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Not Surfing in the Chatham Islands

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Directly in front of the Chatham Hotel pub is a little curve in the shoreline that produces a perfect, peeling right. It’s not a real wave, as in rideable—it’s barely ankle high, and breaks right on shore—but if you were G.I. Joe it’d be six-foot Superbank. On a sunny Friday afternoon I worked my way through a bottle of Gunn Estate Pinot Noir and mindsurfed it, bashing lips on my Al Merrick Flyer, swooping high and mighty on my Skip Frye fish, sliding sideways and backwards and twirling a 360 or two on my finless Derek Hynd F-F-F-F. It was an exhilarating surf, growing more and more real with every sip. During my weeklong visit to the Chatham Islands I saw lots of good waves—slabby reefs, zippering rivermouths, A-frame beachbreaks—but that imagined session was as close as I’d get to the water.

Sharks. You can’t mention surfing in the Chatham Islands without hearing about sharks. Before the word surf has left your mouth the sha– is already forming on the local’s lips. “Sharks are all over the show,” said Nick Cameron, a former surfer whose boards collect dust in his garage. “They’re cruising around everywhere.”

“You’re bloody kidding, aren’t you mate?” said a rough-looking guy I met on a bluff overlooking inviting, head-high peaks in Kahunene Point. “Whitey’s lurking out there, big mean fuckers.”

“I used to surf when we were young fellas,” said Vince Dix, a commercial diver, “but then we realized what was swimming underneath us.”

Before my trip I Googled “Surfing the Chatham Islands.” At the top of my search was a video clip shot by a local surfer who had shown up for a morning session, only to find a very large great white flopping through the lineup.

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Located 600 miles east of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands are the easternmost inhabited landmass, i.e., the first to see the sun. They consist of about ten islands, but only two are inhabited. Chatham is the main island, and I arrived there on a Thursday evening and fell right into Ladies Darts Night at the pub. Big men in fluorescent-orange worker’s jackets huddled around tables. Women in casual dress threw darts. Tattooed blokes played the pokies. Thoroughbreds galloped on a T.V. screen. I got to talking with Floyd Prendeville, a commercial diver who has spent most of his 47 years on Chatham Island. “There’s 600 people here. One pub, one takeaway shop, one general store, one post office, one police station—we’re real family-oriented,” he told me.

He used to surf but explained that diving is his livelihood. If he’s going to get chomped it’s going to be feeding his family, not playing in the waves. He added that he feels much safer underwater, where he can see what’s lurking about.

Solidly-built, bespectacled, a neatly-trimmed goatee, Floyd had a straight-up way about him. He wore boots, jeans, and a flannel shirt. He was “off the piss,” drinking Coke and speaking with a calm and clarity that seemed anomalous to the rollicking room. “I was born and raised here. Got two kids of my own. It’s a great place to grow up, but there’s no high school, so we ship ’em off to the mainland. But we don’t call it the mainland. We Chatham Islanders think of ourselves as separate from New Zealand. We’re not Kiwis. We’re Wekas.”

“What’s a Weka?” I asked.

“Wekas are birds, kind of like chickens. They’re protected in New Zealand, but here they’re fair game. Good tasting buggers.”

“Do you surf?”

“Used to get out there, but gave it up a long while back. I’ve been diving 25 years. I’ve seen 20 sharks.”

He explained that diving is his livelihood. If he’s going to get chomped it’s going to be feeding his family, not playing in the waves. He added that he feels much safer underwater, where he can see what’s lurking about.

“Lots of sharks, but not a lot of women,” he said and laughed.

“I’m guessing it’s slim pickings around here?”

“Shit yeah. People go out with fifth cousins and stuff like that. I tend to go out with girls from off-island.”

“Is it a happy place? Like everyone gets along well?”

“There are disputes. Family-type stuff. What do you guys call ’em? Hatfields and McCoys?”

“Do couples stick together here? Are there divorces?”

“Fucken’ plenty of ’em. ’Specially with the new people.”

We walked outside to get some air. Pickups and utes filled the car park. The ocean, not ten steps away, emitted a strong, briny smell. Floyd took a deep breath and looked up to the starry sky.

“It’s going to blow its tits off tomorrow,” he said.

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