American Samoa

Posted by John

American Samoa is a territory of the United States. With that comes certain familiar things, such as the US dollar. The main benefit of this is you don’t have to dig out reading glasses and study each coin to figure out its value when trying to hand over the correct change. You can also get NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts any time you want just by pressing a button on the radio, but you’ll probably have to wait through the Samoan language version. And there is none of that special feeling you get when all of the traffic screeches to a halt just for you when you walk up to a crosswalk, like in Papeete, on Tahiti. Here, the traffic is more likely to pretend they didn’t see you standing half-way out in the street. Beyond that, the lifestyle here appears more in line with other Pacific islands rather than the United States in general, or Hawaii. The family homes with the elaborate burial plots in the front yards are still a bit startling, even though commonplace. It’s nice for us to have this mid-trip re-connection with the USA, no matter how slight, after having been away for so long. But it can be confusing.

For example, I was walking around trying to find the rumored laundromat in the area. The street was narrow and uneven and the small buildings seemed randomly placed. Chickens and skinny dogs wandered across the street. Someone in a group of people sitting on the side of the road asked if I was looking for something. I kind of fumbled over the word “laundry.” I had just spent ten months in Spanish and French speaking places and wasn’t sure what one was called here. A woman in the group looked at me weird, then asked in perfect English, “You mean, like, a laundromat?”

Laundromat. Yeah, that’s it. She then directed me to its location about a block away.

I’ve never been a huge fan of McDonald’s, but I do like their breakfasts. The Pago Pago Harbor dinghy dock is, basically, the McDonald’s dock (since it’s right there), and the large, air-conditioned seating area with Wi-Fi and television is the de facto Cruiser’s Lounge. We spent several mornings in there doing email, catching up on news, talking with other cruisers and making plans. More than once breakfast carried over into lunch, sometimes even with a snack in between. McDonald’s does make it easy.

American TV is broadcast here. We were able to watch a nationally televised preseason Seahawks game being played in Seattle which, if nothing else, made me think about how much ocean is between us and getting back home again next year. With our two-year trip half over, I’m allowing myself the occasional thought about the day we sail back into the Straits of Juan de Fuca. I don’t know what that day will be like except that it will be a noteworthy day.

American Samoa is kind of an odd place. There are no real services for visiting yachts; no recreational boating industry that we’ve seen. Need a replacement navigation light? Try Amazon. And judging from the number of Amazon packages that get picked up at the Post Office, they do a good business here.

The harbor is dominated by a huge Starkist tuna operation on one side, and a container ship dock on the other. The electrical power plant for the entire island is also on shore, running day and night with never-ending, industrial-quality noise. What few cruising boats are here are relegated to a designated anchorage area.

There is not much tourism here, no resorts or big hotels. All through French Polynesia locals, usually men, would come out in the early mornings and evenings to paddle around in their canoes, and you’d see families in boats all the time. Not here. Perhaps one reason there isn’t much recreational boating is because there is nowhere to go. Leave the bay and you’re in the big seas. This is, after all, just a big rock in the middle of the ocean. The weather has even hindered our ability to get to shore. It kept us on the boat for a week straight. Twenty-five knots sustained, gusts to well over thirty, and whitecaps in the bay are a bit much for our little dinghy and 2hp outboard motor. We wouldn’t get much wetter if we swam to shore.

It was during thirty-knot gusts and heavy rain that cruisers in the bay came together on very short notice to save us and rescue another boat in the process (or maybe the other way around), when a sailboat that had anchored just upwind of us dragged anchor over the top of our anchor and came perilously close to our bowsprit. If we had hit, both boats would certainly have been damaged. Andiamo was unoccupied at the time and had a reportedly crappy anchor. We could not raise ours and move out of the way without hitting him since he was on top of our anchor. Just in time, dinghies from Slow Flight, Me Too, Terrapin and the British boat, Pickles converged and tied onto both sides of Andiamo. With people climbing on board to steer and handle the anchor, they used their outboards to move Andiamo away from us while we brought up our anchor so we could move and re-anchor ourselves. The subsequent attempts to re-anchor Andiamo were unsuccessful, and the boat was moved to the end of the bay and tied to an unused mooring.

When Andiamo’s owner eventually returned, he was mystified (let’s say concerned) as to how and why his boat had been moved, and by whom. When told what had happened, he was most appreciative for the team effort to save his boat. We are too.

Our three biggest reasons for coming to American Samoa were the United States Post Office, Priority Mail and “If it fits it ships” boxes. We had not had mail forwarded to us since Mexico, and that was a hassle coming by DHL through Mexico City. So we had mail, including credit cards, bank and insurance documents, parts that we hoped would fix the autopilot, canvas fasteners, renewed boat documentation and other things all being sent or forwarded to us at General Delivery, Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799. Most of the packages were being tracked, arriving on a flight from Honolulu. They should have all come together, about the same time we arrived, but [as of this writing] it has taken five trips [and still counting] to the post office to retrieve [most of] them, [more than] three weeks later than we expected. One post office employee told me “Do not use priority mail, use EXPRESS priority mail. (Unfortunately, the parts did not fix the autopilot.)

Many things here have been disappointing. We tried to get a phone SIM card, but the system here is not compatible with our phone. We bought Wi-Fi access from Bluezone. We can barely get a signal out on the boat from the nearest Bluezone hot spot, but at least it’s something. McDonald’s Wi-Fi is pretty good when we’re there, but neither Bluezone nor McDonald’s is fast enough or stable enough to load photographs to the web site without it timing out. Robyn went to the public library and said that for $5 they have really fast internet. If this post includes pictures below, it means that the library internet came through for us. The weather has also gotten to us a bit. It’s hot, even when it rains all the time. And the wind gets pretty crazy out in the bay. That keeps us on an uncomfortable boat, not doing much except checking our anchor and watching the boats upwind from us.

We took a bus ride to the Cost U Less for provisioning for the next two months. The buses here are made from pickup trucks of various sizes. The passenger area is made of wood, with plywood floor and seats. They all seem to have very loud music systems. The buses are all privately owned and painted as such, sometimes elaborately, but they follow established routes on no set schedule. The Cost U Less itself resembles Costco. It even has several Kirkland brand products. There was no way to get everything we bought back on a bus, so we took a taxi back to the dinghy dock. On an English-speaking island, we apparently got the only non-English speaking driver. He made more than one stop for reasons we never understood. At one point he handed his phone to Julie so she could explain to his dispatcher where we wanted to go. And on one of his stops he bought us some coconuts, maybe to make up for all the confusion? One thing though, the road between Pago Pago Harbor and the Cost U Less is very scenic where it runs along the shore.

Although even some of the locals we’ve talked to say that the other Samoa is nicer, we’ll probably skip it if we get a good weather window and go straight to Tonga. Somewhere in southern Tonga will be our last stop before crossing to New Zealand in November. We plan to spend the South Pacific cyclone season doing boat work and exploring New Zealand before turning around and heading for home in 2018.

Pago Pago Harbor with All Day at anchor and Starkist plant in background
Spontaneous team effort to re-secure Andiamo in the wind and rain after it almost dragged into us
Farmer’s market in Pago Pago
Buses built from pickup trucks, one we rode even had a flat screen for passengers
Some buses are big
Some buses are small
This canoe is huge
Best dinghy dock we’ve seen since Mexico

Bora Bora to Pago Pago

Posted by John

With each ocean passage we make, I feel less and less of a fraud and more and more of an actual offshore sailor. Before leaving home last year, we were in Fisheries Supply in Seattle. As we walked by a counter in the sailing department, I overheard the clerk say to a customer, “We sell a lot of these for open ocean boats” (or words to that effect). I don’t know what he was referring to, but I remember thinking that Mysticeti is an open ocean boat. However, it didn’t seem right to think of myself as an open ocean sailor then. I don’t necessarily feel that way anymore, especially after arriving safely in Pago Pago.

A document posted on the blog of s/v Soggy Paws, written by British Captain John M. Wolstenholme, of the yacht Mr. John VI, calls this area of the Pacific between French Polynesia and the Samoa/Tonga area the “Dangerous Middle.” It is the South Pacific Convergence Zone; the place where the equatorial winds and the southern trades meet. It is not to be taken lightly.

Except for the fact that our West Marine “Raiatea” model binoculars, which we had bought at a boat show maybe fifteen years ago, had just spontaneously broken in two, ironically on Bora Bora and not on Raiatea where we had been a couple of weeks earlier, the passage started out great. We passed Maupiti in late afternoon as the sun was setting. We were sailing comfortably at six knots with about a fifteen knot wind. We even seemed to have Isaac, our Saye’s Rig self-steering system, dialed-in to perfection. It seemed like we were just along for a nice ride.

Sometime during the long night it got weird. The northeast wind died suddenly, and after a few minutes of zero wind, it roared back from the southeast at twenty knots or more. Isaac was confused, and suddenly we were going almost 180 degrees from what we wanted. We got back on course and reset Isaac, which requires leaving the safety of the cockpit and scrambling across the top of the aft cabin to do so, but the ride was no longer so nice. The seas rose, and during the night something came loose, slid across the galley counter, and bumped the water faucet on. The replacement water pressure pump that we had wandered the back streets of Papeete trying to find did a great job of efficiently emptying our full 100-gallon center water tank down the drain before we realized that the pump was running.

To make it worse, one of our two side tanks was last filled with dock water in La Cruz, Mexico. All through French Polynesia we were drawing water only from the center tank, topping it off with the water maker whenever we were in a clean enough and calm enough anchorage, or from the dock in Papeete. Of all the marinas we stopped at in Mexico, we always verified that the water on the dock was potable. There was one marina where we didn’t ask. That marina was La Cruz. When we tried to use the water in that side tank, it had a yellow tint, seemed to foam up, and had black grit floating in it. We switched to the other side tank. We don’t remember where the second side tank was last filled, but we drank from it for the rest of the crossing, and are still drinking from it today. The water has a slight metallic taste. It could be that it has been sitting in that tank for a long time.

The next thing that went wrong was when we started the engine to flush the water maker. Every five days the water maker membranes need to be flushed with fresh (or maybe less-than-fresh) water. But when we started the engine to supply the power to run the pumps, we apparently again sucked up whatever had clogged the fuel line before, when we were on our way to Banderas Bay. Once again the engine quit. We switched tanks, did a fuel filter change (because it was really gunked up), and bled the fuel lines mid-ocean in rough conditions.

We originally thought about stopping at Suwarrow atoll, especially when we learned that we needed to refill the water tank. We can’t really run the water maker while underway in rough seas because the pressure fluctuations in the incoming seawater are difficult to handle. We were less than a day out from Suwarrow when we decided that the sea conditions made Suwarrow’s entrance channel a possibly risky proposition. We changed course for Pago Pago.

As we approached American Samoa, we started to look at our arrival time. If we got there too early, it would be the middle of the night. If we got there too late, it would be the weekend and we’d be hit with overtime charges for customs inspection, which you are directed to immediately after being granted permission by Port Control to enter the harbor. The wind was no longer steady, and had actually become quite light. We didn’t want to, because our autopilot is broken and Isaac will not work when we’re under power, but we decided to run the engine and proceed under power for twelve hours, arriving outside the harbor at first light. It would mean hand steering all night, taking turns every hour, bleary-eyed, trying to keep to a compass heading.

Sometime during the night our “steaming” light, which indicates our status as a power-driven vessel, burned out. Not that it mattered much since for the entire trip we had seen only two ships. But it was one more thing that would need fixing, and it’s seventeen feet up the mast.

The entry into the country was the first we’ve done without the help of an agent. We were directed to tie alongside a motor vessel which we couldn’t find at first because another ship was already there. This was pointed out to us by a fellow cruiser already anchored in the bay. On clarification with Port Control, we were directed to tie to that second ship. Fortunately there were crew on board to take our lines. After waiting for a long time, we were finally boarded by what seemed like an excessive number of officials, including police, health department and customs. We had just sailed over a thousand miles in less-than-smooth seas. The cabin was a mess. They seemed most concerned about any contagious diseases we might have, and where our guns and prescription medications were kept. We had none of either on board. One inspector even opened and sniffed a jar of parsley. I don’t know how many times I was asked where we kept the guns, and if any of us were sick. Not being able to find anything, they finally hit us up for a $100 certificate proving we had no rats or mice on board. One of the inspectors was apparently qualified to make that determination. Either that, or we’d have to be fumigated, which would likely cost more. When told to go ahead and take down our “Q” flag, we untied from the ship and motored over to the anchorage and dropped anchor amongst Puddle Jump boats we knew: Slow Flight, Me Too, Terrapin and All Day.

During this crossing through the “Dangerous Middle,” we have seen what are likely the biggest waves we’ve sailed in so far, some of the highest sustained winds (in gale-force range), heaviest rains, and been rolled over the farthest yet. We also saw our highest surfing speeds (more than 12 knots) and took the most water on deck, at one time flooding the starboard deck between the cabin and the bulwark with six-inch deep water that seemed to take forever to drain off through the scupper. And during all that, we dealt with the above problems, even gluing and duct taping the right-side objective lens assembly of our binoculars back together with the rest of it. It actually works all right.

All things considered, this was actually a fairly fun crossing. We had several days and nights of good, low-maintenance sailing with the boat steering itself, the sun crossing the sky by day, and the stars and waning moon crossing by night. It’s a little strange seeing the familiar constellation Orion appear upside-down at this latitude, but his belt still points to Sirius.

So go ahead and call us offshore sailors if you want. I’m okay with it.

Note: Apparently someone has tripped over the cord that connects the American Samoa internet to the rest of the world. I guess there will be no pictures until they find it and plug it back in.