Pohnpei is one of those primordial tropical islands you might see in action movies and adventure reality shows, except none have been filmed there—Hollywood can’t find it on a map and probably never will. There are lots of pretty waterfalls and dense, misty jungles, but the island has no beaches, it’s too damn far away, it rains often, and the locals are typically stoned off weed or drunk from sakau.
With its immaculate satellite atolls of Ant and Pakin, lush little Pohnpei (PON-pay), one of three Senyavin Islands within the 500 Caroline Islands, occupies a few thousand muggy acres of the West Pacific. It is the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), a sovereign island nation that includes the states of Yap, Chuuk, and Kosrae, about seven degrees above the equator, east of Palau, north of New Guinea. Ringed with mangrove forest, its lagoon and healthy barrier reef are pierced with 21 passes. Only 13 miles wide, Pohnpei, which means “upon a stone altar,” is the FSM’s biggest, tallest (Mt. Nahna Laud is 2,595 feet), most developed, and most populated (34,500) island, a smaller, rainier (more than 300 inches annually), more remote but similarly verdant cousin of Tahiti, with good diving, fishing, and the flawless right-hand barrels of Palikir Pass, two miles off the island’s northwest coast.
Alan Hamilton moved from Palos Verdes to Santa Barbara in 1967, when he was 17. In 1971, a few months after a guy named Mort McIntosh had first surfed Pohnpei, Hamilton and partner John Bradbury became the first owners of a parcel (#55) in the Hollister Ranch, where the regular-footed Hamilton surfed exclusively. A diehard sailor, he became a commercial fisherman, skippering Alamo, an old shrimp boat based in Santa Barbara Harbor. In 1987 he hired an energetic Pohnpeian deckhand named Danny, who was in Santa Barbara illegally as an undocumented alien.
“After Pohnpei and those other islands got their independence in 1986,” Hamilton told me, “they hired this guy named Bill Bixler to go out and do a survey of the tuna. Bixler hired Danny, and when they were done surveying, they smuggled him back to Santa Barbara, and he started getting jobs on everybody’s boats.”
At Danny’s urging, Hamilton visited Pohnpei in early April 1991. He brought two surfboards with him and stayed at Danny’s house at the base of Sokehs Rock. “I got a map of Pohnpei and saw Palikir Pass on it,” Hamilton said. “I thought it looked like a good setup for surf. Danny was there with me, and he had a little boat, and I said, ‘Danny, take me out to this pass.’ We went out there, and it was just this dynamite wave.”
Palikir was offering glassy, head-high sets. It was Hamilton’s second day on Pohnpei; he stayed two months.
One night, Hamilton was in a smoky bar, shooting pool with FSM president Bailey Olter. Olter offered Hamilton the job of skippering the 80-foot Kocho, a Japanese fishing boat seized while fishing illegally in Pohnpeian waters. Skippering sounded good, and he knew boats, so in June 1991 Hamilton returned to Santa Barbara and sold everything he owned, including Alamo and the Hollister Ranch parcel, in less than two weeks, because on Pohnpei, a new life of deep sea-fishing and Palikir-tuberiding awaited.
Not all adhered to plan. Hamilton: “The senator who was in charge of the project was from Mokil Atoll, like 100 miles from Pohnpei, and he had a store out there. I ended up just taking all of these sacks of rice and cigarettes and everything out to the senator’s little store instead of going fishing, like I was supposed to. I was supposed to do all these fishing trips and stuff, but never did.”
Yet surfing was never far. Palikir was Hamilton’s main wave, but he surfed around the island, in all seasons. And he was always alone except the few times he took a visiting marine biologist out, or when he surfed Palikir with Mark Hepner, a Kauaian diver who exported tropical fish.
On April 9, 1994, Hamilton almost lost his left hand and forearm to an 8-foot-long bull shark. He was surfing at Palikir; it was a foot overhead and perfect, with nobody in sight. Around 2 p.m., he kicked out of wave, and started paddling back out. On his second stroke—BAM!
“The shark came up from behind me super fast and it was like a grenade went off in my arm. It was going in too fast; it bit and then it slid down my arm. The shark yanked me off my board and then went backwards off my arm with its jaw clamped down, scraping my flesh off down to my fingertips. It took all the tendons and it broke my bones—and I was way out there by myself at Palikir. My panga was parked on the reef, so I just caught a dinky wave with my one arm and glided on in to the boat. I was bleeding like crazy. The only chance I had was to get into town as quickly as I could.”
Hamilton’s boat had a paltry 9-horsepower outboard; the trip to Palikir from Kolonia took nearly 30 minutes, longer than most. He managed to start the motor, untie the anchor, and head back toward town, but immense blood loss caused Hamilton to drift in and out of consciousness.
“I went blind because all the blood went out of my head, so I laid down because I couldn’t see anymore. I figured that, hell, I was going to die, but when I was laying down, my vision came back, so I just stayed down and drove with my feet.
He crashed into the Micro Glory, a docked freighter that was about to depart for Kapingamarangi. The crew looked down, grabbed him, and rushed him to Pohnpei Hospital in Kolonia, where he remained for six days, receiving rudimentary but adequate care. He flew to Honolulu for further treatment at Tripler Army Medical Center, but the hospital would not accept him. So he rang Santa Barbara’s Cottage Hospital, which “couldn’t wait” to get him in.
“They treated me like I was Mick Jagger,” Hamilton said. Cottage sought to specialize in orthopedic surgery, and Hamilton was a prime guinea pig; the hospital treated “the sharkbite guy” for free, and over the next four months he had four operations. The fingers of Hamilton’s left hand no longer functioned but, permanently stuck in an outward closed formation, he could still paddle, and in February 1995 he started surfing again. Back on Pohnpei, his blood-stained surfboard was nailed to a wall in Rumors, a lively bar among the mangroves at Sokehs Harbor.
In late 1995 Hamilton bought a 30-foot fiberglass boat and sailed it from Hawaii to Tahiti, where he stayed three years, doing essentially nothing. Via Yvon Chouinard, a friend of Hamilton’s, Chuck Corbett heard of him and invited him to Kiribati. The two sailed to Fanning Island in separate boats. It was the summer of 1999; Hamilton stayed for 18 months, surfing Whaler Anchorage and English Harbor.
“He was 49 years old, smoking two packs a day, and surfing double-overhead waves alone,” Corbett said. “To this day, he is the most stylish surfer I have ever surfed with.”
In 2001 Hamilton traded his small boat for a 40-foot sailboat and went to Hawaii. Today he collects disability checks and lives on the boat in Molokai’s Kaunakakai Harbor.