Pohnpei | Part 7 | The Reality

By Michael H.Kew

Pohnpei dusk, November 2004. Photo: Kew.

ON SEPTEMBER 22, 2008, I received a promotional email from World Surfaris. The subject line was “Micronesia is about to fire!” and the text inside began with: “The swell is starting to brew in the Northern Pacific, the upcoming Pohnpei surf season is about to kick off next month. P-Pass has been unridden since last season and is ready to turn on. The crew of Pohnpei Surf Club eagerly anticipate the first surfers of the new season to arrive to share their tropical surfing paradise. Pohnpei offers a great balance and variety of waves for intermediate and advanced surfers, not just pit hungry pros. Pohnpei Surf Club have capped the surfer numbers to 20 for your enjoyment! That means NO CROWDS and MORE WAVES.”

Palikir Pass + 20 surfers = no crowds didn’t compute because, although PSC was somewhat limiting its number of guests, there were also the island’s resident surfers, plus the surfers from Nihco, plus the guys doing it on their own, using local fishermen to reach Palikir.

“It’s the slippery slope of exploitation,” Mike Sipos told me. “Once things get pushed to a certain point, they tend to spiral out of control and it becomes a free-for-all. That’s the reason places need to be respected for what they are before foreigners come in and turn them into something else.”

The seven spots listed on PSC’s website are Palikir Pass, Sokehs Pass (which is actually Main Pass, a swell-magnet), Easy Pass (actually Lighthouse, best with summer typhoon swells), Freddos (the normally windblown left at Mwahnd Pass), Sondens (Mwahnd’s equally windy right), Spaghettis (the ultra-rare left at Ohwa Pass), and Russell’s Rights (the soft right at Nan Madol). Though Pohnpei’s spots were already named and pioneered by others, PSC went public and claimed the names of Easy Pass, Freddos, Sondens, and Spaghettis. “Russell’s Rights” was eponymous for Russell Hill, the Kiwi who wrote the erroneous Pohnpei Surf Report in 1998; the spot’s real name was and is Napali.

Palikir Pass, November 2004. Photo: Kew.

"SURF CAMPS ARE FINE as long as they don’t start thinking that they own the waves just because they provide a service,” photographer Ted Grambeau told me. “Saying you own the surf is like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog they live on.”

For surfing’s innate individualism and deliberate dodging of crowds, surf camps are a strange concept. But they serve a purpose.

“Surf camps are great for a guy who’s an executive who’s got two weeks per year to pack in as much surf as he can,” said Randy Rarick, a famously hard-core traveler and director of the North Shore’s annual Triple Crown series. He has never been to Pohnpei. “The camps allow people who don’t have the time, the energy, or the wherewithal to maximize their surf experience. I think there should be a thousand surf camps where people could go and enjoy the surfing experience in different places.”

Palikir Pass will never be what it was before November 2004. Even with its tiny crew of dedicated tube-addicts, the wave still existed firmly on the fringe and was a private haven for those in the know. But now everyone knows. Palikir is the latest addition to the elite world right-hand ranks of Jeffrey’s Bay, Nias, and Lance’s Right. It’s the same thing that happened to Tavarua in 1984, though it took quite awhile longer for word to spread, because Palikir had the internet. It had surf forecasting sites, it had cell phones, it had a huge surf-travel world starving for something new to fixate on, something warm, hollow, and easy to reach. We’d all seen those green lefts of Indo, the blue bowls of the Fijis and the Tahitis and the Samoas—what else, besides Teahupo’o and Tavarua, was out there in Oceania? All those decades of surfers jetting across the Pacific to Indonesia or Australia or the Philippines, many flew right past Pohnpei and never gave it a thought. They didn’t know it was there. Many had never even heard of Micronesia despite it consuming 4.5 million square miles of the Pacific, which possibly made it the world’s most surf-rich fetch, with the largest number of reef passes, the most swell exposure, and the fewest surfers. Of course that’s fantasy, because all of Micronesia—Pohnpei included—is as fickle as they come. But Palikir Pass has always been out there, barreling flawlessly, when it was able, in total solitude.

Last May, when I asked for his opinion about how things unraveled on Pohnpei in the past five years, Kosrae’s Ken Miklos said: “I don’t think Allois should be dished for starting something that someone else would have if he hadn’t.”

Which begs the question: Would there be two surf camps on Pohnpei right now if Malfitani had kept his promise of never to expose or exploit Palikir Pass? Further, did the first media coverage of the wave by Gilley, Shamlou, and Grambeau accelerate the process? Their articles mentioned nothing about Palikir, Pohnpei, or Micronesia, but there were those images of Sokehs Rock. Grambeau: “Places will evolve regardless of my impact, but from my perspective, the slower the better.”

McIntosh, the guy who first surfed Pohnpei in 1971, reflects on the scenario with a hint of rue. “I’ve been back several times, but like any place, especially since they started the surf camp and they’ve got all the groups going there, it’s not as fun as it was before. I have friends here on Guam who go down to Palikir every now and then, and they say the same thing.” Hamilton: “When I heard about the surf camp, it broke my heart.”

The good doctor Miklos, on a zen path of his own, shrugs and accepts what has happened to the premier wave of his neighboring isle. For all he knows, it could happen to his. “There are still a lot of perfect waves here and in Pohnpei (State) that go unridden,” he said. “In fact, more that go unridden, by far. And it’s true Micronesia is no longer very secret, but I guess that happens everywhere.”

(Author's note: This story was written in June 2009 for The Surfer's Journal. Ken Miklos passed away in August 2015.)

  Photo: Federated States of Micronesia Visitors Board.

Photo: Federated States of Micronesia Visitors Board.