“The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying. No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before.“ – General Thomas Farrell
When was the last time we felt this kind of power? The kind that can change mankind forever in a way that can never be undone? How do ethics play into a decision like this knowing that once we commit, we may never be able to go back to the way things were before? We're on the verge of unleashing a level of artificial intelligence that has demonstrated sentient behavior with the goal of becoming more human. Just because we're capable of producing something so technically advanced, does that mean we should? Are there lessons that can be learned from similar times? Times when we knew we were on the verge of creating a force so powerful that it could forever change the way we live with one another?
World War II ended with the most explosive display of energy and force ever seen by mankind when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Up until that moment, no one had any sense of the amount of energy and destruction contained in a nuclear fission reaction. The United States military had "let the cat out of the bag" by detonating the first nuclear reaction the world had ever seen. The war came to an end, but our interest and curiosity in nuclear and hydrogen bombs were just beginning. The United States had begun the process of understanding just how much energy is released by the reactions of fission and hydrogen and had a new remote area in the North Pacific to run their trials.
The Marshall Islands are one of four archipelagos that make up the geographical area within the Oceania realm known as Micronesia. There are over 29 coral atolls within the Marshalls which sit 500 miles above the equator and span over 750K nautical miles across the North Pacific Ocean. An atoll is a limestone encrusted reef circling the former edge of what used to be a volcanic hot spot spewing from the ocean floor. The interior volcanic material of these islands collapsed on themselves millions of years ago, leaving nothing but a rim of limestone acting as a barrier reef to the beaches and dotted palm trees that make up its landmass and encircle its massive lagoon.
The Austronesians were the first to inhabit the Marshalls, having invented ocean-going sailing technologies like catamarans and outriggers, which enabled them to explore and discover the islands of the Indo-Pacific for thousands of years. Spanish explorers first discovered the islands of Micronesia in 1526. Soon after that the colonization and ownership of these islands passed from Spanish to German and finally Japanese rule.
In 1947 the Marshall Islands came under U.S. occupation as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. For the next 12 years, the United States would test over 60 nuclear weapons at its Pacific Proving Grounds in the Marshalls. The bulk of those tests took place on, over, and under a group of islands known as the Bikini Atoll. The world was tuned in and paying attention. The Bikini Atoll had become so well known through U.S. news broadcasts that it inspired a French designer known as Louis Réard to unveil his controversial 2-piece bathing suit at a popular fashion show in Paris as the "bikini".
The largest test at Bikini was code named "Castle Bravo" and on March 1, 1954, that bomb drop delivered traces of radioactive fallout as far as Australia, India, and Japan, with a destructive force 1,000 times stronger than the bombs dropped during the war. The world took notice and concerns were raised, prompting calls for a ban on the atmospheric testing of thermonuclear devices. Nuclear scientists had shown they could deploy a thermonuclear weapon, and the ethical and moral debate had started. Just because we "can", doesn't mean we "should". The pursuit of virtually limitless power without a thorough understanding of the consequential after effects is the lesson learned in virtually every superhero movie we have ever seen. However, curiosity drives innovation, and humans have an insatiable thirst for technology that often overshadows our ethics, putting moral obligation and regulation in the back seat.
In 1979, the Government of the Marshall Islands was officially established and the country became a self-governing sovereign entity under the United Nations. Several decades would pass before an iconic surf adventurer from Australia named Martin Daly would discover its shores. Martin has a 30-year history of surf exploration primarily in the Mentawais and is most known for the discovery of literally hundreds of surf breaks across the Pacific. He is the captain and owner of the M.V. Indies Trader, a surf exploration vessel he purchased from his friend and fellow salvage diver, David Barnett.
The Indies Trader had been designed and built for salvage operations and would eventually be put to use pulling copper and other valuable materials from WWII wreckage off the floors of the war-torn seas. Barnett took Daly under his wing, teaching him the ways of the salvage business and the workings of the ship which at that time was named "The Rader". After a fateful surf trip to the southern coast of Sumatra and the subsequent purchase of the boat by Daly and a partner, the ship was renamed the "M.V. Indies Trader", borrowing part of the original name as it's considered bad mojo to rename a boat. Martin and his new partner launched their surf exploration business, which culminated with an agreement from Quiksilver to embark on The Quiksilver Crossing - a seven year voyage to search for empty waves and document the health of our reefs. It's fair to say that Martin Daly has spent more time than anyone searching the shores and reefs of the Pacific looking for perfect waves.
When someone with that much knowledge of an area decides he wants to settle down and build something special for himself, you know he's found the perfect spot. Daly says it felt like home the moment he passed by the island. With a safe anchorage to the east, waves out front, and an ideal location within the atoll, he began a ten year endeavor to build the perfect eco-friendly off-grid surf retreat on Beran Island. "When we first went there the best anchorage close to all the best surf was in front of Beran. After the 2009 financial crisis I decided to throw the anchor down permanently in the Marshalls. [Beran] was the logical place, our dream location central to all the good waves, great place to build a wharf and as it turned out a great wave out front," said Daly. Every nail, screw, board and window in the house and supporting infrastructure traveled 11 hours each way to and from the capital of Majuro aboard Daly's personal fleet of ships. "Everything was challenging, it was like colonizing another planet. So remote, nothing there. But it was fun to do it, face the challenges and then reap the rewards."
My friend Evan Netsch from Cabrinha had just returned from Beran in 2018 after working as a guide for his friend and fellow pro kiter, Reo Stevens, who was packaging kite surf trips to Martin's place under his own brand, Reo Stevens Kite Adventures. "Put this one on your bucket list" were the words Evan muttered to me as we leafed through the photos from his trip. After going into detail on the remoteness of the breaks, the consistency of the wind, and the insanely beautiful seascapes, I quickly made a mental note to start my research the next day. I put in a call to Reo later that week to book my trip for the 2019 season then started mentally preparing my pack list for what would be a logistically heavy trip.
A lot of plans got shelved in 2019. Then again in 2020, and so on. The Marshall Islands were the last country on the planet to re-open after the pandemic which meant Reo's Beran trips were on hold for almost three years. Then on July 24th, 2022 the email announcement landed, the Marshalls had reopened and we had confirmation that the trip dates were back on the calendar.
Getting to the Marshalls requires some patience. The first step is to get to Honolulu. From there you board a 5-hour flight that leaves once a week to Majuro which serves as the capital of the Marshalls with a land area no bigger than 9.7 square kilometers. Air Marshall Islands (AMI) is the carrier that services the islands and atolls, making short hops from reef to reef delivering people, packages, and supplies to the entire archipelago. There are no seat assignments given when boarding an AMI flight and no clear indication of flight schedule until the day of travel. Riding aboard the Dash 8-100 prop plane has more of a public transport bus-like feel, letting people on and off the plane at each stop and filling the cabin on a "choose any open seat" approach.
I had never met Reo Stevens, but certainly knew of him. He's an incredibly talented waterman and one of the pioneers of kite surfing. Reo grew up on Oahu, his father moved there in the 1970's from Santa Cruz to chase windsurfing. His mother was living on the windward side in Kaneohe just north of Kailua. Reo explains, "My dad was and is an avid windsurfer. He's actually THE LAST regular windsurfer at our local spot. He's down there routinely by 10am ready to rig and get his session. Great to see as it keeps him in shape and on the water at 73!".
Reo started his wind career on a windsurfer (as any child of a windsurfing parent should), then made the switch to kiting after witnessing a boost that would send him down a different path. "I started kiting at 14. Kiteboarding had just started gaining popularity about 6-8 months before that. At the time I was an avid windsurfer and I had made up my mind when a kiter came and jumped over my head while I was swimming for my windsurfing gear. I thought, 'Wow, that’s sick!' which led me down the path of learning." With his innate athleticism and competitive drive, it wouldn't be long before a kiting career came into full view. "About 6 months after I started, I could stay upwind, do some jumps, and my one trick was a one handed table top which apparently was enough for a local rider named Ryan Rawson to take notice and tell Chris Wyman at Slingshot about me, which got me my first trip out of Hawaii to Hood River for Slingshot's first organized photoshoot."
Growing up as a surfer first on the north shore of Oahu, this goofy-footer was naturally drawn to wave riding with a kite. Kiting opened up new frontiers in wave riding, stimulating riders to think differently about where and how waves could be ridden. The travel-friendliness of kite gear created new opportunities to access wind and waves in the most remote parts of the globe. The idea of charting new areas to ride was what lured Reo toward an adventure-driven athlete mindset. "I got lucky in life in many ways, but also lucky in the path that my professional career sent me. Instead of doing the contest tour as the 'job' portion of the job, I got to travel around for media purposes doing travel stories for magazines. I had always enjoyed going that little bit extra distance to get away from people. Whether that was an extra plane ride or additional inconvenient boat trip, I was willing to do it to get away and explore the lesser known paths."
Discovering Beran Island and experiencing everything it has to offer as a kite destination accelerated Reo's aspirations for his recently launched kite adventure company. He recalls, "My first trip to Beran was in March 2011, (the day after the Japanese tsunami hit) with Cabrinha for their big launch/photoshoot of the newly released 'Drifter' kiteboarding kite. They had chartered Martin Daly's 'Windward' in which we spent 2 weeks traveling around the area. Coincidentally, this is the trip when I met my good friend Keahi de Aboitiz whom I've returned with to Beran all these years later. I had returned again in 2014 on Discovery (aka the Cabrinha Quest) when the house on Beran was just taking shape and I got my first glimpse of what was being built there. Fast forward a few more years to 2017 when the house was finished, Martin started reaching out to the wind sport people he knew to get us back down there to help share the windsport paradise that he built - again right place, right time."
The first time I met Reo was last summer on the water at Kanaha. I was wing foiling on Maui for a week to prepare for and compete in the Maui 2 Molokai crossing when I heard the splashing of a kiteboard closing the gap behind me. "Hey, are you Russ?". How did he know that? "Yeah!". "I'm Reo Stevens, looking forward to getting you down to the Marshalls in March!" "Me too!". We chatted back and forth for a little longer, me from my wing, him from his kite until it was time to peel off in our respective directions. Reo is a great connector - a people person and never one to let a client engagement opportunity slip by, even if it means doing so from under his kite. I witnessed the same effect the moment we deplaned at Wilja Airport on the Ailinglaplap Atoll 180 miles from Majuro.
Our group exited the aircraft into the hot humid air and onto a runway made of coral that was slowly being taken over by native plants and grasses. Reo was fast approaching on foot with a big smile and a huge hug for two of his favorite returning guests - Pete and Tina McGifin from Brisbane Australia. He continued to connect with each of us right there on the runway, welcoming us to the Marshalls with the same level of enthusiasm we were all experiencing as first timers in a very surreal, very majestic moment-to-moment setting.
We unloaded duffles and board bags from the plane and made our way to a pickup truck that would carry us to a beach on the other side of the island. The Indies Surveyor was anchored just offshore, patiently waiting for us to make our way across the shallows in the tender known as the "Tinny". The two-hour boat cruise aboard the Surveyor gave us time to connect with one another prior to arriving at Beran Island. There were 11 of us in the group - 9 guests and 2 instructors. The bulk of the guests was made up of four rather tan and fit gentlemen who were returning to the island having done this trip back in 2019. They all hailed from the Pacific Northwest, but knew each other from the time they spent kiting on Maui. Ted, Chris, Sean, Parker and Luke (Ted's son) would be known as the "Maui crew" and they did a 5-star job of setting the tone for the week by bringing the humor, the vibes, and the banter which Reo was always quick-witted enough to tolerate. Our two instructors were Matt Elsasser from Lift and Reed Brady from Slingshot, who have been best friends since before they could swim. We would be joining two more guests, Guy and Scott, as well as our additional instructor, Olivia Jenkins from Fanatic, who were already on the island and about to kick off the second week of their trip.
The 45 acre island of Beran is densely populated with coconut trees. The Marshallese travel by boat throughout the atoll, setting up rustic harvesting operations to dry and extract copra from the coconuts which is then sold and manufactured into a highly commoditized oil. With little space on the island for anything more than a trail walk from the house to the dock, the agenda each day was all about getting on the water in any way possible. The wind and waves were scheduled to arrive in a few days which gave everyone time to perfect their foiling game in the meantime. Two jet skis equipped with tow ropes were put into motion to whip each of us between two massive underwater coral mounts to work on our flat water pumping. The clarity of the water is almost indescribable. There's very little context of depth when feet look like inches and live coral is speeding beneath you at a razor-sharp pace.
My close friend and travel partner, Todd Sarandos (aka Todos Santos) was especially foil frothy and eager to get as much time in flight as possible. He had already assembled his foil and was making his way to the ski before any of us had even slipped on our boardies. The group was in full activity mode after a day and a half of travel. We were experiencing our first day on the water, and the magic of our surroundings was starting to take shape. The group was coming together in a way that only happens when strangers with a shared love for being on the water fall into a scene like the one unfolding in front of us. The cheers, the jeers, and the wipeouts were seen and experienced by everyone, causing us to drop our guards and get comfortable with the realization that we'd be spending a week together with no other outside contact in this very intimate and private oasis.
The remoteness is overwhelming. The presence of this place and how it came to be ran through my head every day. The closest grocery store is hundreds of miles away by boat and nothing other than coconut trees grow on the island. The ground cover is primarily sand, native grasses, and crushed coral. There is little to no fertile soil. Every ounce of food has to be brought by boat from over 100 miles away, making planning and rationing a seven-day menu for a group of active adults more than challenging. Nothing about feeding us seemed stressful to our Indonesian chef, Mango, who was easily the coolest cat on the island having spent 17 years in Daly's organization. "Mango came on as a teenager, as an unskilled hand," says Daly. "It became apparent that he was unusually bright and he liked working in the galley. We had a procession of Australian chefs on the boats who loved surfing. Mango would step in and learn everything from them and then do all the work while they went surfing. One day we had a chef whom I had to let go and Mango said, 'Hey boss you don’t need to hire another expat, I can do it'. I said, ‘ok let’s see how you go’ and the food has been better ever since."
Dinner was done "family style" at one large table big enough for all the guests, coaches and staff to sit together and reflect on the day's activity. The results of the day were imprinted on the faces of everyone around the table. The level of activity mixed with full bellies and the anticipation of the next day led to early bedtime rituals most nights. The wind and wave forecast would improve over the course of the week creating a very natural rhythmic progression from early skills training to rapid adoption and application.
Beran is situated on the north side of the atoll and the house is on the north side of the island giving us a full view of any oncoming swell. We woke one morning early in the week to clean, shoulder-high waves breaking right out front over a pristine reef that looks shallower than it is. We traded waves for hours with no one else in sight and zero percent chance of anyone infiltrating our session. The only sound we heard above the enthusiasm was the hum of a 50 foot wind turbine standing on the beach directly in front of us and spinning from the offshore wind. Martin and his team had erected two turbines and a roof-top solar array to supply the only power available to the island. Our sparse energy needs were completely satisfied using wind and solar inputs with no grid or generator dependence. The blades spinning above us not only helped to provide power to the island, but also demonstrated any change in wind direction.
As the winds shifted throughout the day, new plans were formed. When the onshores killed the surf out front, the wrapping waves just around the leeward side of the island offered opportunities for tow foiling. The crews went into transition mode moving us from surfing to foiling, putting the earlier skills training we had done to the test. The shallow waves peeling across the abundantly live coral added to the pucker factor from up high on the foil. There's very little white water present or required when you're towed into a wave on a foil. The absence of foam and the clarity of the water made it difficult to read the wave. Fortunately the coaches were shadowing us on the skis from the back of the wave, calling out suggestions on which way to turn and when to head toward the channel. The level of skills progression from wave to wave was easily measurable. With two skis in the mix and four riders on the reef, everyone was getting plenty of laps and extending their ride time with each whip.
When the wind started to return on the third day of our trip, the group immediately began sussing out the launch site and deliberating over what size kite to put up in the moderate cross-shore breeze. Once again, foils would save the day as we set up in an orderly fashion to launch off the back of the Surveyor which was lashed port side to the dock with its nose pointing directly into the wind. Launching a kite from a boat brings a different level of preparation and skill. The kites are rolled out on the nearby lawn, kite lines are laid out and attached to the bridals, then everything is rolled back up and transported to the rear of the ship. From there, our guides inflated each kite one by one with an assist from a scuba tank before paying out the lines and putting the kite in the sky. Once the kite was aloft, the bar was passed to the guest who was waiting on the rear swim platform ready to clip in and take off.
We kited along the leeward edge of a large coral head just downwind from the launch, giving the drone pilot above us a postcard-like view of the color contrasts between shallow reef greens and deep water blues. The days leading up to our first kite session were coming into play as most of the group was back on their foil boards, taking advantage of the leading edge of the returning trades. Most of us had embarked on this trip primarily to kite, making that first session exceptionally frothy. We had grown to know one another pretty well by this point, but had yet to enjoy a group kite session until then. The energy and enthusiasm was running high and clearly evident from the enormous grins and open mouth howls from each passing rider. The visuals were astounding, from the palm laden islands surrounding us in every direction to the flying fish launching out of the water just a few yards ahead of the foils. The wind was building and the forecast looked promising for the rest of the week giving all of us the pleasure of knowing we'd be kiting every day for the remainder of the trip.
Weather conditions rarely govern the outcomes of a true adventure. The rewards are in the journey and the time you spend with one another en route. This trip began the day we arrived in Honolulu when everything that happened from that point forward was completely foreign and new. Our focus stayed fixated on the moments as they were happening, whether it was ogling over the beauty of the atolls on our descent into Majuro or steaming across the lagoon on our way to Beran. Taking the time to see and study a place keeps you present in the moment, distracting you from the urge to obsess over the final destination. Meeting new people who share a common bond and life-long affinity for spending time on the water is often where the true value of a trip comes from. We made new friendships at Beran that will no doubt translate into more planned and unplanned sessions with one another for years to come. The sessions we experienced on the water were magical, but the people we shared them with are far more memorable.
As we cast off the dock on our final morning to start the entire transport back to Hawaii, we bid farewell to a few members of our group who would be staying another week. As hard as it was to leave our little island paradise, saying goodbye to our new friends was way harder. Martin Daly, Reo Stevens and the entire Beran Island crew have created something exceptional out there for sure. The true magic comes from the chemistry of combining those surroundings with adventure-minded people who know the value of taking that one additional plane or boat ride to put them that much farther from the rest of the world.
Regardless of which way we go with the innovation and adoption of A.I., I'll certainly find comfort in knowing there are still places in this world to escape to where decisions are made entirely by humans and the only questions to answer each day are what size kite to pump up and what can be done to help Mango and his crew prepare for that evening's main course.