Surfer’s journey inspires little ones

It was a life-threatening event that prompted surfer and founder of Shark Spotters, Greg Bertish, to reach out to children and write The Little Optimist, a children’s book that was launched at the Two Oceans Aquarium last week.

The story is based on Greg’s own journey around the coasts of Cape Town, braving 200km of deep, shark-infested waters to convey the book’s message – no matter how small and insignificant you might feel, you too can achieve great things if you believe in yourself.

Greg, who spoke to an audience of more than 50 excited children and adults, said the books sold on the night were sold on a buy one, get one free basis, with the second book being added to the 5 000 books they wanted to collect for sick children in poor communities.

More than 200 books were sold on the night.

Greg is one of three brothers, one of whom is known for stand-up paddling across the Atlantic Ocean earlier this year, and is an ambassador for the Two Oceans Aquarium.

He also started Shark Spotters in 2004 after he was chased out of the sea by a great white shark in Muizenberg, where he spent most of his time surfing. The Shark Spotters system, a shark safety programme implemented at beaches across the city, has now been recognised globally.

On the night, more than
R40 000 was raised for the Shark Spotters programme through an auction of various surfing-related gear.

He said the story detailed in the book came about when he had his first operation a few years ago. “I was travelling in the tropics and picked up a rare bacteria that settled in my heart and attacked the valves in there.

“It was dormant for some time, but when I started having problems and went for a check-up, they picked it up too late, and I had to go for open heart surgery.”

He said when he woke up, he was on life support, and started feeling sorry for himself. “I looked to my left and there was an elderly man who had also gone for surgery, and I just asked ‘why me?’

“I started feeling miserable.

“Then I looked to my right, and there lay a two-month-old baby. He had barely started his life, and he had already undergone open heart surgery. I went from feeling sorry for myself to feeling so lucky. This baby still had his whole life ahead of him. At least I was an adult. That’s when I knew I needed to help these children.”

Greg was later reinfected and “I was in and out of hospital for many weeks and months, and had a second heart operation,” he explained.

After his second operation, he was infected a third time. “I was in the hospital for eight months,” he said.

Eventually, through a combination of various antibiotics the doctors created, they got rid of the bacteria and when he got his strength back, he decided to embark on an initiative to inspire children. Greg said he had always wanted to write a children’s’ book, but “I needed to find a way to connect kids to a 40-year-old and his life experiences. This is where I realised that I could incorporate my little optimist.”

Greg said through sailing, he wanted to give sick children something to be passionate about, and to help them stay positive and fight. So he prepared for his journey on the little boat, and sailed the open ocean – 200km for the 200 days he had been in hospital. “I want to tell children that they must be like the optimist and never give up, no matter how small you are.”

So Greg set off in the optimist, a “little bathtub” or a single-handed sailing dinghy he sailed from Cape Hangklip to Saldanha Bay and around Cape Point.

The funds raised for the trip were donated to the Children’s Hospital Trust and Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, of which Greg is an ambassador. “I got smashed a few times by the high seas, but I took this little boat to places it should have never been.”

And taking pride of place at the book launch, was the optimist in which Greg had completed his journey.

“The experience taught me that the only way I would overcome my infection was to find the courage to see past the tubes and machines into the future, which meant being optimistic,” he said.

“It’s a very difficult thing to ask someone to do when all they can think about is dying, but having the love and support of those around me is what encouraged me to never give up and give into what I was told I could never achieve due to my infection.”

Books can be bought online at thelittleoptimist.org

A portion of the money will go to one of the charities supported by Greg, which include Shark Spotters, NSRI, the Spirit Foundation, the Children’s’ Hospital Trust or the Little Optimist Foundation.

Greg will be hosting more events around Cape Town to give the public a chance to meet him in person and buy a signed copy of his book. One of these takes place on Thursday June 22, at 5.30pm, at the Kommetjie Surf Shop, and on Saturday June 24 at the Book Lounge in Roeland Street, where Greg will also be reading the book to children.