Pohnpei | Part 6 | The Backwash

By Michael H. Kew

  Photo: Federated States of Micronesia Visitors Board.

Photo: Federated States of Micronesia Visitors Board.

IN JUNE 2004 ALLOIS MALFITANI pledged on the record that his camp would only bring small groups of 6-8 to keep the impact and crowds low. This did not happen.

Dennis Gearhart was from Pennsylvania. In 2001 he moved to Pohnpei to teach math at the College of Micronesia. “When Allois came here in 2004,” Gearhart said, “I was just starting to surf. I knew nothing about the world of surfing, the rules, etiquette, etc. When I met Allois, he said he couldn’t understand why Mike Sipos was so upset, that he intended to keep the surf camp operation ‘low-key.’ Since then, I’ve seen his advertised surfer ‘limit’ go from eight to 18; I’ve seen film crews, dozens of magazine covers and articles, an ASP contest, a scaffold built on the reef, and now the guy has his camp on the postage stamps here.”

Not everyone is upset. Surfing photographer Rob Gilley put it this way: “It’s a situation where you want to claim the death of secret spots and the decline of Western Civilization, but it’s not applicable. My friend was just (at Palikir) and he said it was just them. Perfect barrels and no one around, just like in 2000. The only difference now is that you’re staying at a surf camp instead of a seedy motel, and your rides out to the reef pass are more dependable. Plus, it’s a boost to the local economy.”

Sipos tends to disagree. “I can give you photos of the PSC boats pulling up to Palikir packed with people,” he recently told me. “Even though that’s a universally accepted breach of surfing etiquette, those guys think that because they are the first to exploit the wave commercially, it gives them the right to disregard the rules that apply everywhere else. And by doing so, they give the middle finger to anyone who doesn’t stay at the surf camp, the average polite solo traveler or small groups who are often already there when PSC arrives each morning.”

Dennis Gearhart: “PSC brings money and tourists into Pohnpei, no question about it. But I don’t think you can judge the ethics of Chris’s and Allois’s actions based on that. Their motivation was not to help Pohnpei. It was to help themselves, and to do it, they had no qualms about walking over a handful of surfers who were already here.”

Historically the Palikir Pass channel bottom had repeatedly been pierced by the anchors of surfers’ and divers’ boats. This was not a desired effect on a pristine ecosystem. So in early 2004 Sipos requested Tyler McAdams, a volunteer employee at the Conservation Society of Pohnpei (CSP), to install a mooring buoy in the passage to eliminate need for anchoring. The mooring was placed where the water rushed off the reef adjacent to a sandy break in the coral. According to Sipos, when PSC arrived in November 2004, it began “monopolizing” the mooring, “very much the same as they are now doing with the entire surfing area.” Pre-PSC, the mooring saw light use by the local surfers. But with PSC came more boats, and there was no choice but to drop anchors onto the coral bottom. This concerned Sipos, who then boated CSP personnel out to the pass and arranged for the installation of two additional mooring buoys. “The other two were installed after Chris Groark yelled at me as I approached a PSC boat, skippered by Beru Mendiola, a friend of mine,” Sipos said. Sipos had been surfing alone at Palikir, left briefly to troll for fish, then returned after Brendan Margieson arrived in one of two PSC boats. It was January 19, 2005.

“Beru’s boat was tied to the mooring; Groark’s boat was floating in the lineup with Andrew Shield, who was taking photos. After Beru waved me up to tie off on his boat, Groark started shouting to him not to let me tie off. I shouted back that I was going to tie off on that buoy one way or another since I arranged for its installation and that I wouldn’t be intimidated or vibed off the spot.” Sipos went to CSP the next day and arranged for the installation of two more moorings that very week. They were placed on both sides of the original mooring; Sipos had personally picked the spots with divers in the water. “But on other occasions,” he said, “Groark has been cordial to me. The only time things got ugly was when he tried to call me off that buoy.”

  Photo: Federated States of Micronesia Visitors Board.

Photo: Federated States of Micronesia Visitors Board.

IN OCTOBER 2005, nearly a year after the camp’s inception, Mark Lovett set out to surf Palikir Pass. “Pohnpei was known elsewhere for its great women and for shipping marijuana out in taro plants,” Lovett told me, “so I knew it would be exciting.”

He shoved his surfboards and a mildewed duffel bag into a taxi and went looking for a hotel. Driving down the road in Kolonia, Lovett noticed a white guy in a truck with a boat in tow. He introduced himself to Mike Sipos, who said Lovett was welcome to stay at his house for free until he got his bearings. Lovett surfed Palikir the entire 2005-2006 season. He witnessed “about 50 pros” sampling its barrels. “All-in-all,” he said, “if the camps are giving a big portion of their profits to the local economy—like schools and hospitals and throwing big events for them—then it’s great. But unfortunately I had the opportunity to surf with Allois and Chris, not as a paying member, but as a hard-core feral who would get dropped off by a fisherman every day. They were totally cold to me, pricks who acted like I was not welcome to surf ‘their’ wave that they’d been shown by Sipos just a few years before.”

Despite all this, PSC has produced some happy guests, particularly those who lucked into good Palikir—never a sure thing. “Allois has all the qualities you would look for in a host and surf camp owner,” Henry Morales, director of Wavehunters Surf Travel, said. “He’s a genuinely nice guy who puts his guests first, is by nature unselfish both in and out of the water, and well-intentioned in his management of the Pohnpei Surf Club. I have gotten to know Allois through regular correspondence as well as from my time on Pohnpei, and he could best be described as a low-key family man.”

Several positive testimonials are published on the Wavehunters website. From Chris Ruotolo: “Thanks to all the boys—Allois, Chris, Sonden, Biro and Roro. The trip of my life. Best barrels and best time ever. Can’t wait to see you all soon”; from Donny Valenzuela: “Just had the best surf trip of my life. Insanely sick barrels, great crew, and great people. Thanks for giving us a taste of paradise. Allois and Chris, Sonden, Biro and Roro—you guys rock”; from Gary Elkerton: “Been around the world a million times. Seen the best waves in the world, but this trip was one of the best. P-Pass is fucking sick at two feet or eight-to-10, the place (is) unbelievable. To all the boys at the camp: great work.”

After the 2004-2005 winter and media frenzy, Steve Ware, like many surfers, learned about “P-Pass.” Ware was a stonemason in Narrabeen, a suburb in northern Sydney, Australia, where surf magazines were commonplace. Inside one he saw a World Surfaris ad for a surf camp in the “Caroline Islands” and the connection was made. The following year Ware chose Pohnpei over the Mentawais, where he visited annually, because the Mentawais charter boat he booked had caught fire and sunk.

In October 2006 he visited Pohnpei for 16 days with PSC. “I didn’t think the camp was very good value for the money,” Ware said, “and the service wasn’t very personal, but we did manage to have a good time.”

He scored Palikir. It set the hook, and plans were made to return for an extended period of time each winter, sans PSC, which to Ware was “just another expensive surf camp.” In the summer of 2007 he flew back to Pohnpei and spent three weeks determining how he could live on the island all winter. The idea was to return to the same house each season and invite his Australian friends to visit, stay, and contribute expense funds.

Damian Oswald was an old mate of Ware’s. He too was a solid surfer and Narrabeen fixture, a deep-sea fisherman who sought waves of consequence. To Oswald, Ware described Palikir Pass being “Backdoor crossed with a big Burleigh Heads pit,” which for Oswald was a dream come true. “It sounded like a spot to get to,” he said.

For their first extended trip, Oswald and Ware filled and filled and shipped a container with 30 surfboards, fishing tackle, a small jeep, a ping-pong table, and a 60-horsepower outboard to affix to a boat once they arrived. All they needed was a house. They met Wilbur Walter, the genial owner of Nihco Marine Park, a pleasant waterfront nook catering to swimmers and weekend picnic groups. It was a fine, wind-sheltered place to while an afternoon away. Amongst the mangroves, the park had an enclosed lagoon where coral fill was once dredged; it had inner and outer beaches for swimming. And it was located on the closest point of land to Palikir Pass, its waves visible from the camp bungalows.

A native Pohnpeian, Walter was married to a state senator and he owned an office supply business, retail shops, and a printing company. By FSM standards, he was financially sound. He knew Palikir Pass was a natural resource being singularly exploited by foreigners to whom, by birthright, Palikir did not belong; Walter was displeased about this and asked Ware if he would like to become an employee of his, entering the realm of Pohnpei surf tourism. “I declined and told him that I was not there for that purpose,” Ware said. “He asked me again and said he would buy whatever boat we suggested, within reason. I started warming to the idea of business and making an income surfing and looking after guests.”

Inside the park Walter built a nice two-bedroom bungalow for Ware and Oswald. There were plans for five more. Wilbur freely offered the use of his boat. “He said I could handle everything,” Ware said, “and all he wanted was the rental for his bungalows. Of course this has all changed now and he is after more than just rent. I think the general expectation from a local point of view is that a business of this kind should be very, very profitable. I think that is true, but maybe the fact that mortgages have to be serviced means that it could be five or 10 years before the business becomes profitable. Not everyone understands this point.” Nonetheless, Walter was optimistic; he invested more than US$1 million in the property. “(Palikir) is among the Top Ten places to surf in the world,” he told Guam Business magazine. “Every year there is a 10 percent increase of surfers coming to Pohnpei.”

And, perhaps inevitably, Palikir Marine Adventures was born. “There’s nothing wrong with a bit of competition, and Allois didn’t discover Palikir,” Oswald said.

(Written in June 2009.)