Chris Bertish is one of South Africa’s leading hellmen. He is the first person on record to paddle-in surf at Jaws in 2001 plus he took out the Mavericks Big Wave Invitational in 2010 in the biggest waves ever paddled into. Chris also lists being an ISA SUP World Championship contender in both 2012 and 2013 among his achievements. Chris is currently working on the ultimate SUP mission: The SUP-Crossing; a 3,500km paddle across the Atlantic to be completed within the next year.
As part of his preparations for this he thought it would be prudent to tackle one of the gnarliest coastlines in the world – the West Coast of South Africa. A 320 km stretch from Cape Point in the South to Lamberts Bay in the North. The water rarely gets above 14deg Celsius, the winds are notoriously ferocious, with wild and big seas and the sharks abundant… here is his story.
This was to be a solo mission – this means carrying everything needed on the board; tent, sleeping bag, cooking gear, food, hydration, communication equipment and safety gear. It all added up to 40kg+, which was heavily tied and strapped down onto his 17’ Naish Javelin. Imagine paddling with a chick on your board for 50kms a day!
Chris also had a limited time frame to complete the mission, so he kind of had to go when he had to go. Luckily the forecast looked pretty promising with the predominant South East trade winds being predicted for most of the trip. This should have given him epic downwind conditions for most of the way – it wasn’t quite to be.
The start at Cape Point already proved a challenge with heaving 5m surf making exit impossible off the treacherous SW Reefs, so Chris had to move 5km North to Olifantsbos. This also proved tricky, but it was a stunning exit point with Gemsbok and Ostriches roaming the beach and a light initial tail wind to start out this mammoth adventure. It seemed beyond perfect.
First stop was Sandy Bay, 39km away, and apart from the solid surf making getting back into the beach through the heaving shore break a challenge, all went well and the first night spent in his tent went down without a hitch. It takes Chris over an hour in the morning to break down camp and another 45 minutes to fasten down everything back on his board, every day. That means very early starts; up at 4am to be on the water heading out between 5-6am would become the norm.
Day 2 Chris woke up to howling 35 knot offshore wind which would have blown him way out to sea, but luckily, as forecast, the wind backed off and by 8am and he was able to paddle from Sandy Bay to Robben Island, with a quick pit stop at Three Anchor Bay.
Calm winds allowed for a smooth crossing to the Island, which normally doesn’t allow any stay overs, so Chris snuck in around the back of the islands and set up camp with a colony of jackass penguins for the night.
Day 3 was a monster 52km to Dassen Island, often paddling over 12km offshore. Unfortunately for Chris the predicted South-South East wind never got out of the South West corner and he had to paddle the entire way on the one side, with the wind 90 degrees off his left shoulder… To make matters worse the wind really picked up by the time he reached the island and by the time he got around into the lee, over 10 hours from his initial start at 6am in the morning, he was well-poked, fatigued, sun stroked and exhausted.
Once around the point he grabbed hold of a piece of kelp and spent the next 20 minutes gathering himself, before the final paddle to the beach. This had been a tough one and had taken its toll; dehydration, blistering and burnt corneas had begun to make things very uncomfortable.
Day 4 was to be even worse, as he woke up with burnt corneas, making seeing difficult, body aching from the previous day and a thick fog which had set in down the coast, taking visibility down to less than 50 metres. With a Northerly headwind at first and then, just as bad, more South West wind making his 55km line to Langebaan lagoon a nightmare with side-wind the entire way once again. Plus there was a huge 5 metre swell smashing into the treacherous rocky coastline through the fog – so much for the predicted downwinder…
When Chris finally made it to the entrance of the lagoon he was completely spent, clinging to the thought of merely surviving this leg, after only barely clearing the rocky entry and certain disaster. Avoiding the huge swells smashing up against the rocky headland had taken every last bit of his energy, his eyes were burning and his body was screaming for rest.
However once around the corner he got his first taste of downwinding of the entire trip thus far, for a measly, yet well-deserved 4km run down into Saldanha Harbor. That evening he went blind from the sunburn, blistered, with all the skin peeling from his burnt feet, he decided to take the following day as rest day and recover, before heading on further to St. Helena Bay.
Day 6 paddling resumed with another 50km around Shelley Point and into St Helena Bay, this time he had the company of his brother Greg, which was a great motivational help. But the wind once again didn’t play along – instead they faced a light headwind the entire way, until St. Helena, where Greg had to meet up with family and Chris bid him farewell, and carried on another 16km to Sandy Point & Stompneus Bay.
Day 7 was to be a bee-line for Elands Bay (of surfing fame), but Chris adjusted his course to the predicted South wind and paddled 12km East, across the Bay in anticipation of the forecast breeze. However the wind stayed out of the South West at 15-20knots making it another side-winder from hell.
It was so bad that just over halfway, as the wind strengthened to over 20knts, Chris was unable to paddle against the strengthening breeze. It blew him into the coastline and a 6-8ft beach break, shipwrecking him, washing him up through the huge surf, and landing him on a deserted beach – 23km short of his destination at E-Bay.
We had driven up to greet him in Ebay but just got a text to say he’d have to set up camp overnight and add an additional 23km’s to next days 30km, final leg paddle to Lamberts Bay.
Day 8 was final day of the mission. Low on energy, water and after losing his hat through the surf the previous day, he managed to head out at first light, 5:30am, and negotiated the 4-5ft heaving beach break. Having learnt from the previous days adverse wind directions, Chris paddled for the horizon knowing all too well that by mid-morning the sea-breeze would once again push in from the South West and make his preferred line a major challenge.
We got up early to scout for him but never caught any glimpse of him as he’d gone 8km out to sea. By 11am the wind had picked up and the entire ocean was once again white capping, making him impossible to spot and making us think that the leg would be impossible to complete. We estimated he’d be in around 2-3pm in favorable conditions, but with the side wind we were pretty convinced he’d have to shipwreck once again, so we drove up and down scouting for him, never to see any trace of him.
So much was our surprise when we got a call just before 2pm from Chris to say he was sitting pretty in Lamberts enjoying his first beer! He’d gone 9-10km out to sea, to a waypoint he’d marked the day before, which allowed him to turn in as the wind strengthened in the South Westerly direction and enjoy the last 5kms as an almost-downwinder.
So, just over 320 kilometres in 8 days; unassisted, solo, in swells never less than 3.5 meters and with only 9kms of pure downwinding. To put it into perspective, it’s the equivalent of about 6x Molokai’s in 8 days, with no back up support boat, sleeping in a tent overnight, on freeze dried food and energy bars, with only head and side winds and a chick sitting on the front of your board, paddling an average of over 8 hours a day…
Those who have done any ocean paddling will be baffled by the thought of this and will be able to appreciate the magnitude of this achievement.
As Chris says: “Nothing is impossible, unless you believe it to be”.