The dream could have ended with an air hostess in Detroit. In her mid-thirties, long brown hair, attractive in a milfy kind of way, let’s call her Joyce. In front of Joyce is Chris Bertish, his only baggage is a wetsuit slung over his shoulder and a laptop bag. Apparently his board has been checked straight through from Cape Town to San Francisco. He’s totally broke. On the verge of financial ruin. All his credit cards maxed out, his overdraft too. He has just R450 to his name. He borrowed money from his brother Greg for the airfare, a further R5000 from one of his mates to pay for the re-booking fee. For the last three weeks he’s been on standby, waiting to fly out at a minute’s notice. It’s the busiest time of the year for his business. He’s drained, jet-lagged, dog tired. And now Joyce is telling him that his ticket to San Francisco, the final leg of the journey, has not been confirmed, the flight is full, there are another 10 people on the waiting list, and the plane is boarding.
“Please, you’ve got to help me.” Chris begs. Those big, wild eyes bulging out of his head. “You don’t understand how far I’ve travelled and how far I still have to travel to get to this event.”
Joyce is all like, “You’re just like everyone else sir, you just have to wait.”
Chris is almost crying now. “No, no you don’t understand. This is different. I’ve been trying to get into this event for the last 10 years. I’m so financially screwed right now that, believe me, you don’t want me here. Have you seen the movie The Terminal? I’m going to be stuck here for the next 10 years, because I can’t afford to get another plane out of here…. Please help me out. Please…”
Seeing that he’s nearly in tears, Joyce softens her heart and magically finds a seat.
“She bumped me up. Found me one of the seats reserved for the air-hostesses, just to get me on plane. She was beautiful, like an angel. She knew I was for real…”
But Joyce the air hostess was just one of the players in a series of events that led to Chris Bertish being crowned the Mavericks champion, against all odds. Let’s keep going. He arrives in San Francisco and heads to the baggage carousel. No tooth brush, no razor, only the clothes on his back and his wetsuit over his shoulder. But the one thing he couldn’t carry on was his favourite 9’1 Jeff Clark Mavericks gun. After standing around looking for his surfboard for a while he goes to baggage claim and asks about his board. The Asian guy who works there says, “Sorry about that, sometimes these things happen if we miss the connecting flight. But don’t worry we’ll send it to you in a couple of days.”
Chris, as calmly as possible, explains that he’s surfing in a major international event in a couple hours time.
“Oh no I’m sure it’ll be cool.” Says Baggage Claims guy. “You can just rent a board at the beach.”
And why would the universe go easy on Chris now. His luck has been hard ever since he started surfing big waves competitively. A litany of unpaid prize money, lack of sponsorship and dodgy judging decisions, mixed in with some of the biggest waves imaginable, and a fearless, almost psychotic dedication to riding them. Now if you don’t already, there are a few things you should know about Chris Bertish in big waves: he rides ridiculously short boards, lives to paddle and he wants to get barrelled and do big swooping grab rail cutbacks. As he puts it: “When you draw an 80 foot arc, its pretty rad.” You see, Chris believes in high performance big wave surfing and he is always pushing the envelope of what’s possible. In so doing he has notched up a few notable firsts. He was the first person to paddle into Jaws in Hawaii, when everyone else was saying it wasn’t possible and that you had to tow. He was the first to win the XXL Paddle award, for the biggest paddle wave in the worls, ridden over the winter of 2000 & 2001. He then single-handedly reinvented big wave surfing in the UK, by paddling out to the fortuitously named Cribber break alone. He was one of the first to paddle Ghost Trees in California. He was also the first person to SUP at Dungeons. And despite being a stand out at almost every session he’s surfed in waves of consequence for the last 20 years or so, Chris has never tried to make a living as a professional surfer. He just refuses to do that dance. He’s always worked for his money, and pursued the big surf in between, first as Billabong’s marketing guy, and now with his own company that has the agency for O’Neill, Ocean Minded and Crocs in the Western Cape. But it’s no easy road. Especially when you’re one of the chosen few who keeps getting invited to surf in some of the most prestigious big wave surfing events on the planet, and has the compulsive desire to be in the mix every time. Money is not a god Chris Bertish worships; it’s really just the lube that gets him from A to B, from experience to experience, but over the years it has taken its toll and ravaged his finances.
“When I got back in January I was pretty much done.“ He admits. “I was over it, they should have run the event on two occasions and they didn’t. I’d been over for two and a half months. I had to come back for work, I had no money left. Then I surfed the Nelscott event in Oregon and was told by everyone that I should have won it, but ended up coming in third. People were telling me there were protests because they were so pissed off. And then I had the contest director email me two weeks later and say that they made a mistake and that I was actually meant to win it. But they couldn’t publicise that, and they couldn’t give me the prize money, but they really wanted me back in the event next year.”
Apart from the insults, he’s had his fair share of injuries. Torn MCL ligament in his knee the previous year. Two cracked ribs this year after an SUP wipe-out. “Literally five days after breaking my ribs, I ended up surfing that huge Thanksgiving day swell, I had to wrap myself with cling rap and stuff.” He laughs. “I had to pop so many Advils and anti-inflammatories, I was seeing stars, all because I didn’t want to miss the biggest swell of the season.”
Now back in South Africa, his big wave dreams all but dusted, he launched headlong into work but three times in three weeks, like a junkie, he ended up at the airport at midnight, ready to jump on a plane if the event went green light. Compulsive. Obsessive. Delusional.
“I borrowed 13 grand from my brother Greg to buy the ticket so I could be on standby, but every time you change the ticket it’s a thousand rand. So the costs are mounting.” Eventually the swell looked so good, he was pretty sure they would call the event. And with the final costs covered by a close friend, like some kind of obsessive surfing bergie, he squeezed onto a flight at the last minute, after an hour of anxious waiting on standby.
“As I was boarding, I sent all the invitees and the contest director an email, saying screw rationality, screw the wind not being perfect, this is the best swell of the waiting period, we’ve already missed four swells that we could have run the event on, this is the swell, if you don’t have the balls to call the event, I’ll call it, this event is going green, this contest is going to run, I’m stepping on the plane right after sending this email. I’ll see you in the water tomorrow. This is Chris signing out… And then I just pushed send.”
“It’s like going over the ledge,” he rationalises. “it’s like paddling into the biggest wave you could ever find, with a howling offshore blowing into your face so you can’t see anything and just going, going now.”
“If I hadn’t gone, I would have just faded away.”
Finally, on the other side of the planet, at 1 in the morning, Chris gets picked up by his old friend Jeff Clark, the now marginalised ex-Mavericks contest director and pioneer of the spot now locked in litigation with the company that took over his contest. It’s pretty apt that Jeff, the Mavericks legend, puts him up for the night. After sorting out his back up board, a 9’2 Jeff Clark original, Chris lies down to sleep.
“Always the night before a big event I try and visualise stuff. I go through this weird visualisation process. And I saw myself taking off on this wave and it was a bomb, and getting halfway down and then hitting this bump lump stroke suck-out-section and I kept seeing myself falling. And if that ever happens, I won’t go to sleep, I’ll just keep replaying it, so many times in my head, until I can see myself making it over that lump. I never go to sleep until I can visualise myself making the drop… And I just kept saying to myself, rubber man rubber man, you can do it. You can either wiggle your body or you can get stiff. And if you get stiff you fall. And if you can stay loose, if you can be the rubber man you can get through it. So I was just trying visualise getting through it and not falling. And only when I could visualise that, I went to sleep.”
The next morning he’s at the contest site, in his wetsuit, headphones on, preparing for his heat. It’s a huge circus; podiums, tents, 50 foot screens and thousands upon thousands of spectators.
“Contest mode, slow everything down and just focus. As I’m thinking that, I see this huge wave come rolling along the beach comes over the wall and takes out about 30 spectators. I’m trying to get calm and the site gets hit by a tsunami. I’m just seeing people, scaffolding, competitor’s tents, podiums disappearing in front of me. I’m in my wetsuit running, kid over my one shoulder, some woman over my other shoulder, trying to grab people and pull them out. The perfect environment for getting ready for your heat. Calm, relaxing. Couple broken legs, fractured arms, head injuries, chaos. So I called Jeff Clark who was out on the ski and he came and picked me up. I watched the whole heat before mine from the water.”
“When my heat came, I was in a weird space. I was just looking and going fuck bro, this is big. And then I thought, fuck bro, this is your day. It’s fucking huge and I’m actually in the water, in the event. I’ve made it.
“And it was so big that day; we were literally sitting 150 meters further out than I had ever sat out there. I got one wave, just an opener. Nothing fancy, took off, got in quite nicely, got to the bottom, drew the line, it wasn’t super heavy or super big, no fireworks, just a solid opening ride. I went back out, waiting around, saw a set on the horizon and thought, hmmm that’s a really big set. I started paddling out for it and then I looked around and thought, you know what, I’m so far out, there’s no ways a wave could possibly break out here. I look to the horizon and I was like, that’s a very big wave, maybe I should paddle further out. Now I’m starting to paddle and I’m going holy shit, this beast is freaking huge, it’s going to break, and I’m scratching. The wave came in and drew like three quarters of the ocean into it and apexed about 50 feet plus of raw untamed, heaving power and broke literally just in front of me. And I just thought to myself, what the hell have I done to deserve this?
“All I heard was this loud crack like thunder and lightning above your head and the whole world shook and everything went black as I got instantly pushed so deep light had no chance as a guest appearance. Imagine being caught in a small square box with Mike Tyson, Bruce Lee and 8 of their ninja buddies kicking the living hell out of you all at the same time while you’re being dragged backwards underwater at high speed in pure dark blackness. Feels like it’s going to rip the limbs off your body. I travelled 1.2 kilometers underwater in the space of under a minute. I came up 300 meters inside of Mushroom Rock. And then I remember seeingthe light, it feels like you’re just about to see God, like the universe is about to open up. Then the water safety got me. Put me on the back of the sled and he asked if I wanted to go to the paramedics and I was so fucked I couldn’t even get a word out. I was literally hanging on face down. And he kept asking me. And I remember lying there thinking, I’m done. I just didn’t have the energy to tell the guy. And while I was trying to build up the energy to tell him, I remembered this little picture that my dad had on his wall in his office. It was a picture of a stork eating a frog, and this frog is halfway down the stork’s throat but the frog’s arms are sticking out of the beak and he’s throttling the stork and underneath it says, ‘never, ever, ever give up’. And it’s the most inspirational picture for me. So, I remembered that, and I thought I’ve finally made it, I’m in my first heat, I’ve just got a 60 footer straight on the head, and I’m going to call myself done? And that’ll be it, I’ll go home and it’ll be all over. And I thought what was it all for? To prove you weren’t good enough? And you know what I thought? I’m gonna make that frog proud. That stork’s going down.
“I told the rescue ski operator to take me back out. It took major concentration just to paddle. And I thought to myself you know what, even if I don’t catch a wave, if I paddle out, at least I’ve tried. And when I got back into the line up I looked at my watch and there were 4 minutes left in the heat. And there was a set coming, and all the other guys were pretty far across. Wave came through and one of the guys caught it, and then the next one was pretty solid, and broke and caught everyone off guard and I thought, wow, I could probably go for this, then I thought, holy shit, I’m actually in the right place. I turned and took literally three strokes and managed to drop in and get the wave. And that’s what got me through it. It wasn’t fantastic. I didn’t even paddle back out. I just flopped on my board and lay there until the end of my heat. I was so done.”
“In the Semi-Final I got one sick bomb, right from the back, pretty late, pretty deep. I ended up coming off the bottom and thinking I’ve got this covered, and then I saw this section up ahead and I thought, I don’t care if it’s not going to throw… I’m pulling in! I’ll make space in that barrel for just a glimpse of heaven. And I remember pulling in, riding for a while before it got frothy and then just getting hammered. After that wave I thought to myself, wow, you know what, I could paddle in and go home right now and be totally happy with myself. It was enough.. And I remember thinking to myself I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do here. The only thing I haven’t done is won the event. And you know what? If I can pull into a barrel at Mavericks on a day this big, I can win this thing“
“For the first 20 minutes of the final three sets came through and no one caught a wave. Then another big set came through, I took off on the first wave of the heat and I was dropping and I was about a third of the way down, and I was still looking down at least a 15 foot face, but I could see a really big lump in front of me, sucking out. A monster lump and I thought I know I’ve got the first wave of the heat, but if I go over this lump there’s a chance that I won’t make it because it’s going to suck out into something frightening, and I remember skirting it, and going nope, not yet, and pulled off. And everyone I’ve spoken to about that has said that it was the best decision of my life. Because what was lurking underneath that initial 15 foot face was another 25 foot drop. Like a 25 foot wave, inside a 40 foot wave. And you know what there is like a 3% chance I could have made it…So I pulled out and then waited another 10 minutes for another wave. And I remember taking off on the second one. It wasn’t a bomb set or anything. But I remember stroking in perfectly, just on the side, right on the bowl, on the main section and it was steep. Clean entry, nice bottom turn, clean exit. The perfect opener.
“I saw Carlos Burle catch a monster wave. And then I saw Dave Wassel get a bomb. Tashnickcaught a big one. And then Carlos snags another bomb. But what I didn’t realise was that Tashnick and Wassel only got one wave. Carlos had two so I figured he had won. And these two guys had super solid waves, way better than mine. So I figured I was in 3rd or 4th position. And then this big set came, frothing at the top, and I just managed to sneak into the side and I had to push myself over the lump on top before I could even drop late over the ledge and start dropping in with this frothing thing lurching behind me. I made half the drop before getting halfway down the face and there was my bumpI had seen in my mind the night before, the elevator, I went into my rubber man, just like my visualisation and just managed to hold it together, regained at the bottom as it all came crashing down behind me. I went into the bottom turn and as I was coming around it just exploded around me and detonated me into oblivion. So I made the drop, made the bottom turn, and then got obliterated. I got held down for a really long, long time. The turbulence was so heavy underwater it pushed my lower teeth right through my lip. The ski tried to get me, but couldn’t, came in again after the next wave but again couldn’t get me. As it came in for third time I was so finished, I actually went down and pulled the release on my leash, because the thought of being pulled off the sled by my tombstoning board and getting another two on the head, was too much. And I just didn’t have the energy to go through that. And he pulled in there, threw me on the back of the sled, it was a really good pick up, with white water breaking all around us, right on my back as he slung me out of there. It was actually a really good decision as I was finished. Industrially spent. I knew if I had missed that pick up, I was in serious trouble.”
“So I go back to where my back-up, back-up board is and take a really slow paddle into the line-up. But I had forgotten that I was never going to use that board, as I was meant to have my two others and I had taken the screws out of that board to use in another board a few weeks earlier. As I paddled back out with 4minutes to go, at the end of the day of days in big wave paddle in history blissfully unaware, the fins had dropped out of the bottom of the board. If I had taken off on another wave I probably would have died, after doing a donut 360 at the bottom of a monster wave.”
And the rest, is like they say, history. Interviews, stardom, respect, awards, kudos, an outpouring of love and respect. Everybody loves the underdog, especially when he wins. But Chris says it best.
“It was like the universe was testing me for 10 years, just to see how far I’d go before I quit. It’s like I’ve been shafted for 10 years straight, just to see if I would really go the distance, to test if I really had the determination, perseverance and resolve to sacrifice everything and finally, on one magic day it all came back to me, it all came together on a day that will go down in surfing history forever. A true testament to something I live by and that is that if you truly believe in something and you have the courage, heart, focus and determination to follow it through, if you truly believe it, anything is possible. ”
Epilogue. The next morning Chris is sitting at the airport and his phone rings. It’s the contest director. He’s blabbing on about how they’re going to take Chris on a, “winner’s tour”. Interviews in LA, TV in Vegas, more interviews, radio and TV in Washington, New York, back to San Francisco…
“Hold on a second.” Says Chris. “I’m at the airport bud, I’m flying home… I work for a living and I’ve got a business to run.”