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Talkin' Boats with Chris Fertig Bermuda Challenge Record Setter

This summer, Chris Fertig broke the Bermuda Challenge record in his Statement Marine center console, overcoming an electrical fire and besting the previous mark by 44 minutes.

Talkin' Boats with Chris Fertig Bermuda Challenge Record Setter

With twin 350-hp Mercury TDI (turbocharged direct-injection) diesels powering the 37-footer, Fertig, 34, and throttleman Tyson Garvin completed the 780-mile Aug. 4-5 sprint from the Statue of Liberty to St. George, Bermuda, in 21 hours and 39 minutes. Severe weather ended his first attempt in September 2011.

Fertig grew up in Pittsburgh, boating on its three rivers. He graduated from the Coast Guard Academy and served on a specialized unit that chased drug runners in the Caribbean. "I loved every second of it," Fertig says.

He is employed by one of his sponsors — Maersk Line Ltd. — as a general manager of its maritime technical services business unit in Norfolk, Va., which provides U.S. flag transportation, ship management and technical services to government and commercial customers. In addition to the Statement center console, Fertig also owns a 1978 Mako 22 that he spearfishes from in Chesapeake Bay and offshore. He lives in Virginia Beach.

Here, he talks about the keys to safely running a small boat far offshore, the electrical jury-rigging job that allowed him to break the record, battling 8-foot seas in the Gulf Stream in darkness and his nearly 5-year effort to secure sponsors — and the right boat. The airbag suspension system under the Statement's deck reduced pounding and helped him maintain a 38-mph average speed.

Q: What was the roughest part of your record-breaking run from New York City to Bermuda in terms of sea conditions?

A: Toward the eastern edge of the north wall of the Gulf Stream, where we were running between large counter-rotating warm and cold eddies and facing some pretty serious thunderstorms. We were seeing washing-machine 6- to 8-foot seas with occasional 10-footers mixed in at night.

Q: What was your average speed?

A: Around 38 mph. We ran between 30 mph and 32 mph in the Gulf Stream with the 6- to 8-foot seas, but were able to run much faster before and after.

Q: How did you learn to drive a boat at speed in those conditions?

A: The more you drive, the better you get. And the more bad experiences you've had — whether that is mechanical failure or rough weather — the more you understand what could happen before it does happen. And that is really the key to having success in boating in general — to determine what is going to happen to the boat before it actually happens with enough time to change the outcome.

If you are approaching a dock, you can look at the buoy trail to know the direction of the current so you can pick what side of the dock to go to. One side is going to be a lot easier to pull up on. And if you pick the right one, you can look like an expert in front of the crowd at the restaurant. Good boat drivers can determine that much sooner and choose the easy way of doing something to set themselves up for success. Same for high-speed boat operation. If you can see the steepness and the height and angle of a certain wave with enough distance ahead, you can not only adjust your throttle to the right position so you are carrying just enough speed to clear that wave, but you can also adjust your heading so when you launch, you launch flat and reduce the chances of rolling or stuffing the bow or other nasty things that can happen.

Q: You had some problems and issues mechanically. Can you describe what happened out there?

A: Covering that long of a distance as fast as possible through the North Atlantic will take its toll on any boat. In general, we had a very good trip. We had a number of small issues, but those issues can cascade and cause larger problems that must be taken care of immediately. Off of Sandy Hook, N.J., we encountered some large swells and, after launching off one of those swells à the actuator [for the ram that holds the engine hatch down] broke where it connected to the stringer, which isn't a big problem except that on our next swell the actuator rose up and came back down directly through the port engine battery cable and grounded that out immediately to the engine block, which caused an electrical fire and melted a good portion of our electrical system, including both starting batteries, a house battery and several of our battery switches. It was within sight of the starting line and, after we fixed the problem, we still had 765 miles to go.

Q: How did you fix the problem?

A: The electrical fire was small and we quickly put it out by smothering it with a wet towel. But then we had to make several fixes. Tyson had to bypass a melted battery switch. He wired directly past it while I repaired the completely melted battery cable. We actually had to use our jumper cables to jump from the only battery we had remaining, which was a house battery, directly to the port and starboard starters to get each engine started again.

Before we left we went through several practice scenarios of what emergencies we might have. We wanted to make sure we could move or remove bilge or sea water, move and remove fuel from all the different tanks and that we were capable of transferring electricity around the boat. So not only did we have redundant fuel-transfer pumps and manual bilge pumps, we brought the jumper cables.

Q: You had barely gotten under way, so the mishap must have been a major downer.

A: Yeah, it was. While we were dealing with it we were fixated on that. It sunk in after we got back going and had time to think about what we needed to do. We tried to settle down and focus. Yes, we had just lost 40 minutes, but we had 765 miles to make up that time and we didn't have to make it up in the first hour. We re-evaluated our race plan and figured out where we were going to make up that time and where we would push through. We were going to make up our time before we hit the Gulf Stream and after the Gulf Stream, from the eastern edge to about 150 miles from Bermuda.

Q: How fast did you have to go in both areas to make up the time?

A: We ran 45 mph just off Cape May [N.J.] to the western edge of the Gulf Stream and then once we cleared the Gulf Stream we ran between 44 and 50 mph.

Q: To what lengths did you guys have to push yourselves to break the record?

A: We had to push ourselves as hard as we could, especially since we lost 40 minutes off the start line. When we were in 6- to 8-foot seas with occasional 10s, it was physically and mentally demanding — one mistake and you can flip the boat. That kind of pressure, especially at night, can take its toll. We had to be alert so we didn't make that one mistake. We didn't eat, drink, go to the bathroom. [We] talked, really, only about the technical aspects of what we were doing. So once we got into Bermuda and took care of the boat it was nice to sit down and have a lunch.

This was not set the autopilot and throttles and stand back and watch the gauges. At every minute along the way Tyson was adjusting the throttle to make sure we were going as fast as possible without flipping the boat and I was making sure that as we were squaring up to each wave we weren't launching off at an angle that might roll us. We did change positions. We did this when it was rough every 10 miles or so. It takes its toll on you at night as you are looking from wave set to wave set.

Q: What safety equipment did you have on board?

A: 406 GPS EPIRB with a hydrostatic release; an ultra-light inflatable life raft; we each had on life jackets and a fanny pack with chem lights, flares, personal locator beacons and DeLorme personal satellite trackers and text messengers. And we had several portable GPSs, a sat phone and an on-board waterproof voiceover IP sat phone, along with several other trackers. Information from all that equipment was given to the U.S. and Bermuda coast guards.

Q: Can you tell us about the DeLorme tracker?

A: The Delorme InReach has both a GPS and a text messenger, which allows people to track you on the Internet, so you could log on and actually watch us — the dot — progress. Plus, we had a custom video system that streamed live video from the helm to the Web, based on software from Digigone, Airtime by MVS and hardware by Thrane and Thraneáthrough aáfleet broadband 250 and a Digigone waterproof, shockproof computer that crunched the video feed and piped it out to the Internet.

Q: How does the Statement's air-suspension system work?

A: It's the only boat in the world that has an air-ride suspension system. The deck is attached to the hull with eight airbags — shock absorbers — and an on-board compressor. The bags have 4 inches of travel, so when the hull hits a wave, instead of a pounding jolt it actually mitigates that impact not only to the crew but all of the equipment and hardware attached to the deck. The airbags are fed by an on-board compressor. I can adjust the sensitivity of that system, depending on how fast I want to go and how rough it is. And on-board load levelers automatically compensate for the number of people on the deck. It is designed to mitigate the shock for everyone standing on the deck.

Q: How did you hook up with Statement?

A: I found out about the Challenge and then several people said I couldn't do it. That got me going and I was going to prove them wrong. I started to think from a systems perspective to find out what I would need and found that a sterndrive diesel boat would give me the greatest chance.

Q: Tell us about the boat's engines and electronics.

A: They are twin 350-hp V-8 turbocharged Mercury TDI diesels with sterndrives. They were one of the largest keys to our success. They are reliable, perform well and, most importantly, they are efficient. With the way we had the boat set up, we were getting at 36 mph 2.25 mpg, which for a 37-foot boat is almost unheard of.

We had an integrated Simrad NSE NSS electronics package — all the electronics that we needed, including broadband radar, streaming satellite weather on a moving map, and we had AIS. It was a great help to us, especially at night, so we could ensure the large commercial ships, who would not be expecting a little boat 500 miles offshore at night, would be able to see us.

Q: This must feel extra sweet because you had to call off the first attempt.

A: It feels really good. You have people out there doubting you. It was great just to be able to prove we could do it and return the investment to all our friends, especially the sponsors who helped us make this a reality.

Q: What did you learn on the Bermuda Challenge?

A: You have to be patient when you are doing a run as long as the Bermuda Challenge. Things are going to happen and you have to take each issue one at a time and work through it. And that is what Tyson and I did. We didn't panic, just dealt with the situation at hand.

Q: Are you going to shoot for another record?

A: We have some ideas and our near-term goal is to advance a couple key technologies. Specifically, Tyson has developed a rotary diesel engine that we would like to get in a boat and work the remaining bugs out. We want to continue to advance the shock-mitigating system in this boat. Once we get those two technologies matured we would like to build another boat.

Q: What do you do for a living?

A: I am the general manager of the maritime technical services business unit of Maersk Line Ltd., an American company headquartered in Norfolk, Va., that provides services to the U.S. government. We do several things — provide flag transportation, ship management and maritime technical services. What I focus on for the large vessels is similar to what Tyson and I did for the Bermuda Challenge. I look for new technology to address new challenges in the maritime world. Right now we are working on how to make our ships more efficient, burn less fuel and be more environmentally friendly. With the record attempt, it was the same type of thing but on a smaller scale.

Q: How big are these ships?

A: Average length is 800 to 900 feet. Instead of super-high-rpm engines like the Mercury TDI diesels that reach 4,400 rpm, these engines run at a very low rpm. The newest engines operate at 56 rpm with 11-foot stroke pistons.

Q: Did your job help you for the trip?

A: It helped a lot. Within the company, when we work on a technical marine engineering challenge we try to take a big-picture approach. We don't look specifically how to fix an issue, but do we have the right systems to address the problem. So when I was looking at how to set the Bermuda Challenge record, I wasn't just looking at how to find the engine that would make the boat go fastest. I was asking myself what different technologies, when combined, will make the trip a success. That is why I looked to Simrad for the electronics, to build a boat with an airbag suspension system and to find a sterndrive diesel propulsion system that would be more efficient and durable than typical outboards.

Q: What made you decide to join the Coast Guard?

A: I was at a college fair in Pittsburgh and the Coast Guard Academy had a picture of a 44-foot boat blasting through a wave. I thought, wow, that is a good way to get your education. They pay for your education and you get to drive boats. That sounded like a nice fit for me, so I signed up.

It wasn't until two years into the Coast Guard Academy that I realized you graduate as an officer and an officer pilots ships. You don't get to drive the smaller boats. They are driven by enlisted coxswains. So I realized that I was never going to be that guy driving the surfboat busting through waves. But I was lucky to get into a specialized drug interdiction unit that got to do some pretty fun missions.

Q: What was your most memorable mission?

A: I was stationed on a 274-foot ship in Portsmouth and we would deploy on that ship to the Caribbean between Colombia and Mexico for two months at a time. We would chase drug runner after drug runner after drug runner. Of course, my first interdiction was memorable. We intercepted $120 million worth of pure cocaine.

Q: What was the fastest boat you chased?

A: Most of the boats, believe it or not, were 35- to 45-foot Panga-style boats. And they would have three, sometimes four 200-hp 2-stroke engines. They would run about 50 mph with all their fuel and cocaine. I remember one chase. They were running about 65 mph with a full load of fuel off the coast of Haiti. They got away by grounding the boat and running away. But we got the boat.

Q: I pictured you chasing these high-performance muscle boats, but that wasn't the case.

A: It wasn't high speed from a racing perspective, but it was long distance — hundreds if not thousands of miles in some cases — and it could be in the middle of the night in rough weather. There was a lot of hide-and-seek. It was more that type of challenge as well as the threat of being shot at.

Q: What was the greatest danger you faced?

A: The most dangerous situations in the Coast Guard were either weather-related or dealing with migrants from Cuba and Haiti. The drug runners had a standard kit — portable sat phone, portable GPS, rocket launcher, AK-47 and some small arms. And they would throw it all overboard because if we got them with drugs and weapons, their prison time would be double.

October 2012 issue.