Voyage to the real Samoa

During an eight-month stint in Pago Pago, American Samoa, we heard countless times the local refrain, “If you think it’s nice here, sail west to the real Samoa.” Folks claimed the neighboring independent nation was “unspoiled and unspeakably beautiful,” “like Hawaii 50 years ago” and “a bastion of very traditional Polynesian culture.” The sailor’s grapevine, in sharp contrast to uneven reports about Pago, consistently sang the praises of Apia, Samoa’s capital, though few seemed to have been anywhere else in the country. The last tantalizing hint came from Samoan friends living and working in American Samoa: “If you want to experience the real Samoa, forget Apia and the island of Upolu, and head over to Savai’i.”

An examination of the charts revealed obvious reasons for the lack of exploration of Samoa by voyaging sailors. Secure harbors were few, and even these tended to be untenable for the northerly quadrant winds dominant in summer. We’d sailed within sight of the more populated island, Upolu, several times in years past, and once closely skirted the stunning western tip of Savai’i in brilliant moonlight en route from Micronesia to Nuku’alofa, Tonga. Despite a strong desire to stop, other priorities always seemed to block the way. Now, with cyclone season over and Apia only a pleasant, 65-odd nm off the wind from Pago Pago, the plan was to see the country that had teased us for so long. And we wouldn’t leave it at that — Asau Harbour, on the lonely northwest corner of Savai’i, looked to be a fine harbor. We decided to ignore the sailor rumor that obtaining a cruising permit to visit was difficult. We’d do whatever it took in Apia to get there.

Cyclone season in Pago Pago

Our Samoan sojourn began with a mid-October arrival from Vava’u, Tonga, following a truncated austral cruising season that started with a 2,700-nm jaunt southeast across the equator from Majuro, Marshall Islands (see Southeast from Micronesia, Issue 122 May/June 2002). The reason for coming to Pago Pago was that our old friend, vaunted Tongan bush doctor Lea’aetoa Tavake, now resided there. With Western medicine stumped, we sought treatment for nerve damage causing pain in Wendy’s right arm, the result of a bout with parasitic meningitis the year before. We soon settled into a routine of boat work, daily visits to Lea’aetoa, and explorations of the lovely island of Tutuila, with one eye on the impending cyclone season. Though the prevailing La Ni�a condition that reduces cyclone probability for the Samoas was fading, no strong El Ni�o condition appeared to be in the offing. Weeks turned into months, and suddenly, with New Year’s Eve just around the corner, an ominous low spiraled west-northwest of Tutuila. It was too late to begin the process of securing a new mooring before the storm. Our anchor had been secure for nine weeks in the Pago Pago inner harbor, but better arrangements were clearly in order. I kicked myself for holding out so long on committing to remain for the season &mdash it had been obvious for some time that Wendy’s medical progress was slow at best.

Far to the southwest of Hawaii, the eastern and western Samoan Islands are a study in economic and cultural constrasts.

The effects of Cyclone Waka gradually began to manifest themselves in the form of an opaque overcast. Gusting squalls ricocheted over the towering ridge protecting the harbor to the north, swirling down Vaipito Valley to deliver brisk southwesterly cat paws onto the handful of sailboats huddled below. We were settling down for the evening when, much to our surprise, a mere gust of 35 knots abruptly broke our anchor loose, and élan began flying quickly across the narrow harbor toward the rocks. We immediately fired up the engine and retrieved our anchor, replete with the huge wad of heavy monofilament fishing line responsible for its uncharacteristic failure, and relocated to an area of deep-mud bottom off the stream mouth at the far western end of the harbor. We set two anchors to windward.

American Samoa lies near the independent state of Samoa. The authors voyaged from the relatively developed harbor of Pago Pago on Tutuila to the less-often visited island of Savai��i.

The next morning, Wendy and 28-month-old Ryan kept watch while I borrowed an additional 120-lb storm anchor from Dan Smith at Pacific Underwater Construction and set that out as well. Luckily for us, Waka swerved around the Samoas, then, unfortunately, made a beeline for Vava’u, Tonga. While we never saw more than 55 knots, poor Vava’u caught the full brunt of their worst hurricane in some 40 years. I wasted no time the next few days arranging a storm mooring from Dan. We shackled and welded a length of heavy ship’s chain to a discarded 4,000-lb forklift counterweight, connected more heavy chain salvaged from a tuna purse seiner, suspending this with a cluster of fishing floats. We harnessed élan to a super-strong swivel arrangement using chafe-protected hawser lines, complete with a lazy chain just in case. Better late than never; now we were set to stay.

Delightful Tutuila

Voyaging sailboats tied double alongside the yacht-clearance wharf at Malaloa small-boat harbor at Pago Pago.

Call us eternal optimists, hopelessly fiefia mao pe (the lovely Tongan expression meaning, loosely, “happy every day”), but we spent a delightful summer and early fall in American Samoa. Long the brunt of negative comments by seafarers, Pago Pago Harbor and surrounds are gradually responding to the intense efforts of the American Samoa Environmental Protection Agency. Keep in mind this is a commercial harbor, like Suva, Fiji; or Papeete, Tahiti; or Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, never pristine situations.

Yet water quality has improved immensely over the past decade, and much of the plastic and other debris that once covered the bottom is gone. Areas of the inner harbor have reliable holding ground. During periods of little rain, the water becomes quite clear, revealing dense clusters of colorful reef fish and larger predators like giant trevally. Sailor Peter Peshut went out by dinghy and caught some trophy-sized dogtooth tuna and brassy trevally on light tackle just beyond the moored boats, near the ship-channel markers in the outer harbor. Calm conditions brought large schools of long-jawed mackerel swarming to the surface, weaving their way among the sailboats. Several juvenile hawksbill turtles frequented the inner harbor.

Sure, easterly breezes can carry tuna cannery odors aboard, and an outgoing tide in calm conditions following hard easterly trades will refloat piled debris out into the harbor. Yet the rain forest towers above you, and misty clouds drift around the mountain peaks, all part of the American Samoa National Park, with spectacular hiking trails just minutes away. The natural beauty of Tutuila, in our eyes, overwhelmed the inevitable trappings of economic activity.

Wendy and Paea, the first long-term crewmember on Élan, show off a nice dogtooth tuna caught off Savai��i.

When it came to other amenities, like cheap and abundant provisions, Internet and public library access, U.S. postal service, reasonable phone rates, broadcast television, easy and inexpensive public transportation, great beaches, sports opportunities, and some excellent watering holes, any sailor would give Tutuila an unequivocal thumbs up.

Wendy took Ryan back to the U.S. mainland for minor hernia surgery and family visits, leaving me to boat-watching and maintenance duties in Pago for nearly seven weeks.

Wendy and Ryan Bannerot and Paea Tavake take in the view from black lava
s on the northwestern coast of Savai��i.

A delayed departure west

By the end of April, it was clear that Lea’aetoa was making little or no headway with Wendy’s chronic arm pain, despite long, intense effort, and at any rate, his expired visa forced him to relocate temporarily “next door” to Apia. Cyclone season was nearly behind us, and with no further reason to stay in Tutuila, we considered how to hang onto our sailing dreams. Western physicians predicted three to five years for the smashed cranial nerve axons to finish rebranching. The isometrics of Ryan-handling, particularly while bracing at sea, seemed to stir up Wendy’s pain the most. If I were to man the boat, I would rarely be able to handle the child-care front. Also, élan had been in the water continuously for over two years and was in need of a haulout. With two previous rounds in New Zealand, we were ready to try a different developed-country refit option. What about finding someone to lend a hand, start out the season slowly with very short hops, and then see if Wendy could handle it? If all went well, we’d shoot for Australia by November.

Lea’aetoa’s lovely wife Paea, still in Tutuila, jumped at the chance to be our first long-term crewmember aboard élan. Ryan already adored her, and we’d all been friends for years. Wendy and Paea are the same age, and Paea had made several short passages with us before. We’d have to support her and fund her return home, changing our budget dynamics, but if this could make things work, we’d find a way.

Scott and Ryan Bannerot, framed by Samoan friend Aimasi, left, and Paea, right, attempt the Papase��ea Sliding Rock.

The long, hot summer, frequent rain, and high humidity had taken a toll on some boat electronics; the refrigeration system suddenly needed help; and safe departure time was approaching rapidly. We cast all else aside and bore down on fixing and preparing; yet June found us still on the mooring in Pago due to parts delays and an improbable rash of additional equipment failures. Meanwhile, the warm tongue of central-western Pacific waters was spreading eastward, heralding a new El Ni�o event. This took the sting out of our delayed departure, since it seemed not only to retard the northward travel of the South Pacific Convergence Zone, but reinforce it. Weatherfaxes for most of May and early June indicated major convection atop Tutuila, reflected by very unsettled weather. The frequent strong squalls lashing the island were just what we didn’t need at sea with our half-lame crew.

Finally everything came together on a tranquil Sunday morning in late June, the first one in weeks. We’d checked out; the boat was set, provisions loaded. We threw the lines at Malaloa small-boat basin with a crowd of close Tongan and Samoan friends waving and crying. The fact that Lea’aetoa was in Apia waiting for us took some of the sting out of Paea’s departure.

élan’s bow soon bit into the first slow, long ocean swell sweeping gently into the outer harbor, and for the first time in eight months, we were under way offshore. Small terns and boobies clustered over surface-feeding schools of tuna here and there as we skirted the beautiful southwestern coastline of Tutuila, running before a light easterly under full genoa and puffy white cumulus clouds drifting across blue skies. The distinctive sickle-shape of a tail lobe flicked off to starboard, and a small blue marlin wagged right by the boat, disappearing quickly to the east.

An orange sunset off the bow turned the distant silhouette of Upolu purple, and then a fat, bright moon lighted our silent path over dark, smooth seas, phosphorescence sparkling in our bow wave and wake. The shining orb seemed to melt the tensions of being harbor-bound, of intense preparations, of medical concerns, and of all the other complications of being tied to land, fanning instead the familiar, pervasive inner glow of sailing a well-found vessel through a stunning tropical night. The total distance from Pago Pago to Apia required only 14 hours or so of normal travel, so we’d take our time and enter in good light the next morning.

Red carpet, Polynesian style

Fair-weather cumulus yielded to perfectly clear skies before sunrise as we eased slowly into position offshore of Apia. By mid-morning, friendly, outgoing officials had us all checked in, élan was securely anchored in the picturesque harbor, and we were busily deploying the dinghy and attending to other details. The only problem had been at Immigration &mdash officials in American Samoa had “misplaced” Paea’s Tongan passport, issuing her instead with a “permit” to return to Tonga. At first, Samoan immigration personnel said that Paea would be confined to the boat during our stay. I explained that she was a dear friend and crewmember. I certainly agreed with their assessment of her paperwork. However, we would under no circumstances treat her in that manner. I said softly, “If you were me, would you do this to your friend?” If this was to be their final decision, I requested that they please go ahead and check us all right back out now, because we’d regrettably depart the country immediately. The sympathetic young officer told me to stand by while he checked with his superior, returned, asked if I’d sign a form taking responsibility for her departure aboard élan, and everything was fine.

Meanwhile, like a low-pressure system gathering momentum, the powerful forces of Polynesian hospitality were already determining our fate for the upcoming week in Upolu. We had purposely not contacted Lea’aetoa and family before we could get settled. Nevertheless, our good friend Aimasi Fiso, a Samoan commercial fisherman whom we’d met while he was working in Tutuila, spotted élan as he drove past the waterfront. Immediately, he swung into the port office and hailed us on VHF. Could we please meet him on shore? Soon after, we got another call from the friendly port captain. A whole crowd of Samoans and Tongans, loaded with drinking coconuts and taro, awaited us in his office. Lea’aetoa and friends had received a call from relatives in Tutuila asking if we’d arrived safely. Well before sunset, élan’s decks and salon were full of islanders of all ages, from three different families, and I was still buzzing back and forth ferrying folks by the dinghy-load. The happy chatter of three different languages, mixed with giggling and soft, musical laughter, floated out over the glassy harbor.

We did our utmost over the next eleven days to do justice to the intense social obligations of the traditional red carpet. It was like trying to drink from a fire hydrant while flying down a roaring river on a raft. Friends squired us around the island of Upolu to every point of remotest interest and stuffed us to the breaking point with rich, delicious local cuisine. Aimasi took us to nearby Papase’ea Sliding Rock, and Ryan, held securely on my lap, had a big time slipping down off the waterfalls, plummeting into the deep pool in the river below. We saw some of the most magnificent beaches ever on the southeast shore, replete with perfect, curling breakers sometimes populated by enthusiastic visiting pa’alangis (white people) on surfboards. Seeing it like a Samoan was a treat &mdash people everywhere accepted us as locals, Aimasi proudly introducing us to nearly everyone in sight.

Idyllic Asau

All too soon, we were preparing to weigh anchor and set sail once again after bidding friends on shore a heartfelt farewell. The Savai’i cruising permit had taken roughly five minutes to arrange in town, disproving hearsay. Like the trip from Pago Pago to Apia, this was another overnighter with no pressure for an early departure. We quietly prepared while Wendy slept in, giving her arm time to rest and consolidate before venturing out into the trade-driven swells. The top half of a large high promised sunny, breezy conditions. élan balanced well under genoa only, the wind vane steering us over azure lumps with occasional foamy white crests. We rolled in some sail to slow progress. By sunset, Savai’i blotted out much of the western horizon, and a very large school of skipjack tuna swam along with us, ambushing hapless flying fish spooked by the rushing bow wave. A trio of white-tailed tropicbirds kept pace overhead.

West of Matautu Bay on the north coast of Savai’i, the mountainous island blocked most of the wind. Pre-dawn darkness found us easing silently along in light conditions offshore of the massive lava field east of Asau Bay. What should have been an easy entry in bright morning sunlight, however, turned into a missed approach. We’d drifted very slightly to starboard of the channel range markers, the whole crew admiring the barreling righthand surf break on the reef close off to port, when suddenly a sharp report clanged up through our feet. Our sloppy, relaxed entry caused the tip of the centerboard to whack the top of a coral pinnacle 8 1/2 feet below. We spun around quickly and did it right the second time, chiding ourselves for getting too lax, an occupational hazard of years of trouble-free sailing adventure.

Asau turned out to be an absolute gem of a place, the stuff of sailors’ dreams … a spacious, secure anchorage with deep sand holding ground, wonderful adjacent swimming and snorkeling on an uninhabited barrier island and reef, and good boat security as we hooked up with the local proprietors of a general store overlooking the harbor. Dulce Masoe and her family clued us in on island bus schedules, organized a rental car, supplied indispensable local information and history, secured our dinghy for us during day trips, and asked us to please pass on their contact information to other sailors.

Where the slight remnants of ocean swell rising and falling in Apia Harbour through the exposed opening to the north remind visiting sailors that their security is temporary, the flat, clean waters and idyllic surroundings of Asau Bay might lull one into a considerably longer stay. Few voyagers call in here. Fishing, diving, swimming and exploring are all first-class. The locals are relaxed and friendly. Soaring volcanic mountains complete the backdrop. We could feel the magnetism of the place, and we could not dispute the points made months ago in Pago Pago by our Samoan friends from Savai’i. If the voyage to Apia was our first in eight months, the stay in Asau represented the first pristine anchorage for élan in nearly nine months. Ten days passed before we knew it, but with a late start on the season and thousands of miles to go, it was time to saddle up and hit the trail once more.

A reluctant farewell

We exchanged addresses with Dulce and presented her with a handmade page for her (very thin) log of visiting yachts. The gift moved her to tears. I humped diesel jugs out to élan from the local fuel station, spontaneously assisted by a local worker with a pickup truck I happened to meet at the gas pump.

We followed our normal protocol of a good, long sleep and then headed out the channel late on a bright, sunny morning. The nominal game plan was to round the western end of Savai’i and head for the remote, northernmost Tongan outpost of Niuatoputapu, only 160-odd nm to the south.

Without being too obvious about it, I monitored Wendy’s mental and physical well being very closely. We’d had a nearly flat calm overnighter, followed by a similar-length passage in slightly more boisterous conditions. So far, so good. Paea had quickly established herself as the quintessential top-flight crewmember, fearless, cheerful, energetic, always ready to pitch in at any hour of the day or night, thrilled with her first opportunity to sail, snorkel and see foreign lands. Ryan was in good hands, bubbling, happy and safe.

Sheltered from the southeasterly trades, we motorsailed in flat seas along the scenic northwestern end of Savai’i. We fired out the deep-trolling wire line for the first time of the voyage, an action quickly rewarded by a jolting strike and the deep hum of the drag. Minutes later, Wendy and Paea posed for a photo with a delicious dogtooth tuna of 16 or so pounds. Next we swung in close to shore for views of abandoned village ruins, the result of a devastating visit from Cyclone Ofa in 1990. We had previously seen the sobering results of more recent, lesser storms along the exposed northwestern lobe of Savai’i, no place for a voyaging boat in the summer season. The last rays of sunlight shone on Cape Mulinu’u as we bade Savai’i and the Samoas a fond farewell. A carpet of dark clouds hid the central mountaintops, the everyday effects of deflected trades boiling up to join a large, horizon-to-horizon bank that the weatherfax confirmed to be a descending piece of the South Pacific Convergence Zone. We cleared the lee of Savai’i in gathering darkness. I reefed down in the last gray light to make the 18- to 26-knot east-southeast conditions as comfortable as possible, and it was obvious that Wendy’s next test would soon be well under way.

Scott, Wendy and Ryan Bannerot are voyaging in the Pacific aboard their aluminum ketch élan. Scott and Wendy are the authors of The Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing, published by International Marine.

By Ocean Navigator