Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tales of Samoa -O le afa o tausaga 1966 - The 1966 Typhoon in American Samoa

The 1966 Typhoon in American Samoa

The wind made a soft whistling sound as it slipped through the wire screens. The sound was always there, along with the constant background booming of the surf crashing on the edge of the reef just a hundred yards from my back door.

The salt spray, carried in the south east trade winds, coated the copper wire screens that faced the ocean, turning them green by the day after they were first put on the house.

The moist breeze carried the smell of the sea and salt through the open rooms, leaving a crystalline layer of salt on wooden walls, and left the woven floor mats, the cushions on the furniture, and even the sheets on the bed always feeling slightly damp.

We had lived in the new principal’s house on the school grounds of Aunu’ufou School since September of 1965. It was a wonderful blend of North American and South Pacific architecture. Four-by-four posts evenly spaced around the outside of the house held up a low pitched roof that was covered with heavy cedar shakes. The 30’ X 30’ concrete slab floor, covered with woven pandanus mats, made a cool surface in a hot, humid climate. Breezes from any direction could flow through the openings all the way around the house, which had no exterior walls. The breeze could be moderated and blowing rain stopped by pulling up heavy canvas curtains that were attached with grommets to sail tracks on the sides of the supporting posts. Inside there was a 10’ X 30’ living room on one side, three 10’ X10’ bedrooms on the opposite side, and an island in the center that was divided into a long narrow kitchen, a small bathroom, and a utility closet. A wall mounted ladder next to the door of the kitchen ascended to a small open loft.

On our bookcase near one of the living room windows was a single-sideband radio, our only two-way connection with the rest of the world from the little mile-wide island of Aunu’u. Some men on the island made the early morning trip to work before sunrise each day, rowing in longboats across the narrow channel between Aunu’u and the main island of Tutuila, but as school principal I lived at my work place. Whenever we needed school supplies, or food for the cafeteria, had mechanical problems with the pump that supplied the only running water on the island, or wanted groceries from the Burns-Phillp Store in Fagatogo, the single-sideband radio was the means to communicate our needs.

Squeezing the hand-held microphone and holding it close to your mouth you’d call, “Pago Radio, Pago Radio, Pago Radio! This is Aunu’u, OVER!” and wait for the reply, "Aunu’u, this is Pago Radio, OVER”, and the conversation would begin. Most often we would need a phone-patch, which simply meant that the radio operator in Pago Pago would dial the telephone number of the Department of Education, the Department of Public Works, the Burns-Phillp Store, or anyone else who actually HAD a telephone. Telephone conversations required the active participation of the radio operator, since he had to switch the telephone connection from broadcast to receive each time the party on the opposite end had finished talking. We got in the habit of ending each sentence with “OVER!” and pausing long enough for the switching to take place.

The single-sideband radio also acted as an open party-line, connecting us 24 hours a day to all of the other isolated schools whose only communication was via radio. In the mid-1960’s when there was only a single, mostly unpaved road only along the southern shore of Tutuila, a few very bad, very slippery, often dangerous roads led zigzagging over steep mountain slopes to villages on the north shore, and some villages were accessible only by boat. Schools at Aoloau, Nu’uuli, Vatia, Masefau, Aoa, Tula, and even Swain’s Island 200 miles to the north all kept in touch with each other via the single-sideband radio.

Our first Christmas 14 degrees south of the Equator on a one-mile-wide island in American Samoa had come and gone. Christmas in the tropics was different than it had been in California. Granted, California has mild winters and doesn’t fit the Christmas stereotype of snow-covered roofs and roasting chestnuts, but in Samoa it was steamy! We were south of the Equator where summer begins on December 21 and winter begins on June 21, but Samoa is close enough to the Equator that it makes little difference, except that the normally steady southeast trade winds often die out completely, leaving temperatures in the upper eighties and humidity in the nineties.

We had drawn the outline of a Christmas tree on brown butcher paper, and cut out pictures of ornaments and toys out of a Sears Roebuck catalogue to paste on the paper in lieu of real decorations, but of course that magic smell of evergreen boughs was not there, replaced by the fetid scent of the nearby flooded taro patches, with overtones of sulfur dioxide. We’d sung Christmas carols, read the nativity story, wished friends and neighbors “Manuia le Kirisimasi ma le Tausaga Fou!” (a healthy Christmas and New Year), and we opened presents, but somehow it just wasn’t the same.

January had brought little relief from the heat and humidity. The cooling trade winds had not yet returned. Hordes of mosquitoes, normally blown downwind away from the house and school by the sea breeze now hovered in swirling clouds around the window screens, many finding their way into the house each time a door was opened. Those that found their way in were most annoying at night, when they would hover with high-pitched whining wings only inches away from sleepy ears. An energetic dance performed by men is Samoa is called the “fa’ataupati” or slap-dance (you can click on fa'ataupati to view it, and then come back to finish the story). It is said that it was originally meant to depict the actions of dealing with swarms of hungry mosquitoes. That is wholly believable!

Thursday, February 10th was pleasant. The breeze was once again blowing off the ocean, making the day seem a bit cooler. It did seem unusual that the wind was blowing more from the west than from its almost constant southeast direction. Long, streaky looking clouds scurried across the sky, constantly dimming and brightening the sunlight.

Our first hint of impending trouble was in the early afternoon, when we heard a voice half garbled with static on the single-sideband radio. It was the school principal on Swains Island, two hundred miles to the north, calling via Pago Radio with the information that conditions had been deteriorating there all day. The wind velocity had been picking up all morning, and at high tide the surf was actually washing into the edges of the vegetation at the top of the steep coral sand beach on the western side of the island where the school was located. This was startling, since it was a first quarter moon, a time in the lunar cycle when tide levels experience far less change than at full moon or new moon. The principal said that he had dismissed school early and sent all the children home to help their parents get ready for the storm that was coming.

By late afternoon the sky over Aunu’u was dark, with chunky looking low hanging clouds scudding rapidly from horizon to horizon. When I walked the half mile down the path to the village and boat landing I noticed that the surf was up here too. As the longboats came in carrying the men from work on the nearby island of Tutuila, they had to pause just beyond the waves that were breaking where there was normally no surf to contend with, timing their approach to the beach to come between the wave sets. They jumped quickly overboard into shallow water as the bow of each boat touched the sand, and hurried up the beach to grab the lago, slippery sections of wood that they placed at intervals up the slope. Every available person scrambled to grab sides of the heavy wooden longboats, sliding them much farther away from the water’s edge than usual.

Then they did something that I had never seen done before. Each longboat was cumbrously manhandled and rolled upside down and left on the flat ground high above the beach. I asked what was going on, and was told that there was a big storm coming, an afa … a hurricane. They could read the warnings of wind direction, of cloud shapes and speed, could take heed of the unusual number of frigate birds heading away from their normal ocean patrols toward the land.

As I headed back home I could see much scurrying about in the village. Teenage boys and young men were hitching themselves up the trunks of coconut trees, machetes in hand, and hacking off large numbers of whole coconut fronds. As the long sections fell to the ground they were immediately gathered by younger children, and one at a time dragged toward the scattered fales, the open-sided thatched roof houses. There the adults were busy setting the heavy coconut fronds on end, side by side, all the way around each house, and binding the branches to the fale, girdling the entire house with sennit, the thin strong rope made of braided coconut-fiber strands.

The single-sideband was full of chatter back and forth between the various school stations now, and the Swains Island principal came back on the air about 6:00 p.m., saying in a slightly shaky voice that he was going to sign off the air now, and would not be back on again, since the waves were now beginning to crash against the outside walls of the flimsy building he was in!
Everyone else there had already left the tiny village to make their way cautiously toward the old Victorian style house “Etena” on the lee side of the island, through coconut groves where gale force winds were knocking off coconuts at an alarming rate. Getting hit by one of these would cause serious injury if not death.

The weather was deteriorating rapidly, and there was little we could do by way of preparation. I pulled all of the canvas curtains up on their sail tracks to the tops of each opening, and tied them securely. There was still a gap at each edge almost an inch wide, and it had begun to rain. The strong wind was sending raindrops right on through the cracks at the edges of the curtains, straight into the living room.

We moved all of the furniture to the far side of the room away from the openings, and turned the heavy bookcase against the wall to protect the books. Soon the power went off, and with it our radio connection to the outside world. We lit a kerosene lantern, put our three year old son Mark to bed in his bedroom on the side of the house away from the wind, and went to bed ourselves. That was the start of one of the longest nights in my life.

We lay there in the dark, listening to the developing storm. It is true that the wind sounds similar to an approaching freight train. A distant roaring sound with deep rumbling noises underneath grew louder and louder as it approached. The air around the house was still, but the sound was still growing in intensity, louder and louder until you were certain that any second the entire house would be hit. Instead, the entrained gust went howling past, near, but leaving only gentle swirling eddies to puff around the house.

Over and over the pattern would repeat, terrifying in each approach, sometimes passing on one side of the spot where we huddled, sometimes on the other, sometimes scoring a direct strike, grabbing and shaking the walls until we were certain that we were seconds away from being crushed under collapsing roof timbers. The whole house would shudder and tremble, and Mark woke up in his room calling, “Daddy, it’s raining in my bedroom!” We rushed to snatch him out of harm’s way, bringing him into our room which had the distinction of having solid walls on three sides instead of only two, as the other bedrooms did.

About the time the storm reached its peak around three in the morning on Saturday, there was a loud bang and a tearing noise, followed by violent flapping and crashing. I went cautiously toward the sound, coming from the living room, and found that the force of the wind against the strong canvas curtains had pulled the screws holding the sail track right out of the wood posts, and the sail, with heavy wood battens at top and bottom was standing out almost straight from the opening, flapping wickedly in the hurricane wind. I grabbed a hammer, some 16 penny nails, and a couple of boards from the utility closet and like Don Quixote charging the windmill, marched in to challenge the beast.

I put a single nail through one end of a board, nailing it to the post on one side of the opening. Rotating it, I moved it across the flapping canvas to nail the other end to the opposite post. At that point another violent rush of wind hit the house, and boards and I were sent tumbling to the floor halfway across the room. Charging back into the battle, I managed during a brief lull to get two planks nailed across the canvas, bringing it more or less back into position.

To add to the stress of that night Jan, who was eight and a half months pregnant, began to have contractions! I was certain that I’d have to deliver a baby during the height of the storm. Fortunately they were false labor pains, perhaps heightened by the tension of the storm, and faded away with the coming of morning.

The first light of dawn found us exhausted and groggy from lack of sleep. As we opened the door to explore the rest of the house we found in the back hallway books from the case that had been turned against the wall on the other side of the house. What violence of turbulence had managed to extract them from their shelter and fling them around several corners I couldn’t imagine. We later learned that the wind vane at the weather station on Tutuila had registered speeds of up to 120 before it snapped off its pole. By today’s standards the 1966 typhoon would have been classified as a Force 4, and maybe even a Force 5.

I used my pre-video 16mm movie camera a little later that morning to film the violent surf just outside the house, trees still whipping around in the strong winds, and damaged and collapsed houses in the village.
video

It was another couple of days before a motor launch was able to make its way through still rough seas to the island to find out if we were still alive. Very seasick friends helped Jan and Mark aboard the launch for the trip back to Pago Pago, and I stayed behind to help with cleanup in the village and at the school. The next day storm driven swells sent monster waves across the reef with such force that surged over the low places in the sand dune that separated the house and school from the ocean. Churning torrents of salt water swirled a foot deep around the foundations of the school buildings, threatening to undermine them, and children and adults from the village came to pile chunks of coral rock to break the force of the waves.

It was several days before I could join the rest of the family, and another 39 days before my daughter Lynne was born in the old Navy hospital in Utulei. Samoan friends, following the tradition of naming children after significant events near the birthday, suggested that perhaps we should have named her “Afa”!

Monday, September 22, 2008

All Things Being Equal...


Autumn officially arrived in the Northern Hemisphere this morning at 11:44 EDT when the Sun was exactly over the equator at noon local time. That point on the equator this year was located on the north bank of a stream that is unnamed on any map I could find, in the tropical rainforest of Brazil, some miles north and west of the nearest town...Obidos.

It was warm and summer like in Richmond, although the nights are now a little cooler. It was just right on Saturday morning for the 9th annual Virginia Naturally 5k run in the James River Park to benefit the Virginia Junior Academy of Sciences. The cool morning help me turn in my best 5k time out of the last 6 races I've run at 31 minutes, 30 seconds. More than a hundred other runners turned in faster times, but at age 70 I'm delighted to be running at all! My goal is to finish a 5k in less than a half hour.

We went for a long sail on Sunday, moving along briskly on a broad reach, powered by a steady wind from the North East. We explored the eastern shore of Mobjack Bay as far as the mouth of the East River, put in briefly at the very small Compass Marina and mad a tight U-turn in the narrow confines before heading back out into the bay. The wind slackened to the point where we were making only about 1.5 kts, and at that point I started the motor and headed back to Mobjack Bay Marina under power.

Signs of Fall are beginning to appear. As we approached Greenmansion Cove I spotted two beautiful white swans near shore, something I've never seen here before. As the StarLady motored on past, they took flight and silently headed due south in the late afternoon sunlight.














On the way back to Richmond you could see long rivers of enormous flocks of small birds undulating across the sky. Back in Richmond several days earlier I had spotted another pair of swans on the James River. They hung around for two days, and were also gone.






Now that cooler days are on the way, it's a good time to be outside. I took my new bicycle out for its first spin this afternoon, and it felt good to be pedaling along the road. I was quickly reminded however, that the muscles used for pedaling a bicycle are not the same muscles used in running! I'll have to be consistent to get those muscles, long neglected into better shape.

I've put a nice gel-cover on the seat, but my backside got sore anyway, even though I only rode 5 miles. How on Earth do the competitors in the Tour de France survive those incredibly narrow racing seats?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Skydiving at Zephyr Hills, Florida

My first tandem skydive. In some ways it was similar to weightlessness training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, but there were some surprises.

First of all I was surprised leaving the aircraft that there was virtually no sense of falling. Instead, the illusion was that we stayed in one place while the plane suddenly shot up into the sky away from us.

The second surprise was the startling amount of noise that is roars in your ears as you fall through the sky at 120 miles per hour.

It didn't feel as though I were weightless. As you very quickly reach terminal velocity and do not gain any more speed, the pressure of the air rushing past your body almost makes it feel like you are floating on a rapidly oscillating cushion!

Not much more verbal description for this adventure; the video pretty much says it all!

White-water Kayaking in Richmond



If you look at a map of the Eastern United States you will notice that there are a number of large cities that are located near, but not ON the coast, including Trenton NJ, Philadelphia PA, Wilmington DE, Baltimore MD, Washington, D.C., Fredericksburg VA, Petersburg VA, Richmond VA, Roanoke Rapids NC, Columbia SC, and Columbus GA.

All these cities owe their geographical location to the fact that early settlers could bring their ships only so far up rivers before they encountered places where the salty, tidal rivers ended suddenly where rapids spilled fresh water down over short expanses of steep, rocky terrain, creating impassible rapids. This is called the Fall Line.

The rapidly moving water makes the fall line a good location for water mills, grist mills, and sawmills. Because of the need for a river port leading to the ocean, and a ready supply of water power, settlements often developed where rivers cross a fall line.

In the city of Richmond, Virginia the river front was once heavily industrialized, and the rapids were merely something to be avoided. Early in the history of our country such notable people as George Washington were invested in the Kanawha Canal company whose goal was to build canals and locks around the Fall Line so that narrow shallow draft boats carrying heavy loads could be poled or towed up rivers to communities farther inland.

Just a few miles east of downtown Richmond the James River begins its turbulent trip down across the Fall Line. A series of dams were constructed across the James River at various times, to back up the water to provide smooth deeper water for boats, to power the grist mills of industry, to spin turbines that generated electricity for the city. One by one the commercial uses of the dams have ceased, and although the dams remained, they remained a barrier to fish attempting to swim upriver to spawn.

It has only been in recent times that notches have been blasted in several dams in Richmond and a fish-ladder constructed around the Bosher Dam, allowing fish to swim upstream for the first time in more than a hundred years.



The James River in Richmond has experienced a huge increase in recreational use. It may be the only city in the United States where you can go white water rafting through the center of the city. It has become a popular recreational activity to play in the rapids of the James River in Richmond.

The City of Richmond James River Park stretches out along both sides of the river, including 11 miles of river front and over 500 acres of woods that provide a semi-wilderness area within the city limits. One of the more popular destinations in the Jame River Park is "The Pony Pasture", where there used to be, you guessed it, a pony pasture in an area by the river where in long gone times men labored with hammers and drills to quarry the granite for Richmond's cobblestone streets, curb stones, and buildings.
Today all traces of the old industrial railroad are gone, placid ponds hint at the location of old quarries, and the pony pasture now has a shady parking area, a place to launch canoes, kayaks, and rafts, and miles of woodland trails to explore. The favorite activity here though, is playing or sunbathing on the rounded worn rocks that protrude from the shallow, swift moving water.

Just a quarter of a mile upstream from the Pony Pasture, a notch has been cut in the Z-shaped dam that stretches from the bank on Riverside Drive across to Williams Island in the middle of the river. The water roars, cascading down through the notch, creating a turbulent hydrolic churning area just below where it plunges into the deeper water below. This is a dangerous spot! Many people have been drowned here, caught in the spinning currents that forced them under the falling water and kept them there.

It is also a place that attracts expert white water kayakers, who deliberately nose their tiny craft into the treacherous waters that grab, shake, and even flip their boats upside down.

video

Swift strokes with paddles and sudden shifts of body weight allow these daredevils to right their kayaks easily, and they spend hours darting and diving, spinning and rolling in the Z-dam notch.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Cruising the Galapagos Islands
















Saturday, July 1, 2000

The alarm went off at 7:00 a.m., very early since I had stayed up until almost 2:00 a.m. the night before, finishing the very last of the paperwork for the summer school classes I had taught during the last two weeks in June.

Shorts and T-shirts for traveling, check one more time that everything we needed was packed: toothbrush, deodorant, underwear, enough socks, and medicine. Passports, cash, additional identification and a credit card in the concealed waist belt. Mask and snorkel, wet suit; we want to swim with the seals!

Finally everything in the car, and rolling up the driveway by 7:30. We met our group of fellow travelers at the Holiday Inn on Staples Mill Road in Richmond Virginia, consolidated the luggage in one van, and split the passengers between two. We were on the way to Washington, D.C. by 8:30.

The old National Airport, reborn as the Ronald Regan Airport, has also acquired new life during a major upgrading and total renovation during the last few years. Previously flying into or out of the National Airport was like joining herds of unruly cattle, shuffling along long, crowded plywood walled halls to reach temporary gates for boarding. The new facilities are impressive, arched arcades that let in lots of light, polished terrazzo floors, shops and eating establishments so numerous that reaching the departure gates was almost like going shopping at the mall.

Our two hour and forty minute flight to Miami took off right on time. However, when we were approaching for landing, we were waved off due to a huge thunderstorm stalled directly over the airport. All incoming and outgoing flights were delayed until the storm with its extreme danger of microburst activity had moved on. After circling for at least a half hour, we were told that the flight was being diverted to Fort Meyers for refueling. Another fifteen to twenty minutes, and the public address system came on again, this time the pilot told us that there was some faulty instrument landing equipment at Ft. Meyers, and that we were being diverted to Tampa. Another twenty minutes passed, and dodging towering clouds, we finally zigzagged our way down to the runway at Tampa. By now the time of departure for our flight to Guayaquil, Equador had come and gone.

The plane now refueled, we headed into the sky again for Miami. The thunderstorm had finally passed, and we landed there without further incident, at least three hours later than we had expected. Fortunately, all of the other flights had also been delayed, so it was only another hour and forty-five minute wait at another gate until we boarded our flight to Ecuador.

Sunday, July 2, 2000

We landed in Guayaquil sometime around 2:00 a.m. I took 45 minutes to clear immigration and customs, but a bus was waiting to take us to the Hotel OroVerde. Only about 15 minutes drive from the airport, the OroVerde was a pleasant surprise. First class service, cheerful and helpful personnel, everything well maintained. We crashed in bed sometime around 3:30 a.m. and didn’t stir until 8:00 on Sunday morning.

We dressed leisurely, and then strolled downstairs for a sumptuous breakfast at 9:00. We didn’t have much time to look around the city on the way back to the airport. Guayaquil is the biggest city in Ecuador, with a population of over three million. Its primary sources of income are oil and bananas. There is runaway inflation, which often hits over 60% per month. The current exchange rate, more than likely to be considerably different within the week was 25,000 sucres to the U.S. Dollar! The rate of inflation was so astronomically high that about six weeks later, the Equadorian monetary unit of sucres was totally abolished, and the U.S. Dollar was adopted as the official currency for the entire country. It remains that way today.

There was considerable political unrest in Ecuador in the year 2000, and our original plans to stop in Quito for several days on the way here were changed because of the perceived danger in Quito. In Guayaquil, all the streets past the hotel had been blocked by huge concrete planters with flowers in them. There were at least five heavily armed soldiers carrying fully automatic rifles patrolling the block and the corners where to hotel was located.

At the airport, I purchased a finely woven Panama hat for $12. I was glad to have that to protect my bald scalp from the burning rays of the equatorial Sun!

Our flight to the Galapagos was uneventful. It did, however, fool me. After take off, I noted that the Sun was shining directly into my window on the airplane. Since it was only a few minutes after noon, I could tell that we were flying east, away from our destination. As seconds stretched into minutes, and continued after the plane had reached cruising altitude, I began to wonder if the plane were going to Quito before heading west to the islands. It took quite some time before I realized that we were ON the equator! At this time of year, the Sun is always in the NORTH at noon, not south like it always is at noon in Virginia. We were, in fact heading west. The lack of sleep soon caught up with me, and a snooze made the flight time to the island of Baltra in the Galapagos seem very short.

Baltra has an airport because the U.S. armed forces occupied the island of Baltra from 1941 to 1944, using it as a strategic base and as the first line of defense against the Japanese that might have coveted land in South America. It was ceded to Ecuador soon after the end of WWII. Today, about 16,500 people live in the Galapagos Islands, most of them sustained by the growing tourism industry.

After a quick trip through customs, we boarded a waiting bus that took us through desert countryside with much exposed bare volcanic rock, lots of prickly pear cactus and other plants that thrive in an arid land.

We were met at the landing by two large Zodiac boats that transferred us to the 120 foot three masted sailing ship M/S Alta. The d├ęcor aboard is elegant, with a large sitting room on the main deck near the bow, a tastefully decorated dining room, and neat, if small staterooms, each with its own shower.

After the mandatory emergency drill, we all climbed into the two Zodiacs to explore Black Turtle Bay. We spent almost two hours threading our way along channels defined by the ubiquitous mangrove trees with their aerial roots. We saw pelicans, blue-footed boobies, and several kinds of finches, golden warblers, and two different kinds of rays. We saw a six foot white tipped shark cruise by, and watched flights of dive-bombing boobies crash diving for dinner. We finally headed back to the Alta for a marvelous dinner. Although it was only 10:30 p.m. on the clock, everyone was exhausted. I was the last one up. Tomorrow would be another busy day.

Monday, July 3, 2000

M/S Alta weighed anchor around 9:30 p.m. from Santa Cruz Island, headed for Genovesa or Tower Island. Although Alta is a fairly large vessel, 140 feet long, the heavy rolling as we crossed open ocean made it somewhat difficult to sleep. Sometime in the early morning, around 3:00 the crew dropped anchor in Darwin Bay, only about a hundred yards from the steep 100-foot high basaltic cliffs of the flooded volcanic caldera that makes the bay safe anchorage. The cliffs go almost all the way around a circle, with only the seaward side, less than a quarter mile open to the ocean.

After breakfast, we all donned the mandatory life jackets, and scrambled over the side of the ship into the two waiting Zodiacs. They pounded their way across Darwin Bay to the side opposite the anchored ship to a spot dubbed Prince Phillip’s Steps. Presumably they got their name from the route Prince Phillip of England took to climb up the cliff when the royal yacht HMS Britannia visited here many years ago. Our Zodiacs scooted in turn up to the edge of the rocks where there was a small natural platform. Hopping ashore, we clambered up the steep uneven rocks to the top of the cliff, about 70 feet above the ocean.

Our walk on this morning with our guide Alec took us through dry scrubby looking brush for several miles. We stopped frequently for descriptions of the things we were seeing. We saw blue-footed boobies, red-footed boobies, and masked boobies. It is interesting to note that the blue-footed boobies have red bills, and the red-footed boobies have blue bills. We saw lots of frigate birds. It was fascinating to watch these large birds; with the slightest movement of their forked tails or a minor adjustment of wing angle, the frigate birds are masters of the sky. They floated on the ocean of air effortlessly, often hovering in one place as they balanced their downward glides with the updrafts. We also spotted a Galapagos owl, and Galapagos finches.

Back to the Alta for a snack and a rest, and then off in the Zodiacs again, this time for snorkeling along the flooded walls of the old crater. I was happy to have the wet suit, since the water was quite chilly. Although the Galapagos Islands straddle the equator, ocean currents bring very cold deep-ocean to the surface here. I decided to take some pictures underwater with my Nikonos waterproof camera. Ducking under the surface and rolled over on my back to get some candid shots of the other members of our group in their snorkeling gear. Unfortunately, I miscalculated how far I was from the edge of the underwater cliff, and banged my head on a rock. Very little damage was done, but since it was bleeding a little bit, I hailed the pilot of the Zodiac to come get me out of the water until I could realistically assess the damage. After a few minutes it was apparent to me that the bleeding had stopped completely. I put my mask, fins and snorkel back on and rolled into the water. Our guide Alec was still concerned, though, so he sent me back to the Alta. On arrival at the ship, the captain asked me to go in the Zodiac over to the next tour ship, where they had a doctor. I felt a little silly, but complied. The doctor cleaned the scalp, put a dab of antibiotic ointment on the scrape, and sent me on my way.

Back onboard the Alta, I decided to play with one of the sea kayaks for a while. I paddled along the side of the cliffs toward a white coral sand beach that was perhaps a quarter of a mile away. As I got close, I could see several sea lions dozing in the sun at the water’s edge. They let me get within ten feet of them without showing any signs of alarm, and stay there long enough to snap their pictures.

After lunch and a nap, we got on the Zodiacs again, this time bound for the same beach I had visited before lunch. This was a wet landing, with the Zodiacs pulling in stern first to within a few feet of the beach. Everyone had to jump over the sides and wade ashore. On a short walk we saw a number of sea lions up close to within a few feet, and many of the same kinds of birds we had seen on our earlier walk. We also saw a black lava gull, one of only about 400 left in the world.

Back on Alta, we relaxed on the big thick blue cushions way up in the bow for awhile, before getting ready to attend our nightly lecture and briefing on the next day’s activities. We spent the whole night heading toward our next destination, the island of Fernandina. Open ocean swells have seriously disagreed with at least five members of our party. They abandoned the deck or the dining room tables, feeling miserably worse by the minute. Jane and I were both lucky; no seasickness so far. I’m glad that we got the scopolamine patches before leaving. So far they seemed to be doing the job.

About eight o’clock ten or twelve people gathered on the big blue cushions way up by the bow. I’m not sure how many were there; it’s hard to count in the pitch dark. Jane and I pointed out familiar constellations that you can see from Richmond, except that they all seemed upside-down in the sky, this far south. We also spotted several things in the sky that are too low to be seen from Virginia, such as the Southern Cross, and Alpha Centauri. At a distance of only 4.5 light years away, it's the next closest star to us besides the Sun. We watched a beautiful golden waxing crescent moon sink beneath the waves. A little group singing, accompanied on the harmonica made a pleasant end to a busy day. The last people left the main deck for bed by 9:30. It SEEMS late when it is three hours past sunset. Here, that makes it a little after 9:00 p.m. but in Virginia at this time of year that turns out to be somewhat past 11:30 p.m. That may help explain why everyone is retiring so early. Tomorrow starts early with breakfast at 6:45.

Tuesday, July 4, 2000

The Alta didn’t rock and roll as much last night as the previous night, and I woke up refreshed, ready for adventures. We heard the engines stop in the middle of the night, and assumed that we had reached the island of Fernandina. In about a half hour, however, the engines started up again, and were still running when we made our way up on deck at 6:45 a.m.

The crew said that they stopped to change the fuel filters which had become clogged, and that instead of going ashore at 7:30 we were still a couple of hours away from our destination. Fernandina is a big island, with slopes similar in appearance to Mauna Loa on the big island of Hawaii. A bulging shield volcano, you could see where many lava flows had poured down the sides of the island and then spread out, making large fan tailed almost flat flows gently sloping down to the water’s edge. It was on one of these low lying aprons that we landed, on Punta Espinoza. This was a dry landing. The zodiacs brought us up right the edge of the lava flow where it dropped a few feet into the sea. The constant wash of waves over these rocks does make them slippery, however, and Alex, our guide, laid an old bath towel down on the rocks to give us extra traction as we scrambled ashore.

The old lava flow we walked on looked in many places as if old rope had been discarded, lying in heaps and piles in every direction. This kind of flow happens when the temperature of the lava is very hot. Because of its decreased viscosity, the lava flows rapidly down the steep slopes of a volcano, often in lava tubes, just underneath the surface crust. When it reaches flat land, the flow slows, but more lava is now pushing it from behind. As the newer lava shoves older lava forward, it tends to wrinkle, producing the ropey textured surface called pahoehoe. There were places on our morning walk where coral and pahoehoe had both been ground together by tidal action, wind and waves eventually wearing the hardest material into gray sand.

We saw lots of sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks and sand, totally unconcerned about our approach. We could walk to within three feet of them, and they might or might not open one eye to look us over. The total disregard for human presence seems to be the rule here in the Galapagos Islands. We walked right up, two or three feet away from nesting blue-footed boobies that were sitting on eggs or on chicks, and they would act as if we were invisible.

We returned to the ship for a big lunch and a short rest. We moved to an anchorage off the shore of Isabella in the early afternoon. Enroute, there was much excitement when we spotted a pod of dolphins converging on our ship. The caught up with us easily, and for the next half hour entertained us and themselves by riding the bow wave of Alta, racing along effortlessly at eight to ten knots.

We anchored in Elizabeth bay at Isla Isabella, and hopped into the two inflatable boats that the people here call pangas for an afternoon of prowling through the mangrove bays. We saw a number of black sea turtles, Galapagos hawks, schools of mullet, and some bright yellow warblers. We also saw a few Galapagos penguins, about a foot and a half tall. This is the only place where penguins, normally associated with Antarctic climates, are found this far north.

On the way back to Alta we diverted to go all the way around two tiny islands, rock outcroppings really, to see the penguins, blue footed boobies, and marine iguanas that were clinging to the jagged rocks and resting in small crevices.

In the tropics, the sunrise and sunset times do not vary much over the course of a year. The sun consistently goes down around 6:00 p.m. and rises again around 6:00 a.m. It is totally dark by 7:00 p.m. every evening. After dinner about ten people gathered again on the bow of the ship to look at stars and sing songs. Tonight we are in a protected anchorage, with large islands all around that block the heavy open ocean swells. Last night as we looked at the stars, the swaying of the boat made the tall masts describe huge arcs across the starry sky, making it seem as if the whole sky was swaying back and forth in rhythm with the waves. Tonight is so still that there is no apparent motion. The next day we were scheduled to get underway early, heading along the coast of Isabella to Urvina Bay, and later in the day to Tagus Cove. It was strange, spending the 4th of July, Independence Day, on a motor-sailer at the equator. It seemed more like a traditional 4th of July though when one of the group broke out a gift they'd brought with them...bright red bill-caps with the name "ALTA" and underneath...July 4th, 2000!

Wednesday, July 5, 2000

The Alta got under way in the middle of the night, or at least it felt like it. I’m not sure what time it was but the engines coming to life with a roar almost directly under our bed woke us with a start. We soon got back to sleep, but woke up early. All engines stopped. Urvina Bay is a spectacular anchorage, not more than a mile across. The water was glassy smooth, reflecting the other boats at anchor.

The two pangas brought us to a gray beach composed of both volcanic and coral sand. A short walk into the brush behind the beach brought us to an area of bare dirt that looked as if it were flooded from time to time. Alex told us to wait, and he went striding off down a bare dirt trail, stopping from time to time to bend over and peer under the leaves. He came back shaking his head; no giant tortoises to be seen. The group followed him along the hot trail. For the first time, it feels like a tropical island. The air was still, hot and humid, and the smell of damp vegetation hung heavy in the air.

As we walked single file along the dusty path, Alex stopped to point out tortoise droppings the size of baseballs. We encountered the Galapagos land iguanas for the first time. They have much less pronounced spines along their backs, are probably about three to four times the weight of the marine iguanas, and are yellowish brown.

Finally I spotted a huge tortoise off the right side of the trail where it had plowed a path through the underbrush. We moved on a few hundred yards farther, and came to a strange open meadow, littered with the old black skeletons of mangrove trees, all covered with morning glory vines. Alex explained that we were standing on the floor of a very recent bay. In 1956 the volcano on Isabela had erupted. Before erupting, however, the pressure of the rising magma had inflated the dome, raising this area from a shallow bay to eighteen feet above sea level. It also made a perfect feeding ground for Galapagos tortoises, who love to eat the morning glory vines. The path branched many different ways through the vines, and all of them were very dusty. The dust itself was about the consistency bath powder, and no matter how carefully we walked, the group raised traveling dust clouds.

We explored the meadow, making our way around clumps of trees, and before long found another giant tortoise. Although this one was smaller than the first we saw, Alex estimated that it was about 35-40 years old. Fifty yards more and we found two juveniles, only about two feet across the carapace, and probably no more than ten years old.

By the time we got back to the beach we were all hot, sweaty, and dusty, and looking forward to our promised time to go snorkeling. We all tugged and wiggled into wet suits, since the cold upwelling currents that make the Galapagos an area for such bio-diversity also make it difficult to swim without additional insulation. Getting into the water was a minor shock, but moving in the water soon made it quite tolerable. We swam together along the side of the bay, peering into the tumbled volcanic rocks, and marveling at the parrot fish, sergeant majors, and brilliant electric blue damsel fish. We were soon joined by several curious sea lions, who seemed to take great delight in zooming past, twisting and rolling and blowing air bubbles as if to show us who were the real masters of this environment.

Back aboard the ship we began another elegantly prepared lunch under the awning at the bow as the Alta began to move to Tagus Cove for the afternoon. Partway through lunch, dolphins joined us again, and we watched in amazement their effortless antics as they rode the pressure wave at the bow of the boat. High, almost sheer cliffs wall in Banks Cove or Tagus Cove, showing layers upon layers of volcanic ash that have hardened into rock. This cove was historically used as an anchorage by pirate ships and whalers. You could see the names of hundreds of ships carved or painted on the layered rocks of the steep cliffs. This is now prohibited.

Three kayaks, each with two people put out to paddle along the cliffs, looking at the sea birds that perch and nest there. The remaining members of the group elected to travel the same route in the larger of the two zodiacs. About a quarter mile from the Alta, one of the kayaks got into trouble, sinking lower and lower in the stern until it capsized in the chilly water. Our boat scooted to the rescue, pulling the two cold paddlers over the side into the boat, and took the leaky kayak under tow. After traveling along the cliffs some distance further, we all turned back to the boat.

After a half hour rest, eight of us elected to hike up the steep path away from the bay. The first part of the hike was steep, up wooden stairs. By the time we got to the top in the hot still air we were all out of breath and soaking wet. What a pleasant surprise; the air got noticeably cooler, and a gentle breeze made it pleasant. We continued up the trail to the top of a cindery hill of scoria for a spectacular view of the huge shield volcano that made this part of the island, and back down to Tagus Cove looking over a salty lagoon lake. We were pretty well worn out by the time we got back to the shore and the waiting panga that brought us back to the boat for dinner.

As soon as we were all aboard, the Alta weighed anchor and headed north again, to skirt the northern end of Isabela and head down the eastern side of the island to James Bay where we would visit on Thursday. A little before sunset at 6:10 p.m., I spotted a school of flying fish skimming the wave tops, rushing away in panic before the ship. Before heading to bed, I headed out to take another look at that mysterious glowing blue bow wave and its blue-spark phosphorescing turbulence. It was nothing short of magical, and I regretted that the light was not bright enough to register on my video camera. It was totally fascinating.

THURSDAY, July 6, 2000

After an overnight passage, the Alta anchored shortly after sunrise in James Bay, also known as Puerto Egas on the island of Santiago. From the ship we could see the ruins of a cinder block house, and a hundred yards along the shore, a large old metal water tank. Alex told us that there used to be a commercial salt mining operation here, but it had been abandoned years ago. We made a wet landing, hopping out of the pangas into knee-deep water at the edge of the black sandy beach. Our walk this morning was along the shelving lava formations at the edge of the sea. Lots of tidal pools held small fish, brilliantly colored Sally Lightfoot crabs, and sea urchins. A little further along the shelving coast we came to an area where there were many old lava tubes that had collapsed into the water, leaving strange natural bridges, deep crevasses, and underwater passageways where we saw sea lions and smaller sea lions that are called fur seals here. The light shining through these grottoes made the water surging back and forth inside them appear as green, gray, deep cerulean blue, and pale sky blue. It was beautiful.

Retracing our steps a mile or so back to the beach, some of us wiggled into wet suits and braved the cold water to go snorkeling. Getting into the water was somewhat of a shock, even when it was expected, but as soon as we began moving around it became quite tolerable. I had borrowed another dive mask, since the one I brought from home was leaking so badly the first time I used it that I had to stop every 5-10 seconds to empty the mask of water. The new borrowed mask made the dive pleasant. We floated out around a point of rocks, floating through huge schools of small red fish, colorful damselfish, bright yellow tangs, trigger fish and beautiful angelfish that looked as if an artist had cleaned his paintbrushes on them.


We pulled our tired bodies into the zodiac just in time go spanking across the water back to the boat for yet another sumptuous lunch. This afternoon we dropped anchor offshore of the island of Bartolome. Pinnacle Rock, the highest point on the island, juts like huge rock wedge into the air at the edge of the water. We waded ashore from the pangas with our snorkeling gear, which we dumped on the beach, and immediately followed Alex along a trail across the vegetation covered sand dunes a few hundred yards to the other side of the island. A beautiful long curve of yellow sand rimmed the edge of the water. We waded in about knee deep, and Alex pointed out that this beach was very well patrolled by sharks which cruised along the shore hoping to intercept newly hatched sea turtles as they scrambled from the sandy nests where they hatched toward the deep water. As we stood there we saw sharks passing as if in review on parade. We saw white tipped sharks about four feet long, black tipped sharks six or seven feet long, and Galapagos sharks about the same length. Not too surprisingly, we didn’t see any human swimmers in this bay!

The surprise was that not more than a couple of hundred yards away on the other side of the island, sharks are seldom if ever spotted. We pulled on our wet suits on the beach for one more chance at snorkeling. We saw small flounder, damsel fish, blennies, trigger fish, black sea urchins, pencil sea urchins, green sea urchins, sea anemones, huge schools of sardines and of some little red fish I couldn’t identify.

Back to the boat to shower and change into dry clothes, and then back to another landing, this time a dry landing on the rocks, for a hike up to the top of a cinder cone about 400 feet above sea level. From the top there was an impressive 360-degree view of islands in all directions. We got back to the bottom and ferried to the boat just about the time the sun was disappearing below the horizon at 6:10 p.m. The crew gathered with us in the lounge for a farewell toast.

We will move tonight, traveling to our final anchorage just off the island of Mosquera. Breakfast at 7:00, one last shore excursion – a wet landing on the beach of this tiny island less than a kilometer long, to look at the sea lions here. We’ll be back on board by quarter to ten in the morning, and be pulling in to dock on the island of Baltra around 10:30 a.m. The plane arrives at noon, and we will be departing for Miami at 12:45 in the afternoon.

One of the most memorable moments of the trip was a chance happening in the evening. Just after dinner, when almost everyone was still in the dining room, I stepped out onto the deck to see if there were any stars visible. There were none, but as I looked out across the black water, I saw a tiny streak of blue light, only a few inches long, moving rapidly through the water, followed by a large swirl of phosphorescence. It took me a few seconds to realize that I was looking at a fish, fleeing from a pursuing sea lion. I stood fascinated for several minutes watching the chase, painted in streaks and whirlpools of blue glowing light as the fish and the sea lion darted this way and that, first close to the side of the boat and along its hull, plunging deep, fading out of sight, and exploding back into view. Sometimes within inches of each other, then with a sudden change of direction widening the gap. Several times as the pursuer and the pursued swept through the lights of the boat there would be a sudden glowing jewel of the sea lion’s eye shining back at me like a moving beacon, quickly dimming again to it blue ghostly appearance as the two plunged back into the darkness again. I never did see the end of the chase; they headed straight out away from the Alta, the blue ghostly magic fading with the distance.

FRIDAY, July 7, 2000

Mosquera is barely more than a sandbar: just under a kilometer long, and about 200 meters wide, it is separated by narrow channels at each end from the islands of North Seymour and South Seymour. No trees, no bushes, only some patches of ground-hugging succulent leafed plants that cling to the sandy soil. Still, it is one of the more interesting islands we have visited, because of the number of sea lions that are there. Along the beachfront on the sheltered side of the island, the big bull sea lions have staked out territories of about 50 - 70 meters each. They stay in the water a good deal of the time, patrolling up and down. They bark warnings at all they think may invade their territory to steal the females from them.

They bellowed at our zodiac inflatables as we came in to the beach, but did not bother us once we were ashore. All up and down the slope of the beach were hundreds of sea lions, sleeping in the morning sun. Some were still sleek and black, indicating that they had just recently come from breakfast in the water. Others were the color of coffee with cream, and looked much fluffier. These had been out of the water for some time, and their fur was dried to its natural color. None of them paid any more attention to us than to perhaps open one eye to peer disinterestedly at us for a second or two before drifting off into sea lion slumber again.

Young sea lions lay like overstuffed light brown sausages next to their mothers, sucking milk noisily with great gusto. Adolescent sea lions swam and swirled in barking mobs in the shallow waters, chasing each other in endless games of tag and mock battle. Standing watching on the beach close to the water would indicate intrusion to a bull once in awhile, and he would swim toward us menacingly, barking his challenge. We would back up quickly, and the bull would swim away to resume his patrol against other sea lions. Several times as we stood there, young females, unbelievably curious, would swim to the beach, and humpty hump their way up the sand to have a look at us. As I ran the video camera, one of them stopped only about four feet away, then inched closer and closer, finally reaching out as far as she could with her long-whiskered nose to sniff at my shin. After doing this several times, she gently opened her mouth and slowly reached for my leg as they do with each other in greeting. That was a little too much for me, and I backed up quickly!

Our time was up all too quickly, and we headed back to the Alta for the last time. Soon we were landing at Puerto Ayora on the island of Baltra, piling into the bus for the short trip to the airport. Our bags had been taken ashore ahead of us to be transported to the airport. We were dismayed as we rounded a curve near the airport, and saw the baggage truck overturned next to the road, on top of a great pile of luggage! We drove on past, and checked in at the airport. We could see the wreck in the distance, and watched as ten or fifteen men got on one side of the truck and heaved it right side up again. Within a half hour the luggage truck, one wheel badly bent, but still rotating eccentrically, pulled up and unloaded the luggage, seemingly unharmed by the incident. We could discover no damage to our bags, and after a moderately long wait, finally took off for Guayaquil.

Saturday, January 8, 2000

As we approached the coast of Ecuador, the pilot announced that the plane would not be landing at Guayaquil, as scheduled, but would instead continue inland to Quito. No particular explanation, just the announcement. We could see as the aircraft approached that Quito stretched out in a valley, curving upwards at the edges toward rocky peaks, as if the city were sleeping in a hammock.

That was really all we saw of the city. We waited in the terminal for quite some time before the announcement finally came that boarding was underway for Guayaquil. As we climbed up out of the valley we could see steamy clouds rising from the cinder cone of a dormant volcano at the edge of the city.

On arrival at the Hotel Oro Verde in Guayaquil our bags were unloaded and whisked away to our rooms. A farewell dinner for the group turned out to be an elaborate affair. When I arrived at our private dining room the headwaiter announced that he had a problem with the fact that I was wearing shorts. Fortunately I had, at the last minute, thrown a pair of jeans into my suitcase before leaving home. I almost hadn’t brought them, and I had not worn them once on board the Alta. I returned to the room and changed to long pants. Even though they were denim, the length was acceptable, and I was admitted to the dining room. The banquet was served in courses, each a culinary work of art, served with great decorum. Fabulous!

The flights back to Miami and Regan airport were uneventful, except for the inevitable delays. We flew low over Washington, D.C. just about sunset, sightseeing from the air, spotting the Potomac River at Great Falls, the National Cathedral, the Mall, the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol Building. By the time we had reclaimed our baggage, gone through customs, and retrieved the vans from the long-term parking area, it was dark. Most of us dozed as we headed back toward Richmond.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cosmonaut Training - Star City, Russia - 1992



















I pulled on the T-shaped handle with the fingers of my right hand, a quick tug and release. I heard the short, high-pitched hoot of control gas escaping from the four corners of the Ikarus "flying chair", and grinned as the Russian manned maneuvering unit began to back away from the airlock of the MIR Space Station.

A light touch sideways on the other hand controller activated the yaw thrusters, and my view of the space station slewed to the right as the Ikarus began to rotate me toward the left. The main core module of MIR drifted past my face plate, and the Kvant module came into view. When I had turned far enough to see the Kristal module directly in front of me, I flicked a toggle switch under my fingers, and the automatic stabilizers kicked in. They canceled out any movements I had initiated, holding me in place about a hundred meters from MIR, pointing in the direction I wanted to move next.

In automatic mode, I pushed forward on the controller, and the space station loomed larger in my field of view as I approached. Releasing the pressure on the hand controller, I came to a halt, floating in the blackness within easy reach of the hand holds on the space station exterior.

I could hear the voice of the commander speaking in Russian and the translator's voice in my earphones relaying his congratulations on the successful completion of my first flight in the cosmonaut mobility unit. Suddenly the unit lurched back sharply, the space station began to recede, and a bright white light split the darkness at the edges of my vision as the chair was pulled out of the black box surrounding the simulator. It was time for the next cosmonaut trainee's familiarization run on the computer driven equipment.
If I had been preparing for an actual spacewalk, an Extra-Vehicular Activity assignment on a MIR flight, I would have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours with this sophisticated simulator, but I had only a week to sample of all the major areas of training experienced by guest cosmonauts preparing to travel to the Russian MIR Space Station.

There were an even dozen of us here in Russia as guests in July of 1992, the first American civilians ever to be admitted to primary spaceflight training northeast of Moscow at the Yuri A. Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City (Zhvezhdny Gorodok in Russian, which literally translated means “Starry Town). Two were professional cameramen, here to video tape a television documentary. Four were people with a keen interest in the Russian space program. The other six of us were teachers, applicants in the competition to select an American guest cosmonaut for a flight to the MIR Space Station as Educator In Space.



Aerospace Ambassadors, a private American organization, had a signed contract with Russian space officials to act as the coordinating agency for science experiments to be transported on a paying basis to MIR. When enough experiments had been booked to pay for the flight, two American educators would be selected to enter the year-long Intercosmos Cosmonaut Training Program in Star City. At the end of the years of training, one of the two would be selected to ride as a guest cosmonaut on a Soyuz flight to the MIR Space Station. Our week in Star City was an intense, compressed introduction to the 9-12 months of training the selected Educator In Space would experience.


We attended lectures and briefings by top Russian scientists, engineers, and cosmonauts. Inside the full size training model of the huge MIR space station, we became familiar with the general configuration of the orbital complex and its life support systems, including how to use the vacuum toilet in zero-gravity where everything floats!







We were given flight physicals. We experienced the physiological effects of high altitude in the hypobaric chamber, where the air pressure was reduced to reach the equivalent of 5,000 meters.

We rode the centrifuge, where we experienced the forces felt during liftoff in the Soyuz-TM spacecraft. On a nominal flight, Soyuz passengers experience only about 3 G's, the same as astronauts on a space shuttle flight. The maximum centrifuge load of up to six G's would only be endured in the event of an emergency ballistic reentry of the Soyuz.

Rendezvous and docking training inside the Soyuz-TM simulator was not for the claustrophobic. The spacecraft was designed for maximum efficiency, and that means minimum weight and volume. The three cosmonauts in a Soyuz-TM lie on their backs in acceleration couches just big enough to cradle body, head, and upper arms. The footrests were placed closer together create a radial arrangement for the seats. With my feet in place, my knees were bent almost up to my chest. Part of preparing for launch involved strapping over your knees a bra-like harness to keep your legs from being forced violently apart during the acceleration of lift-off from the pad at the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakstan.

We all gained a new respect for extravehicular operations when we donned the "Orlan" EVA space suits used outside MIR. When you hear that the suit is entered through a door in the back of the integrated life support system, it sounds easy. It isn't! Blood pressure, respiration, and heart rate monitoring telemetry were attached to my body.

The hooded cooling garment that I put on next had woven into it tubes about the diameter of my little finger. Chilled liquid circulating through the tubes removes excess body heat from head, arms, torso, and upper legs. Cloth mesh headgear equipped with earphones and microphones, worn under the liquid cooling garment hood allowed me to communicate from inside the space suit.

Sitting on the edge of the space suit door, it was easy to slip my feet into the legs. Left arm into the sleeve. I ducked my head and hunched my right shoulder at the same time to squeeze through the narrow opening. As I struggled to get both hands into the attached gloves, I thrust my face close to the front of the helmet. Breathing hard, I could feel the carbon dioxide level building up in the helmet. Groping down blindly across my body with my left hand, I found the ring shaped handle on the end of a cable. Tugging on it hard, I strained to lift it over the edge of a hook on the front of the suit, and I could feel the door in the back of the suit being pulled closed. I grabbed a lever at the side of the suit, and shoved it down, sealing the door. I heaved a sigh of relief as fresh air began to blow into the helmet and the liquid cooling garment began to work.

As the suit came up to full working pressure, I found it easy to move the rotating shoulder and wrist joints on the suit, but bending elbows and fingers was hard work. Cosmonauts must be in excellent physical condition to work in EVA suits outside the MIR!

The highlight of the week was weightlessness training on board the Ilushin-76 MDK aircraft. Ten of us sat expectantly on the four inch padding covering the floor of the twenty meter long fuselage of the plane while it climbed to high altitude. As the pilot nosed the plane into a slight dive to pick up speed, I felt as though I was in a fast dropping elevator. The plane pulled up sharply, engines at full power, and I sank into the cushioned floor covering as the G forces built up. At maximum speed and rate of climb, the pilot eased back on the throttle and pushed forward gently on the controls.

As the aircraft nosed over, the floor floated out from under me, and I was floating weightless, feet and body off the floor, hanging on to the handrail on the wall. There was no sense of falling, just freedom and elation. As I looked around I saw one cameraman floating in the middle of the room, feet flailing around, but eye pressed firmly to the view finder, determined to catch on tape this extraordinary event. His partner, hanging on to a railing, pulled him to the floor just as we pulled out of the dive twenty five seconds later, and assisted him with the large video camera that now weighed three times as much as it normally would.
Each time the IL-76 MDK flew through successive parabolic arcs I was weightless for about thirty seconds. With each period of weightlessness I was given a different skill to practice by the cosmonaut working with me. I practiced moving hand over hand along railings. I pushed off the floor gently, and floated to the ceiling, staying there until I pushed myself back to the floor. Crouching on the wall, I straightened my legs slowly, and flew across the room. I stuck my feet under floor straps and moved around a 100 kilogram package that was weightless, but which still had a 100 kilos of mass. By the time we had completed ten flight arcs, I had been weightless for about five minutes. The five trainees that were busy by this time filling plastic bags with the morning's breakfast were glad that this part of the training was over, but the remaining five of us were ready to fly another ten arcs.

When we boarded the Aeroflot flight at the end of the week back to Helsinki and connecting flights to the United States each of us was hoping to be included in the full length guest cosmonaut training program in the not too distant future, dreaming of feeling the freedom of movement in weightlessness and the reward of space science experimentation aboard the MIR space station.

Not long after that the Soviet “Teacher In Space” program initiated by the U.S.S.R. was cancelled by the new Russian government that had replaced the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and an agreement of cooperation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, specified the exchange of American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts. Astronauts would fly on Russian Soyuz-TM flights to MIR, and Russian cosmonauts would fly on American space shuttles.
That week in Star City is still vivid in my memory twenty-four years later, one of the most exciting adventures I’ve ever had!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Monday on Mobjack Bay

I woke up early Monday morning a bit worried. Tropical Storm Hannah had swept up the coast, the outer edges dumping brief, heavy downpours on Richmond, and knocked over a few trees. One of those had fallen across our street, just missing the telephone pole on the corner of our wooded lot, but breaking the power lines. A little lower and a fraction of a second later, it crashed against the steel line that supported the cable television service.


That didn't break, but the weight and momentum of the tree snapped the telephone pole. The power company showed up promptly, and with floodlights blazing and engines rumbling into the night, had the pole replaced and power back on by 2:40 in the morning.

So... the worry wasn't at home. It was at Mobjack Bay. I had driven down to the marina, an hour and a half from home on Saturday morning, and found lots of other boat owners doing the same thing I was doing, doubling all the mooring lines and either lashing sail covers tightly or removing sails completely, as I did.

Hannah's track took it almost exactly across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and on across Mobjack Bay, with winds predicted to be perhaps in excess of 50 mph, and storm surges of up to eight feet, which would have put the docks at Mobjack Bay Marina under the storm driven waves.

The marina was almost deserted when I got there, except for a couple of other sailboat owners. The air was still...so calm that the trees across the cove were twinned upside down on the still surface.

The sky was gray, and fog and mist drifted getween the trees and close to the flat water. All the boats had fared well. My sailboat "StarLady" floated serenely in her slip, and there was no sign of damage. All the lines had held.

I opened the hatch and went below. Everything was dry except for a couple of cushions that had been under a drip from the outside. I put the main sail back on the mast and boom, cleaned up the deck, and by then the sun was breaking through the clouds. Well....since I'm already here...

I hanked on the jib, ran the jib sheets back to the winches, checked the gas tank, started the Yamaha 9 hp outboard engine, cast off the mooring lines, and chugged quietly out of the slip. Rounding the red marker that warns of shallow water at the entrance to the cove, I noticed that the osprey nest built on top of it that had been home to a pair of the bay fish hawks in the Spring was now empty.

StarLady slid quitely across the dark mirror of Blackwater Cove past the green marker at Roy's Point, and as I headed out into the salty water of the North River, little wisps of the faintest of breezes scuffed their way across toward me from the southeast.

By the time I had run up the main and the jib the breeze had freshened enough to fill the sails nicely, although not strong enough to heel the boat at all. I went ghosting across the open stretch of water toward the not too distant shore, leaning back comfortably with one arm draped over the tiller.

Tacking into the wind can be strenuous, but this was not to be one of those times. A leisurely series of tacks back and forth across the Mobjack Bay brought me in about an hour to Ware Neck Point. The wind had strengthened some and shifted a bit toward the south. As I crossed the middle of the bay, a pod of dolphins I had spotted in the distance changed course to intersect StarLady. They overtook me easily, and played around the boat briefly before heading off on their original track to look for breakfast.




Starting my last starboard tack into the wind, I sheeted in the jib tightly, pulled the traveler on the main sail as far as I could to the port side, and went plunging through the increasing waves toward the mouth of the Severn
River.
video
At the channel split marker between the Ware and Severn Rivers, I turned to run before the wind, now blowing 15-20 mph, and we went corkscrewing back north up the bay surging along in following seas. Running directly on a broad reach instead of having to tack back and forth, the trip back took less than half the time it took to sail out there.
video
Approaching the entrance to Greenmansion Cove and the Mobjack Bay Marina, the water was almost as calm as it had been when I had left.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Tales of Samoa - o se asiasiga i Aunu’u

o se asiasiga i Aunu’u - A visit to Aunu'u

     It was a given that if you lived on the mile-wide island of Aunu'u, you would have very few visitors. Although barely a mile of open water separated the beach in front of the village from the boat landing at the village of Auasi on the island of Tutuila, it could be a daunting trip.
     The long ocean swells, driven by the steady trade winds slipped easily past the eastern side of Aunu'u, rolled across the channel, and crashed mightily on the point of land that gave partial protection to the beach at Auasi.
     The twenty to thirty foot long boats used by the men of Aunu'u to row across the channel each day at dawn on the way to jobs in town were carefully handcrafted on the island, the design copied from early Yankee whaleboats and handed down from father to son over several generations. During the day four, five or even six of these bobbed gently on the ends of their short mooring lines over the sunlit sandy bottom just off the beach of Auasi, sheltered from the ocean swells by the fringing reef thirty yards offshore where the waves spent most of their energy.
     A trip to Aunu'u most often involved waiting for the busses bringing the men and women back from work and shopping trips to the stores and businesses around Pago Pago Harbor. You would wade with the ten or fifteen people out to one of the longboats scramble up out of waist deep water over the side into the boat, finding a place to sit among the returning villagers and the woven coconut leaf baskets of taro, coconuts, bananas, store-bought goods, and occasional chickens or trussed live pigs.
     Fully loaded, the longboats sometimes had as little as four or five inches of freeboard between the edges of the boat and the surface of the water. Regardless, the six or eight rowers would run out the hand carved oars, and one man would sit high on the very tip of the stern, manning the steering sweep.
     Back-paddling on the oars, the rowers would keep the longboat from being swept with the current out through the break in the reef until, with a sharp "Ey-yo!", the steersman would call out the signal for everyone to pull in unison, as hard and as fast as they could. The boat would cut sharply through the choppy water, climbing the rising swell of the next wave just outside the reef line, and everyone would settle back and relax for the fifteen minute row across the channel. That was on a calm day!
     Living in the school principal's house at the school on Aunu'u, we were relatively isolated. The school was perhaps a quarter of a mile away from the main part of the village, along a sand and coral gravel path that skirted the shoreline. During the week after the students had gone home, and on weekends, the school grounds were usually deserted. Our connection with the rest of the world (in other words, the folks on the big, seventeen mile long island of Tutuila) was by single-sideband radio, which we kept on twenty-four hours a day, sitting on a low bookcase in the living room.
     To get in touch with anyone you picked up the microphone, keyed the button on the handle, and called, "Pago Radio, Pago Radio, Pago Radio, this is Aunu'u. OVER". Usually by the second or third call, someone in the communications office would reply, "Aunu'u, this is Pago Radio. OVER", and you would request a telephone patch to the Burns-Philp General Store to place an order for a couple of week's supply of groceries to be taken down to the boatshed on Thursday for delivery to Aunu'u. We could also call directly the same way, to the other schools scattered around Tutuila, the Manu'a islands of Ta'u, Ofu, and Olosega, and could even talk to the school on Swain's Island, 200 miles to the north.
     One Saturday morning we received we were hailed on the single sideband from Pago Radio. It was Kay Purinton, the photographer for the educational television station KVZK-TV calling. Her 70 year old mother had come to visit for a few weeks from the mainland United States, and Kay thought it would be wonderful if the two of them could come out to visit us on our little island over the weekend.
     We were delighted! We could show them around our little piece of paradise, and Kay could take pictures. There was only one problem; they wanted to come that afternoon. The longboats that took people to the Saturday market in Fagatogo on the main island had left Aunu'u before sunrise, and wouldn't return until just before sunset. Not to worry; I'd trot down to the far end of the village and talk with Gaosa, who had an old fourteen foot aluminum boat with a 15 hp outboard motor. He'd probably loan it to me. I told Kay to come on. I'd arrange a boat and meet them on the beach at Auasi.
     Gaosa wasn't at home when I arrived at his fale a couple of hours later, but his wife gave permission, and sent two teenage boys to bring the outboard motor down to the beach. The boat had seen hard use. Its thin aluminum skin was scraped, dented, and even had a few small cracks high on the sides where the middle seat was attached. The oars that the boys tossed casually into the boat were in worse shape. They were castoffs from one of the longboats. One had an inch wide crack in the paddle, and the handle of the other one was broken off, leaving a stub about three and a half feet long. No problem; we had the motor didn't we?
     The two boys and I had no difficulty sliding the boat into the water. The outboard motor started after four or five pulls and a bit of coaxing. We splashed easily over the small waves washing in to the landing, and quickly putt-puttered out into the cobalt-blue channel.
     The trip across was uneventful, although as we left the more sheltered water on the windward side of Aunu'u I noticed that the wind was stronger than usual, and coming from directly behind us instead of quartering from the starboard side as it usually did.
     The surface of the channel was choppy, but the swells were small, and since the white capped waves were all traveling in the same direction as we were it was easy to navigate through the break in the reef on the opposite side. We slid the bow of the boat up onto the beach where Kay and her mother were waiting.
     We gave them a hand into the boat. One of the boys perched himself on the bow, the second one shared the middle seat with Kay, and her mother sat on the stern seat with me. I yanked the lanyard to start the motor, but it was not cooperative. I yanked it again, several times, but was rewarded by nothing more than a couple of hazy blue coughs. I squeezed the primer bulb in the fuel line and tried several more times. At last the outboard rumbled into life. I eased the choke closed, moved the shift lever to forward, twisted the throttle, and started out through the short chop back to Aunu'u.
     We hadn't cleared the reef by more than a hundred feet when the motor gave a shudder and died. I gave the rope start handle several quick tugs, and this time we were able to travel another fifty feet before the motor quit again. I told the boys to use the oars to keep us from drifting too close to the breakers while I tried to restart the engine. Kay moved cautiously to the front of the boat, and the two boys faced front and paddled from the middle seat since they were not able to actually row with the ancient oars.
     I tried for another five minutes to restart the balky engine, while the boys paddled energetically. I had just about given up on the motor. When I turned around, I noticed that we were not where I expected to be. There is a very strong current that sometimes flows through the mile-wide channel between Tutuila and Aunu'u. Depending on the tide, it may move east toward the open ocean or west along the coast of the big island. This afternoon it was moving us parallel to the shoreline, and we were no longer anywhere near the opening in the reef. It was too late to try to get the boat back to shore. There was nothing to do but to try to paddle to Aunu'u. I tilted the motor up out of the water to reduce the drag a bit, and the boys really put all their energy into paddling now, dipping and swinging in unison to keep the boat pointed in the right direction.
     The boat pitched vigorously as the bow crested each sharp wind-driven wave, slamming down into the trough behind it before rising immediately into the next one. Wind blown spray soon had us all soaked. Kay took off the towel she had wrapped around her shoulders, and began using it to soak up the water that was beginning to accumulate in the bottom of the boat. She wrung the towel over the side each time it was saturated, but was only staying even, not making any progress in lowering the level of the seawater sloshing around our toes.
     The boys and I took turns, each paddling as hard as we could for the next half hour, but it was soon apparent that we were not getting anywhere heading directly into the short choppy waves and strong headwinds. In all that time we had succeeded in moving no more than a few hundred yards offshore while the current had carried us east almost a half mile. Now what?
     We had no hope of paddling to Aunu'u, and there was no way to get back to Auasi. Between us and safety back on the beach were eight foot high waves crashing loudly on the edge of the jagged coral reef. Were we worried? Not particularly.
     We had the wind and the current working to assist us with an alternative. We would simply stop fighting the forces of nature and use them to our advantage. Down the coast of Tutuila just a couple of miles was Cape Fogausa, and just beyond that the sheltered bay and beach of Faga’itua. We'd head there. It would take us a couple of hours, but we'd be safe, and I could use the single-sideband radio at Faga’itua High School to call Aunu'u and let them know we were OK. We had turned the boat and were beginning to paddle in that direction when Kay's mother pointed across the stern toward the east and said, "Look!"
     Coming around Matuli Point just east of Auasi was the grey boxy outline of the LCM, an old WWII landing craft that was used by the Department of Education to bring weekly supplies from Pago Pago around the island to the north shore villages and schools where there were no roads. Its course back to Pago Pago harbor would bring it very close to us. Not more than two minutes later Kay's mother pointed again, this time toward the island of Aunu'u, and called, "My goodness! Look over there!"
     Someone on walking on the beach, perhaps Gaosa's wife, wondering where we were, had spotted our little boat struggling against the wind and waves, and had summoned help. Heading our way, alternately appearing and disappearing above then behind the intervening waves was a big white longboat, manned by eight oarsmen and another on the steering oar. They were coming at full speed, smashing through the chop as if they were competing in the annual longboat races. A young boy sat in the bow, beating a tattoo with two sticks on a large battered cracker tin, setting the pace for the rowers. Faintly we could hear a voice in the wind, calling, "Malo i galue! Malo I fa'auli" - "Good work! Well done on the steering oar!"
     It was evident that the longboat from Aunu'u would reach us before the lumbering supply boat. The rowers were only a few hundred yards away when I heard the long, loud blast of a ship's horn from the west. Turning around to look the other way I saw the sleek white shape of the Coast Guard cutter slicing through the waves toward us at 20 knots!
     The longboat pulled up alongside us and threw us a line. About then the Coast Guard caught up, and after a brief exchange with the men on the longboat, threw them a line, taking both boats in tow. By the time the cutter had started, dead slow, on a course over to Aunu'u the LCM supply boat, rolling along in its own accompanying cloud of diesel fumes, had passed by slowly with shouts of laughter and encouragement. As the entourage made its way back parallel to the Tutuila shoreline we could see quite a few people standing along the road, on beaches, and by their stopped cars, all watching the spectacle. In a place where life usually moves at an unhurried, seldom changing pace, our fa'alavelave, our disturbance of the serenity, was great entertainment!
     The Coast Guard cast off the towline less than a hundred yards from the Aunu'u landing, and waving cheerful good-byes to our shouted words of thanks, roared off again at top speed toward the harbor at Pago Pago.
     We scrambled out of our little boat on the shore as the men from the longboat leaped out into the shallow water, calling to the children watching from the beach, "Aumai se lago!" Bring the short logs that we use to slide the longboat up above the high tide line! We all gave a hand pulling the heavy longboat up out of the water onto the dry sand,helped prop it up with sticks on each side so that it would remain upright, and shook hands all around, expressing our gratitude for the rescue.
     The two teenage boys that had been with us disconnected the culprit outboard, and went strutting like conquering heroes back toward Gaosa's fale, accompanied by a swarm of younger children all shouting questions at them.
     As Kay, her mother and I headed down the path toward the house at the school Kay's mother turned to me and said, "You know, I think that's the most fun I've ever had in my whole life!"