Return to Pohnpei hero

Return to Pohnpei

24th Sep 2019

It seems improbable, but Pohnpei, that verdant, reef-ringed isle in the North Pacific, has an image problem. Or more correctly it has a marketing problem – a mismatch between the waves we see in the surf media and the reality on the ground.

You see, ever since Palikir Pass was first exposed to the world, way back in the early noughties, the perception is that Pohnpei is strictly a heavy water zone.

The aberration is understandable as every season a terrabyte of images are shot from the channel at Palikir. And always…always, it’s during the swell of the year when long period power draws ribbons of water off the reef, converting it into a turret of energy pitching and careening toward the channel at frightful speed. In turn, those images saturate the surf media so it’s all we ever see of the place.

But…here’s a little secret: it ain’t always like that.

Those two-storey high days are rare in Pohnpei and it’s largely due to positioning. It’s location in the central Western Pacific, midway between the Philippines and Hawaii, means Pohnpei opens to a slightly different swell window than Hawaii. It cops some of the north-west storm fetch that hits Hawaii but not all of it. And this is only accounting for the Palikir side of the island. There are fifteen reef passes around the island and each coast has its own season.

During big swells pro surfers will fly into Pohnpei Surf Club on three day strike missions. Yet in between swells P’Pass just keeps ticking over. In a way it’s similar to Macaronis in the Mentawais: a uniform, sloping reef means the wave will break closer in on smaller swells but the shape remains consistent. Under six foot you wont get the ol’ heave ho but rather an endless facsimile of reef perfection.

Ralph Dawe enjoying a version of user friendly P’Pass.

Pohnpei’s fringing reefs are all separated from land by a wide lagoon. There’s no Indonesian-like convenience here. The surfing happens kilometres offshore, way out of sight from locals, and because of this a surf culture is yet to develop on Pohnpei, despite Palikir Pass having been surfed for over thirty years.

The out of sight, out of mind mentality is further aided by the island’s extensive mangrove system. Which seems like curious reasoning, until you realise the island has almost no beaches, and therefore no communal meeting places by the water – as other island nations treat their strips of sand. The locals fish the lagoons and reefs, yet with no beaches there’s simply no beach culture

All of which means leisure tourism, of the Mai Tai and massages on the beach variety, is unlikely to ever take hold in Pohnpei.

This used to be your first view of P’Pass: from the plane window as it descends to the airport down the coast. These days you can squint all you want but the view is nought but black.

You see, last December Air Niugini picked up the route and flights from Australia now arrive at night. Aside from the lack of view, everything else is an improvement. The flight time is reduced, as is the cost, and also the number of stopovers along the way.

Eight hours after landing you see the same view but from sea level.

First morning, first day.

Palikir Pass is five kilometres down the coast from Kolonia and a kay or so out to sea. Because of its distance out of town the boats tend to stay out there for hours at a time, if not the whole day. And as such, there’s no need to hurry, except in the morning when the enthusiastic are rewarded with a completely empty line up.

Ralph Dawe, first over the side…

…and into the first barrel of the day.

A few tips about the wave…

Palikir Pass doesn’t reward the inside player. Those folk who are congenitally programmed to hold the inside often find themselves too deep here. Because, rather than just merely bend around the pass, the best waves focus on a knuckle of reef that sits out on its own. The lines of swell peel down the outside reef before a fifty metre shutdown section creates an impasse for even the most headstrong surfer – though rumour has it that Reef McIntosh gave it a solid nudge a few years back.

On the other side of the shutdown section is the launching pad for all the better waves, and consequently it’s where the savvy surfer should sit and drop anchor.

On occasion I’d paddle up the reef, enticed by those empty, spiralling barrels, but on every decent set my progress would be blocked. Before I could abort I’d see the water drain off the reef, causing the wave to stand up square where no wave had broken for fifteen minutes…and there’d be one of those patient folk calmly stroking into it.

Sean Moore is from the Gold Coast and was making his seventh trip to Pohnpei. Fella knows the reward for being patient – and he’s definetely not a surf guide.

I first travelled to Pohnpei seven years ago. Did the old zig zag haul across the Western Pacific. Back then I used a large white coral head to locate the best takeoff spot. It was as big as a fridge and just as white, and it could be seen from most parts of the lineup. An invaluable lineup guide.

I went looking it for it this trip but couldn’t find it anywhere. Spoke to a guy who’d been surfing Palikir the last few years and he knew nothing about it. The consensus was that the coral had simply changed since my last visit.

The sheer size of the old coral head is testament to how much the bottom has changed, and yet the wave that breaks above it is identical in every way to my memory.

Baffling, eh?

Ever been on a surf trip where women outnumber the men? No, me neither, until now. So when I stumbled upon this quintuplet drinking beer in the airport during the Port Moresby layover I was a tad surprised.

Meet (from left to right) Dookie, Kate, JM, Emma, and Amy. Three of whom were schoolyard friends, despite now living in various parts of Australia, and they’d picked up two running mates along the way. Between them they had every character trait a good surf trip needs: the creative one (Dookie), Sporty Spice (Kate), the hard charger with an attitude to match (JM), the unhurried cruiser (Emma), and the hard boiled cynic with a penchant for earnest Ben Harper songs after a few drinks (Amy).

Throw together five strong female personalities and there wasn’t much space for the blokes to do typical bloke stuff. We just kind of filled in the gaps, played cameo roles between the five leads. Which was wonderfully refreshing if you were willing to share the spotlight. Fortunately they brought the laughs.

A female friend of mine often laments that women are under-represented in the surf industry and the surf media. Men make up the status quo. Yet the gender balance is changing, it’s just happening slowly. Organically. From the ground on up. And the presence of these five rambunctious lasses in a faraway surf spot confirms it.

Every morning we’d steam up the peaceful mangrove-lined bay, turn left under the imposing heft of Sokeh’s Rock, and then be struck by the fist of cognitive dissonance. The tropical idyll broken by the sight of hulking fishing trawlers moored in the lagoon. An armada of them. All bearing international flags, they service the south-east Asian consumer markets. Most were motherships that remain in the lagoon while smaller vessels scour the surrounding seas of Yellow Fin Tuna and return to transfer their load.

Their presence is troubling for some Pohnpei locals. Collectively the Pohnpeiian government receives $9 million per year for allowing the ships to drop anchor, which is a significant share of their GDP. Yet the effects the fishing has on the nearby ocean is cause for concern. There’s also the ignominy of their island being seen as little more than mooring space for big industry. Over the years there’s been talk of a tuna processing plant on the island, which would allow more money to stay on the island, but as yet nothing has come of it.

When the ships are fully laden they weigh anchor and sail west to Asia, replaced by yet more ships with empty holds waiting to be filled.

A local told me that Pohnpei is the second wettest place on Earth. In fact a few people told me that same statistic. I went looking online for verification but couldn’t find anything definitive. An as yet incomplete rain survey from the inland mountains was the closest I came to confirmation.

But let’s not quibble here, if you go to Pohnpei you’re gonna get wet. Real wet. Soaked. Repeatedly. Fortunately the temperature is a constant 30° and sunshine is never far away so it’s no inconvenience. In fact, despite the rain records – if it’s not the second wetttest place on Earth it’s definitely top ten – I didn’t see a single open umbrella while there.

And of course wherever there’s heavy rain there’s myriad waterfalls. Take your pick on Pohnpei. They’re everywhere. Small ones next to the road to cool down in and majestic ones that require a half day hike and a bucket of sweat as sacrifice.

Shall we indulge in some more dubious research?

Let’s dive right in…

Ever heard it said that the Inuit have fifty different words for ‘snow’? Correct or not – and a quick search shows the academics are split on the issue – the point is that languages evolve to describe local concerns. And if you’re surrounded by snow year round one word ain’t gonna cut it.

Similarly, the Pohnpeiians need fifty different words for ‘blue’. Every dive over the side revealed an array of colour that defies description.

Right, enough with the factoids. Time for some demonstable, unarguable, rock solid stats.

This was no strike mission, the trip was booked well in advance so it was a roll of the dice swell-wise.

In seven days on the island the crew had five days surfing out on the reef, two of those days fell into the unquestionably epic category, two scored as pretty damn good, and one day was still-way-better-than-back-home. In total that meant Dave Peterson clocked 487 lineup hours and returned to his NSW Central Coast home blissed out with a wave count of 5,263 P’Pass waves.

Or at least it felt like that…

Despite it’s isolation, Pohnpei’s modern history has been intertwined with war, much of it distant and indirect. And even though you’re here for the surfing, theirs is a remarkable history. It’s well worth knowing.

Spain was the first to colonise the island, however after their defeat in the Spanish-American War they sold it to Germany.

Then, following Germany’s defeat in World War I, the island was placed in Japanese care.

The Japanese ruled up until World War II when their defeat saw Pohnpei fall under American occupation.

Pohnpei gained independence from America in 1986, however it remains an associated state of the US. This means the citizens of Pohnpei can freely travel to the US, and they can also, somewhat improbably, fight in its wars.

The US military promises to pay for college tuition fees for draftees, but only after they’ve served four years in the military. With limited employment opportunity in Pohnpei many local youths are taking up the offer, though some don’t make it as far as college. Their photos are hung at the airport as a reminder of their service.

This Japanese WWII tank serves as another reminder of their brushes with war.

Towards the end of the trip the swell dropped and P’Pass showed its versatility as a small wave joint. The takeoff moved in, and it also conveniently began to shift around allowing multiple entry points, while the inside still produced enough shape to build disproportionate speed.

JM, flying overhead on a smaller day.

Thanks to Air Niugini, World Surfaris, and Pohnpei Surf Club who made this trip possible.

All photos by Simon ‘Swilly’ Williams.

Many thanks to Gus Kohler AKA The Prince of Palikir, for his wisdom, counsel, and company.

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