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.)