American Samoa – A Touch Of Home

We packed up the dinghy, readied the boat, departed Suwarrow early Wednesday, July 20, bound for American Samoa 459 miles on a SW direction. A 4 day passage.  imageThe weather router, Bob McDavitt in New Zealand,  indicated a “squash zone” would drape across Tuvalu in the Gilbert Islands, Am Sam and eastward toward the northern Cook Islands. A squash zone is an area between high- and low- pressure systems moving closer, compressing the isobars between the two. Often times the squash can cause even higher winds as one pressure system remains relatively stationary.  We looked at our weather satellite photos, the grib and surface analysis forecasts and decided we were far enough north and wouldn’t be greatly affected.
The anchor had wrapped a corner of one small bommie but slipped off easily as the wind pushed the boat sideways. John secured the anchor and we followed our inbound GPS track on the chartplotter. The tide was lower as we passed over the reefs and so crystal clear, we could see the reef 50′ below us  as if it were within 5′ of the boat’s bottom.
Out on the open ocean once again we adjusted  into our passage mode. The wind was light, it was clear and warm, we threw in our fishing line and settled into the cockpit. By noon, the fresh trade winds picks up from the SE and our boat speed picked up to an even 6 kts over 1.5 meter swells, another great sailing day that lasted into the wee morning hours.
By 9:00 a.m. The high overcast began to move in killing the winds, horse-tail clouds foretold the change of weather way too soon.  The winds dropped down to 10 kts and our boat speed followed suit. We unfurled  all the sails and lazily sailed a flat 4.0 kts. For whatever the reason this passage caused me to not feel well. I didn’t have the energy or inclination to do anything, I just wanted to sleep. Fortunately John and I often alternate the low energy spells on passages.
We pulled another set of forecast files from the SSB, the squash zone was forecasted to intensify over Am Sam area by Saturday/Sunday, our anticipated arrival date. The squall zones started lining up behind us as the day grew darker. imageWe turned on the radar and watched a thick yellow oval shape line up, spanning 25 miles SE to NW behind us, moving faster than our boat speed. We dubbed it “the yellow submarine”.  The wind was starting to come in gusts, our cue to start reducing sail area. Torrential rain poured for a few moments at at time, stop, the wind lightened up. Over and over for the next twelve hours. By this time I had a pounding migraine, generally an indication of low pressure sitting over me. I asked John to consider maintaining 6 kts however we could to arrive before Saturday nightfall to enter the harbor and anchor. With the fluky winds, the seas built to 2-3 meters coming from east to southeast directly behind us. Another rolly day as the Westsail hull is too wine-glass shaped to move forward flatly with wind coming from directly behind. It will roll from side to side, interfering with the boat efficiency.
Over the course of the next 48 hours we motored most of the way. At times we were able to shut down and sail at 6.0 kts when a squall passed over but then the wind would drop back down and we’d roll side to side doing 4.0 kts or less watching the large looming waves coming at us. By Saturday’s predawn hours the waves calmed down as we passed north, hidden behind Manua Islands, 60 miles out from Am Sam. For a few hours we had some relief from the unruly waves. I actually began to feel much better too.

The sight of AmSam’s jagged mountains appeared over the horizon, it was noon and the rain had stopped. The sun was shining between the large cumulus build ups, happy rainbows popped out. We entered the wide harbor entrance at 4:30 p.m. with plenty of time to anchor. The wind was blowing 20 kts and even with the boat set at 1200 rpm, we were moving at 5.0 kts.

There were just a dozen boats in the anchorage, plenty of swinging room for us. I shifted to neutral and got the boat speed down to 3.0 kts as John went forward to ready the 45# CQR anchor. All boater eyes on us, we were up for the “anchoring dance”.   We threaded our way between boats toward shallower waters, looking for 35 – 40′ depth.
A brief history of the anchorage. The 2009 tsunami that swept across The So. PAC did major damage in the Am Sam island. Boats were totaled, loss of life, city destruction took place and the harbor is still filled with debris.  Anchoring here isn’t easy and often times boat anchors become ensnared in all sorts of things. Concrete blocks,  Mattress, tires, bedding, ropes, chain, baby playpen, garbage of all sorts.
And we’re going to find a place free of obstruction. We watched our fish finder, the bottom looked flat, a few large bumps, a couple of sprawling mounds but at last we found the spot between two boats with 200′ of swinging room between us. I always drive the boat while John  manages the anchor and chain dropping. We have great hand signals that keep us communicating without having to shout the commands over the wind and engine noise.
John gave the first command, I stopped the boat. He dropped the anchor, the boat started drifting back from the wind, John payed out a 3:1 scope, i.e., 40′ depth would equal 120′ of chain lying in a line. At that point, he keeps his hand on the chain and  manual windlass (chain pulley with gear teeth that helps pull in or let out chain using a long handle for cranking). As I back down, let out another 60′ of chain, final tug at 1200-1400 rpm to gauge the holding. He can feel if the anchor dug into the bottom properly by the vibration of chain. We both can tell if the anchor didn’t set, we continue to drift backwards, the boat feels very light on the helm to me and from visual land cues we can see movement. Not good.
Wellll, today was one of those days that lip reading was first. I read John’s highly pronounced lips long before the ‘wave off’ wagging head signal happened! John pulled up a plastic bag filled with garbage. imageStart over. We moved into a new position, just slightly ahead, repeated the arduous task. Again,  No joy.
Let me tell you, John has some finely sculpted muscles since we’ve left the states. All the anchor and chain, rope and rigging pulling has given his upper torso a lot of definition and mass. Even the tattoo artist was impressed.
We tried again, MORE pronounced lip reading from both ends of the boat. John came back to the cockpit and huffed that he didn’t think he would be able to pull it again, especially with more garbage attached to the anchor. I looked around, several boaters were watching us and waving directions.  They all had ideas of where we should try next but we saw the lumps and bumps on the harbor bed.
We drove a ways ahead from the anchorage to take a break and discuss our options. “One more time Honey, you can do this”.  And as Tammy on Anjuli would’ve said to Dan ” don’t be a wuss!” We drove back in, found 38′ of clear bottom. John dropped, I maneuvered the boat and reverse speed. It set! 2 hours later, 3 times of dropping and pulling back up, and not so nice  words about with the anchorage area. 4th time we shut down and gave ourselves the ritual high five hand slap.

An item to purchase: the electric windlass. We heard, discussed, read all the pros and cons, and I am determined to have one, John isn’t so sure.

As it tuned out, we made a wise decision to motor the 40 some hours, the wind picked up close to 25 kts in the anchorage that night.  We set the anchor watch and slept with one eye open. A boat came in on Sunday, did the same dance next to us and mentioned the sea was extremely rough and uncomfortable. He is a 40′ catamaran that performs well in downwind sailing configuration.

Pago Pago, pronounced Pango Pango,  looks and feels like a small Oregon coastal town. Large tuna boats, semi-large container freighters, long high piers for the inter island ferry, smaller fishing fleet boats, mountains surrounding the harbor, tall green trees line the mountains, the Starkist tuna plant gives it the fishing town smell, McDonalds and Carl’s Jr have their special meal deals, (should be banned in my opinion due to the obesity issues here), the Toyota dealership is across the way, colorful buses drive by, the homes have the American design, – colorful  ranch style with peaked roofs and driveways. The American and Am Samoa flags fly on poles throughout the city. Very different from Fr. Poly and Mexico.

imageOur first trip ashore on Monday to check in was so pleasant. The harbor master, customs and immigration process was lengthy but easy. The officials are so kind and welcoming. We could read the street signs, wonderful friendly people called out to us in English, we saw nice coffee shops, open fruit market, clothing shops, all the buses had signs we could read. The ADA wheelchair signs are prominent in the parking lots, the political campaign signs are up.  Just enough to make us feel comfortable and at home. We’re not so lonely here. If it wasn’t for the constant blowing wind funneling through the harbor we could actually live here on our boat.

Food prices are slightly higher than Oregon but that is to be expected with the cost of shipping. Most American brands are here with lots of Asian products. A melding pot of Asian and European descent folks. The Samoans are very large people, not so much tall, just wide. Most of the women have their clothes designed and hand sewn here. There must be one sewing shop on every other block. They  proudly display their personalized clothing in the windows. The dress code is on the modest side. Cover thy scandalous knees, no bare shoulders. I wear my long beach pants and tee-shirts, goodbye flowery shorts.
I went to the laundromat, what a treat to load the washer, push all the buttons for fun and watch the agitator.  Then, to have the clothes dried in hot air, shrinking our stretched out tee shirts back to normal size. Aah , the smell of fresh dried clothes!

Sunday is worship quiet day. Most of the stores are closed, the buses don’t run except the church buses filled with smartly dressed citizens. Beautiful!

It’s amazing to interact with the genuine, friendly people and listen to their  personal  history connected to this island. Everyone we’ve met has some personal connection to mainland US. They want to know where we’re from, what its like,  how many kids we have, how long have we been out, how long we plan to stay, where are we going next.  We found out the Am Sam citizens vote in the US presidential elections. The cab driver wanted to hear our political views so his children have a better idea of what the average American thinks of the candidates. Oh boy, bad year to talk about our views.

The wind has been blowing hard everyday and we’ve tried to make sure one person is aboard at all times. It’s suppose to calm down this weekend so maybe we’ll go ashore together to do some sightseeing. The coastline is just as beautiful as Suwarrow, long white beaches lined with coconut trees, deep blue, emerald to light green water surrounding uprising rocks 200′ tall covered with lush vegetation. This is a view taken from the WWII memorial site trail. The main highway along the coastline winds around for miles, the bus ride is very scenic.image

We are starting our boat projects, taking advantage of the beautiful scenery with hikes planned and a festival this weekend.