The Last Surf Tourist

By Michael Kew

Nauru. Photo: Kew.

EXPECTING ME: Jim, Devlon, Wisam—all 30-somethings, beachfront and beatific, smoking cigarettes, idle on sand in the shade of a white tent.

“You are Michael?” Devlon asks as I approach.

“Yeah. This the surf shack?”

“Yeah. I was told to keep an eye out for you while you’re surfing.”

Flanking the small dynamited boat channel, the waves are waist-high. Crumbly, flaccid. Low tide and reefy.

Me: “Almost breaking?”

Jim: “Need high tide. The reef looks smooth, but it is sharp and shallow. Many urchins.”

Devlon and Jim were born nearby. Everything here is nearby. A Micronesian isle of eight square miles, Nauru is a quintessential dot-on-map.

“Did you learn English here?” I ask Devlon, who could be the twin brother of football star Deion Sanders.

“Yeah. It’s our second language. But many Nauruans don’t know Nauruan—they only learn English. We have no school for Nauruan language. No one teaching it. I have five children, and only two can speak Nauruan. Otherwise just English.”

Wisam is an Iraqi refugee who speaks scant English. He arrived via leaky boat and lives on Nauru for free. Comfortably. He likes this island.

“No surf in Iraq,” he says, smiling big, half his tan face in wraparound sunglasses, hands in baggy blue pockets.

I glance back at the channel. Manmade, it is 20 feet wide, 240 feet long, and iffy in any sort of swell. This afternoon, a man on a rooster-tailing jet ski is gouging circles in the water and zooming back and forth outside the reef before, at full speed, gunning toward shore, slowing just short of nine people lazing in the turquoise nearshore pool.

Above white sand and waterline, the green groundcover is dotted with trash, two upturned wooden canoes, coconut husks, some bleached whalebones. On the cracked cement boat ramp, next to large white coral boulders, are six rusty boat trailers attached to six rusty utes. The six boats are at sea. It’s a busy but lax vibe, stripped to pure purpose—fishing and swimming. Maybe some surfing.

“You surf, Devlon?”

“Yeah, some of us adults do. We’ve just started, mainly because of the lifeguard training. Before, we had a bus to bring lots of local kids to surf here, but now there is no bus, so no transport. The bus broke down a year ago, and everything faded away. Now, instead of them all coming to surf together, it’s maybe two or three at a time. But the kids, they want to surf every day.”

“Perhaps there will be a Nauruan surf champion,” I say, watching the dribble. “Is this the island’s best surf spot?”

“There is a more better surfing place, but it’s other side of the island at the Menen Hotel,” Devlon says. “Needs different wind and swell directions. This wave here, it’s a small wave, but can get really good sometimes. Maybe a few hours from now.”

Devlon, whose English holds a hint of chewy Russian inflection with words including the letter L, continues: “An Aussie bloke name John used to be the main surf club guy, but lately he’s been working so much, he handed the reins to me.”

“You’re the surf king?”

He laughs. “I’m not the king—mostly just an assistant. John’s the one with the brains.”

“So there is much local interest in surfing?”

“Yeah. Like I said, the kids love it. This club has had a positive effect on them. They are why we train. Up until a few years ago, there were lots of drownings here. Now there are none.”

“Why not?”

“We working here 10 hours a day, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, which is why we can’t do much with the surf club now. This is all new. Before, we used to operate under the Australian Lifeguard Association; now we are controlled by our government. It’s not volunteer. It’s good. We only do training Mondays and Fridays. Saturdays we mostly have families coming for swimming.”

“Have you met any foreigners who came here to surf?”

“No. No tourists at all. Only people coming here for work, government contracts, the refugee camps.” He looks amused. “Why are you here? You’re our first surf tourist, eh?”

Likely the last.