Carolines Travel Dispatch: Three From The Pepper Farm

Surf camps, relative to the roughly 80 years of modern surf history, are popping up at a remarkable rate. In 1974, the gates of Mike Boyum’s G-Land camp first opened. Eight years later, in 1982, Dave Clark founded Tavarua. A host of U.S. East Coast surfers fled their local sandbars (some shedding Justice Department bracelets) to establish surf camps in Central America. Then more camps opened: Fiji, Samoa, Indo, Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, the Mentawais, the Maldives, and now, lost in the Pacific, the Caroline Islands join the ever-expanding list.

The island chain, which is an unheralded series of gems adrift in the Pacific, is relatively new to the surf world at large, but, as we found out, surfers aren’t the first foreign invaders to appreciate the strategic location of the Carolines. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Japan feverishly spread its brand of nationalism on many Pacific isles, and the Carolines were no exception. Young soldiers canvassed the islands armed with paint and stencils, branding signs, buildings and roadways—an imperialistic, government-funded tagging program. A nice Japanese garden probably would have been cool, but “Property of Emperor Hirohito” stenciled across the fish house wasn’t too welcomed by Caroline Island natives. By the time the Japanese military had been pummeled into submission in 1945, the armaments built on the Carolines served as one of the last refuges for the vanquished army.
Today, built in the shadow of rusting World War II artillery, surf camps are popping up where cannons once thundered. When the opportunity to travel to the remote Carolines came about, it was too sweet a proposition to pass on, so a Surfer expedition including myself, Surfer Staff Photog Jeff Divine, and a passel of hungry young pros jumped at the chance. Like most trips to relatively uncharted waters, it started as a shot in the dark. But as the departure date grew closer, our host began sending us photographic updates of the waves via e-mail, each batch showing bigger and cleaner conditions. It made us nervous: Nothing spells disaster for a surf trip like seeing epic photos prior to your departure. It’s the old “If-it-is-good-now-it-will-be-crap-when-we-get-there” superstition.

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To learn more about surfing in the Caroline island chain visit GlobalSurfGuides.com

While having a propensity for long stretches of maddening trade winds, on the right day the surf in the Caroline Islands can rival any place on the planet. In front of one of the only surf-specific camps in the chain, a quick 10-minute skiff-ride away, a world-class reef pass offers ledgy, shallow right-hand tubes, similar in shape and power to some of the more notable passes found in Tahiti. And just like its South Pacific neighbors, the water is crystal clear, which lends an element of paradisiacal splendor to the experience, but also makes the fact that you are surfing over sharp, living reef a constant reality. Adding to the fear factor, the reef provides a fast wave that takes a fair amount of get-up-and-go when coming out of the starting blocks, which makes each wave a constant thrill.

As mentioned above, the Caroline Islands can be ridiculously windy for weeks and weeks at a time. Situated in the wide-open expanse of the Pacific, the exposure can be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the location makes the islands ideal for sucking in swell from just about any angle; a curse because they lie in the path of some heavy open-ocean weather. Most surfing is wind-dependent, so when the wind sits down long enough to let the ocean clean up, the surfers get on it. Wintertime northwest swells bring unbridled island-type power to the various reef passes, mostly rights, but there are a few left passes to be found on the other, windward, side of the islands.

There are a few “don’t miss” cultural endeavors in the Caroline Islands. The island that we visited had a waterfall tour of two separate falls that were gorgeous. The falls were the most picturesque that any in our crew had ever seen, made even better by the fact that access to both of the falls was simple—an oxygen-laden floral hike, 200 yards in and out. According to locals there is a much larger, more breathtaking series of falls deep in the interior of the island, but these are only for very adventurous hikers (or those facing extended periods of unfavorable surf conditions that are looking for a getaway).

Also on the cultural tap is the hike up to the radio-tower lookout. Be advised: This is more than a leisurely saunter; it is a straight-up hill for a solid 10 minutes. One thing to remember is bring plenty of water. Another thing to bring is a healthy imagination, as you’ll first come to a series of Japanese anti-aircraft installations, complete with rusted-out guns, bunkers, large bomb craters from U.S. B-29 assaults and now (thanks to the island’s conservation efforts), gorgeously laid-out landscaping.

As far as grinds are concerned, don’t go looking for a McDonald’s or Jack In The Box on any corners—you’ll probably be eating fish. The fishing in this region is phenomenal, and even if you get skunked as far as surf goes, the ocean is sure to reward you with a good fight or two. With a little patience and a few hours to kill, mahi mahi, ahi, wahoo and a variety of local reef fish are all readily available and are a great way to save money and eat healthy.

The Carolines are unspoiled. There are no Hiltons, no Marriotts, and no Outriggers. The lack of Western hospitality is part of the charm. Of course this means no customer service either. Be prepared to wait for food, not receive what you ordered, and generally be ignored. I’ve gotten better service making myself a corndog at the AM/PM. But don’t get me wrong: The people are very friendly. It’s just that life will go on just fine with or without you needing extra ice cubes in your Coke. Things are laid back here. Expect nothing and you’ll be stoked you did.

SURF HEGEMONY AND THE RIGHT TO GO RIGHT

On a remote island far away from iPod anxiety, fake tits and Bill O’Reilly, an airport baggage pull cart is emblazoned with a SURFER magazine sticker.

Disgusting. Made even worse by the fact that I put it there (I’ve since made proper amends). Nevertheless, the sticker most assuredley wasn’t the first, and unfortunately it won’t be the last (although I, in my late 30s, have finally sworn off stickers). The surf sticker incident is a microcosm of a bigger issue: the global expansionism of surfing’s pop culture. Like it or not we are imposing our culture, both the good and the bad—mostly the bad–on certain remote parts of the globe.

The locals probably don’t want SURFER magazine stickers plastered everywhere. More often than not surfers leave behind a smattering of graffiti (stickers), environmental waste (broken boards, fecal matter), and morally questionable behavior (scathing vernacular, drunken evenings and selfish attitudes). The smudgy black ink of our cutural thumbprint embedded on regions that we would not have been bothered with save the peeling left hander that breaks on low tide, and southeast winds during the months of June through September.

In most cases surf camps are the ink pad in which we dip our skewed cultural thumbs. But don’t get me wrong. If managed properly, surf camps help rather than hurt. They can expose the positive contributions rather than the negative ones. Such is the case in the Caroline Islands and the new surf camp there.

In my eyes there are two main reasons why one would not set up a surf camp. The first: The local, sovereign, indigenous inhabitants of the land do not want it –pretty simple stuff. If they don’t want you, you must leave. The second reason is seclusion. You want to surf the spot by yourself. And I do mean BY YOURSELF. It is your little slice of paradise. DO NOT TELL A SOUL! Otherwise, IT IS OVER. Paradise comes with a high price– loneliness.

Not too many people want to surf by themselves. It is unnatural. We are social beings. Therefore we tell people and those people will tell people and before you know it, lots of people know about “your” spot. Therefore it makes sense to set up a surf camp. When you discover gold you don’t just show people where you found out. No. You stake a claim and manage the groveling masses as they try to find their own gold. Managing requires thought out, well-intentioned planning.

Luckily most gatekeepers of the green room have followed certain ideals, based around improvement for the local people, local economy and local environment. Below are four ideals that surf camp principals should adopt when making each and every decision. These ideals will help our subculture find its place among the local culture, rather than take the place of.

  • #1 Environmental resources protected:
    Don’t screw up the reefs or the fishing or the land in any way.

  • #2 Economic opportunity assured:
    Hire locals. Have guests spend their money in towns and villages.

  • #3 Philanthropic endeavor implemented:
    Create a charitable cause funded by a portion of the clients fees that helps the children of the region, be it education, health, etc., etc.

  • #4 Local culture celebrated:
    Have guests go to church, shrine, dances, etc., etc. Participate with the locals and their customs, don’t just watch.

IT SMELLS LIKE STATE OF MIND

Rule # 1 when planning a surf trip: Keep your expectations low. My mantra goes like this: “If-it’s-three-feet-we-score.” You see, getting skunked is a state of mind. It’s relative. If you keep your expectations low, you’ve given yourself a pretty good chance of having a good trip.

I’m disgustingly superstitious about the outcome of surf trips. Which is remarkable considering the quantity of forecasting websites that I peruse prior to departure. Even though I’m supposed to know before I leave, I still tend to my superstitious practices so as to maximize the outcome of my already decided fate.

The day of my most recent journey started off like all mornings: a strong batch of brew, followed by the sometimes frightful and smelly morning constitution. The stench from this particular movement was matched only by its voluminous quantity. So strong and forceful that, if it wasn’t of the bowel form, this movement would have made Vivaldi proud.

I turned to inspect her, as we oftentimes do, and proudly flushed. The beast began swirling and broke up a bit but there was trouble. She wouldn’t go down. Like a stubborn dog that doesn’t want to go out in the rain, she swirled mockingly. It was then that I knew.

“We’re gonna get skunked,” I thought as I double-and-triple checked my travel docs with a clutching of my cargo-short side pocket. “Especially if I leave now.” There would be no courtesy flush. I left.

This was the first omen. Then it began to rain.

It also didn’t help that our host in the Caroline Islands was sending us photographic updates of the waves (on an almost daily basis) via e-mail; each batch showing bigger and cleaner. Nothing can finger out a surf trip quicker than seeing epic photos prior to your departure. It’s the old if-it-is-good-now-it-will-be-crap-when-we-get-there superstition. A false conception of causation to be sure, but another of my irrational abject beliefs. Looking at perfect waves of the spot you aim to visit cancels out months of “if-it’s-three-feet-we-score” mantra-izing.

Well, we got skunked. At least by magazine standards and magazine standards are based on photos. And the photos usually have to be a few clicks past exceptional. The bar is pretty high. If your shots aren’t of the tropical, blue, 6-foot Backdoor-esque variety, don’t bother wasting the Fed-Ex guy’s time.

Upon returning from an assigment, photographer Jeff Divine often uses a baking metaphor when discussing the quality of his images. If he captured a plethora of unique moments, Divine will tell you that he’s prepared a multi-layered wedding cake with white chocolate truffles, springtime strawberries, and frosted walnut sprinkles. Each fanciful layer and edible adornment representing different “looks” he’s captured during the trip: One layer of the cake may be pole-cam stuff from the water. Another layer may be tropically lit high action from the boat. Some moody black and white during a rain squall will add some sprinkles to the cake. An hour-long commitment to shooting lineups will add a layer of fluffy angels-food cake. A session highlighted by front-lit epic tuberides and he’s added fresh whipped cream. Some unique lifestyle underneath a majestic waterfall and there you have it, the first ever Gran Marnier flambied wedding cake.

“It’s single-layered…it’s really dry and crumbly and when you bite down you’ll chip a tooth on the walnut shell,” was how Divine described his cake from this trip. “You’ll need a glass of water and a good dentist,” he added.

To learn more about surfing in the Caroline island chain visit GlobalSurfGuides.com