Finding Nirvana – The Marshall Islands

WORDS BY MOONA WHYTE PHOTOS BY CHUCK HARLAN, DAMEA DORSEY & KEAHI DE ABOITIZ 

“Chuck, look!” Adriana screamed from her seat, bouncing with excitement. She quickly grabbed the camera from her husband and started snapping away through the salt-crusted window. Reo warned her to put her seatbelt on. We were about to come in for a bumpy landing. 

Moona Whyte and Adriana Harlan.

Earlier that morning, at 3:45 a.m. to be exact, we began our journey to the Marshall Islands for Reo Stevens, Keahi de Aboitiz, Richard Whyte, Tanner Whyte, Chuck Harlan, Adriana Harlan, and I stuffed into our two pickup trucks loaded with board bags and left the North Shore in a hurry. 

We flew to Majuro, the capital and largest atoll of the Marshall Islands; highest elevation point, less than 10 feet. 64 islands make up a total land area of 3.7 square miles. In fact, our landing strip was the longest sliver of ground, and just wide enough for one lane. We landed at the smallest airport I’d ever seen, found our bags, and went on to catch our connecting flight. 

By this point we had met up with five more kiters who were joining the camp. Together we boarded our next aircraft, two per row, filling most of the plane. Keahi was last to board, shuffling board bags on the tarmac so they would all fit in the tiny cargo hold. Finally he made it on, sweating, and we took off in our AC-less flying bus into the sky. 


The view was epic. Atolls and lagoons floated by in a sea of dark blue below us. Excited chatter fought the drowning hum of the propellors. Suddenly, palm trees filled the windows (hence the zealous cries from Adriana). Rounding the corner, we saw our next landing strip; nothing more than a stretch of grass and gravel this time. The whole plane was rattling. We held on tight, frantically glancing through every window, palm trees on one side, aqua blue water on the other, even straight through the open cockpit, until finally, touchdown. 

Da Girls.


We rolled to a stop, and then literally stepped off the plane into paradise. Palm trees everywhere. One single shack sat just off the runway. Ok, this was the smallest airport I’d ever seen. Two local men helped us load gear into the back of a truck. Then we grabbed our backpacks and headed into the coconut forest. Local children greeted us with smiles. Women wearing mumu dresses seemed to escort us on their beach cruisers. Shy pups followed behind. 

At the end of the path, we spotted our ride anchored in the blue water before us. It was the Indies Trader I, the original exploration vessel of Martin Daly, discoverer of the Mentawais. Once all gear and passengers were aboard, we cracked a couple coconuts, munched on Kirkland tortilla chips and salsa, and oohed and ahhed at our surroundings. Seas were rough, but we were distracted by one coconut-clad island after another; the kind of islands you daydream about being stranded on. I could see why Martin had chosen to do just that as we made landfall on his own private slice of paradise. Adriana had taken a photo of it from the plane. It was the only island with a visible structure, a dock and boats. It was also shaped like a heart. Seemed fitting already. 

Moona sets up for a boat launch.

Eager to hear the plan before surrendering to our beds for the night, we asked what the conditions would be like in the morning. Martin didn’t see any prominent swell to rush out for, but denied us a solid plan and said, “Let’s wake up and see!” 

Coming from our digital, know-all-now world, we seemed to slam straight into a brick wall that read, “slow down, you’re on island time now.” 

A combination of a two-hour time difference and thoughts of big blue barrels racing around my head got me up at 5 a.m. It was quiet, except for a steady, strong breeze through the trees. The ‘forecast’ proved true so the house woke up slow. Reo gave a lesson on riding surfboards, and then we gathered our gear to go for a kite. We hopped on the Indies Surveyor this time, a gunmetal grey, 62-ton tank of a ship. It motored us up 30 minutes to another pass. Finally, our first kite in the waves! 

It was about 1-to-2 feet and a little messy. We launched kites off the boat and traded a few waves. It was slow and cloudy, but the water was warm and inside the reef was a long stretch of white sand and palms as far as you could see. We couldn’t wait to see what tomorrow would bring. 

Day 2. I woke up before the sun again. It was nuking at the house. Martin was up, rolling his heavy duty telescope on wheels around the deck, positioning it in just the right spots to view the distant reef breaks through the trees. We had a surf and wind report, but in this atoll, I learned that you still never know what you’re going to get. The slightest swell direction shifts can translate to several feet differences in swell height. Tide size and rate of change turns a wave from glassy perfection to slop in an instant. Even Martin, lifetime surf guide (and only surfer resident in the atoll) can’t confidently give you an accurate prediction. The good news was that the boat could take us to whichever break was working best that day. 

Now that the boss had a chance to survey the indicator breaks around the island, it was safe to pop the question. “What’s the call, Martin?” A few of the guests had been wandering around the deck sipping their coffee, but now all attention was on him. “I reckon The Bowl will be the go!” Our surf guru had spoken. Our wind guru, Reo, assured us that The Bowl would be a nice sideshore right with this wind direction. 

Half the group downwinded and the rest followed on the boat down the coast, past one motu, then the next, until we got to the first pass. Overhead waves wrapped tightly around the reef shelf and bowled on the inside, proving its name. We helped the guests get on and off the boat with their kites. Last was Adriana, and then everyone started to come in for their lunch break. Time for a girls’ session! Starting at the top of the reef with side-onshore wind for our first turn, we’d hit the bowl section with perfect side-shore wind, and finish it off with a last side-offshore turn, with the wave almost facing the opposite direction of where it started. It was good to have some size to the waves, but there were rumors of the swell picking up even more tomorrow, and I was excited to find some barrels. No one asked Martin for a plan, of course. Island time, remember? 

Yummy!

Day 3. Something was different. The palm fronds were calm for the first time since we got here. We could see big walls of whitewater from the house, grinding down the reef between the tree trunks. Martin said one word, “Nirvana.” 

As we approached the pass everyone gathered on the side of the boat to watch the first swell hit the reef. As it did, it seemed to fold over, going below sea level, and then opened up into a hollow, perfect barrel. We all looked at each other, unsure if we could surf a wave like that. We turned around to see Keahi hurriedly caking zinc on his face. Knowing the tide could change it at any moment, we suited up, waxed our surfboards, and paddled out into the glass. 

I knew once I got out that this was already the best trip of my life. We surfed with no one else around, not one boat threatening to appear on the horizon. In the best surf I’ve ever seen. The conditions held for most of the day and the only reason to go in was for one of chef Angus’ fresh fish tacos, and to reapply sunscreen. Nirvana. I was careful not to let that presumptuous name get my hopes up that morning but man, Martin hit the nail right on the head with this one. 

The next day the island gifted us with wind again. We decided to check Amnesia. Already completely content with our session yesterday, I was happy to accept whatever we found there as icing on the cake. As we got close, we saw big walls of water marching towards the reef, and white spray peeling off their backs. We raced to set up our kites while Martin secured the Surveyor inside the break. There was a shallow reef shelf just off the beach, and then an immediate drop to 140 feet, where the mooring was attached. It put us right in the lee of the island with this wind direction. As we stood on the transom, we could see the wind line at least 100 meters away, and it was glassy at our feet. Big, round barrels teased us in the distance. 

Keahi went first. He pumped up and set his kite in the water. The current carried it out, and once he saw the lines were straight, he hooked in and jumped in the water with his board. The current swept him away out to sea. He sat on his board until he hit the wind line, launched the kite, and tacked upwind to the wave. That wasn’t so bad! One by one we followed his lead, jumping in the water with our kites like sitting ducks in the deep, blue, 140 foot channel. Like a conveyor belt, the current swept us away from the boat. By the time I hit the white caps it was probably only a few minutes, but felt like 15. Feeling tension in my lines, I launched my kite and joined the rest of the crew. 

Moona Whyte shows world champion form and lines up a fun one.

The waves were the perfect size for barrels, and the tide was right, whatever it was. Reo pulled into a big blue cavern in front of me. Keahi did the same on the next one. The rest of us traded smaller waves, hunting for barrels and trying to remember some of Reo’s lessons. I got onto a big set wave and followed it in towards the reef. It was bending and I could tell this one was going to barrel. As it hit the reef and walled up, I tried to wait as long as possible before tucking under. I couldn’t wait any longer, this thing was bowling up in front of me. I set my line and shifted forward, crouching down in case the lip threw over. I was a second too early, and I couldn’t slow down now. I flew down the line, trying unsuccessfully to stall for the barrel. It felt like it went on forever. I flew past the camera, and felt my lines start to cut through the lip. The smile left my face as I quickly reached for my bar and steered my kite to safety. I flew out the end of the wave, unscathed. It was an adrenaline rush, but I knew I was too far in front of the barrel. I headed back out to find another wave, determined to make it inside the blue room this time. Reo saw my attempt and yelled a quick tip to me over the drowning sound of the wind. Somehow, on the next tack I lucked into another good one. It was bending around the reef, and was smaller. The adrenaline must’ve still been kicking because I waited a hair longer than the last time, and as the wave stood up, I was just deep enough. I set my kite low, stepped on the gas and tucked under the lip for a quick vision. 

Chasing Barrels or Barrel Chasing?

Too soon, the sun petered below the horizon, and we had to end the session we had all traveled here for. Faces were beaming and the smiles were contagious. Many good waves were had. We all wanted to have another chance at those barrels but the swell was dropping. Our computers told us the wind might, too. I didn’t care what the plan would be for tomorrow. I knew I’d like whatever the islands gave us. Small waves, big waves, wind, diving; let’s just wake up and see!