Pohnpei | Part 4 | The Seeds

By Michael H. Kew

Dylan Longbottom. Photo: Mike Sipos.

Dylan Longbottom. Photo: Mike Sipos.

IT'S SIMPLE—the scenic flight over the Pacific and its myriad atolls. United's thrice-weekly service from Honolulu/Kosrae (or four times weekly from Guam/Chuuk) puts you at Pohnpei International Airport, three miles east of Palikir Pass. You get your passport stamped, retrieve your bags from the carousel, drive to a hotel, unpack, and hope for stand-up barrels by sundown. This basic mode of surf travel occurs daily in Hawaii, Australia, Indonesia, Mexico, wherever. But the world is huge, the oceans somewhat infinite. Each day, millions of tropical waves break unseen. Anyone with time, money, and moxie can find them, and those willing to endure risk are sometimes rewarded with sublime lineups unlike the banal beaches at home.

Allois Malfitani was knew that. In 1986 the jovial goofyfooter was 24, living in Florianópolis, Brazil, skateboarding the city streets and surfing the scenic adjacent beachbreaks. Days passed quickly—life was good, but he knew it could be better. Brazil was home but, surf-wise, it had limitations.

That October, Malfitani was casually thumbing through the new issue of National Geographic; a large color photo on page 478 made him stop and stare. It was an aerial view of Kosrae’s airport, lines of whitewater wrapping around its barrier reef, with three passes—and more whitewater—clearly visible to the southwest. Malfitani knew nothing of Kosrae or Micronesia. Yet the hook was set, and he sensed opportunity in the Pacific. Ascending from Brazil in 1992, Malfitani landed on Oahu, where, after obtaining his green card, he managed the front desk in Mark Foo’s Backpackers hostel at Waimea Bay. The Brazilian was gregarious and charming, an endearing host.

Eight years passed. Good times. Eventually Malfitani realized there was more to life than surfing the crowded North Shore. That Kosrae airport photo from the ‘86 National Geographic was etched in his brain. They were so enticing, really, those three reef passes and the rights bending around the pale coral encircling the island’s tarmac, 3,000 miles from Oahu, certainly emptier than Haleiwa. Conveniently, Honolulu International Airport was the eastern hub for the Continental (now United) island-hopper path—heading west from Honolulu, the first three stops were Majuro, Kwajalein, then Kosrae. Malfitani saw the route map and smiled.

Arriving on Kosrae in the summer of 2000, Malfitani met Dr. Ken Miklos, an expat Southern Californian dentist who for a few years had had the island’s waves to himself. Miklos gave Malfitani a tour of Kosrae’s fickle surf spots. Unfortunately the airport wave was flawed and not Kosrae’s wave of choice; for Malfitani, it couldn’t justify a long-term stay. But only 300 miles west, an easy one-hour flight, the next stop on Continental’s island-hopper ticket was Pohnpei. It was worth a look. But before he left, Miklos made Malfitani swear that, despite seeing nothing world-class, he would tell nobody—his North Shore friends, especially—about what he saw on Kosrae.

Once on Pohnpei, Malfitani asked around. Many Pohnpeians knew Sipos was a surfer, seen trailering his boat with surfboards strapped to the bow rail; colleagues saw his office walls covered with surf photos. Malfitani heard Sipos’s name and opened the Pohnpei phonebook. He called Sipos at home. “I told him he’d come during the wrong time of the year and wasn’t going to find surf,” Sipos said. “I then gave him the details about when and where it breaks during the season, and he returned the following March. I took him out and showed him Palikir Pass. We surfed together quite a bit that season and the next.”

Malfitani then befriended Scott Dodd and stayed at his house for a nearly a month. Malfitani returned each year for three weeks, occasionally with friends. In 2002 he arrived alone. In 2003 he went with two friends who had been installing cell phone towers around Hawaii. Throughout, Malfitani solemnly pledged to Sipos and others, like Miklos and Dodd, he would not expose or exploit Palikir Pass. He said he intended to retire on Pohnpei and would shield the wave from the public eye.

GEOGRAPHICAL ISOLATION, bad infrastructure, and cultural values emphasizing sociality over financial prosperity have stunted Pohnpei’s economic growth. For now, the island’s economy revolves around commercial long-line tuna fishing by Asian fleets; each year, the FSM receives nearly $30 million for license fees from foreign vessels. High rainfall and rugged terrain aren’t conducive to large-scale agriculture, either, and Pohnpei’s main source of revenue comes from—you guessed it—the United States. Since 1986, under its Compact of Free Association, America pays around $100 million annually to the FSM, about a quarter of that going to Pohnpei’s government.

On February 21, 2004, Allois Malfitani and Chris Groark, a tall, lanky, twentysomething Southern Californian, flew from Honolulu to Pohnpei. It was Groark’s first trip to Micronesia. Ben Schroer’s parents were also inside the plane. Once on the ground, Schroer’s father noticed Groark and Malfitani had surfboards, and was quick to introduce them to his son as soon as they exited the baggage claim. It was a beautiful, sunny day. Ben Schroer was stoked to see the surfers and said they could contact him should they need a free boat ride to Palikir Pass. Forty-eight hours later Malfitani rang Schroer and asked if they could catch a ride; Schroer was skippering a 29-foot fishing boat, so he said yes. En route to Palikir the trio talked about how good the wave was, but once they arrived, the wind was onshore and the surf was flat.

While trolling for fish on the way back to port, Malfitani turned to Schroer and said, “Aren’t you scared about the surf camp that Mike Sipos is going to start?” Schroer looked at him blankly. Malfitani mentioned Shawn Shamlou’s then-recent “Meganesia” article in TSJ, and said it was printed to subtly expose Palikir to the surf world to incite awareness and publicity about a camp that Sipos was founding. Schroer assured Malfitani that he was wrong. “Allois then pushed further and asked me, ‘Well, why wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t you?’” Schroer replied: “Obviously not. That would ruin it.”

Sipos assumed Malfitani was acting preemptively to convince other Pohnpei surfers that a surf camp was inevitable—in other words, an excuse for why it was suitable for Malfitani to start one. “He was trying to temper opposition,” Sipos told me. “Never did I say I intended to start a camp, nor did I ever plan to do so. Rather, in a conversation with him in 2001, when the subject of potential future commercial exploitation of Palikir Pass came up—as it occasionally did between all of us—I said that if it was going to happen, I ought to be the one to do it as I was best-equipped. It was during that same conversation when Malfitani first promised he’d never start a surf camp, keeping with his many subsequent assurances of not exposing Palikir. I had the time, resources, and experience to open a surf tourism business, but it wasn’t something I ever wanted to see happen.”

Schroer took Malfitani and Groark to Palikir thrice more before their time came to leave Pohnpei. During the final return boat ride, Schroer desired clarity. “I knew Allois lived on the North Shore, so I said to him, ‘You guys are never going to tell anyone about this, right? I mean, this is a secret you have forever. You have a free place to stay here, you have a boat to use, and as long as it stays a secret, the wave will always be a sanctuary.” Malfitani and Groark quickly agreed, promising Palikir would “always stay a secret” and they would “do anything to protect it.”

“That was all I needed to hear,” Schroer said.

The three men exchanged email addresses and phone numbers, made plans for next time. Unbeknownst to both Schroer and Sipos and everyone else on Pohnpei, however, Malfitani was in the process of applying for a foreign investment permit (FIP), which he was granted on June 14, 2004, to start “a new adventure eco-tourism business.” His permit was issued for something called Hi-Point Adventures, but he and Groark would be doing business as Pohnpei Surf Club (PSC), with one restrictive condition: “Grantee shall not manage, operate, and own hotel or similar facility in the State. Instead, it shall secure with the local providers place for the guests and tourists to stay.” So he sublet rooms from the decaying Misko Beach Hotel on the mangroved shore of Sokehs Bay, aside the airport’s runway. From Misko it was a 15-minute boat ride to Palikir Pass. Malfitani wanted to have a larger operation, but his permit was limited, so he had no choice.

“I couldn’t believe these were the same two guys who vowed to keep Palikir a secret,” Schroer said. “The same guys who had talked about coming back over the next decades and surfing perfect waves with a few friends. Chris told me, ‘Dude, next year I’m going to call you ahead of time and plan. I’ll crash at your pad and we’ll just cruise with your boat.’”

For answers, Schroer rang Groark in late June. Fifty cents per minute to call the U.S.

Schroer: “Chris, it’s Ben.”

Groark: “Hey, dude—how’s it?”

Schroer: “So, is it true? Are you guys really starting a camp?”

Groark:  “Yeah, man. It’s what we see as best, but we’re going to do it real low-key and make sure that it never gets crowded—not more than six to eight guys, ever.”  

Schroer: “How can you do this, Chris? You have it all. You know where the spot is, you can come back the rest of your life and surf it perfect with your friends. How is that not enough?”

Groark: “Ben, you know (Palikir) is a goldmine, and we’re not going to let anyone else get it before us.”

Groark then tried to justify the reasons why and how he would manage the camp maturely and properly: by limiting the numbers. “He even tried to persuade me into thinking that if I had enough money to invest,” Schroer said, “I would’ve done the same thing.” He “bitterly and sadly” tried to persuade Groark that a surf camp was wrong, that it was a blatant exploitation of foreign resources. Then Schroer’s 20-minute phone card expired.

Churning interest ahead of the camp’s opening, GlobalSurfGuides.com detailed seven passes, claiming all of them to be of good quality—lefts, rights, multiple possibilities. “It was false advertising since everyone who had surfed Pohnpei knew there was one wave—Palikir Pass—that held the trade wind at bay,” Schroer said. “Every other pass was onshore and horrible during the winter months, but (the camp) still advertised as if people would get this diversity of waves.”

In an email to his Kosrae friend Ken Miklos on May 22, 2004, Malfitani wrote: “Come on—what are you thinking about all this? The camp in Pohnpei is happening for sure. It is going to be a small operation carefully catering for six to 10 guests. I could have media from all over coming out there for exposure of my business, but I am not. I have the high end clients ready to come.”

To which Miklos replied: “I think you’re going to destroy one of the last classic uncrowded surf locations…What, you’ve had enough uncrowded, perfect days there that you're ready to turn it into Hawaii-style crowds where everybody is scrambling for just one wave to themselves? You’re the last person who I thought would do something like this. After all the things you said about keeping it pristine and secret. I think you’re a stupid greedy bastard that, yes, will make some money initially on your lame exposure of our surf, but only initially. You can’t own our resources above the reef. But you certainly can ruin them for a handful of locals, future visitors, and yourself. Allois, why don’t you just shoot yourself in your foot? It makes the same amount of sense as starting your surf camp here. One doesn’t shit where one eats, but that’s what you’re doing.”

Malfitani’s reply: “On the last 2 month there were 3 articles about the FSM on 3 different magazines. There are 5,000,000 surfers in the world. Lots of them are not stupid, and have a lot of money. It is going fast now Ken. How long do you think it will take for them to come? I would not give more than one season. Someone once told me, that if anyone was ever going to do this kind of business in Pohnpei, it was going to be he [Sipos], not me. It hurts to loose a great business opportunity, specially after so much time spend advertising, just in case you were never told of this side of the story. If there had not been all this exposure, I would never had done it. What would really hurt would be me not do it now, and see someone doing it 6 month down the road. This is what I know how to do. It is going to be a clean and organized operation. I won’t need to make a article on a magazine for people to come because I already have my clients.” Malfitani then suggested Miklos start a surf camp on Kosrae “before someone else does it.”

(Author's note: In June 2009, when I wrote this story, my requests to interview Malfitani were ignored.)

Pohnpei | Part 3 | The Murmurs

By Michael H. Kew

Palikir Pass, 2003. Photo: Mike Sipos.

NEAR 2 P.M. ON February 19, 2000, Rob Gilley aimed his telephoto Canon lens off the bow of Smell the Glove, Mike Sipos’s 17-foot Boston Whaler Montauk®. The boat was named after a Spinal Tap song and the Pohnpeian practice of wearing a fish-stenched glove to pull lines from the water.


Gilley was shooting something special.


July—five months later. It was in every surf shop, bookstore, and Muzaked 7-11. “Dan Malloy in the secret South Pacific” was the small incorrect (Pohnpei is in the North Pacific) caption on the lower left corner of the cover of Surfer’s annual oversized summer issue, 316 pages of “Epic Surf Adventure” crowned with Gilley’s photo of the California regularfoot gouging the back half of his surfboard into a tropical-blue right wall, the lip line behind him cradling a perfect tube. Inside the magazine was a 12-page feature called “Simple Procedure,” written and shot by Gilley, showcasing the young Malloy and his Laguna Beach goofyfooted friend Mike Todd trading perfect barrels alone at the same “secret” spot. Gilley, one of the best in the business, had woven a new dream for readers worldwide.

We wanted to know where the wave was. It was in the Pacific, but the almond-eyed islanders in Gilley’s photos precluded the wave from being Melanesian. And the island was rugged—Gilley didn’t visit an atoll, so that nixed Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. Polynesia? Perhaps. But Gilley said English was the island’s national language, and that disqualified everywhere between New Caledonia and the Archipiélago de Juan Fernández.

In the story Gilley wrote about going to Barnes & Noble, where he’d found just one travel book about “the area,” so I too visited Barnes & Noble to view its Pacific titles. Only one was about Micronesia; English-speaking bits of Micronesia were the Republic of Palau, the Territory of Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, and the FSM. I knew Gilley’s shots weren’t of Guam, because Guam had an active surf population. Later, my friend in Palau confirmed no pro surfers had been there, and suggested Gilley’s shots were likely from the FSM—Pohnpei, to be exact.

In March 2002 I was in the lunch room at Surfer awaiting a slide show by then-photo editor Jason Murray. Sam George, and Ross Garrett were there chatting with Surfer’s then-associate editor Carl Friedmann about a solo trip he’d just taken, something about a perfect right-hand barrier reef pass bowl off a mysterious Micronesian isle. At a pause in the conversation, I asked: “Where’d you go, Carl?”




The lights dimmed and slide show began. Friedmann left midway through. That night, I emailed Dan Malloy.

“It was Pohnpei,” he replied. “The wind can be bad, but if you get it clean, you’re in for a treat.”          

Shawn Shamlou, an environmental project manager from San Diego, flew to Pohnpei with his artist friend Michael Cassidy in February 2003. Their trip resulted in an eight-page The Surfer’s Journal feature called “Meganesia” and it was the first media exposure of Palikir Pass since Gilley’s in Surfer four years prior. “It doesn’t matter where it is, though, even if I told you,” Shamlou wrote in TSJ. “Know why? Because you are not going there…(it’s) one of those places that’s too expensive to justify in light of other more dependable wave zones…Aussies won’t come here; Indo is closer and tremendously cheaper and more consistent.”

Page 57 of Shamlou’s article showed a photograph of Sokehs Rock, a famous Pohnpei landmark, proof of his story’s locale. Also included were four photos from Gilley’s 2000 Surfer trip. But how did Shamlou find Palikir? “I figured it out from a Nature Conservancy magazine,” he told me. “The airport, lagoon, and steep topography were big clues. Around the same time, Cassidy had been wanting to explore Micronesia, and we agreed Pohnpei would be worthy. Gilley’s Surfer article confirmed it.”

“Gilley was in a skiff he had hired, holding a camera, when Sean Stratton and I pulled up in my Whaler late one weekday afternoon,” Sipos told me. “Dan and Mike Todd were the only guys out. I yelled to Gilley that he was breaking my heart, and that his group was the first time I’d encountered other surfers in the water since my arrival almost two years before.”

Sipos paddled out and chatted amicably with Malloy and Todd; they and Gilley later dined with Sipos at his home near Kolonia. “I filled them in on the whole deal after Rob agreed that they would all keep it under wraps, which they did,” Sipos said. “I showed them videos and stills, the whole shebang. Those guys embodied what surfing and surf travel should be about, and I was glad to share it with them.”

Via Gilley, Shamlou contacted one of the Pohnpei surfers mentioned in Surfer: Mike Sipos, though Gilley did not write his last name in the article. In TSJ Shamlou referred to Sipos as “Jude,” Sipos’s middle name. I asked Shamlou for “Jude’s” email address, and on the grounds of secrecy, Sipos said he would be happy to meet me and take me out to surf Palikir.

In the late 1990s Gilley was Surfer’s photo editor; he’d tracked the Pohnpei scent from inside the magazine’s drafty gray San Juan Capistrano warehouse—all editions of the now-defunct Surf Report lay within. On lunch breaks Gilley ditched his light table for the steel shelves to lose himself in the printed-guide world of waves. Naturally he saw the Surf Report’s February 1998 issue about Pohnpei, written and photographed by a Kiwi named Russell Hill. Hill’s spot descriptions were grossly inaccurate—he even named a spot after himself, one Bruce Talley and others had been riding for years. He also claimed Pohnpei’s best surf season was summer.

South swells in Pohnpei are rare—the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are in the way. The calmest months are August and September, when Pohnpei has light wind patterns and plate-glass seas unless tropical disturbances sweep by. Autumn is transitional, with intensifying rain, wind, and swell, which almost never arrive until Halloween. Winter is windy, with sustained trades from the east or northeast in the 20 mph range almost every afternoon. Unfortunately the windiest season coincides with the biggest swells; onshores for most spots are the norm, and the rainfall can be overwhelming.

Though the Surf Report described eight surfable reef passes, only one of them would be considered real. “The other spots,” Sipos told me, “are either too far away, too windy, too inconsistent, too shallow, unmanageable because of tides, currents, and boat anchorage/access issues, or unworthy as to wave shape. Whereas Palikir Pass is the gem from all angles and is so much better than every other spot. It is the magnet, and in reality is the only ‘true’ surf spot on Pohnpei.”

Rob Gilley knew this. Augmenting intel from a Tavarua boat driver who’d competed in a Pohnpei fishing tournament, there was the conversation with his Oceanside, Calif.-based dentist. A diehard scuba enthusiast, Dr. Bridges had visited Pohnpei and to Gilley described the shapely waves he’d seen at Palikir, an obscure diver’s paradise with superior visibility and copious marine life, the pass itself more than a half-mile long and 135 feet deep at its center. The bottom was more than 300 feet deep on the outside, and the currents could be severe, especially during the large winter swell which transformed Palikir into a surfer’s paradise.

“Pohnpei opened the world to me,” Gilley said. “It made me realize most surfers were sheep, and what you really wanted to be was a shepherd. To paraphrase Ted Grambeau, anybody who thinks that all the best waves in the world have been discovered hasn’t been looking.”

Grambeau first went to Pohnpei in the late 1990s—maybe 1998. He doesn’t recall. But he was alone, just scouting the setups; he had many frequent-flyer points with Continental Airlines. “The surf was pretty good,” he said, “but it rained the whole time I was there. I then studied rainfall patterns of the area and found it was one of the wettest places on Earth. I shelved any immediate plans for a full-scale surf trip.”

Soon Grambeau saw Gilley’s Surfer article. “Straight away I knew where it was despite no indication given in the article,” he said. In January 2004 Grambeau photographed Mick Fanning surfing Palikir during a three-day trip urged by swell models. “With Fanning, it was just a quick raid, deliberately keeping it low-profile as there were already regular surfers from Guam and Australia and the U.S. by that stage. There was absolutely no advantage for me to pinpoint its location.” An eight-page feature called “Clean Getaway” graced Issue 189 (April 2004) of ASL; photo editor Lee Pegus and the cagey Grambeau tried to stump readers by including a portrait of wild-haired Papua New Guineans and an aerial photo of Chuuk’s barrier reef.

Five years earlier, another Australian surf magazine (Tracks?) had shown Pohnpei via photos of small waves shot in summer; the feature was unmemorable. And the sole prior surf-media mention of Pohnpei appeared in the April 1986 issue of Surfer—photographer Erik Aeder had island-hopped from Guam back to his home on Maui, spending a week on Pohnpei (in Surfer he called it “Ponape,” the island’s name until 1984). It was summer, so he saw no surf, though he had heard good things about it. In his mistitled article “Melanesia,” Aeder mentioned the ruins of Nan Madol and included a photo of women and handicrafts in Pohnpei’s Polynesian village of Pohrakiet. His surf photos were from a different island.

In the four-year gap between Gilley and Grambeau, besides Pohnpei residents, Mike Sipos estimated Palikir hosted fewer than a dozen solo travelers—guys like Shamlou, Cassidy, Tony Pittar, Eric Havens, Friedmann, and Fred Mendiola—plus the temporary expat surfers: Ryo Aoki and Koyo Matsudaira from Japan, Dodd, Schroer, Stratton, Shaun Simmons, Dennis Gearheart, and Tyler McAdam from America. “But I should clarify that none of the magazine exposure came about at my urging or insistence,” Sipos said. “I didn’t initiate any of it. The photographers, writers, and pro surfers came on their own and contacted me, not the other way around. It was called sharing stoke and spreading aloha, which is something I did for every visitor who came along including, most notably, Allois Malfitani.” 

Pohnpei | Part 2 | The Sequents

By Michael H. Kew

Ben Schroer and his unexpected employment perk. Photo: Mike Sipos.

MIKE SIPOS WAS A Californian-cum-Floridian who, in 1986, after a five-week stint teaching windsurfing at Club Med in the Dominican Republic, chose to practice law. He graduated from the University of Miami and in 1990 moved to Los Angeles, where he worked eight years at Haight Brown & Bonesteel.

May 1998, nighttime, beachfront Santa Monica. Online, Sipos saw an ad seeking a lawyer to serve as general counsel to the Supreme Court of the Federated States of Micronesia—the national capital complex in the town of Palikir on Pohnpei. Sipos knew nothing of Pohnpei nor the FSM. After scribbling the job contact information onto a napkin, he reconsidered and dismissed bailing the L.A. law career he’d worked so hard to get. An hour passed. Sipos crumpled the napkin and threw it into the trash. Two days later, slogging through San Diego freeway traffic, looking at the smog, the cars, the concrete, the frowns and the billboards, he had a daydream. Bailing the rat race for an exotic isle sounded good, didn’t it?

That night he went online but couldn’t find the FSM ad; trash-can digging revealed the suddenly valuable napkin. In the end, Sipos got the job: a one-year contract.

He landed on Pohnpei—another planet—in June 1998. The surf was flat. Using the 17-foot Boston Whaler he’d shipped from Long Beach, Sipos explored the pristine reef passes, fishing and envisioning waves breaking where no crowds existed. By August he’d met one of the two other surfers on island. This was Weston Yap, a Hawaiian in the Peace Corps; he’d landed on Pohnpei in May 1997 but had yet to surf Palikir. Sipos had Yap on standby for the first winter groundswell. But one day in early September, as Sipos boated out to hook tuna beyond Sokehs Pass, a flawless, head-high right rose and peeled sectionless over the length of reef, expiring into the channel. “I was blown away,” he said. “I couldn’t believe the waves could be that perfect without anyone knowing about them.” The sun seared his shirtless shoulders. Sipos knew his days in Los Angeles were done. Excel in the outpost law position, surf good waves, land big fish, marry the pretty local girl, make children, live happily ever after. Sipos reversed course, found Yap, and the two surfed that clean two-day typhoon swell. Yet six miles to the southwest and superior to Sokehs, Palikir Pass was empty.

By October Yap and Sipos had sampled the passes from Main down to the ruins of Nan Madol (translation: “Spaces Between”), an ancient and famous aquatic city of basalt logs. The two men rode small, clean waves at Mwahnd and Ohwa passes; later, Sipos encountered some Americans from Guam who’d arrived for a dive holiday. They experienced one dreamy session off the south end of the Madolenihmw harbor entrance at Napali.

A month later Sipos rode smallish Palikir Pass for his first time. With him were Yap and Mark Hepner, who had returned briefly to finalize his divorce from a local woman. Hepner had asked around, looking for someone to take him surfing. Sipos offered a board and a boat ride and in return Hepner introduced him to the glory of Palikir. “We pulled up to Palikir and it was solid, consistent, overhead and glassy—and empty,” Yap told me. “It broke so far out and bowled in so hard. It was amazing. Afterwards we actually looked for other surfers on Pohnpei because it’s creepy sitting solo in that lineup. The ocean has things jumping and swimming all around. But there was no one. It was just us.”

Yap finished his Peace Corps stint and left mid-1999. Shaun Stratton, an English professor employed by the College of Micronesia, arrived in August. Six weeks later, after occasionally surfing the reef at Nan Madol, Stratton’s colleagues said something about another surfer living on Pohnpei. Soon Stratton met Sipos in Rumors, the dingy waterfront pub. “Like a Little Leaguer excited about getting a hit,” Stratton said, “I described how fun my Nan Madol sessions had been. Mike listened impassively before interjecting. ‘The real wave is Palikir,’ he said, pointing northwest. ‘When it breaks, it’s world-class, and you and I are the only ones here to ride it.’” Sipos mentioned his Boston Whaler, “our taxi to the surf,” and for eight months Stratton and Sipos were the sole full-time surfers on the island; they surfed Palikir Pass every time it broke. (Bruce Talley surfed only the south coast spots.) In May 2000 Stratton left after a cholera epidemic closed the college.

Looking to recruit a lawyer who surfed, Sipos sent an email to friends in California. He found Scott Dodd, who was living in Hawaii. Dodd arrived on Pohnpei in August 2000 and stayed three years, tripling his one-year contract with the FSM Supreme Court. “The first time I surfed Palikir was with Mike within a week of my arrival,” Dodd said. “It was beautiful, slightly overhead on the sets—pretty mellow, not the bombs you see pictures of now. I could see the incredible colors of the reef, the fish. And we were the only ones out. In fact, there were no other boats of any kind, no other people at all. I was in disbelief—I could not believe how good it was.”

A year later, a skinny blond kid named Ben Schroer arrived from New Hampshire. He was a Seventh Day Adventist volunteer school teacher, not a surfer, but on Pohnpei he quickly became one, learning how to surf at windy, hollow Palikir Pass. It was nothing like Waikiki or San Onofre. Schroer progressed from blowing each drop to consistently pulling even the latest bombs—backside. For the first three to four years of his surfing life, he never once rode frontside; he got barreled backside before ever making a drop going left. He surfed Palikir consistently, usually alone or with Tyler, his buddy from the Peace Corps. Occasionally they would see Sipos out there, but their paths rarely crossed. “That’s how Palikir was,” Schroer said. “Our sanctuary. Those first two years, 19 times out of 20 we would be the only people in the water. The other one time out of 20, it would be Mike and one of his friends. One time Mick Fanning was out with us for a couple days. I asked him for some advice on how I could improve; his response was: ‘Just go for the barrel, mate.’ And that’s what I did.”

From 1999 to 2004, taking advantage of the Air Nauru flight straight from Guam, Ernie Nelson saw the world from Palikir’s biggest barrels more than anyone. He was committed to charging Palikir’s precision and made serious sacrifices to establish such a lifestyle. A Floridian landscaper initially hired to work at Leo Palace in Yona, Guam, Nelson met Sipos through Wade Olszewski, a Floridian friend of Sipos who in 1995 also moved to Guam. Nelson rang Sipos, and in March 1999 found himself deep inside Palikir Pass tube gluttony.

A civil engineer on Guam, Olszewski first saw the wave in 1996 during a panga tour of the lagoon with his girlfriend. He didn’t know it was a legit spot, but there was enough swell to pique his interest. “After I learned Palikir was a real wave,” he said, “it always amazed me that it wasn’t more exploited since the regular dive tours flew right over it and used the pass. But I guess a lot of divers don’t surf for fear of sharks. If you dove off the ledge at Palikir you’d see a bunch of grey suits down deep, but they’re well-fed out there and don’t need to come up for the surfers.”

With Olszewski, Nelson returned to Pohnpei in December 1999, lucking into two large, clean swells. “We were amazed,” Nelson said. “Then the rush was on for trying to score it as much as possible before the word got out. By that time, I’d done quite a bit of traveling, and I knew surfers would go anywhere there’s a wave, and with an international airport sitting right on top of Palikir, I knew it was only a matter of time.”

Pohnpei | Part 1 | The Antecedents

By Michael H. Kew

Palikir Pass, 2007. Photo: Mike Sipos.

THE AFFABLE MORT MCINTOSH, 68, was one of the first. It is unclear who, exactly, its first surfer was, but Pohnpei was cracked in the 1960s, possibly by someone from Guam, where surfing landed around the same time Kennedy defeated Nixon in the 1960 U.S. presidential election. Or it might’ve been a local. “There was a Pohnpeian guy who went to school in Hawaii, where he started surfing,” McIntosh told me. “He went back to Pohnpei and was surfing there way before anybody. I never met the guy—I just heard about him when I was there.”

For any Guam surfer like McIntosh, island-hopping was innate considering Continental Airline’s schedule, and so in February 1971 he spent three weeks on Pohnpei, surfing daily. The swell never dropped below eight feet. “People were surfing Main Pass the day I arrived,” McIntosh said. “I borrowed the hotel’s binoculars and I could see two guys who’d gotten dropped off by a fisherman. There was a shipwreck on the inside, and when they were done surfing, they came in and sat on the shipwreck and waited for somebody to pick them up.”

Years later he surfed Palikir Pass. But in ‘71, McIntosh simply made the rounds east, sampling Main Pass, Lighthouse, Mwahnd Pass, and a special little wraparound left near the Nan Madol ruins, courtesy of windswell. For one guy, it was more than enough surf, and McIntosh credited a local for the lead. “This Pohnpeian who I went to school with here on Guam, he came out with me a couple of times and saw the waves and said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got waves like that on Pohnpei, but they’re bigger and they’re farther out on the reef.’ So I did some research and got some charts that showed me what it looked like and where it was, and I said, ‘Okay, I’m going.’ I went down there, and he’d take me out and drop me off. I’d surf alone, he’d go spearfishing for two hours and catch all these giant fish, and we’d go in, eat, drink some sakau, and pass out.”

In 1980 another Guam surfer I’ll call “Chevy” surfed Pohnpei. He worked for Continental, so he’d seen the island’s surf from aloft; McIntosh also gave him a little insight. Not wanting to be directly quoted here, Chevy told me he didn’t surf Palikir but found good waves at what locals called “the old harbor,” the right-hander known today as Lighthouse. He’d hired a fisherman to take him to Nan Madol; along the way, blown-out windswell crumbled into the various eastside passes. But on the way back, as they motored around the north end of the lagoon, the wind switched and blew offshore into the wave at Lighthouse, which was “peeling.” The fisherman stopped, Chevy scored.

Alan Hamilton grew up in Palos Verdes, California, and moved to Santa Barbara in 1967, when he was 17. In 1971, a few months after Mort McIntosh surfed Pohnpei, Hamilton and partner John Bradbury became the first owners of a parcel (#55) in California’s Hollister Ranch, a secluded right-point dreamland where the regular-footed Hamilton surfed exclusively. A diehard sailor, he became a commercial fisherman, skippering Alamo, an old shrimp boat based in Santa Barbara Harbor, and in 1987 he hired an energetic Pohnpeian deckhand named Danny who was in the U.S. illegally. “After Pohnpei and those other islands got their independence in 1986,” Hamilton told me, “they hired this guy named Bill Bixler to go out and do a survey of the tuna. Bixler hired Danny, and when they were done surveying, they smuggled him back to Santa Barbara, and he started getting jobs on everybody’s boats.”

At Danny’s urging, Hamilton visited Pohnpei in early April 1991. He brought two surfboards with him and stayed at Danny’s house at the base of Sokehs Rock. “I got a map of Pohnpei and saw Palikir Pass on it,” Hamilton said. “I thought it looked like a good setup for surf. Danny was there with me, and he had a little boat, and I said, ‘Danny, take me out to this pass.’ We went out there, and it was just this dynamite wave.” Palikir was offering glassy, head-high sets. It was Hamilton’s second day on Pohnpei; he stayed two months.

One night Hamilton was in a smoky bar called Rumors, shooting pool with FSM president Bailey Olter. Olter offered Hamilton the job of skippering the 80-foot Kocho, a Japanese fishing boat seized while fishing illegally in Pohnpeian waters. Skippering sounded good, and he knew boats, so in June 1991 Hamilton returned to Santa Barbara and sold everything he owned, including Alamo and the Ranch parcel, in less than two weeks, because on Pohnpei, a new life of deep sea-fishing and Palikir-tuberiding awaited.

Not all went to plan. “The senator who was in charge of the project was from Mokil Atoll, like 100 miles from Pohnpei, and he had a store out there. I ended up just taking all of these sacks of rice and cigarettes and everything out to the senator’s little store instead of going fishing, like I was supposed to. I was supposed to do all these fishing trips and stuff, but never did.” Yet surfing was never far. Palikir was Hamilton’s main wave, but he surfed around the island, in all seasons. And he was always alone except the few times he took a visiting marine biologist out, or when he surfed Palikir with Mark Hepner, a Kauaian diver who exported tropical fish.

On April 9, 1994, Hamilton almost lost his left hand and forearm to an 8-foot bull shark. He was surfing at Palikir; it was a foot overhead and perfect, with nobody in sight. Around 2 p.m., he kicked out of wave, and started paddling back out. On his second stroke—BAM! “The shark came up from behind super fast and it was like a grenade went off in my arm. It was going in too fast; it bit and then it slid down my arm. The shark yanked me off my board and then went backwards off my arm with its jaw clamped down, scraping my flesh off down to my fingertips. It took all the tendons and it broke my bones—and I was way out there by myself at Palikir. My panga was parked on the reef, so I just caught a dinky wave with my one arm and glided on in to the boat. I was bleeding like crazy. The only chance I had was to get into town as quickly as I could.”

Hamilton’s boat had a paltry 9-horsepower outboard; the trip to Palikir from Kolonia took nearly 30 minutes. He managed to start the motor, untie the anchor, and head back toward town, but immense blood loss caused Hamilton to drift in and out of consciousness. “I went blind because all the blood went out of my head, so I laid down because I couldn’t see anymore. I figured that, hell, I was going to die, but when I was laying down, my vision came back, so I just stayed down and drove with my feet.” Hamilton’s boat crashed into the Micro Glory, a docked freighter that was about to depart for Kapingamarangi. The crew looked down, grabbed him, and rushed him to Pohnpei Hospital in Kolonia, where he remained for six days, receiving rudimentary but adequate care. He flew to Honolulu for further treatment at Tripler Army Medical Center, but the hospital would not accept him. So he rang Santa Barbara’s Cottage Hospital, which “couldn’t wait” to get him in. “They treated me like I was Mick Jagger,” he said. Cottage sought to specialize in orthopedic surgery, and Hamilton was a prime test subject; the hospital treated “the sharkbite guy” for free, and over the next four months he had four operations. The fingers of Hamilton’s left hand no longer functioned but, permanently stuck in an outward closed formation, he could still paddle, and in February 1995 he started surfing again. Back on Pohnpei, his blood-stained surfboard was nailed to a wall in Rumors, the lively bar among the mangroves at Sokehs Harbor.

In late 1995 Hamilton bought a 30-foot fiberglass boat and sailed it from Hawaii to Tahiti, where he stayed three years, doing essentially nothing. Via Yvon Chouinard, a friend of Hamilton’s, Chuck Corbett (of Kiribati) heard of him and invited him to Tarawa. The two sailed to Fanning Island in separate boats. It was the summer of 1999; Hamilton stayed for 18 months, surfing Whaler Anchorage and English Harbor. “He was 49 years old, smoking two packs a day, and surfing double-overhead waves alone,” Corbett said. “To this day, he is the most stylish surfer I have ever surfed with.” In 2001 Hamilton traded his small boat for a 40-foot sailboat and went to Hawaii. Today he collects disability checks and lives on the boat in Molokai’s Kaunakakai Harbor.

In the early 1990s there was another surfer on Pohnpei, but Hamilton never met him—he didn’t surf Palikir. Bruce “Whitey” Talley, a beatific tradesman and sarong-wearing hippie, lived near Wapar in the island’s remote southeastern jungle. He was the stepson of a Pan American World Airways captain stationed in Germany and France, where Talley lived until he was 17. He returned to the United States to attend college. It didn’t last, so Talley joined the Marines and ended up on Guam, where he met and married a Pohnpeian woman. A few years later he decided to meet her parents, so he took a week off from pipefitting and flew to Pohnpei on January 13, 1990. On tattered dirt roads it took nearly four hours to drive the 22 miles from the airport to Wapar, where her parents lived. Two days later his pregnant wife grew ill, so Talley stayed. He’d brought three windsurfboards and two surfboards “just to check it out,” he said, because in the ‘70s, a guy he knew on Guam, Mort McIntosh, said Main Pass “really smoked.”

Talley surfed the other side of the island, opposite Palikir, because that’s where he lived. Having no boat, Talley rode waves he could paddle to. “Well, here I was—Pohnpei,” he said about his first day on the island. “I go in her parents’ backyard and look out, and there’s smokin’ waves, right side, left side. Okay! But, here’s the big thing that people seem to forget: that fantasy about going out in the water, being the first one to go surf the place, and all that, that’s a bunch of horseshit. The simple fact is: it’s scarier than shit when you go out there. To be sitting out there and look down and see three sharks underneath you, let me tell you something, man, your heart goes really fast.”

Talley heard of Hamilton but never saw him because he was a south coast guy with no car; Hamilton was a north coast guy. His spot was Palikir. “Unfortunately for him,” Talley said, “when you’re at Palikir and the birds come, you’d better get out of the water, because the birds means the school is coming right onto the reef, and that means the sharks are following right after. He didn’t get out of the water, and he got nailed.”

Hamilton left in April 1994. “So it was back to me only,” Talley said. “Never did get to find anybody to go surf with. Then there was the guy from Hawaii, he was a fisherman. He came over here, I guess he got mixed up with a local girl, too—big total nightmare, man.” That was Mark Hepner, and from 1987 to 1997 he lived on Pohnpei, surfing Palikir and exporting tropical fish. He was a stylish regularfoot who occasionally surfed with Hamilton; he was unreachable at the time of this writing. Today Talley, 72, lives in a shack among mangroves near Nett Point. If he walks a hundred yards west he can see the right-hander at Lighthouse. There are often waves. Talley has no computer, television, or telephone. Life is sweet.

You No Eat This?

By Michael H. Kew

All photos: Kew.

MONDAY AT THE MALIBU OF AFRICA. Walid, a white Ivorian, is a black dot on his shortboard thruster a thousand yards from land, floating in the brown Atlantic off the tip of a luxuriant point. Sent here to die, long-period groundswells afford overhead tubes and lengthy walls that croak as closeouts near the mouth of a lagoon. This is where the elephants play. Twenty-two of them, big and small, young and old, spraying themselves with their trunks of water, trumpeting, flaunting tusks, wallowing in mud laced white with seafoam. Sociable elephants on a desolate beach backed by a deep-green rainforest unaffected by poaching or illicit logging. Here at the Malibu of Africa, Walid shuns the chaos of Abidjan, his home city, the decaying Paris of Africa, a hive of crime and cocaine. The elephants don’t notice the goofyfooted figure flirting with the wave, zipping along the glassy wall, smacking its lip, thrice burrowing into the barrel. He does this for them. The elephants. They squirt more lagoon water from their trunks as Walid is blasted with compressed tube spit, then bottom-turns and boosts a spectacular flyaway kickout over the closeout end section. Daily, the elephants see this wave. Right now, the Malibu of Africa is far better than California’s Malibu, where it is near midnight yesterday. In Côte d’Ivoire—the Ivory Coast—today has just begun.

THAT NEVER HAPPENED. No elephants on the beach. They are extinct.

Wartime dust seems unsettled as we leave a shaded alleyway home in the dense Abidjan commune of Marcory. Walid’s English is bad, his French accent thick. He chainsmokes his hand-rolled marijuana cigarettes. He is 35 years old.

In his olive-green Renault station wagon, we weave through Abidjan, pass a big cocoa-processing factory—the air smells of chocolate—and blast out onto the A100, Voie Express de Bassam, under a hazy bluey-brown sky. The road is paved but crowded and lawless, noisy and dirty and stinky and loaded with litter. Walid says that, during the civil war two years back, nobody could drive their cars in or around Abidjan. “Here was many war, many sniper. People getting shot everywhere.” He waves his left arm out the window. “Dead guys right here!”

We pass a gloomy French military camp, the 43rd BIMA (43rd Marine Infantry Battalion), ringed with razor wire. “They saved Ivory Coast,” Walid says. “If no intervention from this army, Côte d’Ivoire was finished.”

Flanking the A100 are several billboards in French and dozens of impromptu-looking stalls offering thousands of things for sale, almost everything imaginable for anyone with West African CFA francs. As in the rest of the Africa, the stuff is all the same—furniture, fruits and vegetables, lumber, clothes, tires, electronics, cell phones—things locals need, not tourists, because Côte d’Ivoire tourism is dead. During my trip, except for a few business travelers, I saw no foreigners.

At one of the road’s many checkpoints, a soldier stops us. Says he’s hot, implores Walid for cash for bottle of cold soda. Walid informs the soldier that I’m an American tourist, and it would look bad if he palmed money to the unsmiling man in fatigues holding a loaded AK-47.

“If the military and police see me, a white Ivorian guy, not from France, they like this,” Walid says as he resumes driving. “I born in Cocody (an Abidjan suburb) in 1977, my father Ivorian, my mother French. Côte d’Ivoire is many mixed. I have double nationality, Ivorian and French, but I don’t want just Ivorian. Ivorian passport I want for go Ghana, go Liberia, for go Dakar. Is good. No visa. My big passport is France. Is better for travel. Is nice.”

Two minutes later, we veer off into the dirt and stop in front of a yelping group of small, rag-clothed boys. Their arms and hands reach frantically into the car, pushing small cellophane-wrapped bundles of sugar cane at our faces, haggling with Walid. He buys two bundles and hands me one. “Good for chew, eh?” he says with a smile. “Delicious sweet.”

“Yeah, sugar highs are great. I think those boys agree.”

Aside from acres of coconut plantations, the road from Abidjan is essentially one long marketplace, stalls hawking all sorts of things. We stop aside one of the many roadside stalls to peruse a colorful spread of fresh, locally grown produce. In fertile Côte d’Ivoire, full of farms, such bounty prevails—nearly 70 percent of Ivorians work in some type of agriculture.

But no one really farms in Abidjan, and we’re happy to leave. Exiting one of Earth’s most dangerous cities is a retreat from pain, mental and physical. Muggings, robbery, burglary, and carjacking are common. The world’s third-largest French-speaking metro (after Kinshasa and Paris), Abidjan’s weary black heart throbs among the inlets and headlands that pierce Ébrié Lagoon. It is West Africa’s largest, covering a surface of 120,000 hectares, one of three long, thin lagoons that parallel the Ivorian coast. Once the pristine “pearl” of the country’s lagoons, the Ébrié is now a woeful cesspit of urban and industrial waste here in Côte d’Ivoire’s economic hub.

For its first 33 years of independence, under its first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny (“Very nice guy,” Walid says), Côte d’Ivoire was famous for its cultural harmony and robust economy, the latter due to Côte d’Ivoire’s status as the world’s leading cocoa producer and Africa’s main exporter of pineapples and palm oil. But when Houphouët-Boigny died from prostate cancer in 1993, a new president was needed, and the nation found itself struggling with its first democratic process and a new national identity, impeded by the divisive influence of the three Rs: region, religion, and resources.

Henri Konan Bédié, then-National Assembly President, succeeded Houphouët-Boigny, ruling until 1999, when he was overthrown by Ivorian military leader Robert Guéï in the nation’s first successful coup d’état. At issue was Bédié’s law, hastily drafted and approved before the 1995 election, that required both parents of a presidential candidate to have been born in Côte d’Ivoire.

Before the 2000 presidential election, Guéï sparked ethnic hate and xenophobia against his main political rival, Alassane Ouattara, who represented northern Côte d’Ivoire’s immigrants, particularly Muslim plantation workers from Mali and Burkina Faso. Due to the parenthood clause, Ouattara was disqualified from the election by his mother’s Burkina Faso heritage.

Guéï’s rule lasted just 10 months, but it marked the beginning of conflict in once-peaceful Côte d’Ivoire. Defeated by Laurent Gbagbo in the 2000 election, Guéï refused to concede, and it took a citizen uprising to topple Guéï and lift Gbagbo to power. Still, the discontent over discrimination and voting rights exploded in September 2002, when Ivorian military troops, many from the north, mutinied and launched attacks in several cities, including Abidjan. Guéï was killed the first night, and thousands more died in the conflict. Ending in 2007, the war led to the death and displacement of thousands of Ivorians.

Still, Côte d’Ivoire stayed split. French and UN peacekeepers routinely patrolled the buffer zone that separated the rebel-controlled north and the government-controlled south. Finally, in October 2010, after repeated delays, elections aimed at ending the conflict were held. But the vote sparked chaos when incumbent Gbagbo refused to concede victory to Alassane Ouattara, who won with 54.1 percent of the vote. It escalated into a full-scale military conflict between those loyal to Gbagbo and Ouattara’s people, and the ensuing stand-off stopped only when Ouattaran and French forces seized the Ivorian south, capturing and deposing Gbagbo. Since Ouattara’s inauguration in 2011, Côte d’Ivoire has remained somewhat stable.

Political tensions persist, however, namely via Gbagbo supporters, who launched violent attacks near the Liberian border in 2012 and 2013. Then, four months before my visit, municipal and regional elections held were generally quiet aside from incidents of localized violence when results were announced.

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CHILDREN SCREAM and wave as we rattle through another rural village, kicking up dust. “Michael, this is good,” Walid says, smiling, tapping the ash from his spliff. “The young good, happy. They look the white man—hello!” He waves his left hand at me. “Happy. After years of war, it’s very nice, you know? Future of Ivory Coast is good.”

The swell has jumped. Sheltered right points entice. En route: plantation workers stroll along the track, holding machetes for coconuts. Many trails into the wilderness, in all directions, no signs—easy to get lost. Tall weeds and fields of maize. Walid has not ventured this way for a long time; he stops the car to chat with a hobbling old man and ask for directions to the beach. Walid hands him a cigarette; the man clasps his hands in thanks.

“Cigarette no easy for the villagers to buy,” Walid says. “Everybody want the cigarette. I keep the ganja. Ha!”

He drives for a while. We listen to reggae. I eat peanuts and drink orange Fanta. Eventually we find the heavily rutted, overgrown track that winds to the edge of the forest, the glassy Atlantic offering large, severe shorepound.

“The jungle is quick to reclaim the road,” I say. “This place was almost impossible to find.”

“No problem, eh?” Walid replies with a wink. He parks in a small clearing between palms. “The spot is over there,” he says, pointing left as he exits the Renault. It’s a sharp bend in the coastline—a hidden right point—pounded with thundering whitewater, a place my guidebook describes thusly: “With its curling breakers, it’s enough to inspire poetic musings.”

We walk for a few minutes. The heavily eroded beach is littered with driftwood sticks and garbage, mostly plastic bottle caps. The sand is course and pink, the air thick with salt mist, the sky a low, ominous gray. Big, powerful groundswells explode along the uneven rock shelf. The lineup is a roiling mess of currents and closeouts, an odd corner off the edge of the channel. But the set-up looks nice for a smaller swell—the shelf piercing the straight backbeach, which falls away into a gradual beach curve before restraightening down to what appears to be another right point in the distance.

“Is shit, eh?” Walid says, relighting his spliff. “We keep going.”


“Spots. Places need big swell like this.”

Back at the car, I study the map where I’d marked 38 possible right points between Abidjan and Liberia. Most look inaccessible by land, but there is one southeast-facing nook in our general vicinity that looks like it would “need big swell.” Finger on the map, I show Walid.

“Ah! This spot very good for fishing. Last time I there for surfing, one guy caught a snapper that was 45 kilos!”

“Does it need a big swell to be surfable?”

“The big swell, yes. Long time I went there.”

The day itself is long, as are the drives to find anything remotely surfable. Checking this spot: misfire #1. Much time wasted.

Retrace north into the crickets and tall grass, to the main road, lined with maize, swaying in the wind. We are westbound again, this time in a national park. The route is marked by tall, deep-green trees, reminiscent of driving through Northern Californian redwoods. Twenty minutes of non-talking, just reggae on the radio.

Beach turn-off approaches. But first, a roadside stop: flyblown roasted corn, handled by filthy fingers.


The seller, a man, in a black leather jacket, mildly offended: “You no eat this? You no belong in Africa!”

WE ARE HUNGOVER in a vile city, a lilliputian sketch of Abidjan, on the opposite side of the country, 350 kilometers from the Paris of Africa.

Its surf is not what I’d grokked via Stormrider Guide detail: A black lava reef where waves break in crystalline waters surrounded by lush jungle. It also has a consistent low-tide shorebreak. Reality: consistent, closed-out, onshore beachbreak. Polluted, murky water. Rusty, industrial setting. No jungle.

A late start today. Breakfast on the beach in front of our decaying hotel, which is empty. They all are.

Low overcast sky, looming rain, haze. As Walid navigates the city, honking the car horn and shouting at bad drivers, I shoot stills and video from the passenger-side window. “Wrap camera strap around your arm,” he warns me. “People can take and run.”

At the city border, a soldier (large bread crumb stuck to one side of his mouth) demands money for the surfboards stuffed in our car. Then, the stink of citified Africa: traffic, beggars, sellers, sewage, open drains, garbage, thick crowds of people. Lawless, impromptu, impermanent. At one intersection, where we are nearly broad-sided by a truck, a man is holding a chicken in one hand, using his other hand to publicly piss into the roadside weeds.

“The future of the road is very good,” Walid says. “You look, you have many guys trucks, many guys work. The new government is very good. I see money, you know? I see money in the population working. Very nice for Ivory Coast.”

Pens of live chickens for sale. Vegetables and roasted corn. Peanuts. Slabs of raw meat. Overcrowded blue taxis, oppressive low clouds, cocoa factories, diesel exhaust, vinegary scent to the air (chocolatey on the outskirts). More dusty red roads, more potholes, more skinny men on bikes hauling bundles of sticks behind them. “For barbecue,” Walid says.

Hard rain. Liberia is near. Smell of burning leaves and Walid’s spliff. Swamps, fields of maize and cocoa, splattered red mud on roadside foliage. Cassava rows growing up low hillsides. Dense jungle—palms, ferns. Earthen scent to the air, like what it must smell like inside the many homes in villages scattered throughout the bush. Women washing clothes in the rain, idle men and lurking kids beneath awnings and umbrellas.

Jagged with snags and dead trees, the road becomes singletrack and nearly impassable. The jungle suffocates, crowding our sight and scratching the car. Then the Atlantic appears, draped around a palmy headland doubling as a right point.

The water looks cool and dark, with fish traps several meters off the white beach, on which two men repair their green fishing nets. Behind them, two men with large machetes group freshly harvested coconuts into a pile. Behind them is a decrepit hotel, recently abandoned, now consumed by termites and the wild jungle it was built amongst. African idyll, returned.

The four men stop tasks and walk to us. Handshakes, smiles exchanged. Walid hands them cigarettes and there are words in French. He translates: Where you come from? For why you come? Long time no guys come here. We want guys to come to our beach for surf and fishing, good for the people when we have money for barbecue.

“I tell them in one year, maybe two maximum, you have many guy return in west Ivory Coast for tourist, because the road is finished.”

I want to send message to white guy: you come. Ivory Coast problems finished.

Peace is precarious, perishable, like that ex-hotel over there. Like the reality of military truth.  Like the majority of rural Ivorian homes. How long, really, do those mud huts last?

Through African Dreams

By Michael H. Kew

Entering downtown Abidjan; flags raised for Independence Day. All photos: Kew.

TWO MONTHS BEFORE I landed in Abidjan, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs website issued a warning:

The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Côte d’Ivoire. U.S. citizens who reside in or travel to Côte d’Ivoire should monitor conditions carefully, maintain situational awareness, and pay very close attention to their personal security. Although the security situation significantly improved in 2013, security conditions can change quickly and without warning.

And near the bottom of the page:

Swimming in coastal waters is dangerous and strongly discouraged, even for excellent swimmers. The ocean currents along the coast are powerful and treacherous, and several people drown each year.

Though great for surfers, the latter is permanent on all travel warnings for Côte d’Ivoire. Fifty-five kilometers from Abidjan, near the Ghana border, are turbulent beachbreaks and leisure homes along a palmy sandspit between a canal and the muddy mouth of a lagoon, which Walid says it can be a fun place for longboarding. “Maybe we go there, but maybe not. Longboard, this I don’t really want to.”


“Shark and crocodile there. Lagoon, you know?”

According to my guidebook, the area “tugs at the heartstrings of overlanders, washed-up surfers, and rich weekenders from Abidjan, who run their quad bikes up and down its peroxide-blonde beach.”

Today is Tuesday—“washed-up” or not, Walid promises we’ll have the onshore, head-high closeouts to ourselves.

“If you come here in January, February, wind offshore all the spots,” he says, lighting another spliff. “Now is onshore but bigger swells coming. Summer good for waves big, good no for wind normally. But is okay. We surf.”

Soon the road deteriorates into a bumpy, palm-lined, red-dirt lane, its potholes filled with smashed coconut husks. Once in the village, we pass several colorfully painted, cement-walled bungalows, most with thatched roofs, but there are no people present aside from a woman walking and a small, dazed boy standing atop a large pile of husks. Walid pulls aside one of the bungalows and stops the car behind a small pickup with two shortboard thrusters in its bed.

“My friend staying here for today. Come. We surf.”

The surf facing us is junky, the salt air soft and breezy. In an open veranda Walid’s tattooed, non-English-speaking friend sits with a bikinied girl, both looking half-asleep, cross-legged on wicker chairs, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. “Salut,” I say when they nod at me. “Comment ça va?”

The water is steps away; the soft white sand squeaks underfoot. The sunlight is wan and low, the air thick with the haze typical of coasts in the Gulf of Guinea. Needing to shed my travel grime, dumpy low-tide beachbreak or not. Mostly closeouts, strong currents, many duckdives. The biggest waves are slightly overhead, the water reddish-brown and murky, not as warm as I’d expected. Just past the surf line is a near-constant stream of local fishing canoes heading west, their outboard-motors humming through the windchop.

Toweling off post-session, Walid says the surf will be smaller but cleaner down the beach, where his parents’ house is. To get there, he parks the Renault in a rocky, dusty lot on the north bank of the canal; we load our gear into an elderly smiling man’s (Walid: “He my second father.”) long blue wood canoe that will slide us a half-kilometer across to the canal’s south bank, which initially appears to be a long wall of coconut palms, obscuring the pleasant oceanfront homes beyond. This is where upmarket Ivorians, including President Ouattara, often spend their days off. “On the weekends,” Walid says, “many people here. Weekends is crazy—many jet skis, boats, wakes….” His eyes widen as he twists an imaginary jet ski throttle with his right hand. “Vroom-vroom!

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The water near this dock is vacant except for two other canoes, one with two squatting fishermen, the other with a small boy and his father slowly moving with a stick, pushing off the shallow sand bottom. The late-day sun coats the glassy water in liquid gold, silhouetting the land, and within minutes we step onto the rotting south-bank dock, walking with backpacks and surfboards along a mossy covered pathway directly to Walid’s parents’ tile-floored house, built in the 1970s, replete with beachfront swimming pool and exceptional peace and privacy. As Walid predicted, the surf here is smaller but much cleaner. We opt out of surfing and instead, while daylight fades, relax by the pool with sweating bottles of Flag beer.

Inside the main house, Walid’s housekeeper is cooking dinner—barbecued chicken, attiéké (fermented and grated cassava, a Côte d’Ivoire staple), French fries, chilis, onion/tomato salad. Later, while heavy rain pelts the roof, we slouch on a too-soft sofa, our feet on the glass coffee table. On my laptop screen appear the six videos on Walid’s YouTube channel, including a 39-second clip filmed from the inside of his Abidjan house—gunshots shatter the air outside; Walid gets his handgun; Walid shuts the sliding metal barrier fence around his front room; Walid is panicked. When the shooting stops, three men lay dead on Walid’s driveway.

“Scared? Oui. Yes. Very.” He drinks some beer. Long pause. “This thing happened all the time during the crisis.”

“Did you ever grow numb to it? The public killings and chaos? Blood on the streets?”

“No. I never do this. Impossible. My country torn apart. Nobody want this.”

“So how did you deal with the fact that your immediate domestic surroundings became a battlefield?”

In reflective resignation, his right eyebrow lifts.

“I can do nothing.”

He swallows another Flag swig. Shrugs. Blinks six times. Frowns. Coughs. Leans back and gestures at my computer screen.

“What we do? Not in military. Not politician. Can only wait. And hide in our homes. Not go outside any night for long time.”

This night: windless, with near-constant rain. Can go outside, but we don’t.

Next morning: dreariness, a gray haze. Muffled, like I’m wearing earplugs. Faint hum of fishing boats heading west. I peer through the fogged window. Surf: clean, a bit up from yesterday. Thirty minutes later, the end game of stove-boiled water is bad imported instant coffee, odd since Côte d’Ivoire is a big coffee exporter, once the world’s third largest, behind Colombia and Brazil. While coffee remains its second biggest export (behind cocoa), the industry has been struggling for years, particularly after the turbulent 2010 election. Ex-president Gbagbo, who initially investigated corruption amongst so-called “coffee barons,” tried to nationalize the coffee industry in 2011, suffocating production and export.

In Abidjan I’d bought a 500-gram bag of Café Malaga robusta beans (“Coffees from the Ivory Coast are strongly aromatic with a light body and acidity,” says the National Coffee Association of USA website. “They are ideally suited for a darker roast and are therefore often used in espresso blends.”), planning to sample some here, but Walid’s house holds no coffee grinder nor strainer nor anything of the sort. Could use a sock a la Pat Curren on O’ahu in 1955. But no socks, either.

Still, the hot cups of instant move us to surf. For an hour, the sun shines. In Atlantic murk, I admire the soft terrestrial backdrop of white sand and tall palms and nice homes. An exclusive, empty place when distanced from weekends.

We race closeouts till the wind comes. Walid and his helper take two hours to prepare an outdoor lunch (taquitos de parra, salad, mango for dessert) whence twice a butterfly landed next to me on the table. “Here, that is sign of good luck,” Walid says. “Oui, maybe we get some good waves tomorrow, eh?”

Jet-lagged, I doze the afternoon away. Outside: cloudy and bleak, surf junky and smaller. Only sounds are occasional soft birdsong and the whoosh of waves, surreal and serene.

Floating through African dreams.

Many Food for the Shark

By Michael H. Kew

All photos: Kew.

LUMPY PILLOW, BAD SLEEP in the empty three-story hotel on a hill. It overlooks a town and its harbor, once used to ship timber from now-deforested Mali.

My gut shakes, result of last night’s langouste feast with Solibra Bock beers in the hotel’s restaurant, where Walid and I were the sole diners. This morning, the little town is abuzz—birds, honking cars, sawing, hammering, rap music, lumber being stacked, wind, people talking, kids yelling. The sky is sunny with some clouds; there is, of course, the smell of burning trash. Muezzin creeps into the airspace. Shanty clusters are stacked up the hill, little square boxes of white and brown smooshed unevenly aside one another, with sparse relief patches of green trees. Atop the main hill are the larger, richer homes. Many people walking—where are they going?

The Atlantic shimmers in the heat, the low, hazy skyline a silhouette of immense jungle stretching eastward to infinity. Down on the steep beach, fishermen push their wooden canoes into the backwashed shorepound near a brown rivermouth that has a right-hander mushing off of it. Last night, over the beers and lobster, Walid told me it can get good, “but many big fish.”

Near noon, he knocks on my door.

“We go. Waves should be okay.”

In town we stop at a stall for an unrefrigerated bottle of orange Fanta, which soothes my belly. The midday sun is searing, the track to the remote fishing village bumpy and overgrown, unsigned and obscure. Not obscure is the onshore wind, trashing the mushy, lumpy righthanders smashing off pinkish granite rocks that cradle a small cove, featuring a small fleet of fishing pirogues.

The wave here is a summertime favorite among Walid and his friends; they drive from Abidjan to surf and relax with bearded, cheerful Jules, a part-time bodyboarder who lives full-time with his family in a shack overlooking the cove, 200 yards west of the main village. The extent of Jules’s English is “Yes I,” something normally said by dreadlocked rastafarians.

We shake hands.

Je suis heureux de vous rencontrer, Jules.” (I’m happy to meet you.)

“Yes I!”

He laughs in that crackly, deep-voiced, African-smoker way. He’s happy. Walid brought cigarettes.

I survey the scene while Jules hacks a couple of coconuts open for us. Burning leaves scent the air, while on the small pocket beach fronting the wave, men hammer on a new pirogue. Aside from going to sea, the boat will never leave this village.

Drinking from the coconuts at Jules’s shaded plastic outdoor table, while the wind eases, rustling palm fronds above us, Walid describes a great outside interest to develop the beach touristically. He suggests this would essentially corrupt and dull the shine of the place, so he’s taking charge, donating money, helping Jules to establish a surf camp, which today is nothing but two flimsy rooms with sand floors but no beds, toilets, or running water.

“If we don’t help Jules, in two or three years, here is finished. Hotel, you know? Place like this no change because of the war, but war is finished. Development now, you know?”

“So you think that, because the war is over, people are going to want to come here?”

“Yes! Many guy want this spot. Many opportunistic. Not now, but five years, 10 years, they come. So we preparing. It’s not good to have l’étranger (strangers) to come here and take this place. Good for local person, long time life live here. I live here many war, many population, no problem.”


An orange/white/green (Ivorian flag colors) pirogue with Dieu Merci (“Thank God”) painted on its bow sails around the headland, soon beached with its bounty of fish that look like big sardines. The whole village reacts—naked boys, giggling girls, women in colorful dresses and men in ripped soccer jerseys. (In rural Africa, attire fashion often contrasts between those preferring traditional [colorful sarongs, wraps, headdresses] versus western [straightened hair, counterfeited designer clothing]).

As if in a tug-of-war with the canoe, men chant and grunt as they drag it from the bluey-brown shorebreak and onto the sand, past the tideline. Commotion and haggling about who gets what and how much. A group of small boys clown for my camera. Three small girls cry and yell at each other; their moms yell at each other. Many goats and chickens, some dogs but no barking. One man divvies the fish, filling large stainless steel bowls and white plastic buckets (I Love Africa on one) into which the women pour seawater before carrying them to the village.

Back at Jules’s, Walid rolls a joint while I wax my 5’4” Lovelace quad fish. The day fades but the tide has dropped and new swell has arrived. Long lulls.

Appearing from the village is Édouard, the village’s surfer, tall and shy, in prime physical shape but smoking a cigarette. Underarm is a thrashed, yellow, too-small (for him) 6’0” AXL thruster from Anglet, France. Walid gifted it 15 years ago, when Édouard was a boy. He speaks no English, so we communicate with hand gestures and facial expressions during the short walk to the slippery jumping-off spot on the nose of the point.

Backdrop: steep pink crescent beach, dense palm forest, colorful pirogues, sagging shacks in the square of village. A scene of purity, devoid of commerce or overcrowding, an innocence of subsistence owed to isolation, its absence of pavement, proximity to wilderness.

The ocean is cool, murky. Despite whitecaps behind the point, the waves are smooth and playful, the good ones running for a while, past a large washrock, ending in shorepound at the edge of the village, where young boys clap and cheer.

The sets pulse; Édouard and I trade. No talking. His surfing is economic and smooth despite his anorexic board. At one interlude, he stands on the headland and hoots, pointing to sea at the approach of a rogue set. Nice one. Paddling back out, a turtle surfaces to my left. (Walid, later: “Shark like turtle. Turtle like surfer. Ha! But here, many food for the shark.”)

During the session, fishermen in four pirogues row around the point and weave through the lineup before beaching in front of the awaiting folks, eager to see the day’s catch. Following this afternoon ritual, the women return to the village, buckets and bowls of fish atop their heads, followed by exhausted men, walking slowly with Yamaha outboards on their shoulders; the youths carry buoys, green nets, gas tanks. Each night, nothing but wet hulls are left on the beach.

Gone since dawn, a blue pirogue slides into view. Four figures: two men frantically rowing; one man frantically bailing; a teenage boy lazily steering. The arrival causes a stir. Three men leap from the point to help the sinking pirogue, which surfs a wave sideways. Returning to the beach with their empty buckets and stainless steel bowls, women wait for fish; the men building the new pirogue seem to notice nothing.

The sun drops and daylight dims. Villagers—Édouard included—return to their homes, most to stoke fires and embrace ambient darkness, the thunder of shorebreak filling the night. Tomorrow will be a repeat of today and yesterday, last week, last year. Because in the village, so somnolent and marginalized and self-sufficient, a world outside does not exist. Yet nothing but the outside can ever change it.

This Is Where You Kill Things

By Michael H. Kew

TWENTY-EIGHT: Feet, length of the black Lincoln Town Car limousine in which Daniel Jones, Nico Manos, Trevor Gordon, and I are driven for three hours, starting at 3 a.m., from the seedy Anchorage hotel to the port of a deglaciated valley town, population 3,000.

“Just driving through that place makes me feel hungover, man.”

Astride his broken captain’s chair, gazing through thick glass at the fjord waters, bushy-browed Mike smiles and sips strong coffee. He’s happy. I’m happy. We’re on his boat. The back of his navy blue T-shirt shows a goofyfooter pulling into a tropical, head-high left over the words Ride the Fury. Yes, we’d like to.

The port, groggy and foggy at 6:39 a.m., shrinks astern. Flanked by tall, white peaks, we’re southbound at eight knots inside the cramped third-story wheelhouse of this 48-year-old, 58-foot-long steel purse seiner. Built in Seattle, she spent her commercial life salmoning off the southeast Alaskan coast and off Washington, dragging for bottom fish.

We’re not going fishing.

 “Don’t you guys feel that way, man? Hungover?”

No. The town was dead. I saw nil but the dotty headache of orange streetlights and their hazy glow on orange sidewalks and orange storefronts and orange parked cars, roofed with orange snow. No humans except the gaunt convenience store clerk who sold me weak coffee and a peanut butter Clif bar. She was high on meth. Thankfully, our fat chauffeur was not. Thankfully I was not hungover — just one Alaskan Amber Ale in the hotel pub last night.

Mike sips more coffee, swallows, exhales. Smiles again. Smug. The new floor heater is working. It’s warm in here. He leans over and taps a few laptop keys. On-screen there’s a tempting nautical chart. The Kenai Fjords look like shredded witch fingers. Eagle talons. Bold headlands, wide bays, beachbreaks, coves. Pointbreaks. Rivermouths — lots of rivermouths. Scenic grandeur. Attributing J. London, it’s to be an odyssey of the north.


Gordon, Manos, Jones.

FIFTY-NINE: Degrees of north latitude which we occupy inside beanies and down parkas, sitting on black steel gunwales, grilling lingcod. There’s ice on the deck. Holding strong ales in gloved hands, we admire the hallucinatory reflect of snowy cliffs across this tranquil, funnel-shaped anchorage that latitudinally drifts with Siberia.

Trevor is fly-fishing for his first time. Swish-swish-swish. Off the transom he whips the line to and fro but hooks nothing. The bottom here is hard mud. The water is deep green. The time is 10:30 p.m., but still the sky glows blue.

Pausing, Trevor looks shoreward and swigs from a bottle of stout. Halfway hidden on the forested beach, he sees three old wooden cabins waiting for summer.

“Somebody’s idea of a good time right there,” Captain Mike says from the barbecue, his chin bisecting the gray fish smoke.

“Lonely,” Trevor says.

“Yeah, unless you’ve got it packed full of Bush Company dancers.” (laughs)

The Great Alaskan Bush Company, Mike means. Look it up.

A shaggy white male mountain goat grazes fairly low above the pit of the anchorage, above the cabins, on that really steep cliff.

“It’s amazing where you see them,” Mike says, flipping fish fillets. “They do fall sometimes.”

“Why would they be there and not up where it’s not so steep?” Trevor asks.

“There’s snow up there,” Mike says, pointing at the top of the slope, then lowering his arm. “The grass is down here. Good munchin’ spot.”

In a month or two, this goat will laze in high alpine meadows, eating shrubs and herbs and grass at leisure. For now, though, he risks life to live. Like us. Sort of.


SEVEN: Millimeters of neoprene required to sheathe extremities whilst surfing. Hoods and black six-millimeter fullsuits seal the encumbrance.


THIRTY-SEVEN: Degrees, Fahrenheit, of ocean water temperature, the going rate of glacial-stream-fed sting. My hands burn. It’s bone-seeping cold.

We’re sitting rib-deep in black water at a playful, shapely spot that Trevor likens to Hammond’s Reef, one of his (and Tom Curren’s) preferred waves in California. Unlike sunny Hammond’s, however, no surfers will flock here. Unlike Hammond’s, no billionaires sleep within sight. Unlike Hammond’s, this reef is tucked back in a primordial fjord, fronted with crumbling rock spires and seal-flecked pinnacles, shadowed by dark mountains and licked by the longest glacial ice tongue in Kenai Fjords National Park.

Over there, behind the gray-boulder moraine beach and its gray till and low, serrated green line of spruce, white icebergs float in the lake. Two miles behind that lake is a massive white glacier, cracked and fissured, which means this wave experiences katabatic winds howling off the icefield, 5,000 feet up and 12 miles in. Brash ice chunks often float in the lineup, which occurs regularly, per page 91 of my kayaking guidebook: Stay in deep water and away from the beach. The bottom rapidly shallows and accentuates the swell and surf.

The windless morning’s drizzle has become rain and hail and the ambiance is a cold, drab gray, the black mountain trees melding with quiet browns of nude earth and smatterings of snow.

Downstairs in the boiler room, full of wetsuits, Daniel, a creature of warmth, labors from his. He rubs his nose and cheekbones with the back of his numb hand. Two days ago, he surfed Rocky Point in boardshorts.

“Yeah, we Hawaiians usually only come to Alaska to go snowboarding,” he says to bearded Nico, another creature of temperature but, as a year-round Nova Scotian, he thrives on the opposite scale. Nico’s already got his wetsuit/hood/booties/mittens off. He’s used to surfing with snow on the beach. He says the vibe here is reminiscent of home, if only home had spell-binding glaciers and 4,000-foot sea cliffs.


FORTY-NINTH: State of the U.S.A., its largest and most northern. Also an exclave. Spiritually, Alaska is another country.


TWO: Huge icefields, named Harding and Sargent. Somewhere behind each estuarine spot we surf, they coat the Kenai Mountains up to a mile thick.


ZERO: Feet, in height, of the swell. We glide along. The other gents are belowdecks, sleeping or reading or drinking coffee. It’s good coffee, from Homer, where Mike lives. He runs a fish-processing plant.

Above, the sky is huge and blue. The mountain snow is blinding. Aloud, I wonder if such weather is rare.

With a small rag, Mike wipes his sunglasses. “Maybe rare is not quite the word,” he says, “but it’s nice to take advantage of ‘em when you see ‘em. That’s for sure. Doesn’t really do much for swell, though.” (laughs)

The fjord water is silty green and glassy-smooth — a little too glassy, too lake-like. Last night, Trevor suggested we try wakeboarding.

 “Are we going to get some big breakers today?” I ask Mike as he pulls the throttle back with his right hand. With yellow binoculars in his left, he’s studying the gravel beach we’ve approached.

Neighbored by a wooded peninsula and steep talus cliffs, this beach is bereft of whitewater but strewn with driftwood logs. The adjacent lagoon is serene. There are ducks and river otters and harbor seals, bushes of lupine and salmonberry amongst the moss-bearded spruce and alder. I’d like to stay and sunbathe and beachcomb, perhaps pitch a tent and wait for swell.

“Not a lot of confidence we’ll find big breakers today,” Mike says. “We’ll take a look here mainly to put some new info into the memory bank. I know guys have camped out and surfed along this beach here, but I don’t think we have the right swell conditions today, by any means.”



SEVEN: Million dollars, for which Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867. Two cents per acre.


FIFTEEN THOUSAND: Acres, densely forested, comprising the biggest island here. It is jagged and lung-shaped, rife with eagles and seals. There’s surf, too — peaky, punchy beachbreak, its black-sand shore poked with bear tracks among the driftwood and stray container-ship flotsam: orange basketballs, black fly swatters, blue aluminum water bottles. A ghost forest, immortalized after 1964’s four-minute, 9.2-magnitude Great Alaskan Earthquake, tops the steep beach.

The surf is fun before the sky bleeds gray and the air is seized by an onshore gale. We’re done. Tea and books in the calm anchorage. Cozy downtime again.

In the afternoon we buzz the skiff to the hidden entrance of a tiny cove. Along the shore are the skeletal remains of a bulldozer, a barn, and a termite-wrecked cabin. Through falling snowflakes, I see “Herring Pete” and Josephine Sather tending to their noisy fox farm here. But they abandoned this place in 1961, and the barn’s decay, scented with river-otter dung, makes me sneeze. Pete too was a reputedly ripe and eccentric guy, his rarely washed clothes afoul of rotten fish. His wife was an obsessive clean-freak, forcing Pete to take cold showers after his fishing trips, even mid-winter.

Admiring his view out over the cove, I picture Pete shivering wet in the bathroom while Josephine stirred a hot pot of fox stew. But, foolishly standing in snow, I realize I’m the one shivering.


TWO THOUSAND: Years ago, when the first humans migrated from the Alaskan interior to the Kenai Fjords coast. These were the Unegkurmiut, a hardy Eskimo breed of maritime subsistence who so excelled in boat-making that they were exploited by Russian fur traders to hunt sea otters. The Russians, who’d arrived in July of 1790, also brought smallpox, which trashed the once-harmonious Unegkurmiut population. Ensuing panic, starvation, and Russian bullying contributed to complete Unegkurmiut demise by 1912, one century removed from us.


THREE: Days, consecutive, which are too flat to surf. Vexing in a such a storm-washed place.

“Maybe we should go fishing or hunting,” Nico says over his oatmeal in the galley. “Get some deer or moose or something.”

“Most people do come to Alaska to kill things,” deckhand Scott says.

Fresh halibut sounds good. The inflatable white skiff is launched with tackle and Trevor and Scott aboard. Their bright orange and yellow rain jackets contrast well with the gray of the sea and the dark, conical headland, which flattens into a long gravel beach and berm supporting a large tree-lined lagoon and a foraging black bear. And topography for a perfect left pointbreak. Mike says he’s surfed it — slabby up top, ropey through the middle as it wrapped around the crescent-shaped barrier beach.

Later, black lingcod and rockfish are hooked, cleaned, and served as dinner. Alas, salmon season is two months off.

The next morning, Trevor confides to me that the west side of the fjord, three miles opposite the left point, has a long, tapered right cobblestone beach, also with a lagoon behind it. “If we had swell, that place might be just like El Cap,” he says, referring to another perfect wave he surfs at home.

“The El Capitan of Kenai Fjords” has a nice ring to it, I say. A dead ring.


FIVE HUNDRED NINETY-TWO THOUSAND: Square miles, surface area, comprising the Gulf of Alaska. Plenty of room to cause trouble. In winter, the Gulf is a weather kitchen, a sea of severity, a near-constant stream of cyclones and anticyclones. Sixty-foot waves with 100-knot winds are routine. Depressions twist east from Japan, stalling once they hit the Gulf and, trapped, they mutate and shove swell down to western North America and eastern Oceania. North swells deny the south-facing Kenai Fjords. We need south.

But this is a fjord and there is swell in this afternoon’s marine forecast, the charts showing a pair of modest, local low-pressure systems with favorable fetch.

 “It’s a good reason to feel optimistic instead of just feeling hopeful,” Mike says, watching a bald eagle soar in the updraft, its spearing blackness against the white snow bowl of a hanging valley. Below the raptor are steep slopes and shale landslides, chalky brown, laced with thin snowmelt waterfalls. It’s late April — Alaska is beginning to thaw. Soon, bears will be everywhere. Post-Memorial Day until September, this fjord will be flush with cruise ships and fishing boats because Seward is a major fishing hub, America's ninth most-lucrative fisheries port.

A diehard surfer and ex-merchant marine, Mike isn’t thrilled about other dingy fishing towns — Yakutat and Dutch Harbor, for example — he’s had to work in and around since he moved from Hawaii to Alaska to work at a fish cannery in the summer of ‘76.

“What’s Yakutat like?” I ask.

“Small. Some good waves over there.”

“Dutch Harbor?”

“Drunk.” (laughs)

He leans and starts steering the ship with its wooden wheel, the first time I’ve seen him do this.

“Don’t you always steer with the compass?”

He nods. “It just started acting funny. Maybe it blew a fuse, or a wire’s loose, or there’s a bunch of iron in that mountain and it threw the compass crazy. Happens sometimes.”

We approach the fjord’s entrance, or, in this case, the exit. Instantly the scene shifts.  Out here, the wind howls from the east, deeply corrugating the open ocean. The boat dips and lurches.

“At least we’re looking at waves now,” Mike says. “It’s a start!”


ONE HUNDRED TWENTY-SIX: Feet, in height, of the rock pinnacle that looms at the reefy fore of this exposed bay, a two-mile stretch of black sand of which my guidebook states: Beach landings are difficult because of constant surf.

We anchor 100 yards out. The beach fronts another deglaciated valley and an icy glacier lake below a glacier. Mike has surfed in front of this, at a shifty sandbar west of the faux left point we’re paddling to. It looks good from behind, the whitewater tapering in the proper direction for an ideal length of time. Stroking shoreward, there’s a nice backdrop of spruce and alder. In the rockbound lineup, we’re looking at two big, horn-shaped spires which may or may not dilute the head-high sets as they hump in from the southeast. The waves are clean but soft, the sun warm, the sky blue, the air temperature mild — our exhaled breath is invisible. The scene implies Carmel, Monterey, even Big Sur.


EIGHTY: Times the crabber’s fatality rate of the average worker. On average, one crabber dies weekly during Alaska’s crab-fishing seasons.


TWELVE: Feet, in height, of the swell. A certain rivermouth cove could massage it, Mike says, the region’s “crown jewel” of the spots he knows. He’s been talking about it all week. Studying his poster-sized nautical charts, I reckon that, on the right day or hour, there could be dozens of crown jewels along the 250 miles of Kenai Fjords seacoast. Goodness knows there is ample daylight this month.

“We can get there at 8:30 p.m. and still have a two-hour session,” he says with a grin.

But first, it’s a rough ride. Huddled in the wheelhouse, we pound west through the rain, rounding an exposed cape, a balding head of granite with hairs of spruce trees and smears of dirty snow. Its base has 13 tall, narrow black sea caves placed like sharp teeth. Joy for a spelunker. Thousands of murres and kittiwakes swoop about. Three sea lions bark. We slosh past porpoises and a pod of orcas.

Out the starboard exterior, a large gray trawler steams east, likely for shelter as fishing today would be tough. Daniel, lounging on the couch aside Mike in an unzipped black hoodie, takes a swig from his bottle of Alaskan Black IPA. “You think that’s a crab boat?” he asks.

“Nah, not around here,” Mike says. “They’re probably out for halibut. Salmon in summer. Crab season doesn’t start till October.”

“How many crab seasons are there?”

“The opilio and the king crab are the two big ones, but then there’s a different king crab way up north, near St. Matthew Island, and there’s the Adak brown crab. Some years, there’s a crab I see that’s a cross between the king crab and opilio.”

“How do the dudes know which one they’re fishing for?” Nico asks.

“Crabs live in different areas and at different depths.”

“Do the same boats hit them all up?” Daniel asks.

“Pretty much. Some of them, there’s only a couple of boats that fish.”

“A lot of the boats aren’t on that one TV show, right?” Trevor asks, referring to Deadliest Catch.

“Yeah. For the most part, the dudes on that show are a bunch of real frickin’ idiots.”

“Really?” Daniel asks.

“Yeah. I’ve bought crab from all those guys.”

“Does the TV channel pay them?” Trevor asks.


“Why are they doing it if they’re not getting paid?”

“Just trying to get famous.”

“So why do they pick the dickheads?” Nico asked. “Just to make for a more interesting cast?”

“Yeah. A bunch of ‘em are crackheads. One night after the show was done taping, one of the guys was found dead in a hotel room.”

“Do a lot of those fishermen have to smoke crack to stay awake?” Daniel asks.

“In the old days, they were all cokeheads, when there was a lot of money, and nobody knew how dangerous it was. You had to pretty much go around the clock to catch your share, or more than your share.”

In three hours: Lumpy rivermouth tubes. Shallow and hard-hitting. East-wind slag bump. Rain.

Daniel: “Coldest session ever.


ONE: Little-known fact: Two beachbreaks cradled by the ragged, most swell-exposed barb of the Kenai Fjords can be almost flat, like they are the day our marine forecast had promised a 16-foot southeast swell. Guidebook: Here, the surf is constant. The waters are renowned for their intensity.

Previously unknown: The largest Alaskan seas Captain Mike has faced. “I don’t know,” he says, chewing a bite of banana muffin. “I try to avoid them.” Later he reveals: “There were these white lines, standing waves, and all I could do was steer right into them. My pilothouse was 60 feet above the water, and for three waves in a row, I couldn’t see a thing.”

What you probably know: Sixty-foot waves are big waves.

Partially true fact: The Kenai Fjords possess many slabs and at least one world-class surf spot. This wave may or may not employ Jeffrey’s Bay, Mangamaunu, Malibu, Scorpion Bay, or Rincon Point.

Unequivocally true: I left Alaska with a hangover.

Dog Food

By Michael H. Kew

Daniel Jones, Tonga. Photo: Billy Watts.

IT'S TOUGH TO LOOK GOOD when a metal pole has been shoved through your ass and out your mouth. You’re roasting clockwise over a pit of coal. You’ve been eviscerated. Your eyeballs have evaporated. Your legs and tail are stiff. Your tongue is out. You seem to be laughing.

You’ve got a red hole in your belly where your organs once were, now wolfed by a big brown dog in a corner of the yard. Your neck has another red hole with boiling blood bubbling from it, trickling around your shiny, pink corpse.

“What kind of meat do you get off of it?” surfer Ryan Burch asks the man turning the pig. “Ham?”

“Yeah, ham."

“Is it nice ham?”

“It’s like pulled pork,” photographer Billy Watts says. “But I can honestly say I’ve never had a pig like this.”

A fat woman in an orange dress sits on dirt near the pig. She’s using aluminum foil to wrap onions and pieces of taro and breadfruit to be set in the umu (earth oven) to be cooked by hot rocks. Tonight we will feast Tongan style to celebrate the first birthday of the daughter of the guy who’s cooking the pig. His wife is the one doing the umu stuff. Neither has a problem with eating the family pet.

“Many more where this came from,” the man says.

“Not sure if I got a pig on a spit when I turned one year old,” surfer Daniel Jones says. But it’s  possible since he’s Hawaiian and they do this sort of thing there and throughout Polynesia. I guessed that umu was a far healthier and wholesome alternative to the usual modern Polynesian diet of Pacific Brand corned beef and other imported junk.

But dog is modern fare, too. All meat is fair game — Tongans have been eating Fido for millenia. Back in the day, dog was a delicacy, tastier than pork, and both species were raised domestically. To sweeten their flesh, dogs were fed only vegetables and, in 1774, when Captain James Cook landed in Tonga, he likened the meat to English lamb.

Photo: Kew.

I glance across the yard to the dog chewing pig intestines.

“Are you guys going to eat that mutt?” I ask the pig-roasting man.

“Yeah. But not tonight.”

With his teeth, he removes the cap from a green bottle of beer. Back home I was told that, since Tonga is home to thousands of Mormons, drinking was bad. But this man was Mormon and visibly buzzed whilst swilling from his bottle of Mata Maka, the weak so-called “Tongan” lager that’s only available in Tonga but is brewed in New Zealand, 2,000 kilometers away.

“This beer sucks,” Watts says to me. He’s just finished his second; I’m on my fifth of the afternoon. Watts and I are the drinkers of this trip. Burch and Jones rarely booze.

Mata Maka is also the name of a low hill on Nomuka Island in Tonga’s Ha’apai Group, clamped between Vava’u and Tongatapu, an archipelago my guidebook described as a “sleepy, seductive place.” Nobody really surfs Ha’apai, but I know of at least one excellent left. Nomuka and its surrounding reefs might have good waves, too. So might nearby Mango, Kelefesia, and Tonumeia, green stars on a galaxy of blue. There are dozens more — Ha’apai has many secrets. A boat is required. Viewed from space, the group looks like two big atolls with no western sides, which would be clean and offshore most of the year. Yet another cruelty for surfers since east swells are painfully rare. Our boat is small, so we won’t visit Ha’apai this week.

Starting with Ha’apai, Captain Cook spent three months in Tonga. He commanded the HMS Resolution while his colleague manned the HMS Discovery. When the two ships landed on the isle of Lifuka, a lively food festival was underway. Cook and his men were so gaily greeted that he dubbed Tonga “the Friendly Islands,” a motto still used by the Tonga Visitors Bureau.

Cook didn’t know the warm welcome was actually bullshit and that Lifuka’s opportunistic chiefs planned to kill and eat him and all his men, then loot the two ships. But the nobles couldn’t agree on a plan.

I’m drunk by nightfall. Finally, with equally drunk Tongans, we eat the pig. The white meat is leathery, unchewable. I feed most of mine to the big gut-eating dog under my chair. He’s happy. He’s not on the menu — yet.

Ryan Burch eyes his prey. Photo: Kew.

No SOB Story at RAM

By Michael H. Kew

Scott Saulsbury at RAM Brewery in Medford, Ore. Photo: Kew.

MIGHT AS WELL hit the ground drinking.

After weeks in the tropics enslaved to Bud Light, I am desperate for some fresh Oregon IPA. Luckily, I know Scott Saulsbury.

I take a three-mile cab ride from Rogue Valley International Airport to RAM, Southern Oregon’s newest brewpub. There I find a smiling Scott Saulsbury, 49, lording over RAM’s shiny 10-barrel JVNW system.

Immediately he hands me a pint of tasty Table Rock IPA, his first personal-recipe seasonal for the new 7,245-square-foot building that hosts a busy restaurant, a large multi-televisioned bar, and Saulsbury’s brewhouse. Open since December 2016, the Medford site is Oregon’s fourth RAM, a chain launched near Seattle in 1971; there are 30 other RAMs across Washington, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.

Naturally, RAM’s newest brewmaster is thrilled with his new gig.

“Many of the regular Southern Oregon Brewing drinkers are coming to RAM,” he says. “They sort of followed me here. It’s really surprising and great. Been nice seeing the familiar faces. And they want some of the SOB beers to resurface here as specialties, so I’d like to do some knock-offs of what I was making over there.”

Over there is the once-popular Medford taproom fed by SOB’s 20-barrel brewhouse where, until a year ago, Saulsbury made popular flagships like Nice Rack IPA and Pin-up Porter. With the property’s owner Tom Hammond, a Medford anesthesiologist, Saulsbury had helped start SOB in 2007, after working in real estate for a few years. SOB’s sales were steady through 2012, then dropped 10 percent annually until 2015, when Hammond chose to sell.

“We don’t have the resources to compete in today’s beer market,” Hammond told Medford’s Mail Tribune last September. “The idea of scaling back to be just a local brewery was not a possibility. Being in a smaller market made us very dependent on distribution to other parts of the state and region…we were never able to establish and maintain a big enough part of our local market to be stable in the long-term.”

“Tom hung on as long as he could,” Saulsbury tells me. “He loved it and wanted to keep it going and it got to a point where there wasn’t a way forward without a lot of capital. The business model working today is more of this heavy-on-the-retail/growler fills, because shelf space is so jam-packed. A good model for SOB would’ve been—if there was money—to own two or three retail outlets where they just serve SOB beer. More SOB beer sold over SOB taps, less through distributors, because you’re just not making money after they take their sales percentage.”

SOB poured its last pint the night of Sep. 30, 2016. The business remains for sale, turnkey and intact.

“I show it to prospective buyers all the time,” Saulsbury says. “It’ll be interested to see what happens. It’s a beautiful brewery.”

Last summer, after brewing his last SOB batch, Saulsbury worked for O.A.R.S., a major outdoor outfitter, guiding multi-day whitewater trips through the pine-forested canyons of the lower Rogue, from Galice to Foster Bar, the river’s official Wild and Scenic section.

“It was epic. I had a great six-month period, exercising and being outdoors. If I could afford to, I would retire today and be a dirtbag river guide.” (laughs)

The guide job stemmed from the company’s craft-beer rafting trips. “I’d gone on some of those,” he says, “being the beer guy with the jockey box.”

Makes sense. Growing up in Grants Pass, Saulsbury was raised on the Rogue, running right through town. Tailing a short college stint in Santa Barbara, Calif., he studied philosophy at the University of Oregon. “Then I needed to get a job,” he says with a laugh. “I’d been homebrewing a little, and I thought brewing would be a fun career. I was lucky to be in on that early-1990s microbrewery wave.”

By 1993 he was an assistant at Eugene’s Steelhead Brewing, then moved to Bend in 1995 and started Bend Brewing, where he was brewmaster. But he owned property down off Highway 66, east of Ashland, and wanted to build a cabin there, so in 1997 he zoomed south from Bend to launch Caldera Brewing with Jim Mills. “I knew Jim just from the local Ashland scene,” Saulsbury said. “Caldera was his baby, and he needed someone to make beer. Good timing.”

But initially the business dragged, so in 1998 Saulsbury found another job back in Bend, this time at Deschutes Brewing. “My time there was probably my most creative. We had a group of brewers interacting constantly, talking about the possibilities. We were able to put quality ahead of cost. Carrying that along through the years has allowed me to keep that alive in all the brewing opportunities I’ve had.”

Amid river guiding, Saulsbury got wind of the RAM slated for Medford. “An ex-Deschutes friend of mine was the brewmaster at the Salem RAM, so I contacted him, then RAM directly through a recruiter before they’d even posted the job. The building hadn’t been built, and RAM likes to hire locally, so they were sort of waiting for people to come out of the woodwork.”


“One of my questions for them during my interviews was: how much creativity will I be able to bring to the table? With the flagships, RAM wants people who have had RAM beers elsewhere to have the same experience here. But with the seasonal specialties here, RAM is definitely encouraging me to make crazy stuff and have fun. It’s going to be great.”


RAM Restaurant and Brewery

165 Rossanley Drive, Medford, Oregon



Bullet Birds

By Michael H. Kew

Île Rodrigues. Photos: Kew.

ANNABELLE, A DOCENT, was to show me a coralline sand cay islet—a nature preserve—three miles out in the lagoon. We stepped aboard a fiberglass skiff driven by a middle-aged fisherman who spoke no English; he told her he was confused by my surfboard—nobody surfed this place.

Short, smiley, and enthusiastic about her island, she worked for Rodrigues Discover, a non-profit conservancy group that started in 2007. She was 27 and from Port Mathurin; she’d spent four years as a pharmacist on Mauritius, commuting daily from Beau Bassin to Port Louis, but missed Rodrigues so much she returned and vowed never to again live on the mainland which, to the average Rodriguan, was alien.

“Mauritius is too fast,” she said. “Here, we take time to live.”

By air it was expensive for Rodriguans to visit the mainland, so most went by sea aboard the Mauritius Pride. The eastward crossing took 24 hours, 36 on the return. “It’s not so comfortable, but we prefer it,” she said. “Everybody gets seasick.”

As we headed out on the shallow lagoon, the boat driver line-fished but caught nothing. We passed Pointe Fouche, which was treeless and bone-dry. Cattle drowsed on the beach. “Here, rain is precious,” Annabelle said. “This part of the island, the animals here, they drink saltwater. They drink the sea. When we eat them, there is no need to add salt because the meat is already salted.”

We skimmed across the water, passing waving fishermen, and since the tide was out we went slowly—the hull scraped sand a few times.

I asked Annabelle if she’d brought lunch. “Only for you," she said. "I don’t eat on Tuesdays and Fridays—not every week, but sometimes—to pray to my god. Are you Catholic?”

“No. For me, nature is god.”

She worshiped at the Apostolic Vicariate, a Roman Catholic church in Port Mathurin. “No smoking, no alcohol,” she said. “I prefer purity.” I told her I was slightly hungover.

The islet’s leeward side offered a bright whitesand beach sheltered from the wind, a private paradise, the kind where a honeymoon resort could exist. Instead there was a shack with a resident warden and thousands of birds—terns and noddies squawked and flew at us as we stepped ashore.

Casuarina trees provided shade from the sun. The leeward air was hot and still, but out along the edge of the lagoon, amid mild spindrift, the surf looked sublime. Perhaps head-high and symmetrical, the swells bent along a curve in the reef, creating a mellow left-hander that was ideal for the 5’6” Andreini Bullet I’d brought.

Wearing reef booties I walked a kilometer across the sandy shallows of the lagoon, avoiding urchins and bits of sharp coral, and paddled through a thin gap in the reef. Under small swell the setup was benign, devoid of current; each wave broke in the same place and peeled along the reef for 50 yards before expiring in deep water. It was sectiony with an almondy tube and a thin, high-line lip. The sets were consistent and from a steep southwest angle, hitting the reef properly. I doubted the spot could hold any larger, but Jerome later said a friend of his had kitesurfed there on a much bigger, slabbier day, prompting the name L’Etape, French for “The Step.”

But at head-high the wave was user-friendly, something C-grade that you might find in the Maldives or a small day at One Eyes. Its sea was alive with baitballs and diving birds and flying fish chased by barracuda; L’Etape was undoubtedly sharky and volatile and inherently risky as it was a long way from help. It was a wild wave that I enjoyed surfing, and it was unlikely to host another surfer for a long time.

Back beneath the shade of the casuarinas, Annabelle asked me if I had ever seen snow, and if California had beaches like this.

“Yes, and no."

“But I thought California was like a paradise place. The snow is so cold, yes? How do you live in it?”

“It never snows where I live. Snow is in the mountains, far away.”

“Are there many birds, like here?”

“Yes, but they are much more skittish and wary of humans.”

We walked to the eastern windward side of the island, doused with litter. Annabelle said there was a man who comes specifically to remove it. Terns and noddies soared around and swooped at us—a few nearly landed on my head—and they were both curious and territorial since the islet was their breeding ground. Human presence was a massive intrusion. Us.

Built By Betel Nut

By Michael H. Kew

Yapese betel nut. Photo: Kew.

PALAU IS A BOATER'S SURF COUNTRY. The passes are far offshore and fickle and usually flat, but our map displayed a few swell-and-wind-exposed reef rifts where we could park the car and paddle out. Ours was a mission to find something new, someplace William had never surfed, accessible not by boat but with his “4X4 Off-Road Surf” car, as we were again traversing dirt lanes, soon to be paved.

“Palau’s existing 15 miles of paved road are a maintenance disaster,” William said, shifting into four-wheel-drive up a rutted hill. “There’s no reason to think that they can do a better job with 56 more miles of road to maintain.”

For five hours we combed the coast from Airai to Chol, finding nothing but small windswell, foul currents, and onshore wind that strengthened as the day waned. The air temperature increased, too, and by 3 p.m. we were ripe, our bare backs sticking to the upholstery.

Sometime mid-trip we found a bay with two surfy reefs, garnering interest until William mentioned its hidden crew of saltwater crocs. Then we found the Ngatpang Waterfall, one of the known four on Babeldaob, and chose to have a quick rinse near four fat Pohnpeian women wallowing and eating in the pond below the falls. They wore sarongs and bras, and used their fingers to shove food into their mouths from three floating Tupperware containers.

We swam into an empty pool on the fall’s opposite side. The water was cool and murky, mossy-smelling, over a floor of soggy wood and sharp rocks.

“I feel like an alligator,” Craig said.

“There’s probably a lot of eels in here,” William said.

Then we ventured beneath the fall itself for a loud tube-riding rush.

“This is the deepest we’ll get today!” William yelled above the roar.

In the end, it had been a scenic photo trip but a hoax for surf—the passes were ill-formed, or too narrow, or too deep, and they were all too windy. What looked good on the map looked bad in person, and we ended up groveling in chest-high slop back at the place our trip had started.

Downing a cold beer as we set out for Koror, Craig raised the mood: “Well, boys, at least we got some good photos.”

“Hope so,” William said.

“I’m sure we did,” I said. “But you never know.”

“Did you have film in your camera?” Craig asked me.

“Of course.”

“Then we got good photos. You can’t take bad photos of this place. It’s too pretty.”

It was Monday. “The conditions are supposed to be like this for the rest of the week," William said.

“That’s fine, mate, ‘cause I’ve got a bloody shitload of work to do,” Craig said. He was here on business, consulting for something involving Palau’s youth sport teams in their preparation for the next South Pacific Games, Oceania’s version of the Olympics.

“I don’t have anything to do,” I said.

“There’s always beer,” Craig said, crushing an empty Budweiser can.

Photo: Kew.

THERE'S ALWAYS BETEL NUT, too, which is what occupied me late the following rainy afternoon, after a long, idle day indoors. I had been in Palau for two weeks, was leaving for Pohnpei the next morning, and I hadn’t sampled Palau’s fabled natural narcotic. So it was a stroke of luck when I happened upon a stout, betel nut-chewing man sitting on an aluminum chair at a wooden picnic table in front of my hotel. His teeth were red and rotten; he spoke good English. His name was Timmy, and he was calm, pudgy, mustachioed, about 60, wearing a black cap that said USS Peleliu and a dark green shirt that said Samoan Pride.

“Are you Samoan?” I asked.

“Nah. Palauan all the way. But I been to Samoa many times. Many friends there. You from the States? I live in San José for eight years. I study at San José State. Right now my daughter lives in Arizona.”

He pulled a small plastic bag from his shirt pocket.

“You want a chew?”

“I’d love one.”

With dirty fingers he cracked a betel nut, laced it with lime—a white cocaine-esque powder made from cooked coral—then wrapped it in a piece of pepper leaf and handed it to me. This was the second time I'd tried betel nut; the first was in Papua New Guinea, where the stuff was bitter, and I was drunk. This time I was sober.

“Chew for maybe five, 10 minutes,” Timmy said. Then he spat. “But don’t swallow the spit.”

The nut was very mild, almost ineffective, but I did feel a tinge of light-headedness as I stood there. We chewed and spat and talked.

“Yap and Palau were first to chew betel nut,” Timmy said. “Then other places chewed it—Chuuk, Pohnpei, Solomons, New Guinea, Marshalls, Kiribati. All over the Pacific.”

“What about Indonesia?”

“Yes, they have betel nut there.”

“What about Hawai’i?”

He sat upright in his chair. “I know of a Palauan lady on O’ahu who grows betel nut. She sold enough betel nut that she built a house!”

“The house that betel nut built.”

“Yes! So it is in Hawai’i, too.”

“Have you chewed all your life?”

“I started when I was a young man. Then I stopped for maybe two years, but I started again.” He spit then coughed, nearly ejecting the nut from his cheek. “When I have maybe three beers, I have a chew. Then it makes me ready for three more beers!”

Dusk—the humid air was still, punctuated by chirping crickets and an occasional bird. Cold beer sounded good. Timmy popped another nut into his mouth and put his feet on the table.

“Have you heard of Yap Day?” he asked.

Yap is known for its topless women who gather for a two-day celebration of dancing and sporting and feasting and hooting in and around Yap’s capital of Colonia.

Timmy’s bloodshot eyes widened. “Never have I seen so many tits! Even the white Peace Corps girls have to dance topless.” He chuckled and spat. “I go every year. I have already made my reservation for next year.”

“I’m going to Pohnpei tomorrow. Are girls topless there?”

“Oh, Pohnpei. No, not topless. Nice place. I spent lot of time there. The women are beautiful. You surfing there, too?”

“Doubt it.”

My betel nut had grown stale, my spit pink instead of red.

“Have another chew,” Timmy said, pushing the bag at me. I plucked one out and grinned at him.

“Are my teeth red yet?” I asked.


“I want teeth like yours.”

He chuckled. “You have to chew more. How long you go to Pohnpei for?”

“A week.”

“Okay, so you chew the whole time you in Pohnpei and your teeth will turn red.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I guarantee.”

This coming from an old Palauan, I believed it. Later I learned he was Palau’s secretary of state.

William, Palau. Photo: Kew.

Pious Perfume

By Michael H. Kew

Église de Notre-Dame des Martyrs, Futuna. Photo: Kew.

STOCKY AND MUSTACHIOED, gentle-eyed, glasses perched near the end of his nose, Charles is an anomaly—a caucasian born on Futuna, an island that lacked electricity until the 1990s, that still has no real hospital (but 15 immaculate churches, one per village), where the bank is open three days per month, where perhaps 15 tourists deplane annually.

“Have you ever seen or heard of anybody surfing Futuna?” I ask Charles.

“No surfing Futuna, no?”

“What do you do for fun?”

"Relax, no? Possible a fishing. Church often. You know today there is the ceremony of death, eh?”

“What is today?”

June 29 marks the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, a holiday unknown to agnostic me. I later learn it is a big deal, venerating the two famous saints—Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, and Peter, supreme pontiff and Rome’s first bishop. On Futuna, Mass is held at the imposing Église de Notre-Dame des Martyrs. Behind it is a long, narrow cemetery. Already, along the thrashed cement road from the airport to the hotel, among dense flora, fale, and infrastructural decay, I had seen seven or eight chapelles.

“You should go to the ceremony,” Charles says, blue glare of his computer screen reflecting on his glasses. “You can use my car.”

“How will I know which church it is?”

“When you see many people.”

I find it facing the blown-out southern coast in the village of Ono. Two hundred meters out, there is a small channel that might dish a slabby right with more tide and if the wind blew from the north. Even with the onshore wind, the surf looks fun—when bodysurfing, each wave is overhead.

But first: Mass.

Beyond Vatican City, Wallis-Futuna is likely the world’s most staunch Catholic place. Possibly cleaner and nicer than any public building on Futuna, the Ono basilica is an impressive feat of Polynesian-fused/neo-Romanesque architecture, all stone, rosewood, and stained glass. The ceiling seems a hundred feet high. A fat woman in a colorful dress drapes a fragrant lei around my neck.

Flooded with natural light, the many rows of pews can house a large chunk of Futuna’s population, and today there are hundreds, sweaty in colorful dress, cooling their faces with Samoan-style ili (fans) made from pandanus leaves. A few murmurs but otherwise the room is mute, serenely so, the seabreeze sedating the somber vibe.

The basilica fills to capacity; there is the gathering rite, loud bell-ringing, a beautiful song, followed by the priest’s greeting of the congregation. Next is the forward chorus, singing over recorded ballad-style music, the sound reverberating throughout the basilica while people—most of them now standing—frantically fan themselves as the indoor temperature rises, despite the open doors and windows. From the ornate altar, the priest delivers the vigil lectionary in solemn monotone—the first reading (Acts 3:1-10); responsorial psalms (Pss. 19:2-3, 4-5), a Galatians reading (1:11-20); an Alleluia (John 21:17) with music, and finally a swig of gospel (John 21:15-19). Then homilies, a creed, prayers, and a long communion, after which most folks (some are leaving) return to their seats. More mellifluous singing, more ballads, more homilies—the whole thing lasts two hours.

At last, stern bell a-tolling, several men carry a flowered, white-sheeted casket from the altar and out the front door, down the steps, and around the left side of the church to the backyard cemetery. The congregation follows. Nobody I ask speaks any English (my French is bad)—it is unclear to me who (if anybody) is in the casket, or if it is a prop representing Peter and Paul. Then, with wagging fingers and frowns it becomes apparent that, as a foreigner, I am not allowed near the cemetery.

I walk across the road to check the channel in front of the church’s grass carpark. The midday austral winter sun is low and searing; the surf is bad but inviting. Flanking the pass is messy windswell, but some waves are hollow—within 20 meters the depth looks to rise abruptly from the steep dark drop-off (next stop: Fiji) to very shallow before dipping back into the deep the channel. Just don’t straighten out.

Imagining my chest being grated by lava reef, sandals are swapped for swim fins and soon I am squinting at the big backlit cathedral from the inside of little Futunan tubes, settling into a quick in-and-out rhythm, carefully avoiding the reef. The water is a bit deeper than expected, and refreshing, perfectly clear, mild in temperature. Several parishioners stop and stare at me before entering their cars and leaving, probably to go drink kava and laze the afternoon away.

Thanks to a guy named Pierre Chanel, Catholicism has thrived here for two centuries. Formed in France in 1816, the Society of Mary (aka Marist Fathers) missionaries appeared in Wallis-Futuna in October 1837 after la Métropole appointed Jean Baptiste Pompallier to be the vicar apostolic of Oceania. Aboard the Raiatea, before continuing to Wallis, Pompallier stopped at Futuna with Chanel and Pierre Bataillon, plus Brothers Marie-Nizier Delorme and Joseph Lugy. The Futunans liked Chanel and Delorme, so the Marists took root, establishing a mission in King Niuliki’s zone of Alo. At the time, Niuliki, who had only recently forbidden cannibalism, was Futuna’s sole chief; he let Chanel live near him at Poi, on the island’s lovely north coast.

After a few years of Futunan brainwashing, Chanel’s own brain oozed onto the fertile Poi soil—Niuliki felt the pagan conversions (including his son’s) were dulling his kingliness. The final ax blow was dealt by Musumusu, a noble whom Niuliki loved. Oceania’s first martyr, Chanel was beatified in 1889, when Wallis-Futuna became a dependency of New Caledonia. In 1954, Chanel was canonized and deemed the first patron saint of Oceania.

When I see or hear Chanel, I think: perfume.

Another day. Fleeting fun on Futuna. Photo: Kew.

Creature of Habitat

Interview by Michael H. Kew

Reynolds, Spruce Coast. Photo: Kew.

Reynolds, Spruce Coast. Photo: Kew.

IN THE 1980s, Spencer Reynolds loved surf media—the vogue outerworld. Oregon was innerworld. He was a boy in Brookings, a wet coastal bump six miles from California. This was no surfer’s eden. Cold and stormy. Bad waves. Huge swells. Rocks and closeouts. Epic fishing—an angler’s eden. But Reynolds, 43, doesn’t fish. He paints. Sometimes in his sylvan hillside studio on the Chetco River. Sometimes in Semi Aquatic, his clean midtown gallery. Sometimes atop a scenic glen amid spruce and spindrift. The coast that cast him away. But recently he returned—for life, for family. Natal homing, like salmon to his dear Chetco.

I can breathe now. City life choked me. But it took 20 years to reach this mindset. I wanted to be everywhere else.

Brookings was a remote, blue-collar town built for logging. Now it’s mostly for retirees and tourists. Making art for money here is an odd concept. But outposts need culture. I’m not spearheading anything—I just want to contribute, despite my insecurities. I wasn’t raised with the idea of art being a way to survive.

I constantly question my abilities: whether they’re real or just a result of my overactive imagination. I have a lot of doubt I can pull off making a living from this.

My art needs to improve. Always.

Tranquil scenes are boring. I’m a product of this area. Like the Pacific Northwest coast, my art is raw. I’m also compelled to do my art here because I care about culture in small communities. People in the city can disregard art so easily because there’s so much of it there. In tiny Brookings, art affects them.

It’s not a new concept. Yin and yang, order and disorder, Apollonian and Dionysian. My art balances opposites. I tap into something bigger than me, balancing raw and refined brushwork. I like a structural element, balanced with a free flow. My brain is stretched in different directions and my goal is to find balance. Maybe impossible, but it drives my work.

“Surf artist” is limiting. I am not a surf artist. I do many things. I experiment. I play with paint and try whatever comes to mind. I feel like a jazz musician, improvising, seeing what comes out.

The purpose of art is multifaceted. My role in it may be to uplift peoples’ spirit a bit, but also there’s darkness in my art. My art is a fight for free spirit. Ultra-liberal, ultra-conservative, ultra-religious, things like that—they possess a desire to control your life. We need to fight them, and that’s what I’ve been trying to put forth with my work.

Molds and stereotypes bore me. The name of my store (Semi Aquatic) says a lot about me. It’s clunky but passionate, expressing my deep love for water.

Photo: Kew.

Photo: Kew.

Some artists think you can’t capture a moment if you’re painting from a photograph. I don’t entirely agree with that, but I understand there are color dynamics happening in person that can’t and don’t seem to translate into a photo. If I’m painting from a photo, my mind goes outside the parameters of the photo, and eventually I’m not using the photo at all. Another angle in my mind is: we are so used to photos that the painting becomes about creating purposely to emulate qualities of a photo. It’s maybe not as pure as capturing the moment straight from life, but it still feels authentic to me in reflecting how layered and complex our lives are.

When an artist makes bold statements about this being the right way and that being the wrong way, I like to break such “rules.”

It’s important to know what really happens in artists’ heads rather than the image of perfection and confidence most of us want to project onto the world.

Surfing has a similar dynamic to what I experience in art. I started surfing because it was fun; after a while, it became my identity. People judge you based on your art output, and all I want to do is tap into that original stoke, regardless of whether or not that’s the hip way of making art.

I’ve never really fit in with any group. I’m not cool enough for hipsters; I wasn’t nerdy enough for my art school friends; I’m not core enough for a lot of surfers (I was a bodyboarder for many years). I'm not even a “gnarly Oregon local,” which I have every right to be. I’ve been surfing this area longer than most surfers here.

Art is how I explore life. It’s the only way I can make something authentic that someone will connect with. It’s a paradox—sometimes people want me to continue making the same sort of image that possessed that original source of passion, but I can’t continue to make the same image and remain passionate, so something gets lost along the way. In the end, I press forward regardless of all these things, because it’s my life's passion-insecurities can push you forward, but when are they detrimental?

Art needs to refresh you.

Talent isn’t always the biggest factor in making an artist successful. Sometimes this frustrates me, which implies I think I’m a good artist, but there are times I think I’m a talentless person. What the f— is talent? Self-delusion?

Vulnerability and transparency are ways I’ve chosen to create empathy with my audience. This makes me uncomfortable. I have to let out the energy I get from attention in physical ways, sometimes with intentionally weird laughing or clapping my hands, or other ways. Soaking in the cold Pacific also works well.

I’m obsessed with lines. What does this mean? I rely on an answer inside of me. I guess I believe in something bigger and multi-dimensional, like a god or a force I rejoin after death. What does my obsession mean? It’s not about what you turn out. It’s about continuing the journey. The byproduct of that perseverance is nice art.

Art is the elegant middle finger toward life and death.

Photo: Kew.

Photo: Kew.

Cocody Rasta

By Michael H. Kew

Walid and friends.

MIDDAY, MIDWEEK, mid-August. Urban shantytowns—poverty, squalor, impromptu disorder. Clothes washed in brown rivers, draped to dry on roadside shrubbery. Broken glass and crushed beer cans. Scowls and rags. Twig fences and blank stares. Idle men and overworked women. Diesel-fumed, hazy air with a low gray sky that suffocates the earth. Endless roadside litter. A chaotic six-lane highway with older models of Mercedes and BMW swerving and speeding past ass-dragging taxis and crowded, top-heavy public buses.

West of Abidjan, civilization dissolves and the land opens. Verdant vistas and low hills, banana plantations, palm oil plantations, fields of maize and rice and passionfruit. Cassava, cocoa. Military checkpoints. People selling bottles of peanuts. Men pushing/pulling carts loaded with sticks. We’re inland, inside Walid’s Renault, blazing toward Liberia at 130 kph (80 mph) on Route de Dabou, the A3, a signed 70 kph-limit (40 mph) road that frequently slows us to a lurching crawl through its fields of wide, deep red-dirt potholes.

“Road is shit,” Walid says as he leans forward over the steering wheel, gripping it with his right hand, his left thumb and index finger to his lips, steadying a hand-rolled marijuana spliff, one of several today. “It’s not possible you dead from cannabis,” he says. “Not like alcohol. You can smoke kilo-kilo-kilo. It’s impossible you dead. Just smile.” (laughs)

Sunglasses cover half his face and his right hand pilots us, the car shaking with the high speed, the horn getting a workout. Walid’s seatbelt is fastened only before entering the numerous military/police checkpoints, uniformed men with rifles and a thirst for bribery, pointing and shouting at our car to stop.

En route. Photo: Kew.

“Because of the war,” Walid says, exhaling pot smoke, “police just stop the big car, the big truck, for look, for control, but the white man is not stopped for bad. He stopped for just to take the money. But no control, you know? Just pay for take the road, give the money. Also give maybe food or water, a drink.”

Liberia, a nation too resurfacing from civil war and economic death, is at road’s end in the far west.

“Many-many-many Liberians come into Ivory Coast for the war, you know?” Walid says as we pass windswept fields of tall green grass and corn and manioc (cassava). “Mercenaries. They live here in the forest, in the jungle. On the frontier of Liberia and Ivory Coast, they have many army Ivorian, French army, USA army. The mercenaries go into Liberia and return to Ivory Coast village to kill many guys, to fuck many girls, take many riches. Mercenaries finish and return to Liberia.

“You have a big war for the frontier of Liberia and Ivory Coast. Liberian government and government Ivorian is working same for this problem. For three years, it not possible you come here on this road. It no possible. Oh, no. If you white guy come here? You finished.” (laughs) “You finished.”

“Police everywhere?” I ask.

“No police! Military, mercenary, Liberian, Angola, Sierra Leone—a mix. They don’t like the white man. Long time I don’t come here because of the war. Many problem. But it’s nice now for return. Africa is the future, you know? The future of the world. It no have development, it no have many this, you know? Africa is very beginning.”

At several areas along the road are machete-wielding men, hacking at tall green grass. Others are sitting or walking aside the vast fields of manioc and maize and rubber trees and palm-oil groves, the scenery stained with incongruous billboards hawking luxury cars.

The rain that threatened all day now begins to fall, smudging the red dust on Renault’s cracked windshield. The clouds mute the land and oppress the mud-hut villages we pass. The road is lined with fruit sellers, smoky fires, tall white rice bags of charcoal, naked kids, babies hanging off mothers’ backs, women with bundles of sticks atop their heads, broken trucks, brown lakes. People strolling in zen daze, time irrelevant. No other roads, just dirt tracks that blend into the weeds and woods.

“This road no good to drive at night,” Walid says, swerving to avoid potholes.

Soon he pulls over. We piss. The sun is sinking—orange hues on green. Back in the car, he rolls a joint while we listen to Alpha Blondy’s spirited Live Au Zénith, recorded in Paris in 1992. A multilinguist singer known as the Bob Marley of Africa, Blondy (birth name: Seydou Koné) was born in 1953 about 160 kilometers due north from where we sit. For me, an Alpha Blondy fan since the ‘90s, it’s fitting to hear his music in Côte d’Ivoire.

“This Alpha Blondy, he good, no?” Walid says after using his tongue tip to seal his new spliff. “You know Alpha Blondy in America?”

“Oh, yeah. I downloaded his new album (Mystic Power) before I flew here.”

“He very nice man. When I was child, he was my neighbor in Cocody.”

Among his vast discography, “Cocody Rock” is perhaps Blondy’s nexus. I know it well. Millions do, because Blondy’s reach is global, his message firm and up. In 2005 he was crowned Côte d’Ivoire’s United Nations Ambassador of Peace; later, he launched his Jah Glory Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan charity. Ironically, his 2010 “peace and unity” concert in Bouaké (Côte d’Ivoire’s second-largest city and stronghold of rebels during the civil war) left two people dead and 20 injured.

“The workers let too many people into stadium at one time,” Walid remembers. He lights his spliff. “I was there. Very sad.” Inhales smoke. “So bad.”


So good.

We are the rockers from Zion Ivory Coast

We're ready, ready, ready, ready to rock, we're sayin'

Coco, Coco, is Cocody Rock

Coco, Coco, is Cocody Rasta

Photo: Kew.

Walid and spectator. Photo: Kew.

Beer For Fish

By Michael H. Kew

Hunter Creek. Photo: Ken Morrish.

"HORRIFIC what could’ve happened here.”

James Smith—brewmaster, flyfisher, naturalist—nods at Hunter Creek, just 20 feet from us, flowing fast and rain-fat this cold, late-January Sunday. Ten minutes ago, in his tiny taproom, Smith topped our tulips with his Adipose IPA, an Arch Rock Brewing Company seasonal. Now outside, behind Smith’s brewhouse, we’re shying from rain, cramped in the gray light of his boiler room.

Smith is happy. Ten days prior, U.S. Department of the Interior’s Janice Schneider signed a 20-year decree protecting southwest Oregon sites threatened by strip mining, 101,000 public acres governed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

“This represents a tremendous grassroots victory,” Mark Sherwood, beer fan and executive director of Native Fish Society, later told me by phone. “It’ll safeguard water quality and habitats for more than a dozen wild salmon and steelhead populations. A huge step forward in terms of local river stewardship. We’re thrilled.”

Schneider’s pen reflected three years of core community activism to block industrial mining plans in the Rough and Ready Creek/Baldface Creek and Hunter Creek/North Fork Pistol River watersheds.

“This area is advertised as the Wild Rivers Coast, right?” Smith tells me, twirling an index finger. “Since the logging industry is not what it once was, we rely on tourism—Arch Rock does, along with most businesses here. Nobody really wants a British mining company to arrive, scalp our headwaters, make a bunch of money, and leave.”

He’s referring to Red Flat Nickel Corp., a subsidiary of St. Peter Port Capital in Guernsey, an island in the English Channel, 5,000 miles from Curry and Josephine counties, where the 101,000 acres lie.

“In 2013 my friend Dave Lacey heard of the proposed nickel mines and approached Arch Rock to locally start petitions and spread the word,” Smith says. “Our community was overwhelmingly against mining. You could just ask people if they swam in these rivers, if they fished in them, and so forth. Also, here at the brewery, it’s imperative that I have clean water. Otherwise I can’t make beer.”

Like this Adipose IPA—James, may I have a refill? It’s delicious, quite dry and fruity, 2017’s batch hopped with simcoe, citra, and chinook. Speaking of which:

“I’ve caught wild chinook and steelhead right here,” he says, pointing to the brambly, alder-lined banks. “The adipose fin means a lot to me, because hatcheries clip them. That’s how you can tell if a fish is farmed or wild. With my IPA name, I try to bring awareness to wild fish, and I like to play around with the beer. It’s kind of wild in the sense that it’s my creativity.”

A half-mile west, Hunter Creek meets the Pacific, less than two miles from the mouth of the Rogue, a federal Wild and Scenic River. Before us is a small weedy lot poised to be Arch Rock’s tranquil beer garden, with views of wooded hills, soundtracked by birdsong and chattering creek. (Arch Rock is buying the adjacent property, too—expansion for fermenters, barrels, a pub.)

“We wondered how we could leverage beer-brewing toward helping save these watersheds,” Sherwood said during our phone call. “Unique water types all over the world have created great beers. Local water is vital. We thought we could form a community of breweries here willing to say how essential it is.”

Sherwood, Smith, and Lacey launched the Wild Rivers-Wild Brews Coalition, including 16 breweries from southwest Oregon. “It’s such a great fraternity of brewers,” Sherwood said. “They’re passionate about their environments and the beers they make. They get it.”

With Arch Rock, the Coalition are 7 Devils (Coos Bay), Bandon (Bandon), Bricktowne (Medford), Caldera (Ashland), Chetco (Brookings), Climate City (Grants Pass), Common Block (Medford), Connor Fields (Grants Pass), Misty Mountain (Harbor), Opposition (Medford), Port O’ Pints (Crescent City), Standing Stone (Ashland), Swing Tree (Ashland), and Walkabout (Medford).

In 2015, Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley plus Reps. Peter DeFazio and Jared Huffman designed the Southwestern Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act, legislation to permanently protect the fragile watersheds, exempting them from the General Mining Act, a 145-year-old law giving ore mining priority over all other uses of federal land.

“Because the senators and congressmen knew their legislation wouldn’t pass in one year, and that there was an acute threat from strip mining,” Sherwood said, “with the support of the brewery Coalition and city councils and elected officials, they were able to ask, on behalf of their constituents, that the USFS and BLM enact what’s called a temporary ‘mineral withdrawal,’ to aid legislation in removing the watersheds from the 1872 Mining Act.”

Back on Hunter Creek with the tulip of Adipose IPA: “The way politics are,” Smith tells me, “it takes so long to get anything approved or disapproved, so these next 20 years serve as a buffer, giving us time to figure out how exactly these areas should be permanently protected without restricting access.”

In 2015 and 2016, the USFS and BLM held public hearings in Gold Beach, Brookings, and Grants Pass. “Those hearings were packed,” Sherwood said. “When James spoke to the audiences about beer, he emphasized how critical clean water is—for not just Arch Rock, but for all breweries, and the beer industry is a big deal in Oregon.”

Out aside Hunter Creek, the wind whips. Another cold front is pushing ashore. The sky sinks lower, darker. We watch hail pelt the roiling creek. Leaning against the open boiler room door, Smith continues.

“Throughout history,” he says, glancing up, watching gulls fly by, “people have rallied and things have gotten started in taverns and breweries. You don’t hear of people rallying at their local coffee shop, do you? People rally behind their local brewery. Beer truly brings us together.”

James Smith of Arch Rock Brewing Co. Photo: Kew.

Arch Rock Brewing Co.

28779 Hunter Creek Loop, Gold Beach, Ore.



It Reef

By Michael Kew

YVON CHOUINARD TOLD ME ABOUT IT. We were yakking about travel, eating sashimi, drinking beer astern on a yacht in the Tuamotus. Founder of Patagonia, Inc., Chouinard saw much of the tropics—surfing, sailing, exploring, bonefishing—but he hadn’t surfed the wave we discussed.

"Somewhere I've always wanted to see," he said. "Untouched nature, lots of reef passes, no surfers, good surf. All you need is a local fisherman to take you out."

"Why haven't you been there?"

"Probably because there aren’t any bonefish."

Chuck Corbett of Tabuaeran, to where Chouinard once sailed, later confirmed the claim to me through email. A longtime merchantman and an expatriated American on his own atoll of idyll, Corbett had seen and surfed more Pacific obscurity than anyone.

“Would you like an insiders tip?” he wrote. “Buy a small Jap truck for around a grand or less, then buy a 10-foot aluminum boat with a 15-horsepower outboard. Ship from San Francisco. You will find epic, world-class surf—up to giant sizes, too. When you’re finished, you can sell the car and boat. Nobody knows the island sits with Tahiti in waves because the surf is a minimum of a few miles out, on a barrier reef.”

I was on-island at 3 a.m. after four flights, with two bags, two surfboards, and no expectations, not even for sun. The terminal was a dim concrete room with flaky paint and a foul restroom, a small sign glued above the sink: Please keep our airport environment clean and fit to work in, especially our restrooms.

At the curb outside was an old brown sedan, an orange light on its roof, which made me think it was a taxi. It was, though its driver was asleep, as was the pregnant middle-aged woman in the back seat. Both of their jaws bulged with betel nut, a natural sedative enjoyed with great vigor on the equator.

I tapped on the driver's window, startling him.

"Taxi?" I grinned, showing him some cash. He was red-eyed but coherent; I lowered the passenger seat for my surfboards, and squeezed into the back with the woman, who reeked of garlic and sweat. She turned her head slowly and looked at me.

"I am Gina."

She was pregnant but obese, with a pretty purple floral dress and an elaborate shell necklace. Her head was a mass of short, kinky black hair, her teeth kernels of red.

"You want chew?"

"Betel nut?"

She nodded. "Yes. Betel nut."

"Sure, I'd love some."

She plucked three small green nuts from a pouch she kept in a hidden dress pocket and handed them to me with a wilted pepper leaf and a dirty vial of lime. Lime is baked coral, a fine white powder resembling cocaine, sprinkled on betel nut for an effect unknown to me; by trip's end, nobody else I asked knew why all their lives they put lime on their betel nut.

I was 30 minutes off the plane and already with a cheekful. On other islands I had used a slice of an actual lime, which made the experience putrid and unforgettable.

The driver stared blankly through the windshield.

"Where you going?"

"Palm Hotel."

"Palm Hotel? Okay. We go Palm Motel." He started the car.

About a mile on, he pulled over in front of a small store festooned with cheery but faded beer posters and advertisements for the latest food shipment from Hawai’i (New York Steak just in! and Now Fresh California Iceberg Lettuce!). I too was a U.S. import but was not feeling particularly fresh, or even cheery, and I asked why we were stopped here. The driver eyed me in his rearview mirror, his face sweaty and fretful, like he was going to faint.

"Sir, I stop here."

"Do you need to buy something? The store looks closed."

"No. But I not drive you to hotel." He put a finger on his cheek. "Very tired."

"So you're dropping me here?"

"Yes. I call new taxi."

We sat in the car and waited. I was too tired to care. The road was dark. Nothing moved. The air was thick and muggy. I was grimy. Gina snored softly, both hands on her belly. The driver lowered his head, tilted the seat back, and dozed off. Rain began to fall. I closed my eyes, listened to the jungle crickets, and thought: Two days ago I was in a down parka and driving 80 mph on a Los Angeles freeway.

Then came bizarre color visions of a rodeo I'd never seen, cowboys I'd never met, cowgirls in tight jeans, bull-riding, steer-wrestling, sunglasses, tobacco, bourbon, paper plates and fatty meat, pickup trucks, aluminum folding chairs, green hills, bright lights, dirty fingers clutching pink ticket stubs. So lucid it was, I shot upright and yelped when the driver slapped my left knee.

"Sir, you taxi here!"

An hour had passed. Dazed, I loaded my bags into the other car which was smellier, with damp cloth seats. The driver made a futile attempt at conversation.

At last he deposited me in the rainy darkness outside my hotel, in the middle of the forest, several miles from the nearest village. The air smelled of plumeria and moss, rain and ripe fruit. The silence was deep. Eventually a clerk led me along a ferny path to my room—actually an old wooden bungalow, full of insects and geckos—where I showered and slept till noon the next day, awakened by an errant rooster and croaking toads. And, in the distance—Chouinard’s “it.”

Sweating It

By Michael Kew

Can a Nova Scotian really feel at ease in the Horse Latitudes? Nico Manos ponders in Tuvalu. Photo: Kew.


He is drunk and sunburnt. He may have ciguatera.

Elbows on knees, a pink Nico Manos is hunched forward, shirtless and sweating, on the edge of an old stained mattress. He’s Canadian. He wasn’t built for this. He’s North Atlantic in the South Pacific.

For 55 Australian dollars per night, this hotel has no fresh sheets nor running water nor air-conditioning nor reliable electricity. “No water anywhere in Tuvalu!” our hostess promised, with a sweep of her flabby arm, at check-in. She’d pointed at the chipped cement floor. “Except here.” She smiled a crooked smile. “This is why I put you in my flat—to ensure you have enough water every day. And it is very cool in the apartment because it is upstairs.”

But warm air rises and her upstairs flat is full of mosquitoes and fat, stagnant air, like a sauna but dirtier. Here on Funafuti Atoll, capital of the pretty nation of Tuvalu, we are her only guests, apt considering Tuvalu is Earth’s third least-visited country. It is also Earth’s fourth smallest—nine atolls totaling less than 10 square miles of land for 11,000 people across 500,000 square miles of ocean between Australia and Hawai’i.

Shunning the cramp of their stuffy fales (half of Funafuti homes host at least nine people), many doze on Funafuti International’s (airport code: FUN) tradewind-cooled tarmac. A few feet above sea level and hogging a large slice of Funafuti’s land, the strip is barely “international,” connected just twice weekly, on one airline, with Fiji. It’s so barely international that, nightly, several folks are out there on woven mats and pillows beside their parked motorbikes.

Early each morn and late afternoon, flanking harsh heat, the FUN strip is used for jogging and ball games—volleyball or soccer, usually. During the day it is a public thoroughfare. Lots of traffic, mostly all motorcycles and scooters. Large Polynesians and gaunt stray dogs. Pigs and fowl. Pebbles and windblown trash.

Yesterday afternoon, since Tuvalu is a Commonwealth constitutional monarchy, the strip was used as a practice zone for the police squad (Tuvalu has no military) march that on Saturday will honor the 87th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, reigning from randy old England, 9,462 miles out. But ol’ Liz can’t be that excited about Tuvalu since she’s only visited it once.

In 1982.

Happy and glorious,

Long to reign over us,

God save the Queen!

Airstrip volleyball, Funafuti. Photo: Kew.

NIGHT FELL hours back and the moon is new, yet we can see the airstrip, backdropped with silhouettes of coco palms and pandanus and tin shacks. Sleep? Perhaps Manos’s is a valid pitch, even if it trailed eight cans of Pure Blonde lager and a paper plate stacked with rice and possibly poisoned parrotfish from the dim restaurant below.

“We need breeze,” Daniel Jones says calmly. “My chest is covered with mosquito zits.”

Hawaiian zen. Jones is perpetually calm. Lying on his bed, he stares at the cracked ceiling. He’s also sweating, but not from beer or ciguatera. He’d had the coconut crab with breadfruit. Two cans of Pure Blonde.

I too chose the coconut crab with breadfruit. Eight cans of Pure Blonde. “You guys have mats?”

Manos: “Yeah. Boardbags.”

Me: “Let’s go.”

Ten seconds later: rain on the roof.

Jones: “Let’s not.”

All rain in Tuvalu is a step toward goodness, even if the FUN sleepers are now uncomfortably wet and awake. We resign to suffer in this hot room. But locals suffer from chronic drought, hence our dry shower and stinky, unflushable toilet, full of piss. Most Tuvaluans, especially in the outer atolls, simply choose the free, no-maintenance option of crapping in the lagoon. We witnessed this each dawn while awaiting Eti, our boat driver.

Recently the government declared a state of emergency—lack of rain was causing contamination of groundwater supplies, and fresh water was rationed to 10 gallons per house per day. Drought plagued all of Tuvalu, particularly Funafuti, which from space looks like the side of a man’s head.

So rain is good, especially at night. Water tanks are refilled. The air smells clean. The grime smears and the dust dies. And with surf whoosh and rustling palms, it sounds like Oceania.

“Maybe we’ll get to shower tomorrow,” I say, clicking through the day’s surfing photos on my laptop. The waves weren’t great, but they could be. Maybe tomorrow.

“What’s wrong with this place?” Manos asks, scratching his forehead with his left pinky, squinting at my computer screen. “Why don’t they just build a big desalination plant?”

A small one exists but it produces half of what the atoll needs. And it often fails.

Jones: “Some reef-blasting equipment would be great, too, eh? Dynamite?”

Quite selfishly and myopically, in true surfer mode, our problem with Tuvalu is not its lack of fresh water but its small number of surf spots and their odd proclivity for not copping the same swell that all week has afforded well-overhead tubefests at Cloudbreak, 657 miles south of us.

It should all compute. The tradewind here blows offshore. Despite Tuvalu’s global position, the Tasman Sea is a reliable swell-kitchen, and the Mamanucas’ consistency is our planned panacea.

Previously unconsidered: Tuvalu’s surrounding bathymetry is much deeper than Fiji’s, quickly plunging to 6,500 feet and leading swell away from the atolls, allowing it to roam, freed from Melanesia, northeasterly across the open ocean, scurrying past Tuvalu, later to barrel away in Kiribati and along Hawaii’s south shores.

We also learned Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia are professional swell-blockers. We deduced the swell likely needed to be legit large to properly ignite Funafuti. Recall “Big Friday” during 2012’s Fiji Pro. That kind? Perhaps we’ll never know.

Tonight, via the slothful wi-fi of this hotel, we learn Cloudbreak has been pumping for days.

“If we leave tomorrow, I can catch this swell at Bowls,” Jones says half-jokingly. “Or at Cloudbreak.”

But today is Thursday. Saturday’s flight is canceled. Zilch till Tuesday.

Hopes dashed faster than Jones can poo in the lagoon.

Manos, Ciguatera Pass, Tuvalu. Photo: Kew.

Part of this story appears in TSJ 26.1. Subscribe.

Thanks You For Coming

By Michael Kew

Nauruan dusk. Photo: Kew.

"ARE YOU MARRIED? Are you single?” Tara is quite drunk, sucking on a cigarette. She blows smoke at a passing fly. “What happened to your eyes? You look like the devil."

“I’m not married," I say. "And nothing has happened to my eyes. What are you talking about?”

Her glassy gaze brightens; she seems confused. Her face deflates and she looks sad. Takes another drag. “Yeah. I’m single, too. Where you from?”


“USA! I been wanting to see Americans before. They no come here. They think Nauru is bad place.”

The high tide peaked an hour before sunset, gorgeous now. Three little girls giggle and splash in the lagoon inside the reef. The waves for my session were small, the rides brief—punchy rights into the channel. The reef was uncomfortably shallow, the coral dead and craggy, littered with urchins stuffed in cracks and holes in the reef. The ocean had that warm, soft tropical scent—sea plasma. Tufted clouds hid the sun most of my session, and the wind had swung offshore. The rip kept pulling me out. A sparkly dream—sounds of the kids squealing, families relaxing on the beach, fishermen done for the day.

Tara is an enormous, gap-toothed woman, perhaps 40, very dark-skinned, wearing a ripped blue denim skirt and a billowy purply-white floral T-shirt, soaking wet from her fully clothed, late-afternoon sea soak. As the tide recedes and the sun drops, she sits cross-legged on the sand. She has wide arms, small hands, her black hair pulled back tight. She has two metal rings on her index finger. As she slurs, she sits and sways side-to-side on the log and smokes a cigarette. The surf sound is soothing, almost dainty. A small dog is barking—harshly, piercingly.

“My name is Tara,” she says. Her jaw looks unhinged while she talks, her eyes go from squints to wide, crazy-looking. Her face seems to have no bones.

“Hi, Tara. We met here an hour ago, before I went surfing.”

“What your name?”


“Your real name is Michael?” She sways side-to-side, laughing hysterically, a raspy smoker’s crackle. Then, eyes wide: “Woo-woo! Woo-woo! Woo-woo! Why are you heeeeeere, Michael?

The small dog barks louder. Tara looks down, laughing at the sand.

“Woo-woo! Woo-woo! Woo-woo!”

“You like to laugh, eh?”

“I like to be, uh…European.”


“Yeah, but I’m Nauruan black. I want to be European but I can’t because I’m black. The white people, they enjoy the color skin.” She uses her finished cigarette to light a new one.

“How do you know these guys?” I ask, gesturing at Devlon and Jim.

She inhales smoke and blows it out, pointing at Devlon. “I know that one there, Nauruan one, Devlon, since we were young and live in Boe.” The cigarette goes out so she relights it and tosses the old butt. She raises her right hand to kid height. “We know since children, since kids.” She coughs. “And this one (pointing at Wisam), I just know him this year. This one refugee. He nice. They friends.”

She takes another drag off her cigarette, looking at me. “I’m scared of the eyyyyes.” I open them wide; “OH!” and she leans back, laughing. “You’re something! I don't know how to say."

“My eyes are blue.”

“Yeah, and you’re something! You even show it to me.” Still swaying, she raises both palms at me. Then, randomly: “I had a sister. She’s going to marry in December.”

“Marrying who?”

“A Tongan. A Tongan man, Tonga boy.”

“Nice guy?”

“Yeah, he’s nice, very nice, he’s very handsome. Very handsome. I look at him at first and he’s very handsome. I even said to my sister: Can I take him from you?

Her face lights up, eyes huge, mouth agape, then a hysterical laugh and a huge grin exposes her yellow teeth, the top row missing both canines. She suddenly looks serious and squints at me as she takes another drag.

“So Tongan men are of the most handsome in the Pacific,” I say. “Who are the next most-handsome?”

“I don’t usually see Australian people.”

“No Australians. How about Micronesians?”

“Oh!” She gives this some serious thought, contorting her fleshy face.

“Marshall Islands?”



She frowns, looks disgusted. “Noooo. No Marshall.”


“Nooooo—Marshall! I forgot what they look like, the Marshall Island people.”

Another long drag followed by hacking cough. She pulls her shirt up and coughs into its neck, raising a pale chunk of lung phlegm, which she spits onto the sand behind her. Another deep drag. The dog behind me starts eating Devlon’s pack of cigarettes.

She stares at the phone resting on my right thigh. “Can you camera me and you?” she smiles, sniffing, then wiping her nose with her wet shirt. “I want USA to see good Nauruan peoples. We are here, just like you. Yes? Thanks you for coming.”

Tara. Photo: Kew.