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.