INTERVIEW: Chris Bertish Is About to Solo Wing Foil Across the Pacific

Matt Rode

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Updated 50d ago

Big wave surfer Chris Bertish is about to set off on a solo mission to wing foil across the Pacific -- the first trip of its kind to ever be attempted.

You may remember back in March 2017, Chris solo SUPped across the Atlantic, a 4,500-mile unassisted mission from Morocco to Antigua. It was, and still is, an astonishing achievement, and you can read our interview with him about that here.

This time around, Chris will wing foil 2,850 miles across the Pacific Ocean from Half Moon Bay, California to Oahu in Hawaii. For the journey, Chris will be modifying the SUP he used to cross the Atlantic, stripping it back and raising the deck, building the walls up and installing special foils to keep it above water. This is another monumental task for the big wave hellman and ahead of the planned departure in June of this year, we caught up with him to talk about the project, covering topics like; why? The physical and mental demands needed to complete the crossing, storing food and sleeping and so much more.

You’ve been busy the past couple of months, preparing for this next big project. Can you tell us where you are in the planning stages?
CB: Well right now I’m super busy with fundraising and looking for sponsors and support. Most people don’t realise everything that goes into a project like this. They see the actual adventure, the effort that athletes put in and the social media posts, but they don’t realise that the project starts months and even years earlier, planning logistics and trying to find the money to make it happen.

A project like this can cost as much as $300,000 or more, so it’s one of those all-in things. You have to be all in, right from the beginning. You go ahead, no matter what, and you find the money somewhere, somehow, and make it happen. And then it depends on the corporate sponsor you find and the support that you get, whether you can pay yourself back the money that you put in, or whether you just do a bare-bones project and not make as big of an impact as you want because you can’t afford to hire the team that you need and pay for marketing, PR, social media reach, satellite phone, live streaming, etc.—all of those things that don’t happen if you don't get enough funding. That's what most people don't see with this type of project.

It’s normally a 6-12 month process. I’ve been looking for funding for around four months now, and I have another three months to hopefully get to the bare-bones level. I reckon I’ll be able to get the basics, to get the craft updated and ready, and pay for the shipping and insurance and that sort of stuff. I mean, that’s around $100,000 right there, which is a lot of money, especially in today’s financial climate.

If you don’t have one main corporate sponsor that funds that, then you are pulling from everywhere, from all of your smaller sponsors to try to pay for the necessities. And then you hope that once a bigger sponsor comes on board closer to the start time, you can sort of reimburse those expenditures by injecting the new funding into all the other things you need.

Details of the craft Chris will be using.

So how much time do you have to nail down sponsors? When are you looking at launching?
End of May or beginning of June is when I’ll be launching. If I haven’t started by the end of June, I’ll have missed the window to get it finished safely. That’s based on wind direction, hurricanes, and all that stuff. You know, hurricanes make a great story if you survive, but if you don’t, they are a bit of a pain in the ass (laughs).

Once you launch, you will be completely alone on the ocean for an extended period of time. How long were you out on the Atlantic paddle mission, and how do you deal with that? Do you see anyone during that time?
I was out for just over three months during that project. You see a bunch of container ships in the main shipping lanes (around Morocco and coming into the Caribbean), but in between there are very few. I might have seen two or three boats in two months.

So what do you do at night when you need to sleep? How do you stay on course?
Well you sort of do shifts, like four hours on and four hours off, and go through the night. The exception is if the conditions are wild—then you stabilize the craft by putting the autopilot on. It might not keep you going in the right direction, but at least you are carrying on with forward momentum. And if the conditions are really wild you put out a sea anchor, which keeps you heading into the wind and you get dragged with the wind at about a quarter of the speed you normally would be.

Mid SUP crossing, you got to keep positivity high.

Mid SUP crossing, you got to keep positivity high.

I know you have spent a lot of time sailing. Is a project like this similar to a long passage on a yacht in some ways?
Well a bit I guess. But in a yacht you actually have a bed that’s as long as you are, and you have a kitchen and a toilet. On my craft, I’m in a box that’s not even as long as I am, and that’s as wide as my shoulders. I can’t even sit completely upright in it. So it’s a completely different world. And in my last project my autopilot failed around 70 percent of the time, so a lot of the time I worked out a system where I could lock off the steering system side on, so I was 45 degrees to the conditions. I know what I need to rectify from the last time around, and that helps dramatically for improvements and things to change and add

And that was pretty scary, because I was getting semi-inverted since I couldn’t get my autopilot to work and was sideways to the waves. So there’s a lot of challenging stuff, and I learned a lot from that first project, which has allowed me to plan for this new project a little more efficiently and effectively. I know what I need to rectify from the last time around, and that helps dramatically for improvements and things to change and add.

Every single system in the entire craft is different and has been upgraded and changed. A foil system is being developed and will be integrated. So we basically just used the original shell and built a new craft out of that.

So do you anticipate that you will be going a lot faster, since you will be wing foiling?
That’s actually an interesting one. There’s the famous story of the tortoise and the hare. If you want to do a marathon, go slower. If you want to win a race that’s short, then you sprint. This is a marathon, not a sprint. There are no yachts—even the most advanced Vendee Globe yachts—that fully foil because that doesn’t work in the open ocean. So basically you are just trying to reduce the weighted surface.

If you come completely out of the water in the open ocean, you become extremely unstable and you can’t sustain that in such a rough environment. So the objective, just like on a Vendee Globe yacht—and I used to sail semi-professionally, and I still sail and race on a semi-foiling yacht that has foils that stick out the sides—is to not even notice that the foils are there.

On a yacht, once you get up to around 10 knots, the foil stabilises the yacht and reduces the weighted surface, which increases the speed. So we are operating on the same principal with my craft. But in this case the foils will engage at around 3 to 4 knots, stabilising the craft and making it faster. But I am definitely not going to be up on the foil in the open ocean. That would just be the definition of insanity, and you would not survive. You wouldn’t even get 10 days in.

So how long are you expecting this project to take?
I have absolutely no idea, because nothing like this has ever been done. Until I get the craft here on the West Coast with everything intact and we can test it the way I need to, there’s no way to know. But I am roughly thinking around 50 days.

Are you able to stock enough food for that?
Yeah that’s not a problem. I learned a lot last time, so I can stock a little more efficiently this time, with everything that I want.

What do you expect, in terms of differences between the Pacific and the Atlantic. Which do you think will be more wild?
I actually expect the Pacific to be a little tamer. I had pretty bum weather systems on the Atlantic, which was a bit of an anomaly. The consistent conditions that we expected during the time that I did my last project did not manifest. So that makes me quite comfortable with this project in the Pacific, because it is meant to be much milder and more consistent in terms of the wind conditions I’m looking for.

The first week to 10 days will be more intense, because I am leaving from the far north, so I’ll be dealing with the cold northerlies, and the wind and weather sort of blow you south/southeast and south/southwest until you get into the trades and it turns more easterly. So it takes around 10 days until you get far enough south and in the trades.

What’s the mindset when you are out there alone for months and spending 12-16 hours per day exerting yourself?
It’s a long-term maintenance thing. For the first 25 years, everything I was doing was all about breaking speed records and catching big waves and all of that kind of stuff. But once I got more into endurance stuff, it’s all about slowing everything down and maintaining your physical, mental, and emotional state—staying hydrated, maintaining nutrition, and getting recovery and sleep. For the first 25 years, everything I was doing was all about breaking speed records and catching big waves

All of those things become absolutely essential. So in addition to the 12-15 hours per day that you are working, you are also managing all of those things. You have to prepare your food and create your own water and manage the various systems. There’s a constant list of things you have to do—navigation and forecasting. So you really don’t have any down time, aside from your one or two hours of sleep, and that’s provided you can actually get that sleep in during a session.

First steps back on land, after an epic Atlantic crossing.

First steps back on land, after an epic Atlantic crossing.

Wow, so you are pretty engaged all the time. But even with all of the things you are busy with, you must feel disconnected from the world? That's quite a lot of time to spend alone, without any socialising of any sort.
I think when you are alone for long periods of time, it makes you learn…you know, there’s a famous statement: “Know thyself.” I think that most people in this day and age don’t really know themselves at all, and they are never comfortable in their own space and in their own mind. And these kind of journeys make you realise how self-sufficient you can be, how creative and innovative you can be, and resilient you are if you put in the planning and you have the right mindset.

You become in tune with your environment to the point that it’s your home. You become very connected with yourself and with your environment, with everything around you, which all becomes one. And that’s an incredible special place to be and to tap into. It simplifies everything in life, and makes you realise what’s really important in life. Trying to maintain that when you get back on land is the hardest thing.

Yeah, I have noticed that after long periods of time spent in the backcountry, or even camped out on an island somewhere, far from society and just focused on the ocean and the daily routine, when you come back to society, it’s really hard to maintain that awareness and connectivity with yourself that you develop when you are alone. And it can be really frustrating as you see yourself slipping back into patterns and value systems that you no longer agree with.
Spot on. And obviously everything that I do is all about giving back, creating awareness, and inspiring positive change in people. And at the moment there are a lot of people who are going through a really challenging time, and who need inspiration and need to be reminded that we are far more resilient than we think we are—that we not only can get through this pandemic, but if we just focus on what’s in front of us and take it one small step at a time, we can get through anything. With these kind of projects many people don’t realise how many levels there are of giving back. They might only hear about one platform, like conservation or education, and not realise all of the things that we are trying to accomplishc

A lot of the projects that I do are intended to remind and inspire people to that. And of course to give back through partnerships with partners like Operation Smile; ocean health and conservation through Conservation International; education through the Two Oceans Aquarium project, which is paying for outreach programs all over South Africa for disadvantaged kids; planting more than 1,000 in Myanmar, which offsets the entire carbon footprint of this project. The whole project will go completely across the Pacific with a carbon net neutral and even a carbon positive impact.

It’s really just about being a good role model for people, and inspiring the youth. The sat com system that I am looking at, which is like a $30,000 setup, will allow me to do live updates in classrooms from the middle of the Pacific, talking to kids about the plastic pollution, the various creatures I’m seeing out there. I’m taking a bunch of equipment to be able to take water samples and test PH levels, temperatures, and acidity, which will add to the climate change narrative and how it’s affecting the oceans and sea level rise.

With these kind of projects many people don’t realise how many levels there are of giving back. They might only hear about one platform, like conservation or education, and not realise all of the things that we are trying to accomplish. There’s a lot more that goes into these projects that what people see on social media, and the impact and reach that they have can hopefully reach a global audience throughout the whole journey. And that’s really what it’s about—inspiring positive change and inspiring people to rethink for themselves what they can do to give back and help others, and leave a positive change on themselves and the world around them.

Even just the aspirations of what you hope to do with the project and how you hope to impact the world is inspirational. Do you find that your audience is largely in the surf and ocean-based community, or is it mainstream?
Well the sponsorship for my past projects has included corporate entities from all over, and their audiences are obviously pretty varied and not just within surfing. We are still looking for key sponsors for this event, so it sort of remains to be seen who will be involved and what their audience and reach will be.

Well hopefully you will find the support you need to really bring your message and project to a global audience. We look forward to following along and living vicariously through you and your adventure!

You can back the project by going HERE