By Michael Kew
“Chuck Corbett has 17 surfboards and not one pair of shoes.” —Dave Parmenter
That was in 1993, the year Parmenter surfed with Corbett on Kiritimati in the central Pacific. Fifteen years later, in 2008, Corbett has 26 surfboards…but still no shoes, socks, reef booties, or sandals. He can’t remember the last time he’s worn anything on his feet. Yvon Chouinard calls Corbett the “Atoll Man,” and on a sandy atoll like Kiritimati in a country like Kiribati, you don’t need much foot protection. Surfboards, on the other hand, can come in handy.
An atoll is a flat, coral-ring island partially or completely enclosing a lagoon, the lagoon usually being linked with the open ocean via at least one reef pass. With luck, and if it is exposed to reliable swell, the pass is blessed with tapered bathymetry, in turn producing surfable waves along either side of the reef leading into the lagoon.
Of Earth’s 194 countries, only five are comprised entirely of atolls: Maldives, Marshall Islands, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Kiribati (pronounced ‘Kiribas’), and aside from Tokelau, a dependent of New Zealand, they are all sovereign. In the United Nations system, the Maldives, Kiribati, and Tuvalu are on the official ‘Least Developed Countries’ list, but in terms of surfing, the Maldives are largely colonized, while Tuvalu remains obscure, one of the ‘Least Developed Countries’ in the surf-travel genre, even if its surf potential is low. Tokelau has zero waves, and the Marshall Islands—which have a small surf culture—were recently dissected by Martin Daly, his Indies Trader IV now running luxury charters there between November and March.
But what of Kiribati? Only one guy knows. No other surfer besides Tony Hinde (of Maldives fame) deserves to be called an “Atoll Man,” because Chuck Corbett has spent the last 30 of his 52 years probing the surf potential out amongst Kiribati’s 33 remote atolls, themselves split into three groups—the Gilbert, the Phoenix, and the Line islands. Kiribati’s total land mass is just 313 square miles, but its total sea area encompasses 1,370,656 square miles, straddling the equator for 2,010 miles. That’s a lot of surf real estate for one man.
Of the 33 atolls, only Tarawa and Kiritimati have regular (once weekly) international air service. The others are reachable solely by private yacht, or, if you’ve got months to burn and a thirst for adventure, you could try one of the rusty inter-island freighters that come and go infrequently. Or you could do what Corbett did: move there, start an export business, start a family, and renounce your native citizenship—for the sake of surfing.
Satisfying a longtime urge, last January I flew from Honolulu to Kiritimati and surfed with Corbett at the same wave he’d shared years before with Parmenter and Chouinard, a fast right-hand reef pass that bowled and pinwheeled into the lagoon. Later, on his fine refurbished S/V Tuaraoi, a 60-foot cutter which he and a business partner had planned to use for charters in the Line Islands, I chatted with Corbett about all things Kiribati, particularly its waves, perhaps rarest in all of Oceania despite its location—even if you live there.
How did you end up in Kiribati?
I first went to Hawaii in 1973 from Costa Mesa, California. In high school I was socially dysfunctional because I couldn’t communicate with anybody except surfers. I became a surf Nazi, perhaps even more so because being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness kept me away from drugs, drinking, the wildness of youth. I was quite polarized being a surf Nazi.
What got my ticket to Hawai’i was winning a Robert August surfboard at the Huntington Beach Theatre in 1972. It was custom, and I had it airbrushed with dolphins and stuff, which was the ‘in’ thing then. For my ticket, I sold that board. I went to Hawai’i and was supposed to come back, but didn’t. I was 16.
I spent the next four years surfing on Oahu and working odd construction jobs to survive. I became sort of disillusioned with the crowds and violence—there was a lot of violence in the ‘70s, compared to today. I’d met someone who had photos of that left on Guam, and there was this opportunity to go to Guam as a volunteer to build a church for Jehovah’s Witnesses, some branch office, so I jumped on that. Got to Guam and waited three months before we had waves there, but when the waves finally did come, Guam was a paradise for barrels. Lots of hollow waves there. Real shallow.
I spent a year and a half there, and toward the end of 1978 I was looking at going either to Indonesia or Tahiti. Then I met this family on a yacht who were traveling around the world, and they described this good right-hander in Kiritimati, and they said the reef felt like popcorn, because of the hard seaweed on the reef. And so I was real interested to go there.
The other determining factor for going toward the Gilberts was while I was on the North Shore sanding surfboards for Tom Parrish, I overhead Joey Cabell and another guy talking, and all I remember hearing him say, apart from talking about the Tuamotus and sailing, was, “…and there’s a good left on Fanning.”
And so in March 1979 I took off for Christmas Island, but I had to get to Christmas to get to Fanning, and to do that I had to go to Nauru and then to Tarawa. I spent a week in Nauru, surfing there. Nauru has fun surf, but most of the waves are kind of sucky and shallow. On the way from Nauru to Tarawa, I met some oceanographers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and right then and there I got a job with them diving, because their diver had gotten meningitis.
Where did you go first?
We arrived on the island of Tarawa, and from there we got set up. First we went north to the islands of Abaiang; we skipped Marakei, but we went to Butaritari, and we visited the island of Makin. Then we did the central islands, which was Abemama, Kuria, Aranuka, and then we went back to Tarawa. Our third trip was to the southern islands, which were Arorae, Tamana, Nikunau, Onotoa, Tabiteuea, and Nonouti. On Tabiteuea I surfed where you couldn’t see the land because the reef was 15 miles out. It was fun, head-high waves. The ship was there, of course, but what was neat was being totally out of sight of the land and riding waves. To get into the lagoon, the ship had to go where there was a channel through the reef, and there was almost always something there, some little wave that I could ride. To get better waves, you’ve got to off to the ends of the islands, where the trade wind swell might wrap around, or, if it was wintertime, catching the wrap on the northwest swell. The other season we have is El Niño…every year over there, they almost always get a westerly season, when the trades reverse. The eastern shores of the atolls all have a much gentler slope, so you can surf it on most tides. Then it becomes a matter of finding a bend in the reef that’ll make waves.
Over the next three or four months, I got to visit most of the islands in the Gilberts with this MIT team. They were studying counter-equatorial ocean currents, but it was a really difficult job. I saw their engineer break down and cry because it was so hard to get things done. We were on this government freighter that would go to the islands and do freight; MIT chartered it to go between the islands for retrieving the instruments that had been set down in the channels the year before. I was loving every minute of it, surfing at the stops and seeing a culture not effected by the outside world. I got to go diving and surfing on probably 12 of the 16 atolls.
Did it feel like you were really finding some new unridden waves?
I was just having fun surfing. I never thought anything about being the only one out there. I was looking for waves and surfing wherever I found them. What was kind of interesting was that after being in Hawai’i in the ‘70s, where you could get beat-up easily, I learned to keep a profile that avoided getting in trouble with the local people. That really helped me in the Gilberts. The other thing that was totally amazing was experiencing their traditional dance and life that hadn’t changed even since Robert Louis Stevenson’s written descriptions of it in 1888. Their culture hadn’t changed at all, and you can still see that today. To hear them sing, the emotion of it brings tears to one’s eye.
I was looking for good waves, but I wasn’t on some search to find the perfect wave. I knew Fanning had a good wave.
Working in the Gilberts, what struck you as far as Kiribati compared to Guam?
It’s true that I left Hawai’i for Guam because I was disillusioned with the crowds, but living the Gilberts, I forgot all about that. I was stuck surfing alone. On the outer islands of the Gilberts, it was like going back in time. All the houses were thatched, you’d get water from a well. You used large breadfruit leaves for plates and ate with your hands. People wore very simple clothes. To make canoes, the locals would cut down a breadfruit tree and they’d wait five years for it to try. Then they’d hand-hew the log with an ax until it was roughly square, and with a handsaw they would cut planks a half-inch thick, 12 to 15 feet long. They would sew the planks together using the sap from the breadfruit tree, and they would fit the planks together until they were water-tight.
The locals think that their islands are paradise. They’re satisfied with what they have. To be ambitious is not only looked down upon, but the collective consciousness of the culture will apply pressure to keep people from being so. This is because they live on very small islands with very limited resources, and they developed an egalitarian society, where all people are to be equal, and the equality works to the low end of the spectrum rather than the high end. Over generations, if someone wanted to be industrious or ambitious, those people were kicked off the islands.
But if it wasn’t that way, Kiribati could be very popular like the Caribbean. It keeps it uncrowded and prevents business from going, and it’s always going to be this way. Any sort of business that someone from the outside wants to do is always going to have tremendous difficulty.
Nobody’s working to make the nation better or protect it or to save fish for their children. Alcoholism and violence against women are major problems. The only future I can see is that Kiribati will continue to be a welfare nation and depend more and more on nations to help them out. We’ve seen the tunafish stocks decrease by perhaps 70 percent in the last 20 years. The crunch is coming, when there won’t be enough fish for the people. There will always be reef fish, but it’ll continue to get harder and harder. Gone are the days when it’s possible to catch tuna every day when they’re in season. There are 185 purse-seiners out there, each one taking thousands of tons of fish daily, slowly cleaning the ocean out of tuna and other valuable pelagic fish.
What about the islands’ leaders?
They get that way by not being leaders—by being quiet in the longhouse, by, if they have something to say, by saying it for their church, for whatever side they’re on, whether it’s Catholic or Protestant. Here, the government and decisions are made by consensus, and someone who’s a born leader will never make it as one. They’ll be shunned.
Kiribati had been a British colony for more than 100 years. In a sense, the British were good because they were quite tight-fisted with money, and it forced these islands to remain self-sufficient. When you compare it to American Micronesia, when there was a problem, Uncle Sam would just throw large amounts of money at it, and so you wound up with a lot more corruption and stuff like that. The British were more like minimalists, and that really helped so that the people of these islands retained more of their culture than the surrounding islands. I went to a dance once in the Marshalls, and it was supposed to be traditional, but they were wearing jeans and sweatshirts, dancing to Filipino music.
There are really no white people or foreigners living in the outer islands of Kiribati. To the best of my knowledge, I’m the only one who has stayed on an outer island for years. The reason there aren’t more is because of this vast difference of cultures, thoughts, and ideas that they run into this brick wall, and they just say ‘screw it.’ They arrive here, they become very infatuated with the place and the beauty, and they want to live here and stay, and they last a few months. In the capital (Tarawa), they may go a few years. Really, the only way to live is without money. It’s part of the paradise equation, and you’ll corrupt it with material things and money. If you have only time to share, you’ll get along with everyone, but if you have more things then they do, and you’re part of their society, people want a little piece of what you have, and everywhere you turn, you’ll be chipped away at until eventually you’re either equal with them, or you’re fighting with them. So people will move here and wind up, in effect, having to build a wall around themselves to keep their Western ideas.
Have you abandoned yours?
No, but since now I live on a boat and I’m offshore. Before I had the boat, gradually I went from living in the middle of the society to the fringe of it. Being on a boat, I kind of have everything here, and it’s not as visible to people ashore as to what I’m doing and what I have. But through the things I’ve learned, it allows me to, if I choose, it allows me to still be a part of any of the communities or villages, I can. It helps to be on a boat. I’m on the fringe now.
I was ready to go after about four months in the Gilberts. I really wanted to get to Christmas Island, but one day I was walking down the street on Tarawa, and there was this great big commotion, and there was a large guy beating a young girl. He was hitting her with a 2x2 piece of wood; when that broke, he grabbed her by her hair and was kicking her. Instinctually I just jumped over the fence and ran over to grab this guy to stop him. He ducked when I jumped, and I wound up hanging on his back upside down with my legs around his head—quite comical. We fell down, the girl was running away, and shortly thereafter I was running away after her. The man got on a motorbike and was chasing us through the bush, around coconut trees and through taro pits, and eventually we got to a point where we got back to the main road, and there was a minibus going by. We got on the bus, and the man stopped the minibus just before we got to her village. I thought he was going to beat the shit out of me, but he was still upset with this girl. He reached right over my head and grabbed her by the hair. I was holding on to his arm with both of my hands, and he was pulling the girl over the top of me. Suddenly the police came on, and there was all kinds of yelling and stuff. The lowdown was that the girl was 18 at the time and was free to go, and that was her uncle. The police stopped him right there, and the bus went on, the people erupting in just hysterical laughter. I wound up being with that girl and marrying her. She was my first wife. I have two children with her, one a travel agent in Tarawa, and the other a student in Suva, Fiji.
We hid out on one end of the island, and when a small ship was going up to her home island of Makin, we jumped on and went and met her family.
On Makin I had to find a way to survive. There was a British guy and a Kiwi there, and the British guy was the former district officer for the British government, and they were trying to develop businesses on the outer islands. They got a little banana business that I took over. I started buying bananas from the northern islands, and I had a 125cc Honda with a sidecar, and I would sell bananas to the stores and hospitals and schools on Tarawa. I had this route, and it was quite social—I got to visit the different expats and stuff. It rains a lot on the northern islands, and I would go up there and work with people on propagating bananas, encouraging them to grow other things—cabbages and papayas and pumpkins. We tried all kinds of things.
We knew there was a market for shark fins and sea cucumbers, and gradually we started buying shark fins. On any given day, there’s may five or six hundred native fishermen throughout the Gilberts who paddle on canoes and fish for their daily food. A percentage of them would catch sharks, among the fish, which they would bring home and eat, so I developed this business in which we encouraged people to keep the fins from the sharks. Before, they would throw them away. We built this little business up, and it evolved to where I was going around the country on these cargo boats, buying shark fins, and a few years later, buying dried sea cucumbers from fishermen. It was quite lucrative. The last year I did it, the gross income was $640,000. But that was because I enjoyed going on the ship—I got to surf, I got to have fun at each little port I was in. I would go in with a bag of money buying these things. We were able to load sea cucumbers by the container-load.
Who was buying them?
Sea cucumbers are traditional seafood in China, so they would go through Hong Kong and be distributed from there.
A sea cucumber is a slug, like a snail, and depending on type of sea cucumber, you’re boiling them or blanching them. The trick is to dry them so they don’t rot. You might smoke-cure them first for a few days to lower the water content quickly, and then dry them. Because in China they want to reconstitute them so they’ll look fresh for the soups they make with them.
How did you get a license to conduct business in Kiribati?
In order to stay there for more than four months, you have to apply for a thing that’s called a foreign investment. I was married, but Kiribati didn’t have a visa for people to stay there, so I had to apply like I had some big business, when in reality it was just this little business we did there. Actually, the first application was for doing handicrafts. I was buying mats and hats other things, and I actually sent them to Hawai’i on the first time around. From the Gilberts, there was a ship going up there, and on its last time doing so, I put about $8,000 worth of mats and stuff. I went around the whole state of Hawai’i selling handicrafts from the Gilbert Islands. But on the last time the ship was there, they had left without paying their port fees or something, so the ship was impounded for about three months, and then after that, they never ran that ship again. It was a local ship out of Nauru.
While you were doing the shark fin and sea cucumber business, how did surfing fit into that?
I had a Town & Country 5’10” twin-fin, a 7’2” round-pin singlefin, and a boogie board. Everywhere I went, I brought those boards, and if there were waves, waves were my first priority. In my business, when I’d arrive at the various islands, my work would be done in two hours, so what was there to do for the next three days while the ship was loading cargo? I was out looking for waves.
What were some standout sessions or surf spots?
On Tarawa, on its east side during westerly winds, there were a couple of places where there was more of a point setup where the wave would peel longer. There was Millionaire’s Point, which was an area where the reef’s a little bit deeper, and it’s a nice right that holds to well over double-overhead. That would be quite consistent in the winter, and we caught it on many good days. Another wave where the Chinese have since built a tracking station, we called that Prison Point because they were going to build a prison there, but never did. There were these chunky, bowly lefts, and in my 10 years there I did it really good once, when I was getting like five barrels on one wave. At the northwest end of Tarawa was a place called Naa, an actual pointbreak where north swell and tradewind swells wrap around. The wave could be five different 100-yard-long setups, or it could be waves where some days you could go 500 yards on one wave. It could be really long, just stringing the sections together. Other places with nice waves was on the island of Marakei. There was a nice right there that broke into a man-made channel. On the northwest passage of Abemama, there was winter surf there. And I can’t think of the name, but there’s also an island where they have a left point that breaks on south swells. Unfortunately the Gilberts rarely ever get south swells.
Again, the ship only stopped where there were channels, and they had a reef-blasting team. I had the privilege of watching waves being created on Tarawa. When they built the causeway, they blasted a channel through a flat reef that made really nice rights and short lefts on south swells. When they blasted the channel out, it was about 70 feet wide and then as it got toward the reef edge, they flared it out at a 45-degree angle—presto, a surf spot! And they’ve done something like that on almost every island in the Gilberts. If I had access to explosives, the government would really like that on some of the islands up here, on Fanning and Washington. What they want them for is so that the villages have a small canoe pass to go out, and if we had access to the explosives, we could help the government put canoe passes in. We’d just go around and look to where there might be a wave, and we’d help that wave out a whole lot. It’s not very hard to do. But the problem with explosives since 9/11 is buying them and moving them.
Living in the Gilberts, you can find world-class waves, but it’s not someplace to go for a surf trip because of the inconsistency and quality of the surf compared to other well-known places. In general I would describe the waves as being mediocre, but if you live there, you’ll catch some good waves when the swell and wind coming from the right directions, and suddenly, magic happens.
The main problem is that, except for the northwest pass on Abemama, all the reef passes are on the west or southwest shores of the atolls, and winter swells never have enough west to wrap in. South swells are rare. Tarawa should get surf on its western passes from south swells, but because of the screen of island groups to the south, it doesn’t.
But I was happy with all the surf I was getting in the Gilberts. I was hanging out with guys who were drinking, and I’ve never been a big drinker, but when you hang out with guys who drink beer, you get fat. I got to the point where I had to start jogging. I put this mental image of a left wall, with Santana playing in my head, and in 1992 I was able to make my first trip—after living in the Gilberts for 12 years—to Christmas Island from Tarawa on Air Nauru when Air Nauru was flying back and forth. I knew where the wave was on Christmas; I actually put my motorcycle on the plane, got off with the bike and my board, and went straight down to the point. There were waves that day, and I wrote in my journal: “Holy shit, I’ve been in the wrong islands for 12 years.” It blew my mind that there was good surf right there. I surfed two spots, and after sunset, I came in and I found a place to stay. I was talking to some guys who were on the beach drinking, and told them I needed a place to stay, and they found one for me, just a local house.
At the time, Christmas only had about 2,000 people, and it had 60 miles of paved road. It was really fun to get on a motorbike and just go full speed. There were thousands and thousands of land crabs. You couldn’t drive without running them over. Now, you don’t see them, but that’s because the human population has gone up to 10,000.
Christmas isn’t a native island where people have lived there for thousands of years. It’s a government-owned island, and nobody is from here. To the government, Christmas was just a place to grow coconuts. They had a small hotel that was barracks from the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the British were last here, and the government used that for its officers. Gradually the island became known as a bonefishing heaven, and fishermen started staying in the government hotel.
Even though Fanning is a non-native island, too, the government set up five villages, where they moved native people to—330 families from the Gilberts. The Line Islands were originally inhabited by Polynesians from 1,200 years ago until 600 years ago. Then the islands were rediscovered by Captain Cook in 1774, and it was 1798 when Captain Fanning got there. People were coming here from the Gilberts, but only on four-year contracts as coconut plantation workers. Fanning and Washington were first owned by a rebellious French priest, and later by a private family, who sold it to the Burns Philip corporation of Australia, and in 1983 Burn Philip sold those two islands for $2.4 million to the Gilbert Islands, and they decided to move people from the Gilbert Islands up to there. They set both Fanning and Washington up with villages, and they made them into traditional-style islands.
Did the people want to resettle there?
About a third of the people were people the government didn’t want. Maybe they were criminals.
It was about two months before I went back to Tarawa, and then I went back and forth between Christmas. I surfed Christmas the following winter, 1993-1994, and in March 1994 I caught the ship and went to visit Fanning for three months. I brought a duffel bag of clothes, some money, and a surfboard. It was an overnight trip, and the next morning, as soon as the island came into sight, I could tell there was an overhead early-season south swell, and as we got near the pass, I could see lines of waves breaking down the point. That was good and exciting but it got really nutty when the boat turned to go up into the pass, and I was looking right into the barrel of the wave. The tide was still coming in, and I saw this wave that pitched out and just stayed open all the way to the end, like half a minute long. Absolutely perfect, peeling, hollow left. I had to ask the captain first to see if he’d get into trouble, then I was off the back of that ship. I jumped.
I surfed until the tide starting getting low. That afternoon, I was sitting on the beach, and the tide had just changed. I was watching the wave, and it was quite amazing. Looking at the wave, it looked like it was too fast to make. The board I had was a 7’8” thruster funboard, and I was only able to make about a third of the waves, because I’d get to a point where I couldn’t go any faster and the wave would pass me. It was just absolutely mind-boggling how good the wave was. I screamed and yelled and had a good time. Three days later, I went by bicycle up to the north end of the island, to Whaler’s, and I had no expectation of getting any surf up there. But Whaler’s had surf, chest-high waves, in a magical setup that had a left and a right peeling into a channel.
It was paradise. Plus there were tall, slender coconut trees, grass everywhere, puddles of water because it rains a lot. Where Whaler’s was, there were these abandoned cement buildings that were built in the 1920s for the cable station, tall and grand, and although it wasn’t being taken care of, it was all there, including the swimming pool.
I would’ve gone to Christmas and Fanning many years earlier, but I was into the routine with marriage and kids and stuff, and there was no plane flying back and forth. To visit Christmas, the turnaround would’ve been about nine months if I took the boat. You get off the boat on Christmas, and you’d have to wait about six months or more before another boat came. It just wasn’t practical to do that.
On Christmas I tried to get business going with sea cucumbers again. The following year I was able to go up to Fanning and Washington islands. On Fanning I wound up renting a room on a side of a store. It was totally bare—no kitchen, no toilet, no nothing. It was a for storing sea cucumbers. I kept it for several years. From there it was a 20-minute walk out to the point. When I got to Fanning, I realized that it was the place I wanted to live for the rest of my life.
What about your wife and kids on Tarawa?
In Tarawa, we had worked our way up where we had a very big cash income, and she was at the height of social popularity. She’d go to government functions, government parties. They had a handicrafts exhibition in Canada that she got to attend. But suddenly I wanted to live on Fanning, some hick island in the middle of nowhere.
So if Fanning didn’t have that left-hander, you wouldn’t have moved there.
You moved for the wave?
Absolutely, and I paid for it with my soul and the pain of not seeing my kids grow up, of not being with them and for them. I gave my business to my wife and went to absolute zero. Lived as a beachcomber. I felt rich if we had milk to put in our tea.
On my on freewill and accord, I went down to Suva, Fiji, and in December 1993 I renounced my U.S. citizenship. They advised against doing it for a variety of reasons, none of which included 9/11 because it hadn’t happened yet. But now when I go through an airport, I have the same red flags as any Al-Qaeda member has because I fit some sort of profile—‘You renounced your U.S. citizenship!’ But I’m still American. My dad was a World War II veteran. I did for one thing only, and that was surfing, because I wanted to live on Fanning and surf for the rest of my life. Period.
From 1993 until 1999, when some guys in a yacht called the Good Life showed up, surfing Fanning was two-dimensional: me looking at the wave, or me riding the wave. I’d never seen anyone ride it.
Fanning is a place I can continue surfing for the rest of my life. If there was an open transport, like if the government put a plane there, I think surfing-wise it would just be another crowded surf spot, if the world had easy access to it. I’ve kind of turned on a beacon in a world that gets smaller and smaller—what I’m hoping for now is to develop something for Fanning so that the good wave on Fanning can be viewed as a resource that can earn money for the local people. Natural resources are the sovereign property of the people, and Fanning has a good enough wave that can be a resource. We’ve been working with the local government saying that by charging for or leasing out the spot, they could generate half the revenue that they currently receive for their government. People who pay this revenue could capitalize on it, or they could be like the early guys who got in on the Ranch, and they could hold it for themselves. But opening it up so that backpack tourism could come in, you’d have big social moral changes. I can’t help but think back to Nias when it was a slum of surfers. I picture Fanning being like that, unless something is done. We’re the stewards of the future. We can be like ostriches, stick our head in the sand and wait for our ass to get kicked, or we can try to take charge over which way the future’s going to go.
I have no aspirations to become rich. I’m truly interested in the welfare and long-term well-being of the people. I’m worried about what I see with the fish, I’m worried about the environment, and I’ll sometimes write harsh letters to government people, complaining or stating how I think things should be. Some people take offense to this—who the hell am I to say this? Or they think, ‘How are you trying to trick us?’ I tried to get a little hotel going on Fanning, and I had no ownership in it. It was owned by the people. I set it up as a public company. But people felt that somehow I was going to trick them.
When did you surf the Phoenix Islands?
I stayed on Kanton Atoll in 1990 and 1993. Our idea was to set up a shark-fishing operation, and we hired 12 people from Arorae, the southernmost Gilbert island. We wanted to make dried shark meat, skins, collect the liver oil, utilizing every bit of the shark, including bones. The only thing I didn’t use were the teeth, which I really regret.
Why Kanton and not the Gilberts?
Nobody lived there and you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing sharks. You go out to the beach and look out and see 50 small reef sharks swimming around in the lineup. In the Gilberts, I never had a sharky experience. There weren’t nearly as many sharks there.
Kanton is one of the most remote places on Earth. How did you start a business there?
We got an advance of $20,000 from our associate in Hong Kong and bought a couple of boats and enough supplies to last six months. We took a freighter there, paid a diversion fee for them to come back and get us, and set ourselves up to stay there. I lived there for three months and 11 days. In the wharf area, there were some metal buildings, and we just camped out in those. Our drinking water was ground water. There were several different wells, and if one well was too brackish or salty tasting, we’d try another well. During my stay, we were always able to get enough water to drink. It didn’t really taste good to drink straight, so we always had it as tea or mixed with instant coffee.
But the bottom line was it was too difficult to do business on Kanton. Logistically, the whole thing was just too hard to do. And if you got sick there, you’d be done. I was getting boils that were the size of golf balls, and they’d break and leave a quarter-inch-deep hole, but you couldn’t lance them without slicing through your flesh. I think it was from the water we used for bathing had lots of staph in it, and that would get into my skin.
How did you make the days go by, it being just you and those eight other people?
It was terrible. There was nothing to read—unfortunately I didn’t think that far ahead, to bring books. I had a few surf magazines. I did a lot of exploration around the island—there was a lot of old stuff to check out. I had bags and bags of Coke bottles from the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s.
What was that like?
Food deprivation—everything deprivation. Because it was only the people I had to associate with, and there was nothing else. Very few palm trees there because it’s a desert island, more so than Christmas is. Basically, our diet was fish and rice. Sundays we’d have corned beef.
There are lots of old buildings there. In the 1930s the first Clipper seaplanes flew there, and the New Zealand companies built a small hotel for these trans-Pacific flying boats that would land in the lagoon. The first trans-Pacific jets would stop there for refueling, and then the U.S. built a large military installation for the Apollo mission. There were scientific buildings that had rows and banks of scopes and giant antennae arrays. Hundreds of broken-down trucks. Telephone poles and wires, paved roads, a few slipstream trailers that are just sitting there. It was a military outpost, but the Gilberts took it over in 1983. There was a caretaking group of eight families and three policemen, a mechanic, a weather officer, a school teacher, a district officer, and a doctor.
As far as the seven other islands in the Phoenix group, they’re all uninhabited. Three of them were inhabited in the 1930s, but that was abandoned in the ‘60s because the droughts are too rough in times of La Niña.
What’s the Phoenix surf like?
Kanton is the only island with surf. It has one passage with a small island in the middle, a split passage. It has a very user-friendly left on the south side that breaks on south swells. There was an old ship that was aground at the very end of the left, called the Calvin Coolidge at the time. It was kind of a fun wave. It has good shape and doesn’t section out. You could go for about 60 yards or so, and you’d run into the ship, but with higher tides and smaller surf you could go around the bow of the ship and get another 50 yards on the wave. I surfed it about 15 times in three months, maximum size around 8-foot faces. Every other time I’ve been to Kanton, on other trips across Kiribati, there wasn’t any surf.
The bottom is coral rubble, no coral heads. The bigger waves break further outside, and the water turns really milky blue because of the fine sand. When it’s bigger, it was really frightening because you’re sitting there, and you could get eaten. It was way more fun when it was head-high and you’re in clear water where you can see the bottom and stuff. I was more afraid of having some giant fish biting me than a shark.
There’s also Spam Island in the middle of the passage that has a right and left. The north side of the main passage is steep, shallow, and gnarly.
Do you think you’re the only person to have ridden it?
I think if some yachtie was a surfer and they had a board, they’d surf it. It’s a wave that asks you to surf it when it’s breaking. It’s a nice little peeling left. I think the because of the number of sharks, I don’t think other people would have surfed there. And you’d see like 100-pound trevally tearing apart fish, barracudas that were five feet long. Everywhere you’d look, you could see splashes of the war going on between fish. There was a yacht that visited, and fish ran into the boat, chasing other fish that the guy on the yacht had caught. It’s a full-on battle zone, all around the island—fish eating fish. It’s a very robust ecosystem because no one really lives there, and that’s what National Geographic’s expeditions there in 2000 and 2002 were all about—that there is no other place like it on the planet. National Geographic and the New England Aquarium are trying to put a deal together to protect those islands from commercial fishing, to set 100,000 square miles around the Phoenix Islands as a No Commercial Fishing Zone.
How about in the Gilberts?
In the Gilberts, I’m sure I was the first and maybe the only person to surf the waves.
Who would want to visit the Gilberts for surf?
It’s for the person who’s not out to score epic waves, like going to Tavarua or some other big-name spot. There are lots of waves in the Gilberts, and if you have the time and you can go and hang out on an island.
There’s a whole screen of islands to the south, so not much south swell gets through. Other downsides are there are perhaps well over two dozen absolutely world-class reef passes with perfectly curved edges, prevailing offshore winds, but there’s absolutely no swell. Maybe once a year. They face west, and you have to wait for the right cyclone to be bashing the Solomons, or at the beginning of a westerly season, there may be westerly windswell. In fact, I got really good surf on Makin Island, a really good, hollow, tube-riding left, safe to surf, and a very user-friendly right, on a swell that was coming before the westerly winds arrived. I got one whole day, and the next morning I was out, and then after that, it was onshore. The storm had arrived. The left was difficult to take off on because it came out of such deep water. It wasn’t dangerous, but it was hard to make the drop. The guy was reported, and although they were able to stop him from flying, they weren’t able to fire him. It’s forbidden in writing, but in practicality you can drink and fly with passengers to the point of insanity. Thank God there hasn’t been a bad plane crash yet.
The inter-island ships are often irregular, and the planes of Air Kiribati don’t always fly. I witnessed a pilot who was so drunk that he needed assistance getting into the plane. On the way back, he did not stop at the island that he was supposed to stop at for refueling, and he just made Tarawa, but he ran out of fuel and wasn’t able to taxi to the terminal.
As far as more people surfing the Gilberts, maybe if transportation gets better, people could see the swells and fly in to Nikunau, which has a decent south-swell left, same with Abemama. But with the other waves, no, it’s never going to happen. It’s too hard. There’ll just be occasional travelers and misfits.
The Gilberts are a great destination for someone who is looking for a cross-cultural experience with a traditional culture that hasn’t changed at all, that retains itself. That’s a little bit hard to see in other places. Usually they’re organized, like dances at a resort, but in the Gilberts they do it for themselves.
If you went there to surf, you’d be the only one around. For atolls it’s a beautiful place, a beautiful experience. The vast number of islands to choose from. The niceness of the people and how sharing they are, their joy of entertaining visitors, because they don’t get visitors very often. If the person has the education and the time, another way to surf the Gilberts is through the Peace Corps. The only thing is, you don’t get to choose which island to get to work on.
Paradise is a state of mind. Paradise is what you make of it.