By Michael H. Kew
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.”