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