From Morocco to Antigua, one paddle stroke at a time
Ninety-three days after departing Morocco’s Agadir Harbor, South African Chris Bertish paddled his custom 20-foot stand-up paddleboard into Antigua’s English Harbor, 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 on this blustery Saturday in Antigua.
Having read the blurbs announcing his arrival in The New York Times and listening to the story of his achievement broadcast on NPR, we wanted to know more about the physical and mental tests he had to endure to succeed.
An engaging and eloquent storyteller, Bertish told of his adventure on the high seas. He spoke about euphoric highs and devastating lows, moments of frustration, injury and heart-sinking setbacks, along with the physical and mental rush he found in moments of every small triumph. He also spoke about fear and perseverance, finding the will and stamina to keep going … one paddle stroke at a time.
He explained how the thought of all those children in South Africa - whom the charitable donations from his journey were going to help - was often the only thing that kept him paddling. Other times, it was the thought of a single piece of chocolate as the reward he would give himself after reaching certain milestones.
Weighing in 25 pounds lighter than when he left, Bertish’s physical accomplishment alone is a monumental one. 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 the Ironman every day for 93 days, without ever switching muscle groups.
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 labor, extreme water rationing and death lurking just beneath the surface could bring any man to his psychological knees. But not Bertish. He turned it into inspiration and raised money for charities like Operations Smile, The Lunchbox Fund and Signature of Hope Trust.
Once Chris got talking it was like the floodgates from 93 days of silence opened. Here are a few of his stories and wisdom gleaned from his record-setting adventure.
Pushing inner limits
“This whole project is about breaking boundaries and redefining what is 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 realize how incredible the human body is if you teach it to do something and shift the normality of what it’s expected to do. So 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 buoyancy rating of two tons 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 would tell myself, ‘When you get to this milestone, then you can have a chocolate bar.’ It was like a ceremony.
Bertish: By the Numbers
Number of paddle strokes: 2,088,000
Total distance traveled: 4,050 miles
Total time: 2,234 hours (just over 93 days)
Weight of the SUP: 1,350 pounds
Average distance traveled every day: 44 miles
Number of things that broke and needed to be jury-rigged: 12
Amount of water Chris survived on: 1.5 gallons/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 savor 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 that 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.”