People: Roger Lextrait — the ‘Noble Savage’ of Palmyra
by Marque A. Rome
“This is not Solitude — ’tis but to hold
Converse with Nature’s charms, and view her stores unrolled.” — Childe Harold
“Everyone asks why I lived on a desert island eight years: I did it to get away from the system. I experienced freedom like no man ever has.” — Roger Lextrait
Roger Lextrait has been described as “a mix of Robinson Crusoe, comedian, and gourmet chef.” He is unquestionably a cook, having once been grill chef at Paris’ famous Moulin Rouge, and executive chef at several Sheraton hotels. He opened two French restaurants — the city’s first, he asserts — in Portland, Oregon, and named his three sailboats each in turn ‘Couscous’, after the Morroccan staple dish. “I’m a chef,” he explained, and appears also to be a man of “infinite humor” in Shakespeare’s phrase.
But “Robinson Crusoe” he is not: Defoe painted Crusoe as a Puritan; and Lextrait paints himself as Mr. Natural.
Aged 61, he was born in Selestat, Alsace, but calls himself a Parisian. He emigrated to the United States during the late ’60s and is a naturalized American citizen.
Lextrait has sailed some 60,000 nautical miles, crossing the Atlantic four times; visited 36 countries; cooked for the king of Tonga in Pago Pago; and played bass with a member of Santana in Portland. He SCUBA dives, paints, silk screens, and once modeled swimsuits.
Lextrait is thus a raconteur of endless variety, but his tales mostly center on his experience as the wild man of a desert island in the Pacific, Palmyra. He lived there eight years.
Northernmost of the twelve Line Islands — which include Christmas, Fanning and Washington — Palmyra lies 980 nautical miles southwest of Oahu, 352 miles north of the equator. It is virtually in the ocean’s center. Some atlases don’t represent it; some list it as a British possession because in 1889 a British vessel claimed it. Until 1959, however, Palmyra, though distant fully 16 degrees of latitude, was officially part of the City of Honolulu.
A World War II air station and submarine base, it is now owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed as a nature reserve. Palmyra is the only unorganized, incorporated U.S. territory, administered by the Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs. Its offshore waters form the Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.
Lextrait visited the island on a trip to Polynesia — as many sailors do — and found it attractively desolate. Palmyra lies at the southern edge of the northeast trade wind belt, leading to frequent squalls or, alternatively, calms.
Military relics abound — old gun emplacements; bunkers; rusting vehicles; ammunition and fuel dumps; abandoned equipment; underground tunnels and buildings; a 2,200-foot landing strip — lending to the island what more than one visitor has described as “a ghostly feeling.” The feeling of lurking danger is reinforced because — owing to unexploded WWII ordnance — some of Palmyra’s fifty islets are closed to public access.
The beaches are littered with debris, especially plastic mooring buoys and bottles, and the wrecks of luckless voyagers. Palmyra’s lagoon is notoriously treacherous to enter and has been especially unlucky for many, including its first known inhabitants, the shipwrecked crew of a vessel named ‘Palmyra’, that broke up on the reef in 1802.
Its discoverer, Connecticut Yankee Edward Fanning, in 1798, believed it was only divine intervention — a vision in a dream — that caused him to change course in the night. The maneuver saved his vessel from the same fate as Palmyra.
In 1974, a San Diego couple visiting the atoll mysteriously disappeared, dismembered by another couple apparently for their boat, the ketch ‘Sea Wind’. Details of the grisly crime were finally revealed in 1981 in a book by Vincent Bugliosi entitled and the Sea Will Tell. It was Palmyra’s only time in the limelight.
No wonder some say the place is cursed!
In 1992, while working as executive chef at Waikiki Sheraton, Lextrait was invited to take over the 12-square-kilometer atoll as ‘island manager’. He bit at the chance, packed up and in January sailed in the Couscous 3. The journey from Honolulu normally takes eight days.
Despite its lonely aspect, he eagerly ensconced himself among the native population — comprising insects, lizards, crabs, birds and sharks. He loved it. “It’s the most beautiful island you’ll ever see,” a visitor recalls him saying.
Asked why an ‘island manager’ was needed where none existed before Lextrait replied ingenuously: “Americans, when anything happens, always go to law. Someone might fall in a hole, then sue. So it was decided to employ a caretaker.”
The island’s history, however, suggests there’s more to the tale.
Annexed by Hawaian King Kamehameha IV in 1862, Palmyra immediately fell into private hands. In 1922 it was purchased by Leslie and Ellen Fullard-Leo for $15,000. They formed the Palmyra Copra Company, perhaps to develop coconut plantations, but the enterprise — if enterprise it was — flopped, and the U.S. Navy, ignoring their claim, seized the island.
The heirs sued in 1939.
Meanwhile, the Navy spent $1.1 million (about one billion of today’s dollars) constructing aircraft, ship and submarine facilities, manned during the war by up to 6,000 troops. The island was attacked only once: a Japanese submarine shelled the beach with its deck gun, sinking a dredge. The wreck remains.
In 1947, the eight-year lawsuit was decided in favor of the Fullard-Leo heirs by the Supreme Court. Significantly, three justices dissented, holding that the island scarce ever had been occupied or improved by those who claimed it, and that no transfer of ownership from King Kamehameha to another party was recorded.
Nevertheless, title was returned to the heirs.
In 1962, the atoll was used to monitor high altitude atomic weapon tests. Subsequently, it served as a base for various public sector and university researchers, with a floating population of about forty. Palmyra was also visited frequently by curious sailors. The Fullard-Leo heirs continued their policy of benign neglect till 1990 when Honolulu property developer Peter Savio obtained a 75-year lease on the island.
Under U.S. law, private property may revert to public domain if abandoned by its owners, one indication of which is that no control interfering with public use of the land is exerted — and Palmyra lay abandoned. “No one ever lived on the island as long as I did,” Lextrait observed. Indeed, it was a ruin, with no permanent dwellings or facilities for human life.
Conservationists, impressed by the millions of boobies, frigates, and terns annually nesting on the old runway, were eyeing it.
Lextrait’s dispatch, therefore, manifested the owners’ claim in real terms. He signed boats in; collected fees; asserts he aided some 52 vessels that foundered on the reefs; co-ordinated visits by environmental and wildlife researchers; and, reportedly armed with an assault rifle, drove the unwelcome away.
He was lord of all that he surveyed — and, by all accounts threw wonderful dinner parties, featuring seafood, the odd fowl, fine wines and ‘Palmyra Punch’ — his own mix of rum, wine and Tang, a powdered vitamin C mix.
He fished, swam daily with a school of friendly manta rays, fed his pet three-meter long Moray eel, Isabelle, and spearfished on the reefs: “It was the best diving in the world,” he recalls. “Paradise.”
“People can’t believe it but I was paid to do this; I made $100,000 in eight years,” and banked every penny.
A treasure trove of useful things lay beneath the island’s Pisonia palms and tangled undergrowth with which Lextrait built a considerable compound: three houses; lean-tos with water tanks on the outlying islands; a year-round freshwater bath; kitchens; a silk screen press; and numerous furnishings.
“I built 20 feet of road per day,” he said. “People ask, ‘Weren’t you bored?’ But I was busy all the time.” He could choose from some 20 beaches and 14.5 kilometers of coastline when he wanted to jog — which he did often, as much for exercise as to dispell ennui for, as he admits, living on a desert island is sometimes depressing and there is strong temptation to drown one’s sorrows in Palmyra Punch.
So he kept busy. His architecture was of the rough-and-ready variety. For example, having uncovered a proper bathtub, he set it next to a concrete room left over from Navy days. After sealing the room, he inserted pipe and spigot over the tub. Voila! 120,000 gallons of freshwater on tap — a rare luxury in the Pacific, much appreciated by visiting seafarers.
No walls marred the view while bathing: Lextrait is a confirmed ‘naturist’, spending most of his time “with no clothes.” He was anyway mostly alone, except for crabs and birds.
Aside from work, his amusements included ham radio (he was well-known on the Pacific network) and letting himself “run with the dogs” he had acquired.
Like Marco Polo, he has frequent recourse to the word ‘millions’ in describing the fauna: “There are millions of birds, as many as at the Galapagos Islands.” He developed an uncanny knack for making bird calls, and raised two giant boobies — Oscar and Felix — from chicks.
Crabs presented a special dilemma: “There were millions — billions — of hermit crabs, and they ate everything, even clothing. Whatever I wanted to keep had to be suspended.” On the other hand, their voracity made for handy kitchen help: “I never cleaned a pot — the hermit crabs cleaned everything.” They handled latrine duty, too.
Coconut crabs were less annoying but more dangerous than the hermit crabs: “They are huge — two feet across — with powerful claws. They peel coconuts and eat them! Imagine!” These crabs, Lextrait affirms, “are nocturnal, and there are millions, so you must watch your step,” and not stray from the beaten path.
But coconut crabs are also edible: “Roger showed us that we need not kill a crab to get some of its delicious meat,” noted visitor Mark Smaalders, “[just] pin down the crab and break off the larger of its claws; they can function with one, and will in time grow another.”
He learned which fish he could eat: “Surgeons, jacks, mullet, and milkfish are safe,” he told Smaalders, “but certain types of snapper, parrot fish, grouper, and barracuda should be avoided,” being infested with toxic algae.
For greens he had zucchini and other vegetables planted on the island; and for salads, heart of palm. He had eggs (from a flock of 100 chickens); baked bread (using a home-built oven); and occasional fowl: “Sometimes I’d find injured birds. I thought it better to kill them at once than let the hermit crabs eat them alive piece by piece. That’s got to be horrible.”
He stocked a tidepool with lobsters, where they procreated, affording ample supply at all times. “Anything else I can still eat, but lobster…let’s say I can still eat it but have no more craving. They were so easy to get.” A scene in one of his videos shows a party of friends, each holding a pair of large and lively lobsters.
Lextrait is no misogynist, and, like the ancients, enjoys “the twin glories” of a woman as much as the next fellow. “So, Roger,” he was asked, “what did you do for companionship?”
“Well, when the chickens saw me they’d hit the bushes,” he joked.
A two-month trip to Fanning (“The most beautiful of the islands,” he averred), with a population of roughly 2,500, resulted in a native Gilbertese girl accompanying him back: “I threw a party on my boat. She came. We got along. I asked her if she wanted to go.
“Island culture is tight — women serve the men. A girl has no more value than a pig, no joking, so it was all right with her because she could escape all that.”
Named Tebaibure, she stayed six months: “We were going to marry — but her family, society on Fanning, they expected too much; it was impossible.” So Tebaibure returned and he was alone again.
But he was never alone long, because visiting boats were many. Sometimes five in a week; Lextrait allowed them one week’s stay. To facilitate passage through the reef, he cut a V-notch in the vegetation. “Using binoculars, it is possible to see a white marker…and, beyond that, a brown pole in the center of the V. When the marker lines up with the pole, you are perfectly aligned with the center of the channel.”
Always enterprising, he built a silk screen press, designed a logo featuring boobies and coconut crabs, and screened T-shirts which he sold for $20 each to tourists. “When the Coast Guard or a cruise ship came through — you can imagine, they bought all,” he said, affirming he sold hundreds.
In 2000, a German woman, Ange Blanes, joined Lextrait. This afforded opportunity to record their peculiar modus vivendi in extensive ‘reality’ type videos.
That was lucky, because, thanks probably at least in part to Lextrait’s control-exerting presence, Palmyra was sold in 2001 to the Nature Conservancy. Its ever-absentee landlords walked away with a cool $37 million.
Lextrait sailed back to Honolulu, where he found shattering the return to civilization : “It took more than a year to return to normal.”
Since then, he has written a book of his Palmyra experiences (‘Noble Savage’ for which he seeks a publisher), married, and moved to Thailand. Today, he lives in Phuket’s tambon Chalong with wife Jayne.
“I take life like a hobby. You know, the Africans say, ‘Tomorrow doesn’t exist today,'” he explained.
“I think that’s a good philosophy.”