all molded me to be ready to undertake this project.

Physically I cross train between surfing, wind surfing and stand up paddle. In the lead-up to the crossing I did a lot of navigation training and updated my first aid training, my first aid at sea certificate, sea survival training, sea rescue training and my skipper’s certificates.

For about seven months I did three to four hours, six days a week upwind training on my paddle board with an extra load and the biggest blades on my paddles so I could put as much strain on my body as possible.

I also exercised mental training with my mental coach, David Becker. I did a lot of visualization of all the worst-case scenarios and different obstacles, and challenged myself to find solutions for them and find peace within myself to mentally get myself ready for being out at sea on a tiny little craft for over three months.

 

The inside of Chris’s paddle board where he kept clothes, supplies and photos


 

Is your paddle board pretty special then?

The craft was made by internationally renowned naval architect, Phil Morrison. It’s just under 20ft (6m) in length and weighs approximately 1350lbs (600kg) when fully loaded with equipment and supplies.

Advanced communications systems included: an in-depth weather forecasting system via satellite communication, a handheld GPS, two sets of solar panel units to power all electronics, satellite phones, MacBook and Auto Pilot System.

The deck of the craft is equipped with four ports where I stored my freeze-dried meals and 50l of emergency water. In the rear storage compartment I kept various emergency items such as a life raft, emergency flares, repair tools and a water desalinator.

I needed to be sure I was certain I was going into it with the right craft and all of the right back-ups, safety and emergency equipment.

The right team behind me was crucial, too, I knew that they’d have my back. My weather, routing and forecasting guy, Leven Brown, is phenomenal and I was speaking to and getting updates from him every day or two which was vital to the project’s success.

 

How did you feel when you set off?

Pushing off was simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. Funnily enough, the lead-up to the crossing had been so hectic and pressured that getting out on the ocean was probably the safest place for me to be because everything on land felt like it was killing me.

After I left I was so stoked and relieved to be in my happy place, even though I knew it would be really tough. I was sure it would be more manageable for me to deal with obstacles out on the ocean than all of the relentless stuff I was battling with on land to get the project started.

 

 Chris braves the elements as his craft is tossed by the waves while out on the Atlantic Ocean


 

What was your favorite thing about the crossing?

I became so in tune with my craft and the elements during the journey I was almost like one of the ocean sea creatures. Every couple of days, or when the weather was good, I’d dive over the side and have a morning swim.

Beautiful yellowfin tuna, which I called my “sentinel wolf pack,” would swim with me in the morning, and then they’d go hunting during the day and chase the flying fish.

I fell in love with dolphinfish and swam with dolphins and whales, while birds would ride the waves and wind alongside me. I would just stare in awe and take it all in.

 

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What was the worst moment?

There were so many life-threatening situations it’s hard to list them all, but the very worst included fearing I was going to be eaten by a giant great white shark that was as big as my paddle board; getting a whale stuck in my parachute anchor; being stuck in the middle of a huge storm, threatening to drag me beneath the water, and sailing in 40-knot winds in pitch black off an island where I could have been shipwrecked in 30ft seas against a cliff face.

On one horrible occasion my finger was caught between my parachute anchor line and rudder in the middle of the night and it was almost ripped off and I had to saw at the anchor line with knife or risk losing the digit altogether.

One day my steering system broke and I had no steering while on another the main hatches on the deck started leaking, so I was slowly sinking every single day and could only open the hatches to get the water out. Every day was a battle for survival. It was as though I was on a daily giant problem-solving mission for 93 days straight.

 

Chris celebrates his arrival at Antigua after 93 days of paddling


 

How did you feel when you arrived on dry land?

From the moment I set foot on the dock at English Harbor, Antigua, I felt an immense weight lifted from my shoulders.

Thinking about all of the kids that would benefit from the money raised became my “why” when I was out on the water and was so powerful I would call on it to get me through and overcome any obstacle that came my way.  I believe that if you’re driven by passion and powered by a purpose greater than yourself, you can get through any challenge and achieve the seemingly impossible.

I was fortunate to have family, friends and part of my team in Antigua. We celebrated with plenty of drinks, good laughs and storytelling.  It was the perfect end to an incredible adventure that inspired hundreds of thousands of people and changed the lives of millions of kids forever.

 

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Harriet Mallinson

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