Extreme, Sustainable Philanthropy: Chris Bertish Paddles Across the Atlantic

Chris Bertish Crosses the Atlantic for Smiles

“Impossible” is a word that has no place in the vocabulary of Chris Bertish – that is unless he's dismissing all implications the word could have on his will to achieve incredible feats of physical and emotional endurance on the ocean.  

His latest accomplishment, however, dwarfs the waves that he’s ridden with championship caliber. On March 9, 2017, Chris became the first person to stand-up paddle across the Atlantic Ocean – solo, unsupported and unassisted – when he completed the voyage from Morocco to the Caribbean island of Antigua.  

Chris’ unprecedented journey, dubbed “The SUP Crossing,” was completed in 93 days and spanned 4,600 miles of open ocean, requiring more than 2 million paddle strokes. The accomplishment is so monumental and was so improbable that it’s impossible to frame it against any previous feat in stand-up paddleboarding. Three times during the course of the crossing, broke his own Guinness World Record for longest distance paddled over the open ocean in a day (71.96 miles).  

Photo: Alan Van Gysen, AVG Photo.

Knowing “The SUP Crossing” would draw international attention – Chris has been featured by a diverse array of media outlets from The New York Times to ESPN Radio – he also knew it had potential to raise big funds for the three causes he holds dear: Operation Smile South Africa, Signature of Hope Trust and The Lunchbox Fund. 

Chris isn’t only a paddling pioneer – he’s also an innovative philanthropist. He chose a unique, sustainable fundraising model for The SUP Crossing: The project’s main corporate sponsor, South Africa-based financial firm Carrick Wealth, will establish three annuities for each respective nonprofit organization into which donations will be evenly split. The annuities will continuously pay out funds for up to 25 years if he hits his fundraising target. As the publication of this story, the project has raised 6.5 million South African rand (approximately $517,000). 

Still, that’s not enough for Chris. For each world record he set on the trip, Chris personally donated the $240 it takes to provide a cleft surgery for a child through Operation Smile. Chris’ goal is to raise another 6 to 12 million rand (approximately $477,000 to $955,000) over the next six months through galas hosted by Carrick Wealth. 

Amid the whirlwind media tour following the crossing, Chris took the time to sit down with us and reflect on his harrowing voyage. From a broken steering system to losing solar power due to a Saharan sandstorm – his water maker and satellite communications relied on this sole source of electricity – no obstacle proved impossible to overcome. 

Photo: Alan Van Gysen, AVG Photo.
Photo: Alan Van Gysen, AVG Photo.

Q: I understand you faced persistent, daily battles with both the fierce elements of the Atlantic and equipment malfunctions during the crossing. Was there a particular moment when you had to dig deep to overcome a challenging situation? How did your commitment to your causes motivate you to push through those obstacles?  

A: “There were so many life-threatening situations that it’s actually quite hard to narrow it down to one or two. But that’s the thing – your ‘why’ has to be so powerful that you can call on it at any particular time to be able to get you through and overcome any obstacle or challenge that comes your way… What I’ve found that has added so much power to being able to overcome obstacles is adding a more powerful layer that’s almost like emotional blackmail… You stack those layers until they become so powerful, emotionally, that no matter what challenge you have, you can use those as leveraging tools to get you through anything.  

“I could probably sit you down for four hours and go through every single one of (those life-threatening situations), but I find it quite hard to differentiate one from the other. From thinking you’re going to get eaten by a great white shark that’s bigger than your craft, to getting a giant squid or whale stuck in your parachute anchor, to being in the middle of a giant storm trying to take you down, to a 30- to 40-knot wind in the pitch black off an island where you think you’ll get shipwrecked in 30-foot seas against a cliff face, which you can see in the distance. The next night you almost have your finger get ripped off because it’s caught between your parachute anchor line and your rudder in the middle of the night, when you have to cut (the anchor line) with a knife or lose your finger. Or the day after, you have your steering system break and you have no steering. Or the next day you find out your main hatches on your deck are leaking, so you are actually slowly sinking every single day and you can only open your hatches to get the water out… It was just about daily management of life-threatening situations until you hopefully have none, or one or two, before you finish, or sink and die, or get eaten by a shark, or make it to Antigua… It was like I was a magician to see which solution would get me through each day for 93 days straight.” 

Photo courtesy Chris Bertish.
Photo courtesy Chris Bertish.

Q: How did you combat the loneliness of being completely isolated for 93 days?  

A: “That was the least of my problems. I was dealing with so many challenges that worrying about that was something I just didn’t have time for. There were so many survival things to worry about. Any time I had spare time, I was trying to write that captain’s log (posted to Bertish’s Facebook page), which was used to inspire people along my journey, but for me was kind of used as a distraction for myself to get myself out of the head space I was in. It actually turned out to be an amazing inspiration for myself, to see the positive feedback I got back from those logs I was writing got me through some of the hardest times as well.”  

Photo courtesy Chris Bertish.
Photo courtesy Chris Bertish.

Q: How long have you been involved with Operation Smile and why did you select the cause to be a beneficiary of the crossing? 

A: “I’ve been involved for the past three years. I only represent charities that are close to my heart, and Operation Smile is definitely one of those. I was able to attend Operation Smile South Africa’s 10-year anniversary (medical) mission in Johannesburg just before I left and spent some time with the surgeons there. I believe that if you’re driven by passion and powered by a purpose bigger than yourself, you can get through any challenge and achieve the seemingly impossible. (The SUP Crossing) goes to show that you can overcome your challenges, just like (Operation Smile patients) deal with their challenges on a day-to-day basis. Our challenges can feel insurmountable, but in comparison to the challenges these kids have to deal with growing up with cleft lip and cleft palate, we should all shut up and stop complaining and take action to be the change you want to see in the world.  

“My message has always been simple in what I do, and it’s about having the right attitude and being able to see the positives and negatives – opportunity and obstacle – and having the ability to see the best in everything – to be positive no matter what the situation may be. You can be a positive human being by leaving a positive impact on the planet by helping others, and that’s my purpose for being an ambassador for Operation Smile and the other charities I work for. What I’m doing is going to change the lives of millions of kids in Africa and leave a positive impact on the world.” 

(Editor’s Note: Bertish originally connected with Operation Smile South Africa through adventurer and friend David Grier of Miles For Smiles, an initiative of the Cipla Foundation that helps raise awareness and funds for Operation Smile through endurance sports. Two of Bertish’s previous projects – 12-hour and 24-hour open ocean SUP world distance records – benefitted Miles For Smiles. From there, he built a strong relationship with Operation Smile South Africa.) 

Photo courtesy Chris Bertish.
Photo courtesy Chris Bertish.

Q: What was your approach in choosing to partner with multiple nonprofit organizations to benefit from The SUP Crossing? 

A: “I’m very particular with how I put together my projects and how I manage them… The partnerships that I have reflect and represent my beliefs, my principles and my message and I don’t stray from those values. I have core cornerstones of what I believe in and the charities I represent need to mirror those principals. I try to look after the ocean, land and humanity; and my core principals are education, conservation and inspiration. To me, Operation Smile ticks two boxes – it’s humanitarian and inspirational at the same time… My vision was incredibly clear on how I wanted to set up this project, because I didn’t want to support just one charity – I wanted to support all of the charities that I’m an ambassador for. This project has numerous layers in order to create and raise enormous amounts of funds that won’t just be for now, but will have an impact for 20 years and for generations to follow.” 

Photo courtesy Chris Bertish.
Photo courtesy Chris Bertish.

Q: What was the inspiration behind using annuities to create sustainable funding streams for your beneficiaries? 

A: “This is the way I think philanthropy should go… The other projects I’ve done have been one-off (donations), but I knew this project was going to be massive. I wanted to make sure it would pay out on a continuous basis. I went backwards and forwards doing research on various models and ways to be able to do sustainable philanthropy.  

“I’m convinced I could find a way to make (the annuities) carry on forever, but apparently that’s not realistic… (Once the annuities are set up later this year), they will pay out for a minimum of 15 to 18 years if we hit 12 million (rand). If we do reach our target of 18 million (rand) or more, it would (pay out) for 25 years plus. I had never heard of the annuity model before this project, and for me I knew I didn’t want this to be a one-off donation. This was the way to make it sustainable…  

“There’s always a different way to find a solution to a problem. Just because someone says it’s impossible, that just means someone hasn’t found a solution yet. Some people look at ‘impossible’ as a negative thing – as if it can’t be done. I look at ‘impossible’ as a catalyst for change and catalyst for opportunity to be able to grow and transcend your own borders and boundaries and find solutions to things others aren’t able to solve.”

Photo courtesy Chris Bertish.