7 Devils: The Carmen & Annie Show

By Michael Kew

Photo: Kew.

BEFORE THEY FIRST MET, both homebrewed alone.

Both longed for a Coos Bay brewery.

Both spent months crafting crude sculptures in a ceramics class at Southwestern Oregon Community College.

“Yeah, he doesn't remember me from that," Annie Pollard told me amid light January rain outside the 7 Devils brewpub. “I was never gutsy enough to talk to him. I was afraid I'd get rejected."

Apparently, the dude didn't date much.

Year was 2003. Running a Dutch Bros. Coffee shop, Carmen Matthews toiled the grind—literally. Self-defined as “very picky," he’d been single for a while.

"I didn't know Annie was in that class because she was hiding from me," he said with a smirk. "She was a wallflower, and I was schmoozing with all the older ladies.”

By 2007, Pollard was a grad student, grokking marine bio at the University of Oregon campus in Charleston, where Matthews lived, nine miles west of downtown Coos Bay.

Destiny?

"We'd cross paths, but he still didn't know who I was. I kept seeing him because he was in a band and he worked at Dutch Bros. and he volunteered everywhere. Finally, I told my friends that I had a crush."

A mutual friend threw a bash.

"We were all hanging out in a room," Matthews said. "Suddenly, everyone evacuated…except Annie and I."

Pollard: "Our friends shut the doors on purpose and leaned on them so we couldn't get out."

"They were all in on the plan to get us together!" Matthews said, laughing. "Just lock 'em in a room....But it worked! By the end of the party, we were on the couch, awkwardly making out like teenagers."

Within a year, they’d domesticated in Charleston. Next came the 7 Devils seed and many odd jobs, including seasonal gigs in Alaska and Antarctica, where Pollard researched penguins—and from where, in February 2012, she flew to meet Matthews for their Kauai beach wedding.

They hadn't seen each other for 90 days.

"I'd fallen on ice and broken a tooth," Pollard said, chuckling at the memory. "I had Carmen bring me the dress and the jewelry. He planned the whole wedding—I just showed up! It was awesome."

Matthew's dad performed the ceremony. Barbecue and a classic Hawaiian sunset.

"It was super romantic," Matthews said, winking.

But today, four years on…how's the love going, guys?

"We have two relationships," Pollard said. "We're business partners, and we're life partners. If you let it, the business side will dominate—you've got to make sure that doesn't happen. In the first couple of years, the business side (of 7 Devils) was so all-consuming for us, and it was hard, but now that things are in place, our personal life is flourishing again. It's nice." (smiles)

We three were chatting two days after the two brewers had returned from a well-deserved stint on the Big Island, where, mentally, 7 Devils did not exist.

"I barely knew that I owned a brewery," Matthews said. "We're good about 'turning it off' when we’re out of town.”

What about while in town?

“We'll be at home having dinner, or sitting next to the fire, and we end up talking about work,” he admitted. “That can be a little bit of a cloud over the evening. We don't want to talk about work all the time, so we have to be really conscientious about focusing on each other and our relationship and our hopes and dreams beyond the brewery."

They balance each other out, he assured.

“I'm a spender, Annie's a saver—you would think that would cause a lot of clashes, but we've met in the middle. And when Annie is stressed out, I know exactly why, and vice versa. It's easier to be sympathetic. There's more understanding because you know where your mate is coming from.”

“Not all business partners are good business partners," Pollard said, "but because we were excellent life partners, we had a good chance of being good business partners. If we can work with money together, travel together, and sleep in a van together, we can run a brewery together."

"But the brewery isn’t our only baby," Matthews said, grinning.

The couple is due to birth a girl in July—7 Devils' busiest month.

"I'm a little terrified about the timing," Pollard said. "And I won't get to take maternity leave."

"It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out," Matthews said. "We're really excited."

"Yeah," Pollard laughed. “We're gonna need a bassinet in the brewhouse."

Photo: Kew.

7 Devils Brewing Company

247 South 2nd St., Coos Bay, Ore.

541-808-3738

7devilsbrewery.com

Interview: Jim Banks

By Michael Kew

Jim Banks, happy he stayed home for this one. Uluwatu, 2015.

Few folks can thrust you into your stash of Google Earthed screenshots. That A-frame peak near the fishing village. Those three lefts fronting dense jungle. These two reefs pinching that small port entrance.

Hey, Jim—is this one a sand point?

Banks knows. He’s scouted it. Likely surfed it. He can take you there.

Rather, he could have.

Since age 17, Banks has been gripped by Indonesia’s surf wealth. Now 56, he lives at Uluwatu, light years from his urban Sydney youth and its brief pro-surf stint which, in 1980, found him ranked 14th in the world. That year, he won the OM Bali Pro. Also the same year he left competition to focus on his self-shaped boards, testing them at cryptic reefs like Grajagan and Desert Point.

In 2009, full of lore, he launched the Indo Odyssey, a peripatetic, continuous, beyond-the-box surf charter. Bali-based, the Odyssey was six years of wander and wonder, shuffling punters atop ocean wilderness to question marks and proverbial stones-unturned, to proven swell-magnets and isolated old-faithfuls, most with no land access. The archipelago’s surf seemed limitless, its quality superb, crowds an impossibility.

Back in Denpasar, a superlative confetti of “Best ever!” and “Amazing!” blessed Banks and crew before they pressed Pause, posted diaries and dreamy lineups online, provisioned, collected new guests, and hit Repeat. From Aceh to Rote, the Odyssey roamed wild.

Last June, after another sublime run, Banks pressed Stop. Midway through his 40th Indo season, the Odyssey was over. —Michael Kew

 

 

Michael: Owning no vessel, how did you swing the charters?

Jim: I leased boats, which was always an issue of getting other peoples’ boats up to speed, or dealing with boats that hadn’t been looked after properly. I’d have to carry the responsibility of that. It was tedious. But I’ve still got a customer base—I still have the mailing list—and there are a few guys who say they’d really like to do some more trips. It’s quite possible that, in the future, if I come across a boat I can trust and is ready to go, I might do a few under-the-radar trips. Not advertised. I’d just contact my customer base directly and do a few sneaky trips here and there.

 

Michael: Was yours the only charter business dedicated to such remote exploration?

Jim: No one was doing the entire Indonesia coastline like we were. Probably 99 percent of the boats were running out of Padang and doing the Mentawais and the Telos. There are a few boats in the Banyaks, and there are a few out of Bali doing Sumbawa and Lombok. I think there’s one boat down in Rote, doing some trips. Everyone is pretty localized.

 

Michael: Conversely, you were combing distant swaths and finding dozens of new spots.

Jim: Yeah, that’s right. Some of the places we would visit, I was curious and I would go in and talk to the villagers and ask them if they’d seen surfing before. They’d say, “Yeah, there was a boat here last year,’” and I’d say, “Oh, that was us!” (laughs) We were the first to surf at a lot of spots. At some of the best waves we found, we would pull up to within 50 meters behind a couple of places in particular, and everyone on the boat would say, “Oh, bummer—no surf.” You couldn’t see the wave, even from 50 meters behind. I’m pretty sure no one else has surfed those spots.

 

Michael: What zone has the highest concentration of great waves?

Jim: You’d have to give it to the Mentawais. For the level of quality and conditions, that place is pretty hard to beat. West Sumbawa is also good, but it’s busy now.

 

Michael: What about the Odyssey has surprised you the most?

Jim: I’m amazed that a lot of the places we went to are still under the radar. That was always the dilemma for me—how do I promote these trips without giving away the locations of the surf spots? I had always hoped, when I started doing the charters, that I would have enough interest from my own customer base to fill the trips without having to really market or advertise them. Didn’t work out that way. At the end of the day, though, I have other things I’d rather do. I prefer to be hands-on—I like making stuff. I really like building guitars, so I want to get seriously into that. Right now I’m only geared up for electrics, but probably (this) year I’ll be geared up to make acoustics again. It’s another one of those professions where you get paid miserably for an amazing amount of skill and knowledge.

 

Michael: Like surfboard shaping.

Jim: Exactly! (laughs)

 

Michael: Why stop the Odyssey?

Jim: I’m not really a business guy. The whole thing started off as an adventure, but like so many great ideas, they just end up turning into businesses. It became very stressful trying to keep boats running, chasing customers, and filling seats. A massive amount of risk for pretty low financial return. We found a lot of amazing waves, and yet it was still difficult to fill seats! I came to realize that most surfers aren’t very adventurous. They want it all guaranteed and packaged—a TV dinner, you know? Unfortunately, it’s sad but true. I went through a stage thinking we weren’t finding good enough surf, but then I went to Sydney and I went to the beach and I looked at what people were surfing, and I thought, “Yeah, we’re finding amazing surf.” It used to completely baffle me—we’d have people inquiring about a trip, and they’d want to go to the Mentawais, which would’ve been a waste of time. I could take them to amazing surf with no one around. Such a rare opportunity, because in 10 or 20 years, maybe there will be people around. I used to surf Desert Point by myself. During this last swell, there were 200 people in the water. I used to surf Uluwatu by myself, G-Land by myself, Nihiwatu by myself—all these places. I could tell that some of the spots like Ulus and G-Land were going to get busy, but I actually believed that Desert Point wouldn’t. It’s hard to get to, it’s fickle, and the average surfer probably doesn’t really want a wave like that. I was completely wrong. (laughs)

Whims of Winter

By Michael Kew

Crab boat, southern Oregon, January 2016. Photo: Kew.

"THEY MIGHT AS WELL stick me into the gas chamber, because they’ve already taken my fuckin’ life away.”

Scowling, Donnie squirts the deck of his fiberglass skiff with a garden hose, washing away the mud, sand, seaweed scraps, and baby starfish—residues from another day at sea, combing the fathoms and sinking lines. Squatting in his homemade boat next to Donnie’s, Bill lifts Dungeness crabs, one-by-one, from his boat box and sets them into a five-gallon bucket of saltwater. The crabs are still alive and clawing, drawn from deep water a mile or two offshore.

The men are spent. Long hours exhausted for subsistence, a thankless task almost extinct along this isolated fetch of coast.

“A lawyer was down here yesterday,” Donnie says through his woolly, Irish-orange beard. “I showed him all the paperwork. He just looked at me and said, ‘Well, you’re screwed!’”

“There’s guys up on the hill that still have salmon boats,” Bill says. “Keepin’ their permits, just hopin’ they can go back to fishin’ someday, but—”

“Prayin’ that this insanity goes away,” Donnie bellows, shaking his head. “Those big dragnetters are the real problem. They control it, they make the legislation, they make the laws that control themselves, and they’re runnin’ us outta business doin’ it.”

Donnie and Bill’s humble hook-and-line method elicits the least environmental impact out of all levels of commercial fishing, a glaring irony considering the men endure the stiffest quota cutbacks. Previous monthly allotment for 6,000 pounds of yellowtail now limited to just 200. Salmon fishing restricted to September, when there are few salmon here. Crab limits decimated. Bottom fish quotas severed, then again. And again.

“If you added up all the species they say we could have,” Donnie continues, “there’d be thousands of pounds, but it’s not all stuff that we use. It’s not all stuff we have access to."

Like loggers and miners, commercial fishermen lie at the mercy of know-it-all bureaucrats and whims of nature.

“We’ve got just enough crab to keep us goin’ this year,” Bill says, “but every year, you go through the doldrums and the disappointment of not makin’ enough money, and you think about getting out of it and you try thinkin’ about doin’ somethin’ that would be better, you know?”

Shit, he says—times have changed.

“Lots of times, I don’t want to go out and fish. Once you start letting yourself talk yourself out of going, it just gets easier and easier to find reasons not to go.”

Donnie leaves, leaving Bill to tinker with his boat alone in the forlorn marina.

“All you can do is sit around and bitch about it, waitin’ until they take it all." He shrugs. “Just wearin’ us down, you know? I’m gonna quit here one of these days, but not until I have to. I don’t really know much else, but I’ll find something...."

 

(Originally written in 2000.)

River Runs — A Chetco Effect

By Michael Kew

Members of Chetco Running Club at last year's Oktoberfest 5K in Brookings.

I REALLY NEED EXERCISE.

An early-December Tuesday. Raining. It’s been raining—hard. I've been sedentary since Friday. I need to sweat—outside.

Afternoon comes. A rift in the clouds.

A window?

Ooh. I like windows.

And so, from Brookings, I drive up along the north bank of the River Chetco, flowing fast and fat, wide acres of murky brown embossed with wispy-white rapids and swirling eddies, poked with driftwood beneath a sky of polished lead.

I stop at Loeb State Park. Its air speaks of moss and camphor. Its evergreens contrast the deciduous hardwoods, wind-stripped of their summer grandeur, now pretty, pre-winter groundcover amid salal and salmonberry.

The Riverview and Redwood Nature trails are two gems that seem custom-built for jogging. They thread several streams tumbling loudly to the Chetco, 56 scenic miles of river born deep in the Kalmiopsis, a wilderness area in the Klamath Mountains of southwestern Oregon.

I run the moist myrtle-to-redwood-to-myrtle loop. Later, back at the trailhead, I’m thirsty. And naturally so. The swollen Chetco is front-and-center. Indeed, some of that cold rainwater will become delicious beer that I and many others will drink in the months to come.

Five hours later, I'm warm and dry in Chetco Brewing Company's snug taproom, feeling fit with a pint of award-winning Block & Tackle Stout. The beer was made with river water in a repurposed home garage mere yards from the Chetco itself, three miles from where it empties into the Pacific, two miles from the intake station that draws fresh water for Brookings and Harbor.

With me are seven members of Chetco Running Club, launched in September 2015. (The brewery was founded in 2011.)

"Welcome to the clubhouse!" brewmaster Mike Frederick says merrily, clinking his glass against mine. A bearded, beatific human who also owns a massage practice, Frederick is thrilled to make tracks again.

"I used to do a lot of running in Minnesota and down in Los Angeles, but I sort of stopped when we moved to Oregon—we were so busy with other things, and I kept thinking I didn't have enough time."

But the popularity of his beer made a taproom imminent. When a clean, 768-square-foot space surfaced in early 2015, Frederick and his wife, Alex, wasted no time. Now, a year later, it's more than a quaint bar with a long beer menu.

"We had always wanted to be deeply involved in our community," Frederick says after a sip of IPA. "Providing jobs, hosting local musicians, supporting charities—stuff like that. I'd looked at several breweries that did different types of community involvement, and a couple of them, like Nevada’s Great Basin, had a running club. I thought that was a fantastic idea.

“When we finally got the taproom going, we were more in touch directly with the community, so I said, 'Let's start a running club, because then I'll have to run!'" (laughs)

Having weekly group runs in and around town, usually on Mondays evenings, the club has also participated in a couple of 10Ks, and there was the official Chetco Brewing 5K held during 2015's rainy Oktoberfest in the middle of Brookings. "It was so great to have our small town draw a high number of enthusiastic runners of all levels," runner/taproom beertender Loretta Alcala says.

"And some of them are brutally competitive," Frederick says with a wink.

Overall, he wants the club to evolve and be as welcoming as it possibly can. "Anybody—anybody—can join,” he says. “If you're 80 years old and can walk a block, you should be able to do this. People who want to run a marathon should be able to do this."

In the future, Chetco Running Club would like to flourish for trail excursions, half-marathons, marathons, triathlons, and to be a team in events like the Wild Rogue Relay and the Warrior Dash, a 5K obstacle course.

"We can make one of those," Frederick says.

"We could have an awesomely muddy event here," runner Diana VaVerka adds. "We get enough rain, right?"

VaVerka is the group’s newest recruit.

"Running is such a culture of its own, and it can take some sort of level of insanity to truly enjoy it," she continues. "It's really nice to meet people who can share that level of insanity, and it keeps you sane!"

"It gives us something to look forward to,” Alcala says. “It keeps us accountable. It's social. There are people around here who want to be active outside."

"Yup,” runner Jackie Knudsen says, “and if you find someone you can compete with, it helps you improve, because you're always better or worse than someone else.”

"What's the connection between beer and the whole group athletic effort?" I ask.

"It's our motivation to run!" runner April Smith jokes.

"Yeah—we run, and then we get to come here and drink," Alcala says, grinning with her pint of porter.

But isn’t that detrimental to our good health?

Table consensus: Nope.

Not at all.

"Beer is not an unhealthy thing," Frederick says with sincerity. "For example, silicon builds stronger bones, and the lupulin from hops helps to prevent cancer.

"But, bottom line, anything that can be used to bring people together for a positive cause? That's the best health benefit in all of this."

I look at the dark beer in my hand; I think of my earlier jog. Two pursuits of mind, of exercise, of satisfaction, of well-being. Two concepts of joy, two things widely loved. I am here because of them.

Frederick? He's right.

Welcome to the Club.

 

Chetco Brewing Co., 927 Chetco Ave., Brookings, Ore., 541-661-5347, chetcobrew.com

Coastal Terroir

By Michael Kew

Near Cape Sebastian State Park. Photo: Kew.

"THAT GUY? HE'LL SHOOT YOU," Rick says with a laugh. “He takes trespassing seriously. His brother’s even crazier.”

Grayly mustachioed and a bit bald, Rick (not his real name) is a general contractor. He’s tired—long day at the jobsite. We lean against our car hoods in the potholed parking lot. Light east wind cools our backs, and up the beach, near those rocks, the waves look fun—head-high lefts, glassy, shared by a crowd of three.

Filtered by shreds of purply-pink cirrus, the February sun sinks toward the sea. Lately there’ve been several scenic descents, high pressure ruling the American west. Oregon’s coast, often stormy, has received scant rain this winter. No snowpack in the mountains. A drought, officially.

 “Want some?” I ask Rick, yanking the cork from my clear glass 750ml bottle of St. George Terroir gin. Along with whisky, I’d had it shipped to his daughter at their beachfront home, just past the state line. The gin isn’t sold in Oregon, and my online booze merchant won’t mail spirits to Oregon, so this was a minor case of smuggling, you might say.

“No thanks, man. Half a beer gets me drunk.”

A male gull lands on the sand, squawking at us.

“Dinnertime—gotta go!”

Grinning, Rick slides into his gray pickup and drives off, leaving me with psychedelic dusk pastels and questions about a piece of coast we’d discussed. I’d fessed to one recent day exiting Highway 101 for a narrow dirt track, normally blocked by a chicken wire gate festooned with signs: Private Property, Private Road, No Trespassing, No Hunting, No Parking, No Beach Access, Keep Out.

That day, the gate was open. Slowly I drove onto the track, actually a muddy rut. Fifty yards in, paranoia and guilt sparked an eight-point U-turn amid tall Sitka spruce.

On a map, the track winds west to a few rocky points and coves backed by cliffs and dense forest, with a few homes amongst the trees. Walking to the beach from the north or south is impossible due to impassable headlands, even at minus tides. Except by long-distance paddling or boating in or getting permission from the ornery landowner, there is no way to sit and wax one’s board on that surfy stretch of beach, despite it being public property.

“Maybe you can just parachute down there?” Rick had joked. “Or wear a wingsuit?”

“I couldn’t leave after surfing.”

“A jetpack? Could get up and out with one of those.”

Got me thinking about this, “the people’s coast,” dubbed such in 1913 by Democrat Oregon Gov. Oswald West, a public-lands advocate. (Short Sands Beach, in his eponymous state park, is one of Oregon’s most popular for surfing.) West decided the 363 miles of beach between California and the Columbia River formed a public “highway” up to the high-tide line, aka the “wet sand” zone.

“No local selfish interest,” he said, “should be permitted, through politics or otherwise, to destroy or even impair this great birthright of our people.”

But a flaw hung high in that cool Pacific breeze—West had defined public domain as only up to the high-water mark. So, in the heady 1960s, after more than 50 years of public beach use, commercial developers began to rebel, claiming the “dry sand” zone—that is, unaffected by the highest of tides—belonged to adjacent landowners, who were entitled to rule their property down to the water’s edge, including fence-building for beach privatization (which actually happened in front of Cannon Beach’s Surfsand Resort).

Farewell to kite-flying and shell-collecting and sand castle-building? Hello to House Bill 1601, a front-page-news bid to save all Oregon beaches for public recreational use. The bill was the big issue of 1967’s legislative session and, to this day, drew the greatest public response to any topic in Oregon’s 170-year legislative history.

On July 6, calling it “one of the most far-reaching measures of its kind enacted by any legislative body in the nation,” iconic Republican Oregon Gov. Tom McCall signed the Beach Bill amid much pomp. Passing 57-3, it granted public free-reign from the low-water mark to the vegetation line, which McCall, a fervid greenie, studied and deduced to be 16 feet above sea level.

“Today, such things are nearly impossible to accomplish since coastal land has become so valuable,” Surfrider Foundation attorney Mark Massara recently told me. “Property owners are better organized and have more money to fight. Think about how desolate and unpopulated Oregon’s coast was in 1967—the good ol’ days, for sure.”

Forty-eight years on, though, of the 23 U.S. states that touch an ocean, Oregon still owns the best legal policies for coastal access that doesn’t require a jetpack or parachute. And with no boat or paddleboard, here at twilight at this very public beach, I glance down at the bottle in my hand, wondering if I might never surf one particular fetch unless I make nice with its landowner. Because I’d rather not get shot.

Hearing the thumping and sighing of the surf, I can’t help but think: Maybe the guy likes gin?

Semi Aquatic — Southern Oregon's New Art Haven

By Michael Kew

Spencer Reynolds painting Secret Beach in his new Brookings gallery, December 8, 2015. Photo: Kew.

OPENING ITS DOOR to the public on November 28, Semi Aquatic is a fresh, locally owned retail gallery in Brookings, Ore., featuring the unique art of Spencer Reynolds, plus gifts and souvenirs representing his homeland that is the lush and scenic Curry County coast.

Semi Aquatic items showcasing Reynolds's work include his original art pieces, canvas and paper prints, cards, clothing, skateboards, and hats. Other items include fine artisan soaps and small-press books.

Additionally, in 2016, Reynolds will use the space as a painting studio and for teaching art classes.

"Its aesthetic is clean and modern and also incorporates the spirit of historical Brookings," he said. "The interior developed the way most of my art does—it wasn't planned from start-to-finish. Rather, it was developed piece by piece. I didn't know whether all the pieces would come together well. Luckily, they did."

 

SEMI AQUATIC, 654 Chetco Avenue (aka Highway 101), Brookings, Oregon; 503-451-3775 ; open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; artandsurf.com

From Earth to Mouth

By Michael Kew

Sakau in Pohnpei

Extracted from the roots of a pepper shrub, sakau contains 14 natural painkillers that tend to numb and sedate the drinker.

Sorrel in Jamaica

Typically consumed around Christmas, the red sepals of the sorrel plant—mixed with ginger, water, sugar, and occasionally wine or rum—provide several health benefits

Seagull wine in Greenland

A newly dead gull is stuffed into a corked bottle that is filled with water. The bottle is left in direct sunlight until the contents ferment. Drink and repeat. Or don't.

Next Stop: Cornville.

By Michael Kew

Photos: Kew.

CORNVILLE IS A GREAT NAME for Cornville, but I saw no cornfields there. A dusty wash of early-winter rural life, something you’d expect to see in Kansas—or Arizona. Most cars were full-sized American pickups, most folks were missing a few teeth, and I half-expected to hear random mid-day gunfire.

Cornville was originally named Pitchner Place, when it was just a post office and a clutch of tiny homes on the banks of Oak Creek. Later, the name was switched to Cohnville, after a family named Cohn who once lived there. But when the official place-name papers returned from Washington D.C., they listed "Cornville," so the town’s residents accepted the name.

‘Cornville’ sounds better than ‘Cohnville’ anyway, and it is also more appropriate, because the town is full of hicks, and it did remind me of Kansas, not that I’ve been there (yet). I could live in Cornville, a writer’s paradise...if only there was a beach at nearby Cottonwood, instead of chain stores and toxic industry.

“I bet there’s a strip club here,” I said.

Soon Jerome appeared from the mist, a grim and sooty burg on the side of Mingus Mountain. It was late in the day and the sky was dark, augmenting Jerome’s sinister feel, which appeared to be a town of antique shops and historic markers, remaining for tourists, which were few today.

“I feel a very, very bad vibe here,” Kristen said. “It just looks like the houses are going to fall over at any moment. This place has ghosts, for sure.”

I didn’t see any, but I did smell grilled meat floating up from a pub called the Haunted Hamburger, so we walked in and sat at the bar. The bartender was a scrawny, crazy-looking man who grinned constantly and wore yellow-framed glasses. He drank beer while he worked. He was hungover. The pub was festooned with Christmas lights, and there was only sign which read No Sniveling.

“What are you guys doin’?” the bartender asked.

“Hungry,” I said.

We each ordered burgers; I scribbled notes, Kristen yakked with the drinkers. Next to me was an impish Elvis impersonator, who said nothing. Next to Kristen were two fat men from Green Bay, Wisc., and one fat man from Tempe. The Green Bay men were tipsy and chatty.

“Green Bay has the dubious distinction of being the birthplace of the Republican party,” one said.

“Are you a Packers fan?” Kristen asked.

“Oh, you bet. Our whole state shuts down when the Packers play. Even the criminals stop robbing banks.”

“Boy, I don’t want to know how long the waiting list is—”

“I own two shares of the team—”

A man resembling a miner walked in and sat on the empty stool at the end of the bar. He was mustachioed, tall, muscular, wore filthy overalls, a frayed baseball cap, and black work boots. A small button pinned to his overalls read Fuck ‘Em, Then Ask Questions.

With an unsubtle whistle, he summoned the bartender for whiskey.

“I’ll have a quick shot, no Coke.”

He looked at Kristen, the only woman in the room, then at me, since she had her hand on my leg.

“Where are you guys from?”

“California,” I said. “She’s originally from Scottsdale.”

“Oh yeah? What are you doing in Jerome?”

“Just having a look around. We were just in Cornville.”

“Cornville?”

“We drove through in after we went to Montezuma Well,” Kristen said. “I’d been to Cornville and Clarkdale before, years ago.” (Clarkdale is five miles north.)

"You went to Clarkdale but not to Jerome?" he asked.

“I guess I was too scared to drive up the hill.”

Then the jokes began.

“How can you tell someone’s from Cornville?” he asked. “They’ve got less than three teeth. How do you tell a 14-year-old girl from Cornville? When she says, ‘Git off me, daddy, yer crushin’ my smokes.’”

A female bartender walked in and sat next to me, apparently to relieve our bartender of duty. Her T-shirt said Knotty Pine Lounge.

Our bartender said to me, “Any time a girl’s shirt says ‘knotty’ on it, I like it.”

She stood and slapped him; everyone laughed.

Gypsy Summer

October, briefly, in Southern California. Surfing by Devon Howard, Ross Bushnell, Kyle Albers, and Trevor Gordon. Surfboards by Josh Hall, Deepest Reaches, and Ryan Lovelace. Music by Johnny McCann.

Lost and Happy

By Michael Kew

All photos: Kew.

NO POSTAL CODES. Five-digit phone numbers. Solar power. The cornstalk rustle of palm fronds overhead. The soft whoosh of surf outside a thatched buia. The sublime ambiance of this atoll where North and South Pacific meet makes the term “modern conveniences” laughable.

I KNOW AMERICA is light-years distant when I meet Tebau, the mayor of Marakei. He’s wearing only a smile and a dark purple sarong. We’re standing on a muddy dirt road in the village of Rawannawi, and in my pocket I’m jingling a clutch of Australian coins, the currency used here. It was useful back on Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati’s 33 coral atolls. But in the outer isles, cash is fairly useless. “Here on Marakei, we can survive without money,” Tebau says with a wink and a nod. “We can live off the sea and land — fish and coconut palm. Everything else is just luxury.” This is when I recall that Kiribati (pronounced Kiri-bahs) is on the United Nations’ “Least Developed Countries” list. Which makes it simple. Which makes it special. Which makes it the perfect place to dismiss the modern world.

Tebau.

POWER OF SUN Solar panels can be found on the 21 inhabited atolls. No wonder. Kiribati crosses the equator and has a mean annual temperature of 81°F. The nation of islands is the only one in the world to straddle all four hemispheres.

SIP SAP When listening to stories from locals you’ll probably have a glass of fresh toddy in hand. It’s made from coconut palm sap, and the sweet variety may be the best you’ll ever taste.

ON YOUR SKIN For a lasting and true scent of the islands, grab a few bars of Atoll K33 coconut soap, sold only on Tarawa. It’s one of the few goods actually produced in Kiribati.

CARRY Kiribati uses the Australian dollar, but on the remote outer islands, you’ll find that smiles and conversation with the locals are more practical when it comes to obtaining a fresh coconut or succulent fish.

DO Smile and say hello (mauri) to everyone you meet, unless an i-Kiribati beats you to it (and they probably will).

DO NOT When sitting, avoid pointing your feet directly at anyone. It’s a sign of disrespect and uncleanliness.

Living History: Lauran Yater

By Michael Kew

Portrait: Pu'u.

HIS FEET PLANTED in the past, present, and future of surfboards, Santa Barbara’s Lauran Yater knows what makes a great ride. Influenced by his father (Reynolds Yater) and other S.B. foamsmiths like Bob Duncan, Marc Andreini, and the late Bob Krause, the vibe into which Lauran, 55, was born—his dad’s famous surfboard factory—couldn’t have been more convenient. Evident, of course, with one glance at his shapes, or while he's trimming Rincon on the wave of the day. Or night.

 

KEW: Was Rincon your first home?

YATER: It was right when my dad came up, and my mom was pregnant with my sister; my dad came up here to check the area out and see if it was worth living. Stayed up here for six months or something, and decided, yeah, it’s a bitchen deal—let’s do it. So he called her up, she moved up here within six months of that, and then a couple of years later, I was born—1960 in Cottage Hospital. So they’d been here a few years. My first memories of my first house would have to be Summerland and then Rincon.

 

Your first home was in Summerland?

Yeah.

 

And your dad had his red surf shop there....

Yeah, there’s a bunch of pictures of me there, sitting on the porch in diapers and a Yater T-shirt.

 

What was your life like as a child?

I had a good life, middle class, parents really caring. My dad worked really hard, so he brought home the bacon and my mom made sure that we got out into the wilderness and did things and got into sports—YMCA, flag football, whatever it was—taking us to church. Typical things.

 

Before surfing?
Yeah.

 

Where did you go to school?
I started kindergarten in Carpinteria and then went to preschool in Summerland. Actually, it’s still there, but it’s been rebuilt. I went there, then I went right on over to Montecito Union, went through that, then Summerland for junior high, then Santa Barbara High School. I picked up a job working in the showroom at my dad’s shop in ’78. Picked that job up in my last year of high school; we got a really good year of surf that year. That winter was just phenomenal, so I had to make up some credits, and I was taking nine classes my last quarter of high school so I could graduate.

 

Nine?

Most people were taking two because they’ve already got so many credits. I wasn’t really good in school; I was good in art, but not that good at all the math and all that stuff. So I did restaurant training and started working pretty hard. Worked at Chart House after school and then bought a car and started working for my dad in ’78. I was right out of high school when I went right into that job. I got my car from the guy who had the job before, and I started shaping that year.

 

Were you working with Marc Andreini, Kirk Putnam...?

Andreini was there. Putnam was the guy before the guy who I took the job from.

 

What is your earliest memory of the ocean?

I’d probably have to say Summerland Beach, Montecito area, Carpinteria to Montecito. A lot of Carpinteria when I was a little kid, when I was really little, and then a bit of Hammond’s, and then we moved down to Rincon. In between all of that, we’d go up to the Ranch on weekends. So I was at the beach a lot.

 

How did you get into surfing?
Obviously, I grew up in a family that was beach-oriented—both of my parents surfed, so it was inevitable that I’d pick up a board and try it. This guy, Greg Tice, he was also a manager at our shop, in our showroom. He’s now manager of Sotheby’s in Montecito real estate. He made the first board that I ever rode. Usually they know you’re going to trash your first board, so they give you something that’s not worth too much. (laughs) It was the first board he’d ever shaped. I don’t know if he shaped any more after that. I don’t think I ever stood up on it. A couple of years later, I got sick and stayed home from school for a couple of days, and the second day, my dad came home and asked me what my favorite color was. I said lime green, and he knew that that was my favorite color, and he had this board in the shop that wasn’t selling and had been at the window for three years. So he brought it home and gave it to me, and we went down to Butterfly Lane in Montecito and caught what seemed to be a foot-and-a-half wave to me. I caught about three of them and it just scared the shit out of me. Going down the face so fast, not even standing up, so I took that thing and put it in the garage and let all my older brother’s friends borrow it. A couple years later, my friends started to learn how to surf, so I thought maybe I’d try it.

 

You’re how old then?
This would be grade school, so fifth grade or so. Eight to 10 years old, just messing around with some old longboards. Go down to Fernald’s or go down to the sandspit and try and catch a few waves and stand up. Later I was at the beach one day in Carpinteria, and there was a really good west swell. This is before the leash was invented. I was sitting on the beach—our house was a block from the beach—and I’m watching these guys get just really good rides. It was kind of high tide and everyone was losing their boards and I’m saving their boards. I saved this one guy’s board just from hitting the rocks and he comes running up the beach, he grabs the board from me, and he’s just got this look in his eyes and thanks me, then runs back up the beach. And I knew I was missing something here. I’d just gotten old enough to know that I was really missing something. I could tell by the look in this guy’s eyes, and I went home and I said, “Mom, I’ve got to learn how to surf, and that’s it.” I got another board, my third board‚—it was a 7’0” round-pin, and I just kept trying.

 

One of your dad’s boards?

Yeah. Nice board. He shaped it for me.

 

Do you still have it?
No. I wish I did, but it’s long gone.

 

Do you believe that your surfing and eventual shaping came from your genes?
There’s no doubt about it. I surf a lot my dad—he knows how to trim really well. He can find the trim spot on the board and come from behind, and that’s what he’s known for. All the guys I’ve talked to who’ve surfed with him in the old days. In fact, I was out surfing one day on a west swell and I got locked into this really good tube and it just got completely dark. I closed my eyes and I finally made it out, I had long hair in those days, I pulled my hair back and went into another one and did the same thing, just went completely dark and I’m in there trimming, and it opened up again. I came out and kicked out. Geardon Smith, an artist who lives in Hope Ranch, looked at me and said: “You know, for 20 years I’ve been looking for a guy who surfs like your dad, and I finally found somebody. It’s you!” (laughs) And I asked him, “Well, what is it?” And he just said it’s the way he trims and he makes a wave really well. He rides the top third of the wave—that’s what a trimming surfer does. That’s what Pat Curren did and still does.

 

How about your shaping?
I was working in the front room selling surfboards. I’d gone through the process—I was an artist—of grabbing scraps of foam and shaping them down into a surfboard and laying up the bottom, doing a cut-lap then laying the deck up, cutting up the bottom shaping a little fin. I did the whole thing on a scaled version about that big, and I started making skateboards. Clark Foam used to sell slab stock, real high-density, but there wasn’t a big enough market for it, so I stopped doing it. Didn’t make any money. So I’d gone through the process of laminating and I knew how to do it, and I just got a hair up my butt. I’d been doing a lot of ding repairs, and I said I want to shape my own board. My dad said, “Sure, Lauran. Here you go—here’s a blank.” It was right when Ian Cairns was on the cover of Surfer doing a layback turn, ’77-’78. I made a 7-foot swallowtail. I think I used my dad’s templates at that point for that board. Just pulled him around, he kind of gave me some ideas. Tim Boller helped me out a lot, and Andreini, Bob Krause. I had all those guys to run over to and say, “Hey, how do I do this?” It was really neat. It was a good time to start. So I made a board, and as I was doing it—most of these guys were using a power planer, and my dad had just picked up using a sander. He said, “Why don’t you try this?” He handed me this sander as I’m knocking the rails down, so I ended up with really low rails, but they were round enough at the bottom, and the thing worked unreal. The first board I made just went completely unreal. I was doing any kind of turn I wanted to do, and the board would always come back underneath me. So I was ecstatic. Of course, I told all my friends, “Have me make a board for you!” So I got all of my friends—probably six, eight, seven of them—to get copies of that board, just different sizes. And none of them worked very good. (laughs) Mine did. But it kept me going because I realized I had to learn something.

 

Did you have a logo?
I used my dad’s, and then I had a friend draw one up in the same outline, just changed the inside and put my name in it.


What was it like working in the shop?
It was a real easy deal. It didn’t open until 10 a.m. and it’d close at 5 p.m. If the surf was over six feet, we’d close the doors. It wasn’t real busy; all we did was sell surfboards and wax.


This was on Gray Avenue?

Yeah, 208 Gray.

 

What happened to that first board you made?

Somebody stole the board from me. It was the middle of summer and we got this phenomenal swell. Everywhere was breaking. Every pointbreak was perfect, every backside of a point had surf, every frontside. It was just one of those windswells where it was glassy, four-to-six feet, for a week straight. And I borrowed all these old boards and none of them worked very good. So between losing that board that worked so good, making all these other ones for my friends that didn’t work. And I’d try them myself—they’d maybe go off the lip good, but they wouldn’t cut back, or they’d tube-ride good, but they wouldn’t cut back. There was always something the board wouldn’t do. The first one did everything perfectly, so it was a challenge. I just kept going with it, being an artist, liking to work with my hands. I loved it.

 

What happened after that?
I ran the front of the shop for about four years. And then I started doing labor in the back—there was more money in that. Glassing, sanding, just whatever was available, whoever wasn’t showing up to work. I was taking orders for myself and then working on my dad’s boards as full-time work.

 

What were the designs?
It was all shortboards then. They were single-fins and were getting shorter at that time, so when I first actually started surfing, boards were getting larger, all the way up to 7’11” by the end of junior high, and then they turned around and started getting smaller. When I got on the scene, a seven-foot board was about standard, give or take three or four inches. My dad was doing shortboards but I was doing them a little bit shorter because I was lighter. We all tend to kind of shape boards like they’re for us. There’s a little bit of that in every shaper. They were all single-fins. Marc Andreini had just come back from Hawaii and he was doing these really bitchen double-winger rounded pins. I bought a lot of boards off other people because I had a lot of good shapers around me.

 

Seems like the perfect place to be for an aspiring shaper.

It was a good deal. It was great. Just as an instance, Stan Klugy had a shop up the street and they’d come over to our shop and show us a new trick, they’d glass a board in 15 minutes and they’d show us how they did it, how they added more catalyst and how they worked quicker and how they did their cuts. So we were sharing secrets, and we all kept the prices the same, whereas nowadays there’s all this undercutting and everybody’s trying to get a niche because there’s so many boards out there. It’s cutthroat compared to the way it was when I grew up.

 

Do you take credit for any design?

Most shapers tend to shape boards for their area, and that’s basically all I’ve done. I’ve gone to Hawaii, seen what it’s like, but I don’t surf over there. I’ve learned all the stuff I’ve learned off of other people and just gone to what I like the looks of and tried to do my version of what I think a good board is.

 

For pointbreaks?
Pretty much. There’s some reefbreaks I like and there’s some longboarding I like to do; some beachbreaks I also like. You start making quivers of boards, and a quiver is a selection of one type of board, but most people think a quiver is just a bunch of different boards for different types of surf, and I’ve got a ton of those. That’s the only way to keep stimulated these days because it’s so crowded. You’ve got to have a tool for all the different spots so you can go out and have a fun day once in a while.

 

Is Rincon your favorite spot?

Oh, they’re all my favorites, you know? I surf there more than anywhere because it’s such a long wave, and it’s a good one.

 

What is Rincon to you? Is it a staple?

Absolutely. I grew up there as a kid. It was crowded when I started; there were days I’ve counted over 300 people in the water, and you still get that today. Every now and then this crowd shows up, and it’s over 300 people, and I’ve counted that many back when I was a kid.


How is that possible?
It’s amazing. Really amazing. But if you get out onto the point in the middle and the tide’s low enough, you can see everybody in the water and just start counting. I counted 365 one day, I think.

 

What are your hobbies?

I like fish. Freshwater, mostly, but I’ll do saltwater. Besides that, hiking, but it’s pretty much surfing. A little bit of snowboarding.

 

Who are your surf influences?

Tom (Curren) when he was younger. The guy who owns the meat market in Goleta, Paul, a really good surfer, just a neat longboarder, and this was an era when nobody was longboarding. I had a best friend who surfed a lot better than I did, John Bennett. There was a local group of people that I looked up to that surfed good. And then of course there were the magazines and all the pros—Shaun Tomson, Rabbit Bartholomew, guys like them.

 

Who are your shaping influences?

Like we were talking about earlier, there was a whole group of guys around. At the beginning it was my dad, Marc Andreini, Bob Krause, Bruce Fowler, and Bob Duncan, and then it ended being mostly Bob Duncan and my dad who influenced me the most.

 

How so?
Just the stuff they were doing. Duncan taught me a lot about rocker.

 

Did your access to places like Rincon and the Ranch enhanced your development?

The only places I could really go as far as surfing different places being an advantage, I think definitely it teaches you new things—surfing a beachbreak compared to surfing a long pointbreak are two completely different things. If you can master both of them and mesh them together, your ability is better.

 

What is your specialty?

Point surf, mostly. I would do a lot more reefs if we had more, but we don’t have many. We’ve got a few. It’s mostly points.

 

What are the best aspects of your shaping ability?

I probably spend too much time in detail, as far as what I get paid for, so the customer gets his money’s worth. There’s no doubt about that. A guy can bring in a favorite and I’ll spend three days duping the thing to get it to work better, not by mistake, but by doing a really good copy. Just paying attention to detail.

 

How has your father influenced you?

His longevity and his strength, showing up and working, always being there.

 

So more of his human side and not his technical shaping side?
Yeah. Just what a good person is. The way he’s lived his life. You don’t have to look too far to see where people make mistakes, and he doesn’t make many. When he makes one, it’s a bad one, but it’s not detrimental.

 

What’s in store for surfboard design?

There’s so much new stuff on the market right now. If you go to the tradeshows, there’s 20 types of softboards. It’s unbelievable. There’s all this new construction and it’s all on a new learning curve because they’re all just starting to make boards with it and figure out how to make the boards feel as good as we do with polyester. It’s interesting. The fact that several years ago, the surfboard designs went wide open as far as you can walk down the beach with anything and it was okay. In fact, it’s cool to switch boards and ride something different during the day—go from a longboard to a twin-fin. It really opened things up and made everything kind of more relaxed. It’s neat, because now everybody’s working on all this new stuff. There’s not a whole lot of new designs that are coming out of it—they’re just getting perfected a lot better. I couldn’t ride a concave board for years because my stance is so damn tight, and they’re making them so narrow. Well, now they’ve relaxed that a little bit, dialed in the rocker so well, I got on one a couple of years ago and just went, “Wow, wait a second!” I’ve got this narrow frickin’ stance and I can’t surf off both feet, so I’d spend all this time working up this speed, I’d get a turn off and I’d have to work forever again to get that speed. It wasn’t working. So I stayed with vee bottoms, flat bottoms, and played with different rockers.

 

What distinguishes your shapes?

My dad and I both shape boards for the type of waves we have around here, like Rincon and whatnot, but also kind of a little bit like we surf, so we have a little bit of a relaxed rocker on our boards, we both do. That’s something that gives you a lot of speed. We also like to have a lot of curve on the outlines, so our boards have a really nice aesthetic look to them.

 

Any funny Renny stories to tell?

All his friends really tease him about being super anal. They’ll go backpacking and when he’s not looking, like he goes off to take a shit or something, they’ll go over and take his backpack and turn it upside down, empty all the pockets out and leave it in a pile. Because he’s got everything so checked out. I think Gordon Clark’s thing on him is he’s so checked out, he puts serial numbers on his turds before he flushes the toilet. (laughs) So, something along those lines, I guess, but he really is. He’s so checked out. When he gets a motorcycle, he’ll take the thing apart twice—everything—take the engine apart, crack everything, put it all back together, take it apart again, put it back together, so if he gets stuck out in the desert, he knows how to deal with what’s what.

 

How do you differ yourself from your dad?

Good question. He’s more stern. I guess I’m a little more looser, more of the artist type, a little more floatier, whereas he’s just really solid. Extremely solid. I take after my mom more.

 

How are you similar to him?

The surfing style is there. I enjoy working like he does. At this point, I like doing things and making things and going places. I don’t like stagnating any more. I don’t like turning on the television any more. I used to watch a lot of television. I can’t stand it now. As you get older, time is more precious and you want to do more with it.

 

What’s your best surfing memory?

Rincon, full moon, two guys out, they left. I got nine waves in a row, all in about 45 minutes. Maybe even 20 minutes. Probably double-overhead, and I had paddled out right as the moon was coming up. The winds are finicky there at night. It can be glassy all day and then you go down at night and there’s this south bump coming through it. Can’t tell until you get right on the beach. Or it’ll blow offshore down the creek, and then that’ll come around into the cove, so you’ve got this sideways chop coming at you. But occasionally it’s on and it’s right and it’s good. It has to have some size. It’s boring if it’s kind of small, but if it’s big enough, lit up enough, it’s a bitchen deal. I’ve surfed a lot of places at night, and I’d been chasing a good night at Rincon for three years straight. This one night, I ran down there and everything seemed right. There were a couple of guys out; this one guy surfs with a glow necklace. I see him out a lot. He likes to surf it when there’s no moon, which is kind of strange. Anyway, I get out in the water and I recognize one of the guys, and he says, “Gotta be careful. I just got my knee compressed to my chin down on the inside. The lip hit me and just slammed me really hard.” So I take off right at the top of the point. I look at the wall and it’s going; all of a sudden, it bends, and I’m, like, "OK, cool," and I cut back and lined up and it went over me and I’m in the tube and it just started periscoping down and back and down and back and a little water would fall through it and clear up and come back. I kicked out and just went, “Unreal!” I went back and got up and got another one, then another one, and another one—I got nine in a row, and they all did the same thing. They all periscoped better tubes than I’ve ever had in the daytime, for sure. Deep and just beautiful. The ninth wave sucked me over the falls three times. Just worked me. I came up and I went out and got another small one and—BAM—it sucked me over again. I realized it had started howling offshore and it was sending a bump around and just wiped it out. So in that short period of whatever it was—25, 45 minutes—I got nine waves that had just radical barrels on them, in a row, and it was the best session I’ve ever had in my life to date. And I’ve surfed there where you go in the water at sunrise and I don’t get out until sunset. I’ll snack on the beach walking up the point, maybe do a 15-minute break on the beach once or twice, that’s it. I’ve had some good days, but nothing like this. I’ll never forget it. My best session ever, anywhere, and it was at night.

Reef Rings: The Chagos-Laccadive Ridge

By Michael Kew

Chadd Konig, Lakshadweep. Photo: Kew.

CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN pledged the third part of his first chapter in “The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs” to the atolls atop the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge, a 2,350-kilometer-long plateau in the north Indian Ocean. But Darwin never went: “My description is derived from an examination of the admirable charts lately published from the survey of Captain Moresby and Lieut. Powell,” he wrote, “and more especially from information which Captain Moresby has communicated to me in the kindest manner.”

Northernmost archipelago of the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge, Lakshadweep is scattered across the Laccadive Sea, about 300 miles west of mainland India. Beyond India, Lakshadweep is virtually unknown, with almost no Western tourists, sparse infrastructure, limited access, and a largely uncharted surf-spot potential. Swells here are usually well-organized, since they come from far away, and since prevailing winds are westerly, the east and southeast coasts of the islands are nicely groomed and are the best places to score waves.

While a study of Google Earth imagery will reveal a lack of likely set-ups, Lakshadweep does offer the savvy surf explorer some interesting options, especially if approached via liveaboard boat, which, if you’ve got the time and cash, is the best way to do it. The atolls aren’t graced with the sort of epic wave variety as the Maldives, and although mainland India has lots of potential, it’s still dirty, polluted, crowded India. In Lakshadweep, the locals don’t live in slums or use the beaches as toilets.

Trevor Gordon, Lakshadweep. Photo: Kew.

OF EARTH'S 195 COUNTRIES, just five are pan-atoll: Maldives, Marshall Islands, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Kiribati, and aside from Tokelau, a New Zealand dependent, they are sovereign. Kiribati and Tuvalu are on the United Nations’ “Least-Developed Countries” list. The smallest Asian country in population and land area, Maldives was on the list until 2011, when it became the third-ever nation to graduate to “Developing Country” status. Still, in terms of surf tourism, Maldives is mature.

“The reefs of the southern atolls,” Darwin gathered, “are more constantly exposed than the northern atolls to a heavy surf.” In the north, lung-shaped Male’ beats as the heart of Maldivian surfing, and most of the archipelago can be defined by consistent, shapely, and user-friendly waves that peel over fairly forgiving coral, in 30°C water, in front of coconut palms or fancy resorts or a chartered yachts, beneath straight sun.

Darwin: “The smaller atolls in this group differ in no respect from ordinary ones; but the larger ones are remarkable from being breached by numerous deep-water channels leading into the lagoon; for instance, there are 42 channels through which a ship could enter the lagoon of Suvadiva.” (Suvadiva is the old Sanskritized name for Huvadhoo, the world’s 10th-largest atoll [Darwin called it “noble”], with at least 12 of those 42 channels offering great surf spots for much of the year.)

Seceded from the rest of the Maldives in 1959 till 1963, Huvadhoo, Gnaviyani, and surf-rich Addu (Darwin spelled it “Addoo”) formed a sovereign nation called the United Suvadive Republic. Reason being was that, back then, the Maldivian government up in Male’ ruled with centralism, and residents of these three southernmost atolls were pumped by the then-recent independence of neighboring Sri Lanka and India. (Maldives shed England in 1965.)

Maldives. Photo: Kew.

BALD BRITISH SURFER, late-30s, squinting at the pink sunset, gripping his fifth can of San Miguel beer at a white plastic table on the oceanfront deck of a Maldivian resort, watching dozens of fellow surf tourists hassling each other for the nice lefthanders here, 39 years later: “Mate, can you imagine being that Aussie bloke who shipwrecked here and found all these bloody waves with no one around?”

Me: “Tony?”

“Yeah, Tony.”

In the early ‘70s, Tony Hinde spent time in Sri Lanka before he and a friend boarded a yacht captained by an American. Captain America. The plan? Somalia, thousands of kilometers and a world away.

Instead of Africa, the crew wrecked on Maldivian coral. Salvage consumed the next two months. Meanwhile, the Australians found fun waves on Male’. Later, the guys left for India, but soon Hinde returned to the Maldives—for him, the seed was set. “Hardly a sunrise goes by that I don’t thank Allah for that shipwreck,” Hinde once said.

The Maldives proved fateful for Hinde, who in 2008 died surfing Pasta Point, ironically the same spot where in 1990 he’d established Tari Village, the nation’s first surf camp, exclusively represented to the world by Atoll Adventures, which he also founded. Humble little Tari Village is now the four-star Chaaya Island Dhonveli, “…the perfect destination for the discerning pleasure-seeker…one of the world’s best resort hotels,” according to its website.

Chagos Archipelago. Photo: Unknown.

NAVEL OF THE INDIAN OCEAN, yet aura-opposite to Maldives, the Chagos Archipelago is mostly bereft of surf, land, and infrastructure. It is the world’s largest nature preserve, some 648,000 square kilometers. Of its coralline structures, Diego Garcia is the most famous, an American military base (Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia, its lease to expire in 2016). The base is the sole development in what constitutes the British Indian Ocean Territory—the six Chagos atolls, with more than 1,000 islands, a land area of 60 square kilometers. The Great Chagos Bank, in the middle of the archipelago and mostly underwater, is the world’s largest atoll structure, an area of 12,642 square kilometers. If it was all above water, Chagos would have many surf spots.

“In the Chagos group there are some ordinary atolls,” Darwin wrote, “some annular reefs rising to the surface but without any islets on them, and some atoll-formed banks, either quite submerged, or nearly so.”

That’s unfortunate.

Also unfortunate: the only way to reach Diego Garcia is via the USA or UK militaries, but you won’t be able to surf there since surfing is illegal, even for the people stationed there. Which is unfortunate too considering it receives near-constant swell. There is a confirmed left-hand gem off Simpson Point, the atoll’s westernmost nub, plus several shapely nicks in the surrounding reef. All blow offshore in the prevailing tradewind.

Elsewhere, surfing could happen at two of the other Chagos atolls—Salomon and Peros Banhos—publicly accessible by boat only, but windy and very fickle.

Beyond Diego Garcia, there are no airports or towns of any kind, no facilities, no indigenous residents—none because, in a major crime against humanity, about 1,700 of them were forcibly evicted to make way for the Navy base. They and their descendants now live in urban squalor in England, Mauritius, and Seychelles.

For the past few decades there has been a pointed quest by the islanders to get themselves back to the Chagos. In another study last year, the UK government again hired independent consultants (which included no Chagossians) to assess resettlement options and risks. In recent years, several online petitions have circulated and failed—not that they could accomplish anything, anyway.

The most recent one is on Avaaz. At press time, toward its goal of 3,000, its petition had received 2,841 signatures. Darwin’s isn’t one of them.

Pasifika Vailima

By Michael Kew

THOSE EYES. Round, black, soothed by salt air and mossy, spicy, rotted-earth tang of tropical rain forest.

“Tofa soifua.”

Goodbye. A chance encounter with a South Pacific beauty. Dressed in white, off solo to evening church, flower adorning her left ear. She broke from the beach with a final back glance, casting another soft smile as I waded into the lagoon for a swim.

Tofa soifua—yes. Forgotten? No.

Dusk now. Coconut palm fronds sweep over the beach as I pick barefoot over coral and lava, drawing deeper into the 87°F sea. First immersion and I’m away from the North Pacific and all of its frigid reverences, springtide gales, woods, white sharks, hypothermia. One-third of Earth is Pacific, larger than all lands combined, and here was its lower half—a warm wet, unlike the March gray I’d abandoned in California days prior.

As was the rough midnight drop through the clouds into Faleolo Airport, Apia. Last off the jet, through the emptied Air New Zealand rows and farewelling stewardesses, I pressed straight into Upolu’s sublime stickiness—another warm wet, this one nosed with sweat, bloom, and soil. Entrance to the unspoiled heart of Polynesia.

 

"THERE IS A TWO DIFFERENT PEOPLE HERE IN SAMOA." Lots of Samoan, they know how fishing. They’re the people who not afraid about the ocean. But the people who not know how to fish, they afraid about the ocean. But Samoan island is still same as the Hawaiian people—they like ocean.”

Magenta floods the early sky as I converse with Vai, resort employee and one of Samoa’s native surfing handful. We are aboard the resort’s 34-foot aluminum twin-hulled vessel engulfed by the absolute essence of morning: sunrise at sea.

South shore’s Aganoa Point. Built of jagged black lava, it is robed in rain forest, further softened by summit mists and verdant skylines spilling to the ocean. Daylight reveals empty triple-overhead lefts detonating against deep-set lava reef. Stand-up barrels for anyone with experience and a pintail. With a leap of courage over the gunwale, we are surfing.

Nine hours later, I swill a lager and muse about the virtual nonexistence of native Samoan surfers. Saia describes it this way:

“Many surfers from overseas ask me about any Samoan surfing before. They try to find the history—is there anyone here in Samoa who took place in surfing? Well, there’s a legend story about the one Samoan surfing. It is a true story. We use it here now for our speeches.

“So, in American Samoa, there’s a village named Afono. One day, the people wake up in the morning and look out to the ocean. There’s a man who’s surfing the waves, from the reef, going back beyond the reef, go back…like that. And the people stand on the beach and wave their hands. They try to chase him. ‘Who’s that man? Get off! Get off!’ Like that. So the man run away from that island of American Samoa from the village of Afono and stay here in a village on Upolu. The village is very straight from American Samoa to here.

“At that time there was a very big fight in the villages here on Upolu. That man came and lived here in this village where that fight happens. All the villages, they prepared for a fight. So this man included in this group. They don’t know who he is, where he from. When the fight ended, he’s a different man. This a man who won the fight. But this a man from Afono, from the village of American Samoa, so they chase him out.

“Afono villagers, they know the stories about the fights here. They know that’s the man they chased out from their village, so there’s a Samoan proverb which means Afono missed their blessing. They’re lucky from this man. That man surfing, the one who surfing is a very hero man. And I know that this history of surfing is a very long time ago took place. Because there’s a man in American Samoa who surf. He’s a hero man, know everythings. Good in a tide, in a ocean. When he go out there, he know how to surf. When he go on land, he know how to fight. He’s a hero.

“That is the story and history I know from long time ago. Lots of Samoans, they know it. We have a special proverb like if you missed something, or you just throw something away, the people say, ‘Ah, you missed your blessing’ or ‘You missed your lucky.’ They missed chance to learn surfing.”

 

POLYNESIAN TRANQUILLITY comes with a sinking sun into palm silhouettes. Four more breaststrokes and I can’t touch lagoon bottom. Stop and tread water, blink the eyes clear and see the girl vanish into riotous vegetation, from the beach back onto the coral road. It was a pleasant stroll. A detour.

Many attend church at this hour. Others commune in social centers, rugby fields, dinner mats in spartan homes. Down at the resort, now a faint glow to the east, Saia serves cocktails. “I surf the waves with my eyes,” he said to me earlier, pointing to his face then to the ocean. One day, he claims, it will be with a surfboard. Still treading, I think of this and look south. Dim horizon fuzz grows pale with broken swell hitting the barrier reef. No surfing out there.

The girl is gone and so is the sun. Twilight resplendence suffocates all else. Here, just offshore Salamumu, I drift on my back, ears filled with muffled wave energy. Close the eyes then open them to the evening star. I try to envision these people at war once with Tonga, or with the rough sea and reefs in fishing canoes, with the Christian white man invasion, with natural disasters, with the tattoo needle. All overcome. For now, it is Samoan idyll.

Fa’afetai tele.

 

La Réunion — L'océan Indien Flare/Flair

By Michael Kew

I hoped to not need blood on Réunion. Sharks there take plenty.

But it’s always interesting to land on an island amid a gala you know nothing about. For me, in St-Denis, it was the Globule Festival:

The festival is to celebrate life. Goal is to celebrate around this simple, generous and supportive as blood donation. A gesture that allows to treat each year in France more than a million patients. While the need for blood products increases faster than the number of gifts, come to discover or extend your knowledge on the wonderful world of blood donation.

I circumnavigated. Marveled at the lava flows in the southeast. Acres of sugarcane, pampas grass. East-northeast was sparse, lush, less trafficky. South was congested and not nearly as pretty.

Near sunset there appeared lush scenery on the Plaine d’Affouches, behind La Possession. Coconut plantations below. Stark white homes on the green hillside.

Few people spoke English. For dinner I walked to a snack bar at La Prachois in St-Denis; used my phrasebook to order a jambon (fries + ketchup + cheese melted on top) for 3 euros, plus three Bourbon beers.

I was struck by the fact that France (5,700 miles northwest) instilled this. The architecture, the language, et al. If Réunion was never a French colony, it might be like, what?—it’s hard to say, because most islands nearby were all French colonies, from Madagascar to Comoros to Rodrigues.

Next day. Early. Sunny. Breakfasted on strong espresso and croissants, fresh pineapple, yogurt, pineapple juice, cheese, baguettes.

The surf was pumping, the weather perfect—blue sky, light wind, not muggy, not hot.

The sets were inconsistent—a 15-second swell from the southwest. The lineup was not pedestrian. One guy was truly ripping; from afar, I figured he was another Réunionnaise star like Boris le Texier or Jeremy Flores.

“Man, that guy can really surf,” I thought.

Turns out he was some guy filming on site for the “Modern Collective” film, which I learned this morning after randomly browsing Surfing magazine’s website.

Some guy named Jordy Smith.

Nook Sanctuate — A West Matrix

By Michael Kew

 

DIANE’S GARDEN

What’s beyond that gate? Off to the right fork?

“Oh, she’s just a grower,” Paul said. “She wants to be left alone.”

He walked me to a few trailers, a small cabin, and a mobile home. All were for rent, month-to-month, and available now. Each had its own unique view and quirky '70s vibe. Only one piqued me.

“How much for this trailer?”

It was $285 per month, plus a $75 cleaning deposit and monthly expenses for gasoline for the small generator, and propane for the refrigerator, stove, and water heater. The water was drawn from a spring reputedly tainted with agricultural runoff. Officials warned to not drink it.

“We all drink it,” Paul said. “We put it through a filter, and nobody’s ever gotten sick.”

Right then, through the trees, 1,700 feet above a whitewater triangle, I peered into sanctuary.

 

RANGER REEF

The rain was ubiquitous, continuous, monotonous, formless. Then the sky cracked late for a soft pink sunset over the sea beyond the rivermouth, where I sat and watched rights peel along the new sandbar, occupied by gulls and seals. A rare wave, also one of the most dangerous. Still, the rivermouth comforted me. Some places are like that.

By night I had made another fire, crackling and spattering while I sat on a log and sucked cheap merlot from the bottle. Only the rash of crickets were heard, the occasional frog, the shoosh of wind through the woods. Warm smoke from fir buffeted my face; the torquing oranges and yellows the only things visible. There was immense value to such peace.

The next morning, I found a locked gate. Perhaps karma for me not paying the camping fee the two nights I stayed in the desolate campground. Perhaps because authorities don’t want people stranded down there in winter.

I saw a ranger and asked him about it. He said not to worry, that surfers go to a spot nearby that was a better than where I was headed.

“It has a lot of reefs and shorebreaks—just terrible things,” he said.

He told me where to go and walk, so I did. Parked at another gate, stuffed my wetsuit/booties into a plastic bag, grabbed a towel and surfboard, and hiked.

The ranger was right.

 

MOON BEACH

One-hundred-and-eighteen years ago, on this grassy terrace of cows and trees, a palatial hotel was set for construction. Its decadence was to surpass all of California’s elite lodgings, well-advertised to the world’s well-heeled, set to arrive en masse to enjoy the crème de la crème this side of Marseille.

There was also a town to be built here, an “Exquisite Summer and Winter Resort”—luxurious cottages were advertised, with wide boulevards and leafy promenades, close to the Southern-Pacific railway, yet to be laid. And, of course, there was the blue sea and its allure, sparkly with sun.

From the town’s promotional brochure, circa 1887:

The sea beach is a clean white sand and gravel; and gently sloping into the ocean affords better opportunities for enjoyable sea bathing than can be obtained elsewhere. Along these clean shining sands are strewn wondrously rich salt sea algae and often the cliffs are carved into fantastic caves and coves of great beauty.

But nothing was built, credited to a number of reasons, primarily the developer’s gift for over-dreaming and under-doing. Hence the hotel and town became nothing but a draftsman’s paper city.

Today, one would have to look south for the mentality required to blueprint 54 giant luxury homes, 16 of them blufftop, precisely where I stood one fine winter day.

 

PIT VIPER POINT

Dusk brought fog from afar, the blues and greens of a late-October day gone within seconds. Hours before, a spontaneous hike to a surf spot warranted shoes and long pants and shirt: rife with poison oak and sharp twigs and ticks and other pests unseen. (I am immune to poison oak.)

The reef was almost working, with occasional glimpses of glassy surfability. The peak would pop and trip, pitching yards from black boulders, completely hidden, surrounded by perhaps a half-dozen more unridden surf spots.

Pre-fog, sunny heat drew sweat as I pondered the afternoon’s options: tide, wind, swell, light. Nature photography is an unending pursuit—at times it is enough to drive you mad.

Later, beneath a black, drizzly sky, I focused on sound. The surf was a white noise, the air damp and still. Again the fire cracks, the wood burns, the smoke rises. Some logs are louder than others, some burn slower, reluctantly.

Writing in a forest aside the sea on a cold mid-week night harks of a different aura, a different era—pure life. Purity undiluted by trappings of today.

Drunkenness stems pensiveness and its threads of epiphany, steadfast without influence, snuffed temporarily by headache and sleep. Dizzily pissing into a bush under the stars accelerates the desperation of a wholesome doze, those precious eight hours I rarely catch.

And then it was dawn.

It was at that moment I realized that somewhere in the modern world, far from here, roared the insanity of morning rush-hour traffic—drivers commuting to jobs they may or may not like. But as I sipped my instant coffee, trying to identify birdsongs above, the world was gone.

Our world.

 

GYPSY CREEK

Gale warning today; already gusting to 33 knots in the channel. Sole chance for surfing existed at a delightful little pocket beach at the mouth of a creek. There I found a painfully inconsistent right-hand reef riddled with kelp and boils. Swell was a mixture of west and north, about head-high, but hollow and hidden.

Lunched on stale doughnuts just up the coast. Sea and sky coalesced as four shades of blue, the lower two turquoise then darker, the upper baby blue to azure.

I fell into conversation with a scruffy fisherman who called himself a “sea gypsy”—but his boat was wrecked. He and his wife collided with another vessel inside of a fog bank two days prior, and he was attempting to repair it and sail south tomorrow.

He asked me about the surf here, and about my colorful board.

“Found it,” I said. “The airbrush is supposed to scare sharks.”

The sea gypsy rattled off all the things wrong with his sailboat. Then: “I’m gonna get to San Francisco, fix it, then sell the damn thing so I can get a bigger boat. Sailed that thing to Hawai’i once. Just came down from Seattle.”

His fleshy face was sunburnt and stubbly. His head was bald. He wore coke-bottle glasses, a blue beanie, sandals, gray sweatpants and a green flannel shirt. His voice was loud and obnoxious. His wife, who I saw later, had blue hair and tattered clothes. She smiled often.

Turns out he was a tattoo artist, and skin art was his primary source of income.

What did he do? Tattoo fish?

 

SANCTUARY DUNE

Spilled half of my lunchtime beer onto the van’s carpet floor, soaking some mail and my laptop bag. So the van smelled like a brewery, fouled by wet booties.

Met a bubbly little hippie girl named Alyssa who pulled into the same turnout. She was from New Hampshire, living here for the summer. Soon headed to the Burning Man festival in Nevada, then to Santa Cruz for dance school. Tomorrow’s her 21st birthday. I told her my 25th fell a couple of weeks back.

“Oh, I just love Leos,” she gushed. “We’re such sun people, aren’t we?”

Her skin was a soft, smooth olive brown. Long, thick, blonde hair, large-breasted, with dull hazel eyes in a round, smiling face. Bouncy, loose voice. Tight shorts, tank-top, sandals, shell necklace, bracelets, rings. Just back from yoga down at the famous Esalen Institute, where patrons enjoy hot springs and massage under the stars, high above the Pacific. Alyssa worked there part-time, so she’s granted key-access.

She handed me a card with her name and phone number written on it.

“Give me a call when you come through again; we can go down there.”

Now…backed into another turnout, this one for sleep. Cliff and sea at the rear; sun blocked by an offshore fogbank. The spaces between cars grow longer and quieter, and the sea fills the ears—as it should.

 

PRAIRIE FERN FALLS

Spring rain douses the car’s roof. Not another sound. Life seems at a stand-still here in the rain forest, though the woods evolve constantly. The ground is awash in green ferns and clovers, crowding the wide tree bases. Above, old-growth Sitka spruce limbs twist heavily with beards of clubmoss. To my left, six elk graze in dense undergrowth.

The rain intensifies swiftly, then stops. Again it falls, feeding the 200 inches of annual rain this place receives.

The only thing dry here is the inside of this car, where I lounge with the seat eased back, taking in the ancient tranquility, bringing sleep.

Awakened by the hoots of an unseen owl. At dawn I strolled along a trail, snapping photographs in misty solitude. Salmonberry, once the subsistence of Indians, flourishes thick at thigh-level, with herbs, ferns, lichens and fungi…moss everywhere, surviving on moisture and air-borne nutrients, never penetrating the tree bark. Fallen trees are unique nurseries, providing a foothold for saplings, ferns, herbs and…more moss. The dripping big-leaf maple trees are the most lush, drooping over the trail.

Aside from the random bird and gurgling stream, the forest is silent enough to hear the high-pitched ring in my ears. The streams are pure, healthy, swirling mirrors of the woods above. I took a drink.

Hiked down the steep trail and headed south over deep black sand, which was difficult to walk on. Tide was incoming. I approached a creek and admired its nearby surf spot. There the waves broke not far from shore, all rights. A gnarly, rocky reef. The swell was a clean 10 feet at 17 seconds; the day was cloudy and windless. I was intimidated from paddling out because it looked ominous. I wasn’t prepared—hungry, thirsty, paranoid. Returning was never a question; nature redeemed me on sunnier days, in spirit and in time—wilderness time.

Cruel and Unusual — A B.C. Riff

By Michael Kew

 

On your first day in Canada, you might find yourself mapless in a 4X4 pickup on a signless, snow-flanked logging road. This road has many forks and it badly disorients you.

Later, you might pull up to the head of a desolate fjord. It’s a ways down, at the base of a cliff. You can see a pebbly beachbreak, a flawless right point, and an enticing left rivermouth, but despite epic scenery and proximity to open ocean, these possibilities are lake-flat while, outside, the exposed coast is bombing. Slabs galore. A jet ski would be useful, but trailering it out atop that road would have banged the thing to bits. Having nowhere to launch it is another issue.

That, and being alone.

On your second day in Canada, you might deal with unruly swell. Aside from finding a surfable spot, it might be a chore getting to that swell. Beyond the small dark town from whence you drove, there is scant pavement but many remote harbors, overgrown hiking trails, and little else but steep cliffs, impassable alpine ridges of rock and snow, and dense forests that average 20 feet of rain annually, pelted by furious winds and enormous seas.

On your third day in Canada, you might find yourself walking on one of those overgrown trails, its slick mud linked by the crossings of four waist-deep creeks. You are in black bear territory. Dense, wet foliage smothers much of the path, so most of the hike is done in your 6mm fullsuit and 7mm booties while holding your surfboard and pack over your head. After an hour or two, you spy a through-the-trees vista that exemplifies the northwest surf experience: a gray Pacific, jagged black rocks, and some variation of rideable surf that, depending on your attitude, might not justify the risk.

For most surfers, Canada is a cruel and unusual place.

“My reality here is that it takes a lot of effort to find good waves,” Raphael Bruhwiler confided to me from his home in Tofino (ironically voted “Best Surf Town in North America” in 2010 by Outside magazine). “If you’re not prepared, you can die very easily, and if something goes wrong, you’ve got to stay warm. Lately, we’ve been wearing drysuits because, if you fall out of my boat, you can survive. If you fall out wearing a lifejacket, you’ll die in about 20 minutes since the water is so cold. And drysuits protect you from rain — you never get wet, which is really necessary until you’re actually surfing.”

A gritty soldier of British Columbia (Canada’s westernmost province), Raph needs no introduction. You’ve seen his name in surf magazines. His wetsuited frame in slab-barrel shots. Ads for his surf school. His woodsy “Innersection” thing on the interwebs. During the 2010 Winter Olympics torch relay, for a global audience, you saw him proudly hoist the flame as he surfed toward the white Tofino sand. Besides Pete Devries, his dear friend, Raph is arguably Canada’s most famous surfer, almost unilaterally pegging the Maple Leaf Nation to the world surf map.

Thing is, Vancouver Island waves aren’t what the world wants them to be, especially since the best waves have no roads to them, and good boats with good weather can be tough to orchestrate. Contrarily, whatever Tofino’s beachbreaks lack in quality and character might be redeemed by their carpark-access for anyone with wheels or a thumb. But you don’t visit Vancouver Island to surf those beachbreaks. They suck.

“There are still so many spots to discover,” Raph says, “but it’s such a huge and rugged stretch of coast that it’s hard to be at the right place at the right time. If I had a ton of money, and if I had a helicopter or a floatplane to buzz around in, there would be many more spots being found.” (laughs)

Once, he was my seatmate on a less esoteric kind of flight.

“Better put your jackets on!” the Air Canada Jazz stewardess had yelled over the noise. “It’s a bit breezy out there!”

We stepped through the Dash 8’s door and were nearly blown off the airplane stairs. The wind was sharp, the air freezing. Black storm clouds loomed. Behind the tiny airport were jagged, snow-covered mountains, and in the distance lay one of the world’s most feared waterfetches, wicked that day, smeared white by a southeasterly gale.

“At least it’s offshore somewhere!” someone yelled over the din.

This was expected. Daily, for weeks leading up to our departure, I’d monitored the island’s weather online, and the forecasts were repetitive, like the one posted the day of our arrival:

 

Storm warning continued. Wind warning in effect.

Tonight..Rain. Amount 20 mm. Wind southeast 50 to 70 km/h increasing to 70 to 100 overnight. Low plus 5.

Thursday..Rain. Amount 20 mm. Wind southeast 70 to 100 km/h becoming south 40 to 60 in the afternoon. High 8.

Thursday night..Rain. Amount 10 to 15 mm. Wind southeast 50 to 80 km/h. Low 8.

Friday..Rain. Wind southeast 50 to 70 km/h increasing to 70 to 100 then becoming south 30 late this afternoon. High 10.

 

On the bus heading to town, a filthy fisherman with an odd drawl promised us that there was a giant wave “just like Maverick’s” that broke out in front of a fishing lodge his friend worked for, out on the west coast.

“It breaks best when the winds are about 70 knots onshore,” the fisherman said. “Just comes up out of nowhere and boom, this huge roller, taller’n a totem pole.”

“Which way does it break?” we asked, eyebrows raised. “Left or right?”

“Oh, just straight in, right toward shore.”

Outside our motel, we were mocked by passersby; one woman thought we’d brought oversized snowboards. Three loggers in the café next door thought we were hippie tree-planters from the large city of Vancouver. Apparently, tree-huggers/planters were not particularly admired out here despite the island’s forests being logged at twice the sustainable rate.

Still, we would not be digging holes for cedar saplings.

 “You guys are here to go surfing?” the loggers asked, laughing at us. “Good luck!”

Down at the harbor, another local said we were out of our minds, that if we wanted to go surfing, we needed to go somewhere like California or Hawaii. He suggested that we start drinking whiskey instead, joining him at a nearby cocktail lounge, where there would be “guaranteed fights.”

While the offer of drinking and fighting proved nearly irresistible, we declined and repaired to a dingy Chinese restaurant where we checked the online forecast and brainstormed between forkloads of MSG. Nearshore buoys reported a 27-foot windswell. Heading seaward in a boat was undesirable. As they often did in Canada, for surfing, things looked bad.

“It’ll probably get worse,” Raph said.

“Hopefully it will blow 70 knots onshore,” I said.

This was not Raph’s immediate home turf. We were not near the apple of his surf eye, a rogue slab deep in the inclement wilds of Clayoquot Sound. Clayoquot, by the way, was derived from the name of the local First Nations (i.e. Indian) band called the Tla-o-qui-aht, which translated as “changing” or “different.”

Gazing out at shifting clouds and horizontal rain and distant snowcaps, listening to the wind shriek past the dirty restaurant windows, we could almost relate. We’d found fun albeit gutless waves at one lefthand rivermouth, but really, until then, searching for waves, we’d driven an average of 150 miles a day, very slowly, with no music, in a rented four-wheel-drive truck, progressively coating the cab’s floor with food wrappers and empty water bottles. In the truck for hour upon hour, fidgeting and farting and letting the comedy flow freely. Let’s see what’s down that road became the theme, the driver (me) repeatedly and abruptly veering the truck off the main road and down sketchy singletracks in dense rain forest, usually leading to an impassable hole or horizontal tree, or to another flat beachbreak, or to the cabin of a reclusive family or an incoherent, loudmouthed hippie who didn’t want us there.

Other locals were more cerebral (search “Vancouver Island surfers hanging out with our Orcas” on YouTube).

“Yeah,” Raph says from Tofino. He’s just returned from another camping trip to his beloved slab. “I’ve had a few close encounters with orcas.

He chuckles.

“But I think they know that humans taste like shit.”

Quiver Qualm? Celebrate the One-Board Epoch

By Michael Kew

The Kegg. Photo: Kew.


November 2014: my Carpinteria possessions are stuffed into a 10x10 storage unit off Via Real.

The future: a riverside cabin six miles north of California. Three-month (minimum) lease.

The transfer: 14 hours from Carp to Brookings with a carload of basics—one fatbike, one surfboard, three cats. I’d planned to ping south a month later, pack a U-Haul, return to Oregon, and push my domestic goods into a 5x10 storage unit till I found an unfurnished cabin in coastal rainforest. Meanwhile, the surfboard­—a white 7’0” Ryan Lovelace single-fin “Kegg”—would bridge the gap. Just a few no-quiver weeks, right?

Backstory: in May 2014, I asked Lovelace to craft the Kegg (portmanteau of Kew and egg), a wide, thin hull for a variety of surf—small, medium, mushy, hollow, almondy, weak, strong, long, short, rights, lefts, reforms, reefs, points, bullish beachbreaks. A one-board quiver, you might say.

But this was not the Kegg kismet. I’d aimed to plug it into my foam-fiberglass gyre, ranging from a 5’2” finless to a 9’11” fish. In the 805, I rode them all—sometimes a few the same day or in the same hour. Easy to do at loyal right points. But to a simple man like me, the quiver seemed superfluous.

August 2015: my stuff is still in the storage unit, near Ophelia, Lovelace’s merry bus/home that’s parked on a communal Highway 150 knoll. I’m still in the furnished cabin, 730 miles north, and I’m still riding the Kegg. It has no dings. I have no other surfboards here. It’s been a chance, 10-month, one-board era—the fourth in my surf life.

To wit:

One-Board Epoch 1—Encinitas, 1986. A brown 6’3” Surfboards Hawaii four-channel, two-wing thruster, found in the used rack at the old Sunset store (now a bike shop) on First Street. I rode the 6’3” exclusively for one year. It was my first surfboard.

Then came many Channel Islands shapes as my dad’s friend (Tom Curren’s stockbroker) could swing deals on custom Merricks. Growing up, Montecito family trips were common, with fluorescent-wetsuit jaunts to the Ranch. At my Encinitas middle school, full of surfers, no one knew about Channel Islands.

During high school, I chose local, buying boards from Gary McNabb and World Core, chased by the many Matt Muhlethaler basement creations that crept through my collegiate Isla Vista-Arcata years. In 1997 I again went local, placing orders with Humboldt foamsmiths Allen Main and Brian Kang, capped by a blue-yellow zigzag-striped shape I found while hiking.

One-Board Epoch 2—Lost Coast, 1998: A rotund 7’6” Raisin with three pink fins. Like a trans-Pacific relic from Japan, it lay thrashed and half-buried in sand at the mouth of a creek. “Finders, keepers!” the friendly shaper, Ben, later said with a laugh. He fixed the dings for free. The Raisin surfed well in myriad waves, so I shunned my other boards for two years.

The zigzag airbrush repelled sharks, Ben said. He gave me a black long-sleeve Raisin shirt; I gave him six-packs of fresh Red Nectar Ale, a perk of working for Arcata’s Humboldt Brewing Company. Ben lived near Whitethorn but was originally from Santa Barbara, to where I remigrated in 2000.

One-Board Epoch 3—Goleta, 2001. A family friend gave an 8’0” Todd Kay tri-fin “T8” model to my dad, but he didn’t surf it. So Dad leant it to me; I rode it for 18 months. When Dad reclaimed the T8, my quiver infusions flowed from Fletcher Chouinard and Dave Parmenter. Next were piles of customs from Marc Andreini, Mr. Lovelace, and Kyle Albers, plus one-offs from Larry Mabile, Gregg Tally, and Connor Lyon.

Today, amid One-Board Epoch 4, I enjoy the lack of choice, the autopilot ease. The Kegg lives in my car. It has simplified things. No thoughts wasted, no debate on what to surf. Epoch 4 could last for a while.

Yet old habits die hard. Next week, I’m getting a 5’3” fish that Joe Curren shaped for me. After that? Carpinteria.

A Bend in the Reef — Chuck Corbett’s Kiribati Equation

By Michael Kew

 

“Chuck Corbett has 17 surfboards and not one pair of shoes.” —Dave Parmenter

That was in 1993, the year Parmenter surfed with Corbett on Kiritimati in the central Pacific. Fifteen years later, in 2008, Corbett has 26 surfboards…but still no shoes, socks, reef booties, or sandals. He can’t remember the last time he’s worn anything on his feet. Yvon Chouinard calls Corbett the “Atoll Man,” and on a sandy atoll like Kiritimati in a country like Kiribati, you don’t need much foot protection. Surfboards, on the other hand, can come in handy.

An atoll is a flat, coral-ring island partially or completely enclosing a lagoon, the lagoon usually being linked with the open ocean via at least one reef pass. With luck, and if it is exposed to reliable swell, the pass is blessed with tapered bathymetry, in turn producing surfable waves along either side of the reef leading into the lagoon.

Of Earth’s 194 countries, only five are comprised entirely of atolls: Maldives, Marshall Islands, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Kiribati (pronounced ‘Kiribas’), and aside from Tokelau, a dependent of New Zealand, they are all sovereign. In the United Nations system, the Maldives, Kiribati, and Tuvalu are on the official ‘Least Developed Countries’ list, but in terms of surfing, the Maldives are largely colonized, while Tuvalu remains obscure, one of the ‘Least Developed Countries’ in the surf-travel genre, even if its surf potential is low. Tokelau has zero waves, and the Marshall Islands—which have a small surf culture—were recently dissected by Martin Daly, his Indies Trader IV now running luxury charters there between November and March.

But what of Kiribati? Only one guy knows. No other surfer besides Tony Hinde (of Maldives fame) deserves to be called an “Atoll Man,” because Chuck Corbett has spent the last 30 of his 52 years probing the surf potential out amongst Kiribati’s 33 remote atolls, themselves split into three groups—the Gilbert, the Phoenix, and the Line islands. Kiribati’s total land mass is just 313 square miles, but its total sea area encompasses 1,370,656 square miles, straddling the equator for 2,010 miles. That’s a lot of surf real estate for one man.

Of the 33 atolls, only Tarawa and Kiritimati have regular (once weekly) international air service. The others are reachable solely by private yacht, or, if you’ve got months to burn and a thirst for adventure, you could try one of the rusty inter-island freighters that come and go infrequently. Or you could do what Corbett did: move there, start an export business, start a family, and renounce your native citizenship—for the sake of surfing.

Satisfying a longtime urge, last January I flew from Honolulu to Kiritimati and surfed with Corbett at the same wave he’d shared years before with Parmenter and Chouinard, a fast right-hand reef pass that bowled and pinwheeled into the lagoon. Later, on his fine refurbished S/V Tuaraoi, a 60-foot cutter which he and a business partner had planned to use for charters in the Line Islands, I chatted with Corbett about all things Kiribati, particularly its waves, perhaps rarest in all of Oceania despite its location—even if you live there.

 

How did you end up in Kiribati?

I first went to Hawaii in 1973 from Costa Mesa, California. In high school I was socially dysfunctional because I couldn’t communicate with anybody except surfers. I became a surf Nazi, perhaps even more so because being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness kept me away from drugs, drinking, the wildness of youth. I was quite polarized being a surf Nazi.

What got my ticket to Hawai’i was winning a Robert August surfboard at the Huntington Beach Theatre in 1972. It was custom, and I had it airbrushed with dolphins and stuff, which was the ‘in’ thing then. For my ticket, I sold that board. I went to Hawai’i and was supposed to come back, but didn’t. I was 16.

I spent the next four years surfing on Oahu and working odd construction jobs to survive. I became sort of disillusioned with the crowds and violence—there was a lot of violence  in the ‘70s, compared to today. I’d met someone who had photos of that left on Guam, and there was this opportunity to go to Guam as a volunteer to build a church for Jehovah’s Witnesses, some branch office, so I jumped on that. Got to Guam and waited three months before we had waves there, but when the waves finally did come, Guam was a paradise for barrels. Lots of hollow waves there. Real shallow.

I spent a year and a half there, and toward the end of 1978 I was looking at going either to Indonesia or Tahiti. Then I met this family on a yacht who were traveling around the world, and they described this good right-hander in Kiritimati, and they said the reef felt like popcorn, because of the hard seaweed on the reef. And so I was real interested to go there.

The other determining factor for going toward the Gilberts was while I was on the North Shore sanding surfboards for Tom Parrish, I overhead Joey Cabell and another guy talking, and all I remember hearing him say, apart from talking about the Tuamotus and sailing, was, “…and there’s a good left on Fanning.”

And so in March 1979 I took off for Christmas Island, but I had to get to Christmas to get to Fanning, and to do that I had to go to Nauru and then to Tarawa. I spent a week in Nauru, surfing there. Nauru has fun surf, but most of the waves are kind of sucky and shallow. On the way from Nauru to Tarawa, I met some oceanographers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and right then and there I got a job with them diving, because their diver had gotten meningitis.

 

Where did you go first?
We arrived on the island of Tarawa, and from there we got set up. First we went north to the islands of Abaiang; we skipped Marakei, but we went to Butaritari, and we visited the island of Makin. Then we did the central islands, which was Abemama, Kuria, Aranuka, and then we went back to Tarawa. Our third trip was to the southern islands, which were Arorae, Tamana, Nikunau, Onotoa, Tabiteuea, and Nonouti. On Tabiteuea I surfed where you couldn’t see the land because the reef was 15 miles out. It was fun, head-high waves. The ship was there, of course, but what was neat was being totally out of sight of the land and riding waves. To get into the lagoon, the ship had to go where there was a channel through the reef, and there was almost always something there, some little wave that I could ride. To get better waves, you’ve got to off to the ends of the islands, where the trade wind swell might wrap around, or, if it was wintertime, catching the wrap on the northwest swell. The other season we have is El Niño…every year over there, they almost always get a westerly season, when the trades reverse. The eastern shores of the atolls all have a much gentler slope, so you can surf it on most tides. Then it becomes a matter of finding a bend in the reef that’ll make waves.

Over the next three or four months, I got to visit most of the islands in the Gilberts with this MIT team. They were studying counter-equatorial ocean currents, but it was a really difficult job. I saw their engineer break down and cry because it was so hard to get things done. We were on this government freighter that would go to the islands and do freight; MIT chartered it to go between the islands for retrieving the instruments that had been set down in the channels the year before. I was loving every minute of it, surfing at the stops and seeing a culture not effected by the outside world. I got to go diving and surfing on probably 12 of the 16 atolls.

 

Did it feel like you were really finding some new unridden waves?
I was just having fun surfing. I never thought anything about being the only one out there. I was looking for waves and surfing wherever I found them. What was kind of interesting was that after being in Hawai’i in the ‘70s, where you could get beat-up easily, I learned to keep a profile that avoided getting in trouble with the local people. That really helped me in the Gilberts. The other thing that was totally amazing was experiencing their traditional dance and life that hadn’t changed even since Robert Louis Stevenson’s written descriptions of it in 1888. Their culture hadn’t changed at all, and you can still see that today. To hear them sing, the emotion of it brings tears to one’s eye.

I was looking for good waves, but I wasn’t on some search to find the perfect wave. I knew Fanning had a good wave.

 

Working in the Gilberts, what struck you as far as Kiribati compared to Guam?

It’s true that I left Hawai’i for Guam because I was disillusioned with the crowds, but living the Gilberts, I forgot all about that. I was stuck surfing alone. On the outer islands of the Gilberts, it was like going back in time. All the houses were thatched, you’d get water from a well. You used large breadfruit leaves for plates and ate with your hands. People wore very simple clothes. To make canoes, the locals would cut down a breadfruit tree and they’d wait five years for it to try. Then they’d hand-hew the log with an ax until it was roughly square, and with a handsaw they would cut planks a half-inch thick, 12 to 15 feet long. They would sew the planks together using the sap from the breadfruit tree, and they would fit the planks together until they were water-tight.

The locals think that their islands are paradise. They’re satisfied with what they have. To be ambitious is not only looked down upon, but the collective consciousness of the culture will apply pressure to keep people from being so. This is because they live on very small islands with very limited resources, and they developed an egalitarian society, where all people are to be equal, and the equality works to the low end of the spectrum rather than the high end. Over generations, if someone wanted to be industrious or ambitious, those people were kicked off the islands.

But if it wasn’t that way, Kiribati could be very popular like the Caribbean. It keeps it uncrowded and prevents business from going, and it’s always going to be this way. Any sort of business that someone from the outside wants to do is always going to have tremendous difficulty.

Nobody’s working to make the nation better or protect it or to save fish for their children. Alcoholism and violence against women are major problems. The only future I can see is that Kiribati will continue to be a welfare nation and depend more and more on nations to help them out. We’ve seen the tunafish stocks decrease by perhaps 70 percent in the last 20 years. The crunch is coming, when there won’t be enough fish for the people. There will always be reef fish, but it’ll continue to get harder and harder. Gone are the days when it’s possible to catch tuna every day when they’re in season. There are 185 purse-seiners out there, each one taking thousands of tons of fish daily, slowly cleaning the ocean out of tuna and other valuable pelagic fish.

 

What about the islands’ leaders?

They get that way by not being leaders—by being quiet in the longhouse, by, if they have something to say, by saying it for their church, for whatever side they’re on, whether it’s Catholic or Protestant. Here, the government and decisions are made by consensus, and someone who’s a born leader will never make it as one. They’ll be shunned.

Kiribati had been a British colony for more than 100 years. In a sense, the British were good because they were quite tight-fisted with money, and it forced these islands to remain self-sufficient. When you compare it to American Micronesia, when there was a problem, Uncle Sam would just throw large amounts of money at it, and so you wound up with a lot more corruption and stuff like that. The British were more like minimalists, and that really helped so that the people of these islands retained more of their culture than the surrounding islands. I went to a dance once in the Marshalls, and it was supposed to be traditional, but they were wearing jeans and sweatshirts, dancing to Filipino music.

There are really no white people or foreigners living in the outer islands of Kiribati. To the best of my knowledge, I’m the only one who has stayed on an outer island for years. The reason there aren’t more is because of this vast difference of cultures, thoughts, and ideas that they run into this brick wall, and they just say ‘screw it.’ They arrive here, they become very infatuated with the place and the beauty, and they want to live here and stay, and they last a few months. In the capital (Tarawa), they may go a few years. Really, the only way to live is without money. It’s part of the paradise equation, and you’ll corrupt it with material things and money. If you have only time to share, you’ll get along with everyone, but if you have more things then they do, and you’re part of their society, people want a little piece of what you have, and everywhere you turn, you’ll be chipped away at until eventually you’re either equal with them, or you’re fighting with them. So people will move here and wind up, in effect, having to build a wall around themselves to keep their Western ideas.

 

Have you abandoned yours?

No, but since now I live on a boat and I’m offshore. Before I had the boat, gradually I went from living in the middle of the society to the fringe of it. Being on a boat, I kind of have everything here, and it’s not as visible to people ashore as to what I’m doing and what I have. But through the things I’ve learned, it allows me to, if I choose, it allows me to still be a part of any of the communities or villages, I can. It helps to be on a boat. I’m on the fringe now.

I was ready to go after about four months in the Gilberts. I really wanted to get to Christmas Island, but one day I was walking down the street on Tarawa, and there was this great big commotion, and there was a large guy beating a young girl. He was hitting her with a 2x2 piece of wood; when that broke, he grabbed her by her hair and was kicking her. Instinctually I just jumped over the fence and ran over to grab this guy to stop him. He ducked when I jumped, and I wound up hanging on his back upside down with my legs around his head—quite comical. We fell down, the girl was running away, and shortly thereafter I was running away after her. The man got on a motorbike and was chasing us through the bush, around coconut trees and through taro pits, and eventually we got to a point where we got back to the main road, and there was a minibus going by. We got on the bus, and the man stopped the minibus just before we got to her village. I thought he was going to beat the shit out of me, but he was still upset with this girl. He reached right over my head and grabbed her by the hair. I was holding on to his arm with both of my hands, and he was pulling the girl over the top of me. Suddenly the police came on, and there was all kinds of yelling and stuff. The lowdown was that the girl was 18 at the time and was free to go, and that was her uncle. The police stopped him right there, and the bus went on, the people erupting in just hysterical laughter. I wound up being with that girl and marrying her. She was my first wife. I have two children with her, one a travel agent in Tarawa, and the other a student in Suva, Fiji.

We hid out on one end of the island, and when a small ship was going up to her home island of Makin, we jumped on and went and met her family.

On Makin I had to find a way to survive. There was a British guy and a Kiwi there, and the British guy was the former district officer for the British government, and they were trying to develop businesses on the outer islands. They got a little banana business that I took over. I started buying bananas from the northern islands, and I had a 125cc Honda with a sidecar, and I would sell bananas to the stores and hospitals and schools on Tarawa. I had this route, and it was quite social—I got to visit the different expats and stuff. It rains a lot on the northern islands, and I would go up there and work with people on propagating bananas, encouraging them to grow other things—cabbages and papayas and pumpkins. We tried all kinds of things.

We knew there was a market for shark fins and sea cucumbers, and gradually we started buying shark fins. On any given day, there’s may five or six hundred native fishermen throughout the Gilberts who paddle on canoes and fish for their daily food. A percentage of them would catch sharks, among the fish, which they would bring home and eat, so I developed this business in which we encouraged people to keep the fins from the sharks. Before, they would throw them away. We built this little business up, and it evolved to where I was going around the country on these cargo boats, buying shark fins, and a few years later, buying dried sea cucumbers from fishermen. It was quite lucrative. The last year I did it, the gross income was $640,000. But that was because I enjoyed going on the ship—I got to surf, I got to have fun at each little port I was in. I would go in with a bag of money buying these things. We were able to load sea cucumbers by the container-load.


Who was buying them?

Sea cucumbers are traditional seafood in China, so they would go through Hong Kong and be distributed from there.

A sea cucumber is a slug, like a snail, and depending on type of sea cucumber, you’re boiling them or blanching them. The trick is to dry them so they don’t rot. You might smoke-cure them first for a few days to lower the water content quickly, and then dry them. Because in China they want to reconstitute them so they’ll look fresh for the soups they make with them.

 

How did  you get a license to conduct business in Kiribati?

In order to stay there for more than four months, you have to apply for a thing that’s called a foreign investment. I was married, but Kiribati didn’t have a visa for people to stay there, so I had to apply like I had some big business, when in reality it was just this little business we did there. Actually, the first application was for doing handicrafts. I was buying mats and hats other things, and I actually sent them to Hawai’i on the first time around. From the Gilberts, there was a ship going up there, and on its last time doing so, I put about $8,000 worth of mats and stuff. I went around the whole state of Hawai’i selling handicrafts from the Gilbert Islands. But on the last time the ship was there, they had left without paying their port fees or something, so the ship was impounded for about three months, and then after that, they never ran that ship again. It was a local ship out of Nauru.

 

While you were doing the shark fin and sea cucumber business, how did surfing fit into that?

I had a Town & Country 5’10” twin-fin, a 7’2” round-pin singlefin, and a boogie board. Everywhere I went, I brought those boards, and if there were waves, waves were my first priority. In my business, when I’d arrive at the various islands, my work would be done in two hours, so what was there to do for the next three days while the ship was loading cargo? I was out looking for waves.


What were some standout sessions or surf spots?

On Tarawa, on its east side during westerly winds, there were a couple of places where there was more of a point setup where the wave would peel longer. There was Millionaire’s Point, which was an area where the reef’s a little bit deeper, and it’s a nice right that holds to well over double-overhead. That would be quite consistent in the winter, and we caught it on many good days. Another wave where the Chinese have since built a tracking station, we called that Prison Point because they were going to build a prison there, but never did. There were these chunky, bowly lefts, and in my 10 years there I did it really good once, when I was getting like five barrels on one wave. At the northwest end of Tarawa was a place called Naa, an actual pointbreak where north swell and tradewind swells wrap around. The wave could be five different 100-yard-long setups, or it could be waves where some days you could go 500 yards on one wave. It could be really long, just stringing the sections together. Other places with nice waves was on the island of Marakei. There was a nice right there that broke into a man-made channel. On the northwest passage of Abemama, there was winter surf there. And I can’t think of the name, but there’s also an island where they have a left point that breaks on south swells. Unfortunately the Gilberts rarely ever get south swells.

Again, the ship only stopped where there were channels, and they had a reef-blasting team. I had the privilege of watching waves being created on Tarawa. When they built the causeway, they blasted a channel through a flat reef that made really nice rights and short lefts on south swells. When they blasted the channel out, it was about 70 feet wide and then as it got toward the reef edge, they flared it out at a 45-degree angle—presto, a surf spot! And they’ve done something like that on almost every island in the Gilberts. If I had access to explosives, the government would really like that on some of the islands up here, on Fanning and Washington. What they want them for is so that the villages have a small canoe pass to go out, and if we had access to the explosives, we could help the government put canoe passes in. We’d just go around and look to where there might be a wave, and we’d help that wave out a whole lot. It’s not very hard to do. But the problem with explosives since 9/11 is buying them and moving them.

Living in the Gilberts, you can find world-class waves, but it’s not someplace to go for a surf trip because of the inconsistency and quality of the surf compared to other well-known places. In general I would describe the waves as being mediocre, but if you live there, you’ll catch some good waves when the swell and wind coming from the right directions, and suddenly, magic happens.

The main problem is that, except for the northwest pass on Abemama, all the reef passes are on the west or southwest shores of the atolls, and winter swells never have enough west to wrap in. South swells are rare. Tarawa should get surf on its western passes from south swells, but because of the screen of island groups to the south, it doesn’t.

But I was happy with all the surf I was getting in the Gilberts. I was hanging out with guys who were drinking, and I’ve never been a big drinker, but when you hang out with guys who drink beer, you get fat. I got to the point where I had to start jogging. I put this mental image of a left wall, with Santana playing in my head, and in 1992 I was able to make my first trip—after living in the Gilberts for 12 years—to Christmas Island from Tarawa on Air Nauru when Air Nauru was flying back and forth. I knew where the wave was on Christmas; I actually put my motorcycle on the plane, got off with the bike and my board, and went straight down to the point. There were waves that day, and I wrote in my journal: “Holy shit, I’ve been in the wrong islands for 12 years.” It blew my mind that there was good surf right there. I surfed two spots, and after sunset, I came in and I found a place to stay. I was talking to some guys who were on the beach drinking, and told them I needed a place to stay, and they found one for me, just a local house.

At the time, Christmas only had about 2,000 people, and it had 60 miles of paved road. It was really fun to get on a motorbike and just go full speed. There were thousands and thousands of land crabs. You couldn’t drive without running them over. Now, you don’t see them, but that’s because the human population has gone up to 10,000.

Christmas isn’t a native island where people have lived there for thousands of years. It’s a government-owned island, and nobody is from here. To the government, Christmas was just a place to grow coconuts. They had a small hotel that was barracks from the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the British were last here, and the government used that for its officers. Gradually the island became known as a bonefishing heaven, and fishermen started staying in the government hotel.

Even though Fanning is a non-native island, too, the government set up five villages, where they moved native people to—330 families from the Gilberts. The Line Islands were originally inhabited by Polynesians from 1,200 years ago until 600 years ago. Then the islands were rediscovered by Captain Cook in 1774, and it was 1798 when Captain Fanning got there. People were coming here from the Gilberts, but only on four-year contracts as coconut plantation workers. Fanning and Washington were first owned by a rebellious French priest, and later by a private family, who sold it to the Burns Philip corporation of Australia, and in 1983 Burn Philip sold those two islands for $2.4 million to the Gilbert Islands, and they decided to move people from the Gilbert Islands up to there. They set both Fanning and Washington up with villages, and they made them into traditional-style islands.


Did the people want to resettle there?

About a third of the people were people the government didn’t want. Maybe they were criminals.

It was about two months before I went back to Tarawa, and then I went back and forth between Christmas. I surfed Christmas the following winter, 1993-1994, and in March 1994 I caught the ship and went to visit Fanning for three months. I brought a duffel bag of clothes, some money, and a surfboard. It was an overnight trip, and the next morning, as soon as the island came into sight, I could tell there was an overhead early-season south swell, and as we got near the pass, I could see lines of waves breaking down the point. That was good and exciting but it got really nutty when the boat turned to go up into the pass, and I was looking right into the barrel of the wave. The tide was still coming in, and I saw this wave that pitched out and just stayed open all the way to the end, like half a minute long. Absolutely perfect, peeling, hollow left. I had to ask the captain first to see if he’d get into trouble, then I was off the back of that ship. I jumped.

I surfed until the tide starting getting low. That afternoon, I was sitting on the beach, and the tide had just changed. I was watching the wave, and it was quite amazing. Looking at the wave, it looked like it was too fast to make. The board I had was a 7’8” thruster funboard, and I was only able to make about a third of the waves, because I’d get to a point where I couldn’t go any faster and the wave would pass me. It was just absolutely mind-boggling how good the wave was. I screamed and yelled and had a good time. Three days later, I went by bicycle up to the north end of the island, to Whaler’s, and I had no expectation of getting any surf up there. But Whaler’s had surf, chest-high waves, in a magical setup that had a left and a right peeling into a channel.

It was paradise. Plus there were tall, slender coconut trees, grass everywhere, puddles of water because it rains a lot. Where Whaler’s was, there were these abandoned cement buildings that were built in the 1920s for the cable station, tall and grand, and although it wasn’t being taken care of, it was all there, including the swimming pool.

I would’ve gone to Christmas and Fanning many years earlier, but I was into the routine with marriage and kids and stuff, and there was no plane flying back and forth. To visit Christmas, the turnaround would’ve been about nine months if I took the boat. You get off the boat on Christmas, and you’d have to wait about six months or more before another boat came. It just wasn’t practical to do that.

On Christmas I tried to get business going with sea cucumbers again. The following year I was able to go up to Fanning and Washington islands. On Fanning I wound up renting a room on a side of a store. It was totally bare—no kitchen, no toilet, no nothing. It was a for storing sea cucumbers. I kept it for several years. From there it was a 20-minute walk out to the point. When I got to Fanning, I realized that it was the place I wanted to live for the rest of my life.


What about your wife and kids on Tarawa?
In Tarawa, we had worked our way up where we had a very big cash income, and she was at the height of social popularity. She’d go to government functions, government parties. They had a handicrafts exhibition in Canada that she got to attend. But suddenly I wanted to live on Fanning, some hick island in the middle of nowhere.


So if Fanning didn’t have that left-hander, you wouldn’t have moved there.

That’s correct.


You moved for the wave?

Absolutely, and I paid for it with my soul and the pain of not seeing my kids grow up, of not being with them and for them. I gave my business to my wife and went to absolute zero. Lived as a beachcomber. I felt rich if we had milk to put in our tea.

On my on freewill and accord, I went down to Suva, Fiji, and in December 1993 I renounced my U.S. citizenship. They advised against doing it for a variety of reasons, none of which included 9/11 because it hadn’t happened yet. But now when I go through an airport, I have the same red flags as any Al-Qaeda member has because I fit some sort of profile—‘You renounced your U.S. citizenship!’ But I’m still American. My dad was a World War II veteran. I did for one thing only, and that was surfing, because I wanted to live on Fanning and surf for the rest of my life. Period.

From 1993 until 1999, when some guys in a yacht called the Good Life showed up, surfing Fanning was two-dimensional: me looking at the wave, or me riding the wave. I’d never seen anyone ride it.

Fanning is a place I can continue surfing for the rest of my life. If there was an open transport, like if the government put a plane there, I think surfing-wise it would just be another crowded surf spot, if the world had easy access to it. I’ve kind of turned on a beacon in a world that gets smaller and smaller—what I’m hoping for now is to develop something for Fanning so that the good wave on Fanning can be viewed as a resource that can earn money for the local people. Natural resources are the sovereign property of the people, and Fanning has a good enough wave that can be a resource. We’ve been working with the local government saying that by charging for or leasing out the spot, they could generate half the revenue that they currently receive for their government. People who pay this revenue could capitalize on it, or they could be like the early guys who got in on the Ranch, and they could hold it for themselves. But opening it up so that backpack tourism could come in, you’d have big social moral changes. I can’t help but think back to Nias when it was a slum of surfers. I picture Fanning being like that, unless something is done. We’re the stewards of the future. We can be like ostriches, stick our head in the sand and wait for our ass to get kicked, or we can try to take charge over which way the future’s going to go.

I have no aspirations to become rich. I’m truly interested in the welfare and long-term well-being of the people. I’m worried about what I see with the fish, I’m worried about the environment, and I’ll sometimes write harsh letters to government people, complaining or stating how I think things should be. Some people take offense to this—who the hell am I to say this? Or they think, ‘How are you trying to trick us?’ I tried to get a little hotel going on Fanning, and I had no ownership in it. It was owned by the people. I set it up as a public company. But people felt that somehow I was going to trick them.


When did you surf the Phoenix Islands?

I stayed on Kanton Atoll in 1990 and 1993. Our idea was to set up a shark-fishing operation, and we hired 12 people from Arorae, the southernmost Gilbert island. We wanted to make dried shark meat, skins, collect the liver oil, utilizing every bit of the shark, including bones. The only thing I didn’t use were the teeth, which I really regret.


Why Kanton and not the Gilberts?
Nobody lived there and you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing sharks. You go out to the beach and look out and see 50 small reef sharks swimming around in the lineup. In the Gilberts, I never had a sharky experience. There weren’t nearly as many sharks there.


Kanton is one of the most remote places on Earth. How did you start a business there?
We got an advance of $20,000 from our associate in Hong Kong and bought a couple of boats and enough supplies to last six months. We took a freighter there, paid a diversion fee for them to come back and get us, and set ourselves up to stay there. I lived there for three months and 11 days. In the wharf area, there were some metal buildings, and we just camped out in those. Our drinking water was ground water. There were several different wells, and if one well was too brackish or salty tasting, we’d try another well. During my stay, we were always able to get enough water to drink. It didn’t really taste good to drink straight, so we always had it as tea or mixed with instant coffee.

But the bottom line was it was too difficult to do business on Kanton. Logistically, the whole thing was just too hard to do. And if you got sick there, you’d be done. I was getting boils that were the size of golf balls, and they’d break and leave a quarter-inch-deep hole, but you couldn’t lance them without slicing through your flesh. I think it was from the water we used for bathing had lots of staph in it, and that would get into my skin.


How did you make the days go by, it being just you and those eight other people?

It was terrible. There was nothing to read—unfortunately I didn’t think that far ahead, to bring books. I had a few surf magazines. I did a lot of exploration around the island—there was a lot of old stuff to check out. I had bags and bags of Coke bottles from the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s.


What was that like?
Food deprivation—everything deprivation. Because it was only the people I had to associate with, and there was nothing else. Very few palm trees there because it’s a desert island, more so than Christmas is. Basically, our diet was fish and rice. Sundays we’d have corned beef.

There are lots of old buildings there. In the 1930s the first Clipper seaplanes flew there, and the New Zealand companies built a small hotel for these trans-Pacific flying boats that would land in the lagoon. The first trans-Pacific jets would stop there for refueling, and then the U.S. built a large military installation for the Apollo mission. There were scientific buildings that had rows and banks of scopes and giant antennae arrays. Hundreds of broken-down trucks. Telephone poles and wires, paved roads, a few slipstream trailers that are just sitting there. It was a military outpost, but the Gilberts took it over in 1983. There was a caretaking group of eight families and three policemen, a mechanic, a weather officer, a school teacher, a district officer, and a doctor.

As far as the seven other islands in the Phoenix group, they’re all uninhabited. Three of them were inhabited in the 1930s, but that was abandoned in the ‘60s because the droughts are too rough in times of La Niña.


What’s the Phoenix surf like?

Kanton is the only island with surf. It has one passage with a small island in the middle, a split passage. It has a very user-friendly left on the south side that breaks on south swells. There was an old ship that was aground at the very end of the left, called the Calvin Coolidge at the time. It was kind of a fun wave. It has good shape and doesn’t section out. You could go for about 60 yards or so, and you’d run into the ship, but with higher tides and smaller surf you could go around the bow of the ship and get another 50 yards on the wave. I surfed it about 15 times in three months, maximum size around 8-foot faces. Every other time I’ve been to Kanton, on other trips across Kiribati, there wasn’t any surf.

The bottom is coral rubble, no coral heads. The bigger waves break further outside, and the water turns really milky blue because of the fine sand. When it’s bigger, it was really frightening because you’re sitting there, and you could get eaten. It was way more fun when it was head-high and you’re in clear water where you can see the bottom and stuff. I was more afraid of having some giant fish biting me than a shark.

There’s also Spam Island in the middle of the passage that has a right and left. The north side of the main passage is steep, shallow, and gnarly.


Do you think you’re the only person to have ridden it?

I think if some yachtie was a surfer and they had a board, they’d surf it. It’s a wave that asks you to surf it when it’s breaking. It’s a nice little peeling left. I think the because of the number of sharks, I don’t think other people would have surfed there. And you’d see like 100-pound trevally tearing apart fish, barracudas that were five feet long. Everywhere you’d look, you could see splashes of the war going on between fish. There was a yacht that visited, and fish ran into the boat, chasing other fish that the guy on the yacht had caught. It’s a full-on battle zone, all around the island—fish eating fish. It’s a very robust ecosystem because no one really lives there, and that’s what National Geographic’s expeditions there in 2000 and 2002 were all about—that there is no other place like it on the planet. National Geographic and the New England Aquarium are trying to put a deal together to protect those islands from commercial fishing, to set 100,000 square miles around the Phoenix Islands as a No Commercial Fishing Zone.


How about in the Gilberts?
In the Gilberts, I’m sure I was the first and maybe the only person to surf the waves.


Who would want to visit the Gilberts for surf?

It’s for the person who’s not out to score epic waves, like going to Tavarua or some other big-name spot. There are lots of waves in the Gilberts, and if  you have the time and you can go and hang out on an island.

There’s a whole screen of islands to the south, so not much south swell gets through. Other downsides are there are perhaps well over two dozen absolutely world-class reef passes with perfectly curved edges, prevailing offshore winds, but there’s absolutely no swell. Maybe once a year. They face west, and you have to wait for the right cyclone to be bashing the Solomons, or at the beginning of a westerly season, there may be westerly windswell. In fact, I got really good surf on Makin Island, a really good, hollow, tube-riding left, safe to surf, and a very user-friendly right, on a swell that was coming before the westerly winds arrived. I got one whole day, and the next morning I was out, and then after that, it was onshore. The storm had arrived. The left was difficult to take off on because it came out of such deep water. It wasn’t dangerous, but it was hard to make the drop. The guy was reported, and although they were able to stop him from flying, they weren’t able to fire him. It’s forbidden in writing, but in practicality you can drink and fly with passengers to the point of insanity. Thank God there hasn’t been a bad plane crash yet.

The inter-island ships are often irregular, and the planes of Air Kiribati don’t always fly. I witnessed a pilot who was so drunk that he needed assistance getting into the plane. On the way back, he did not stop at the island that he was supposed to stop at for refueling, and he just made Tarawa, but he ran out of fuel and wasn’t able to taxi to the terminal.

As far as more people surfing the Gilberts, maybe if transportation gets better, people could see the swells and fly in to Nikunau, which has a decent south-swell left, same with Abemama. But with the other waves, no, it’s never going to happen. It’s too hard. There’ll just be occasional travelers and misfits.

The Gilberts are a great destination for someone who is looking for a cross-cultural experience with a traditional culture that hasn’t changed at all, that retains itself. That’s a little bit hard to see in other places. Usually they’re organized, like dances at a resort, but in the Gilberts they do it for themselves.

If you went there to surf, you’d be the only one around. For atolls it’s a beautiful place, a beautiful experience. The vast number of islands to choose from. The niceness of the people and how sharing they are, their joy of entertaining visitors, because they don’t get visitors very often. If the person has the education and the time, another way to surf the Gilberts is through the Peace Corps. The only thing is, you don’t get to choose which island to get to work on.

Paradise is a state of mind. Paradise is what you make of it.