Two open heart surgeries, and 200 days in hospital later, Cape Town waterman Greg Bertish has tapped into a cool metaphor with a direct influence on sick kids’ lives, writes SPIKE.


NEW LEASE ON LIFE: Greg drops into a big wave near Cape Town. Photo Grier Fisher

Fifteen years ago, after a surf trip to Madagascar, Greg Bertish contracted a rare tropical bacteria that began to consume the aortic valve of his heart. After gruelling heart surgery that entailed a pig’s valve transplant, he took a long and slow 12 months to recover, partly because of complications such as loss of smell, taste and cognitive skill.

In 2006, the disease came back, and resumed where it left off, shredding two valves and enforcing a second bout of open heart surgery. Since then, he regularly SUPs and surfs big waves around Cape Town, now aged 45. He has represented SA in SUP racing and won the surfski masters SA Lifesaving Champs in 2011.

He is charging ahead with the rest of his life, and he’s doing it with two artificial heart valves while permanently on the blood thinner Warfarin, mostly known to the elderly like my mom who is 84.


PADDLE DAY: Greg enjoys riding biggish waves on his SUP. Photo Maleen Hoekstra


One of three brothers, he is no stranger to using the human spirit to overcome dangerous odds. Hellman brother and big wave charger Chris won the infamous Mavs event in 2010, and wrote a bestselling book Stoked. Other hellman brother and big wave charger Conn, survived brain cancer and founded NPO Cancer Dojo to defeat cancer through positive thinking.

All three brothers run on this high-octane concoction of optimism and focus to envisage your success in a uniquely Bertish kind of way – an unflappable devotion to your goals.

Greg channels his through the Little Optimist project, which has just completed phase 1: to sail the same days in kilometres as he spent in hospital (200km) in a tiny Optimist sailing dinghy from Pringle Bay, across False Bay, around Cape Point, and up to Langebaan on the West Coast.


BOAT HOUSE: Talk about small. Packing for the journey at the Hangklip Hotel. Photo Supplied

He explains: “Through my work with children and The Children’s Hospital Trust, I have seen that many sick and scared kids have very little to fight and live for. They have no passion and no desire to get well and leave hospital. They face going home to broken families, one meal a day, and no passion or dream to inspire them to fight, get better and survive. We need to change this.”

The way he wanted to change that came to him in a word: Optimist, defined as “the outlook that good things will happen, even if the situation may not appear totally positive at the moment”.

And, an Optimist Dinghy is “a small (8 foot by 3.5 foot), single-handed sailing dinghy intended for use by children up to the age of 15. The Optimist (Opi) is known as a small child’s sailing dinghy, a bit of toy rather than a yacht.”


TV FLOAT: Greg was interviewed by a TV crew off the coast. Photo Supplied

Put the two together, and bang, a meaningful metaphor to “promote positive thinking, belief and overcoming obstacles in life”. It’s a genius PR hook, and the media have lapped it up all over the place.

He also plays on the word ‘heart’, in reference to his personal hassles, but also by transplanting it into his little boat. As he says, “This tiny little dinghy has a HUGE Heart. This “bath tub” boat has become one of the most recognisable, most sailed dinghys in the world, with many big name sailors starting out in an Opi.”

“It believes it can and it will be a big yacht, and that it can conquer the oceans and the seas no matter what people say. I want to inspire kids, by harnessing the Opi’s “Heart” and spirit, to show the world what we can achieve with positive thought and belief.”

Pretty cool eh?


ANTI SHARK HULL: The pattern must have worked. No bumps by great whites. Photo Supplied

So in April, Greg sailed the little dinghy 200 kilometres up the coast past Cape Town to kickstart a fundraising campaign for equipment at the hospital.

He had to overcome some hardcore weather conditions, giant swells and heavy winds to complete the voyage. With the help of a support crew and friends, he eventually made it, and has raised R265,000 of a R300,000 goal to build a new ICU ward at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital.

Day one entailed a False Bay crossing of 16 nautical miles and an attempt to round the Cape of Storms and get as far around as possible. Heavy seas are not a good thing for the Optimist, with a very low clearance. The gunwhale sits a few inches clear of the water. The sharkiness of False Bay? No problem: just put shark repellent patterns on the hull.

Interrupted by the first two big storms of winter, the Little Optimist eventually completed its 200km journey at the end of April. That completed Phase 1. Now onto Phase 2 (animated children’s book The Little Optimist coming out in November) and the Optimist race and sailing programme being launched in 2017.

Support the Little Optimist so he can grow big and strong like you.

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BIG HEART: A little boat in a huge sea. Emergency arrival up West Coast. Photo Supplied

LittleOptimist Cape Point
LittleOptimist at sail
Optimist on beach
greg bertish tv crew
kids with Greg Bertish
little optimist gear
optimist at sail off cape town
optimist journey greg bertish
optimist with NSRI
sailing cape peninsula