"This year has been pretty tough and getting enough sponsorship together to go over and compete abroad and stay for the full duration of the events has really been a problem, but as a South African, we make a plan when things get tough and we find a way ... we take on the challenge head on and find a solution."
Chris Bertish posted these determined words when he launched PleaseSponsorChrisBertish.co.za this past autumn. A salt-of-the-earth type from Cape Town, 35-year-old Bertish's big-wave riding is more of an obsession than an occupation. But as one of only 24 surfers invited to the Maverick's Contest, he was desperate to find a way to make it happen.
And now, after a turbulent day in Half Moon Bay, Bertish has made good on his goal, winning the Maverick's Contest in what some are calling the biggest waves ever ridden in a contest. Plus, he pocketed a cool $50,000 for the effort, which is good because it sounds like he may owe some folks a few Rand.
The morning broke with a blanket of Northern California fog, but by 8:00 a.m. it was obvious the surf was huge and the skies were going to clear.
"It's a big wave contest and it's all about big waves, not just the ones you can make, especially today," said eventual finalist Carlos Burle. "Some of the waves out there are not surfable, we're putting it on the line today."
Throughout the morning, with the tide pushing high and the swell surging, the action on the beach was almost as intense as the action in the lineup. After one especially malicious set that washed all the way through the contest site, over a dozen people sustained serious injuries, and three of those folks ended up in the hospital with injuries that included a broken leg and multiple shattered egos.
Despite set waves that pushed the boundary of what's possible for surfers paddling under their own power, the contestants battled all morning long. It was a 50-50 blend of glorious drops and disasterous poundings. Cleanup sets were common, and several boards were simply swallowed up by the Pacific.
"My leash broke," explained Jamie Sterling, "and usually when your leash breaks it means your board survives, you just have to be able to find it. But it was so chaotic that we couldn't find the board, so if anybody comes up on a pink and blue Rusty, let me know, I'm looking for one."
"Big wave riding has gone to the next level. Today was next next-level stuff," added sixth-place finisher Ken "Skindog" Collins. "The strategic game was so intense because there were levels of surf to catch that were so far from the normal takeoff spot. In the final I didn't see Wassel less than 50 yards away from me. Normally Mavs you can catch a wave with a few strokes, where in the final it was taking 15 to 20 strokes. You had to make a commitment to paddling, regardless of if you were going to make it or eat sh-t."
Going into the event, Greg Long and Grant "Twiggy" Baker stood tallest amongst the favorites, but then Pete Mel was intent on finally notching up a win out there, and there was a long line of local salts hungrily standing in line behind him. Regardless of who people were talking about before the event, chances are it wasn't Bertish. But we should all know by now, when it comes to heavy paddle sessions, never count a South African out. Bertish cut his big-wave teeth at Cape Town's infamous Dungeons, and has since been scrapping together enough money to chase swells around the world.
In a stacked final, Bertish continued to play the roll of dark horse. But then in the dying minutes, with a massive set marching into the Maverick's lineup, he proved what happens when preparation meets opportunity. He stroked for a bomb, somehow found his feet, and ended up riding into history.
"To be in the event for me and to just be paddling out in my first heat is a dream come true after ten years dedication, determination, self-finance and resolve," said an overjoyed Bertish shortly after the awards ceremony. "To be surfing with the guys I'm surfing with is an honor, and to make the finals is more than you can imagine. By winning the event, it's something that will have to sink in with me over the next couple months. It's going to take awhile. For anyone who has ever had a dream, this is proof that if you dream it, and you believe it, you can achieve it."
Maverick's Contest Final Results:
1. Chris Burtish
2. Shane Desmond
3. Anthony Tashnick
4. Dave Wassell
5. Carlos Burle
6. Ken "Skin Dog" Collins