Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pago Pago American Samoa, Sept. 12

We left Suwarrow on September 1 headed for Pago Pago, American Samoa – an unexpected destination- to look for new batteries, a doctor, prescription refills, and, according to legend, Wal-mart, Costco, a stinky, polluted anchorage, and rude natives. Less than 450 miles away, should be an easy three days with favorable winds forecast, and not really out of the way to Tonga.

Day One of the passage was as advertised. Day Two, definitely harder. Day Three the winds died, the rain came, and the autopilot stopped working. What rain it was – soaking, pouring – like the Northwest on many Labor Days, only about 20 degrees warmer. Stuck on the wheel, it was time for the Gore-Tex, the fleece, hot liquids, and hard two hour watches through the night. The winds and seas kicked in overnight and when we finally saw the magnificent island out of the fog, huge breakers were spraying 100 feet of water up onto the cliffs. The pass was fine and we made it in safely into the magnificently situated but filthy harbor of Pago Pago.

The water is the color of orange pekoe tea, littered with plastic everywhere. Starkist and Chicken of the Sea both have big tuna canneries here right on the water that create an incredible stench when the conditions are wrong. There is a container port and big ships coming in and out. Other than that, the harbor – which is the capital of the territory - is a string of little villages with not much in them except a handful of small businesses and government offices. It’s easy to get anywhere on the colorful little buses or by walking. And it rains a lot.

We have been here almost a week. Other than the awful conditions in the anchorage, we have found American Samoa to be a delight. From our first contact the people have been friendly, gone out of their way to be helpful, and extended invitations. There is a smile on everyone’s face and interest in who we are and sharing Samoa with us. There is a warehouse store by the airport, but it isn’t a Costco or a Wal-Mart. It is easy to get things done here (English is everyone’s second language) and it is easy to go places by walking or on the colorful little buses. They use the US dollar and the US Postal Service, there are English language newspapers and NPR radio news. Prices are reasonable. Palangi (white people) are here as government workers, to do business, or to live the tropical life but there is virtually no tourism.

We accomplished many of our errands including fixing the autopilot and visits to the LBJ Tropical Medical Center, which is the only place to get treatment or medicines. Locals pay $100 to have a baby, $150 for C-Sections. Non-residents pay $600 and $1500 respectively, courtesy of Uncle Sam. Such a deal, no wonder the birth rate is high. We were honored guests at a church on Sunday where we got to hear four choirs sing, have visited the museum, hung out at the Yacht Club, eaten some good meals off the boat. There is a lot still on the fun to-do list – touring the island, seeing mountains and rainforest in the National Park right above the harbor, the marine sanctuary, going to a traditional Samoan feast, and a tour of the tuna cannery.

Suwarrow - August 26 - Sept. 1

We finally said goodbye to Bora Bora, the French language, and fine cheese and wine – with no regrets - at 0730 on August 21, after waiting several days for some wind. The passage to Suwarrow in the Cook Islands was about 700 miles. We anticipated five days and we were right on the money, arriving in the anchorage at 0900 on August 26. That’s five days, five nights, 24/7, under way, with the exception of 2 hours hove to waiting for morning light before we attempted to enter the pass into Suwarrow lagoon.

A passage that length is a lot like driving across the US nonstop. Monotonous, arduous and at times uncomfortable, expecially when doing the things you stop for on the auto trip (eating, going to the bathroom, refueling). Ticking off the hours and the mileage and doing endless rounds of algebra in your head: if the boat continues at 6 knots per hour how long will it take us to reach our destination? What if we make 6.5 knots? What if it’s only 5 knots? Will we beat the boat that is a few miles ahead of us? Behind us?

The positives of this passage were nice weather, fair winds on the beam or from behind, and ongoing radio communications with other boats making the same passage . The negative was confused seas, which made Tom and me a bit queasy at times, made sleep an athletic activity, and led a few of the women on other boats to compare the passage to childbirth (awful but you forget about it as soon as you arrive at your destination).

And talk about a destination: Suwarrow was summer camp for cruisers, the favorite landing of many who have been cruising the seven seas for years. Cook Islands’ only national park, it is an atoll with a lagoon that is about 11 miles wide. Years ago it was inhabited by a Kiwi named Tom Neale who wrote a popular book about his experience on this lonely place in the middle of the ocean called An Island to Oneself. There is a main island where now Ranger John, his wife Veronica, and their four sons Jeremiah, Jonathan, Augustino and Giovanni live for about six months of the year. They maintain a jetty and a picnic area, lead guided tours of the atoll’s highlights, and show visitors the best snorkeling, fishing techniques and environmental practices (including how to cope with the lively sharks in the lagoon that love fish offal but have not attacked any people).

With 10 - 20 boats in the anchorage, every night was party night on the beach featuring a potluck dish and communal catch of the day (John’s rule: if you caught fish, you shared) – marlin, mahi mahi, grouper, and more. John welcomed the newcomers, said goodbye to those leaving, said grace, shared his experiences, and made us part of the family. We shared his deep emotion when an Australian family who had come to the island two years ago returned to the island – a first for John . Sailor-musicians from the US, Norway, Austria and Germany joined together for afternoon rehearsals and evening performances and jamming. We were avid participants in the music scene with Tom on vocals and harmonica and both of us on our portable collection of percussion instruments.