2009 Seal Island
Chris Bertish is unsound. Unhinged some might say. One of South Africa’s highest profile big wave surfers has made a name for himself by consistently pushing the envelope. Not content to take off late, backdoor sections as big as suburban homes and pull into huge gaping close-out maws, Chris also likes to be the first oke to do something. Remember he was the first guy to paddle into Jaws / Peahi in Hawaii and the first to paddle big Ghost Trees in California. He pretty much single-handedly re-established modern big wave surfing in the UK when he paddled out at the Cribber to catch some close-outs, and made the front page news. Then he was the first guy to catch a wave on an SUP at Dungeons.
There’s a picture of him in his office, burning Simon Louw and streaking across a huge backlit wall that looks ready to close out. He tells me he got into the barrel and tried to touch the roof with his paddle but he couldn’t reach. Then it closed down on him. His pioneering big wave pursuits have led him as far as Easter Island and as close as Whale Rock, off Robben Island. (and South Western Reefs off Cape Point.) Take out- Not South West reef! Not to be included Always looking for something new to ride. Well that’s Mr Bertish. So it comes as no surprise to the Zag that on that recent big swell in Cape Town this weekend, after surfing dodgy, lumpy Dungeons bombs in the morning he raced across the Peninsula and went to check out a couple of waves on a particularly dangerous triangle of pinnacles just South of Seal Island. Home to what local shark expert Chris Fallows believes is the most active Great White breeding ground in the world.
Anyone who got wind of the idea, tried to talk him out of it. Not because the waves were particularly dangerous. The waves were inconsequential really. It was all about Johnny. While they were doing a recce of the first spot they saw 3 feet of fin chasing two seal pups right in the channel where the one wave would end. Lurking. But not to be deterred. They gave the spot a break fro twenty minutes and went to check another reef breaking close by..This second spot was a left aptly named Bertie’s Landing, that slabs up and bends around a gnarly exposed rock slab and breaks very hard with evil intent before it dissipates in the deep water. Chris was the only one to get towed into this heaving beheathen, no one else wanted any part of this evil beast. Chris got 3 or 4 before calling it quits and they headed back to the other reef with a more realistic A-frame peak they dubbed Sharkbait. In order to minimise their time in the water, Chris put three big loops in the tow rope and basically launched from the back of the ski.
Chris got slung into five or six breasts before trying to convine tow partner Dave Smith it wasn’t that sketchy, with a nervous laugh! After four or five waves heaving over that slab, Dave had had enough…Stop, stop, no more.. I think I’m going to have a flatline my heart’s beating so fast..Enough..So we called it quits and called it a day…Any surf out here when you come away with your tow partner and all limbs still attached is a good session!
Andy Marr and Simon Louw popped round on their PWC for support and to check if there was anything worth surfing, but declined to get in the water.
On hearing the news that people had been surfing out there, Chris Fallows was surpised to say the least. According to him, there’s so much shark activity in that triangle between the two waves and Seal Island that it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’. Basically the water drops off from the pinnacles down to about 30 meters. The big lurkers sit at the bottom until they spot some prey then shoot up the wall and launch vertically into the air with the poor seal in their jaws. No shark shield is going to stop that. That’s why the False Bay is famous for its breaching sharks. And imagine how bad it would be if instead of a standard blubberous seal, the shark had a snazzy green and blue O’Neill suited Chris Bertish in it’s jaws.
But why, you may ask, would anyone be silly enough to surf at Seal Island?
“I’ve flown over it a couple of times and seen it break.” says Chris. When planes come into Cape Town they bank around Seal Island on their final approach, offering the surf obsessed traveller a birds eye view of the wave potential of the lurky island. “I saw these slabs breaking about five years ago, and that got me thinking about surfing it, and now with the help of the PWC’s (jetski’s) we can explore more spots and discover and search for new waves to ride, which was never possible in the past.”
Of course, hindsight is an exact science. And now that it’s been checked off that expanding checklist of Chris Bertish surfing firsts, he’s quite sanguine about it.
“It was particularly stupid.” says Chris of his misadventure. “I don’t think I’ll be doing that again any time soon. I seriously shat myself out there.” ” There are some waves out there, but they’re not fantastic and very exposed to the weather and the wind, but it’s just not worth the risks you’re toying with when you see the amount of very big fish with teeth out there, exactly where you are about to jump in and go surfing.
Chris wants to thank O’Neill, Fernando from Texies for the use of his boat, Dave Smith his tow partner and Simon Louw and Andy Marr for their support, Grant Spooner from Marine Scene for his perspective on Sharks and Chris Fallows for his advice after the fact.