Pohnpei | Part 5 | The Kickoff

By Michael H. Kew

  Palikir Pass, opening day: Nov. 14, 2004. Photo: Kew.

Palikir Pass, opening day: Nov. 14, 2004. Photo: Kew.

ON THE SUNNY MORNING of Monday, November 8, 2004, after two weeks of exploring Palau, I sat in Guam’s airport awaiting my Boeing 737 cruise to Pohnpei. Continental Airlines Flight 958 would depart Guam at 10:20 a.m., with a 45-minute stopover at the Weno airport on Chuuk, 600 miles southeast.

In the prior months I exchanged emails with Mike Sipos, who suggested I stay at the rustic hilltop Village Hotel (now closed). Its expat owner gave me a discount. Sipos would be around if I wanted to go surfing. He also said Allois Malfitani’s surf camp was coincidentally slated to open the same week. I emailed Malfitani to see if it was indeed true. He said yes, and, by the way, would I like to write a story about it?

Seated across the Guam departure lounge were five Australian men who looked like surfers. Chuuk’s barrier reef had a lot of surf potential, I thought—maybe they were headed there? Doubtful. They were photographer Simon “Swilly” Williams and professional surfers Tom Innes, Craig Warton, and Rique Smith, plus Global Surf Guides’ David Scard (office manager of World Surfaris Kirra Surf). On behalf of Tracks magazine, Williams and crew were the first official guests of Pohnpei Surf Club (PSC), which Global Surf Guides advertised as “Caroline Islands.” Some of the men appeared a bit miffed at the sight of another surfboard bag (mine) on the Pohnpei airport carousel, but Williams and Warton were friendly to me. Our paths crossed vaguely in the ensuing week, mostly because they and Malfitani went for dinners at the Village Hotel, and there was an awkward moment or two when we all ended up at the Nan Madol ruins one flat, blustery afternoon. Palikir Pass was nonexistent, and throughout the week Williams’s crew surfed mediocre windswell at Mwahnd and Napali.

Things changed Sunday, November 14. A clean northwest swell rose, and the wind swung lightly from the southeast. The sky was blue and cloudless. Sipos, his 2-year-old son Andrew, FSM lawyer Shaun Simmons with his wife Felicia, and I headed out in Sipos’s Mako 238. Palikir was sheet-glass, six feet, and going off. Malfitani, his PSC crew, and Williams’s group were all in the water, along with a few Seventh Day Adventist kids. It seemed crowded but I paddled out and caught a few. Later, sitting in the shade under the bimini of Sipos’s boat, pondering the new surf camp, watching Williams document the pros in idyllic overhead blue barrels, I turned to Sipos and said: “You know what, Mike? This is it. We’re witnessing the beginning of the end for Palikir.”

It all added up to one photogenic cannonball for Williams that spawned the February 2005 cover shot of Tracks, followed by a 10-page feature called “Sweet Caroline” of which the magazine screamed: “World Exclusive!! The New Indo—Hundreds of islands, thousands of waves, not a surfer in sight…Welcome to the newest, sweetest surfing destination on Earth—the Caroline Islands.” Tracks called the wave “P-Pass” and said it was in the Pacific; the article, like Shamlou’s in TSJ, included two photos of Sokehs Rock and one of Nan Madol. In the back of the magazine was a Global Surf Guides ad that read, “Introducing the Caroline Islands—New Surf Camp.”

News of the Tracks trip spread like wildfire. The surf media was hungry for a new elite tropical right-hander, and Palikir was it. In December a team from Surfer was greeted by Malfitani in the Pohnpei airport. Waves, ASL, Surfing, Japan Surfing World, Fluir, Trip, Pacific, ESPN, Fuel TV, Rip Curl, Free Surf Hawaii, Hawaiian Skin Diver, and Surfing World soon followed.

“We fought hard and tried our best to protect it and save it, but greed prevailed,” Ben Schroer told me. “With the greed came harsh, destructive feelings. The next time I surfed with Allois at Palikir, where earlier that year I’d taken him to four times for free, he deliberately dropped in on me in solid six-foot swell. My friends witnessed it. Then Allois said to me, ‘Go learn how to surf, and stay the fuck away from my wave.’”

From obscurity, Palikir Pass was tossed onto the world stage. Malfitani named his business “Pohnpei Surf Club,” and a quick online search of “P-Pass” or “surfing Caroline Islands” revealed the island’s name. Malfitani’s fleet of pangas had “Pohnpei Surf Club” written on both sides. Even Surfer magazine, featuring Palikir (and another shot of iconic Sokehs Rock) in the July 2005 issue, called it “Ponapei” in the article’s opening photo caption. Quickly, Palikir Pass became the surf media’s worst-kept secret.

The wave became the subject of several commercial film shoots, most infamously the one in January 2006 that became part of “One Track Mind,” directed by Chris Malloy and released by Woodshed Films in October 2008. Controversy erupted in mid-2006 when, after Malfitani’s and a local fisherman’s urging, Malloy and his filming partners built an illegal scaffold on the reef at Palikir to afford Malloy’s filmers a frontal angle on the wave while it was surfed by Andy Irons, CJ Hobgood, Sunny Garcia, Tom Curren, and Mark Occhilupo. Still photos of the project were published in Surfing magazine’s “Trip of the Decade” feature in its June 2006 issue. The November 2007 “Filmmakers” issue of Surfing contained a photo of Malloy atop the scaffold.

An employee of environmentally-conscious Patagonia, Inc., Malloy was branded a hypocrite, issued considerable heat from incensed Pohnpeians and dozens of others worldwide in a thread on Surfer’s website. The thread was later deleted. At the time of this writing, Malloy was not available for comment, though in an email to Sipos on July 11, 2006, Malloy wrote, “I will never argue that I should not have taken the camp’s or the local fisherman’s promise that it was alright (to build the scaffold). I never should have.”

Malloy redeemed himself. “I think it’s worthy to note,” Ben Schroer said, “that Chris Malloy is the only surf pro who has ever done anything for Pohnpei to show some gratitude and put forth an effort to help the local culture in a sustainable way.” Schroer and Malloy organized the September Swell Hits Gstaad charity event held September 6, 2006, in New York City. It was a successful fundraiser for Schroer’s cousin’s organization, MAHI International, which was thus able to give free health screening and solar energy technology to Pohnpei and Sapwuahfik Atoll. “For the record,” Schroer said, “Chris told me that when he built his scaffold, all four of its legs were on sandy locations among the coral, not touching reef anywhere. I believed him, and although this didn’t make it okay to do something illegal in Pohnpei, it was PSC who told him it was okay to do so, and when he did it, I think that he did it in a conservative and appropriate manner.”

Between the hundreds of PSC guests, the magazine and surf company photo shoots, and the film crews, in February 2007 Palikir Pass hosted the Inaugural Hobgood Challenge (IHC), an ASP North America-sanctioned specialty event at the so-called “craziest right-hander in the world.” The IHC crew was hosted by Malfitani. The event became a major feature in Surfing and Stab magazines, the former including a full-length DVD with its June 2007 issue. Neither Pohnpei or Palikir were mentioned in the event’s widespread coverage. “Our destination,” Surfing’s Matt Walker wrote, “is one of the freshest finds in the sport— barely a few years old—yet already lauded as a world-class right by past visitors such as Pancho Sullivan and Kieren Perrow, whose guestbook entry brags he ‘spent more time looking out of the tube than in.’ Unfortunately, there’s even more messages sadly scrawling, ‘Sorry we didn’t get to see what she can really do.’” The IHC itself had generally fair-to-poor waves, and to date is the only surf contest to be held on Pohnpei.

In the past few years, Palikir has entered the mainstream media, including Wikipedia, NBC, the BBC, and Apple, who, in its recent marketing campaign for the MacBook Pro, used a Grambeau photo of Shane Dorian (the same photo made the July 2007 cover of Surfing). “The Apple campaign started with my being sponsored by one of their photo software products called Aperture,” Grambeau told me. “During one of the photo tradeshows, where I was invited to give a slide show, (Apple) expressed interest, and it just went from there.” Surf photos of Palikir by Grambeau and Andrew Shield have also been featured on FSM postage stamps.

In its February 2009 issue, National Geographic Adventure listed Pohnpei as one of its “Best Island Vacations.” In “Catch the Greatest Wave on Earth,” Meg Noonan wrote that Palikir “is one hell of a wave,” and quoted Aussie pro Dylan Longbottom as saying Palikir is “by far the best right in the world.” It’s safe to say Longbottom hasn’t surfed every right in the world, but surfing, concluded Noonan, was the best reason to visit Pohnpei.