From Morocco to Antigua, one paddle stroke at a time
Ninety-three days after departing Morocco’s Port of Agadir, South African Chris Bertish paddled his custom 20ft stand-up paddleboard into Antigua’s English Harbour, becoming the first person in history to make the dangerous open-ocean crossing on a SUP.
After spending over three months alone at sea, Bertish is in good health and even better spirits when he picks up the Skype connection for our interview on this blustery Saturday in Antigua.
Bertish told of his the euphoric highs and devastating lows, the moments of frustration, injury and heart-sinking setbacks, along with the physical and mental rush he found in each small triumph. He also spoke about fear and perseverance, finding the will and stamina to keep going – one paddle stroke at a time.
But perhaps what’s even more impressive than his physical accomplishment is his mental one. Surviving a self-imposed version of solitary confinement with three months of hard labour, extreme water rationing and death lurking beneath the surface could bring anyone to their knees. But not Bertish. He turned it into a source of inspiration and raised money for charities like Operations Smile, The Lunchbox Fund and Signature of Hope Trust, all of which work to help children in South Africa.
A single 12- to 15-hour day of paddling his SUP burns about the same amount of calories as an entire Ironman triathlon. Now imagine doing an Ironman every day for 93 days, without ever switching muscle groups. But the thought of raising money to help children in South Africa – and a bar of chocolate at the end of each day – kept him going on an expedition that ended up leaving him more than 11kg lighter.
Once Chris got talking, it was like the floodgates from 93 days of silence opened. Here are a few of his stories and pearls of wisdom from his record-setting adventure.
Pushing inner limits
“This whole project is about breaking boundaries and redefining what’s possible. Ninety-five percent of the world thought it was impossible. The words ‘impossible’ and ‘can’t’ are motivators for me to find solutions, get creative and make the impossible possible. I’ve spent most of my adult life pushing beyond my limits, redefining new limits and shifting my own paradigms.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about limitless living. We can achieve, explore and do anything we want in life. The only limitations we have are those we put on ourselves. That’s what adventure does – it helps redefine yourself to grow as a person. My whole project was about shifting to become comfortable in areas where I was petrified in the beginning.”
Dealing with adversity
“I had quite a few system failures. My solar panels stopped working properly and I wasn’t able to make the three gallons of water that I needed on a daily basis, so I had to train my body to survive on a gallon to a gallon and a half of water each day. That way, I could manage the other systems that would keep me alive, like powering the automatic identification systems so giant tankers could see me and wouldn’t run me over in the middle of the night.
“What I find fascinating about adventure is it teaches you about your limits and shows you that you can push your body to overcome things that most people think aren’t humanly possible. It makes you realise how incredible the human body is if you teach it to do something and shift the normality of what it’s expected to do. This became my body’s new normal.”
“I cut my finger open really badly and I thought that I’d possibly cut it down to the bone. At the same time, I was stuck in a massive storm with 20-foot waves and 40-knot winds. I was stuck in my cabin and couldn’t really go outside, and I was getting pushed towards the Canary Islands. I couldn’t steer, I couldn’t paddle, my finger was bleeding all over the place and I was getting pushed onto an area where there were these giant pinnacle of rock sticking up 60 feet out of the water. I was absolutely petrified that there was nothing I could do.
“That same night a giant squid or whale got tangled up in my para-anchor. It felt like it was trying to take me and my craft down into the depths of the ocean. It was like a science-fiction movie, but that was the reality. My craft has a buoyancy rating of two tonnes, yet it was being pulled through 20-foot waves. It was absolutely frightening.
“That was just one of multiple life-threatening low-points where it was about having the right mental attitude to stay strong and not fall apart and just endure every hour, every day, every night – night after night, stroke after stroke, for 93 days straight.”
“You must create rewards for yourself to help you mentally get through and prepare for the next challenge, right down to the point of rewarding milestones with a chocolate bar. I’d tell myself, ‘When you get to this milestone, then you can have a chocolate bar.’ It was like a ceremony.
Chris Bertish by numbers
Number of paddle strokes: 2,088,000
Total distance travelled: 6,518km
Total time: 2,234 hours (just over 93 days)
Weight of the SUP: 612kg
Average distance travelled each day: 70.8km
Number of things that broke and needed to be jury-rigged: 12
Amount of water Chris survived on: 1.5 gallons per day
Number of close encounters with sharks: 2
Captain Ahab moments: 1
“That chocolate bar moment became so special. I switched off everything else around me and just focused on that three-and-a-half minutes where I would slow everything down and savour every bite. I’ll tell you, that chocolate bar tasted better than a cheeseburger after 93 days at sea. You’re dealing with such immense obstacles that when you get to that one chocolate bar, you stop and appreciate that moment like no other experience. It becomes pure bliss – an invaluable reward and you just can’t put a price tag on it.”
“Adventures like this help you create an attitude of gratitude and never take anything for granted. I’ve always lived by the philosophy of dream it, see it, believe it and achieve it. I think this project was more about day-by-day and step-by-step.
“How did I get through it? It was all about going stroke-by-stroke, just getting through the next hour, the next day, the next night, the next storm. If you stay focused on what is happening right in front of you and never give up, you’ll eventually make it to your goal.”