Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Tales of Samoa - o le sami faigata

Ole Sami Faigata - The Dangerous Sea
It was proved, over and over again, just how dangerous the ocean could be while we were in Samoa. I remember that two yachts left Pago Pago about the same time headed for New Zealand. They were caught in a big storm. One survived. The other was last heard from via radio somewhere near the island of Niue, in trouble, and never heard from again.
Then there was the trimaran "Extended Adolescence", which brought a young man rumored to be a draft dodger to moor for a time in the harbor. I think I remember that a government agent (F.B.I.?) was sent to "collect" the young man, but before being taken into custody, "Extended Adolescence" headed out to sea. The trimaran did not reappear in any port for several months, and it was circulated that perhaps the boat had been lost. Long after any hope of seeing the sailboat again, it came limping back into Pago Pago, having been dismasted in a storm, and sailed back on a jury rig using the jib sail attached to the mainsail boom as a makeshift mast. The young man in question left the boat moored in the harbor and flew back to the States to face the charges. The "Extended Adolescence" broke its moorings during the big hurricane of 1966, and broke up on the rocks at the head of the bay.
Speaking of storms, I also remember the day that several teenagers decided to take surfboards out to ride the storm surf somewhere off the village of Matu'u. They got caught in a strong current and swept out to sea. Two were eventually rescued by the Coast Guard, but one was never found.

Living on the island of Aunu'u, we had our share of close calls.

Before today's seawalls and breakwater constructions on the landings at Aunu'u and across the channel at the village of Auasi, the 20 to 30 foot longboats from Aunu'u used to make the crossing twice daily, about sunrise and sunset. There were many instances over the years of longboats being shattered on the reef at Auasi.
I can remember vividly some morning trips in to a principals' meeting in town when I wished fervently that I could just get out and walk! The fresh water flow from the small stream at Auasi had left a break in the structure of the coral reef there, probably 15-20 feet wide where there would be an opening in the line of surf crashing on the reef, called in Samoan an avaava. Water tossed across the reef by waves would rush back out through the opening, creating a strong outflowing current.
Whenever there were nearby or distant storms, however, the large swells would break farther out, completely closing out the opening. This made arrivals and departures much more "interesting"! Incoming longboats would wait just outside the point where the huge waves were breaking, getting a feeling for their size and frequency. At some point which I never learned to discern, the man handling the steering sweep oar would call "ey-yo!" in a booming voice, and the six or eight men manning the oars would bend their backs, pulling with all their strength. Someone would be calling the cadence, "ho, ho, ho, ho", while one or more of the passengers shouted encouragement. "Malo! Malo", and "Malo i fa'auli" (Good work on the steering oar!). The next wave would begin to build behind the longboat, lifting the stern, and suddenly we would be surfing the steepening slope, shooting through the avaava to the calm protected waters inside.
One time, coming home from Fagatogo, I was on the first longboat to go out from Auasi. Since the surf was exceptionally high, our boat waited outside the surf line for the other boat to negotiate the passage. They waited, and waited, and waited some more as giant wave after wave crashed on the coral. Finally we heard the call to row and saw men pulling with all their might as the next wave approached. The swell passed beneath us, and as it approached the reef it began to rise higher and higher. The other longboat disappeared below the racing mountain of water. The top of the wave began to peak and curl over, and there was a collective groan of anxious anticipation, for we were all certain that the other boat was about to be crushed. As the fifteen foot wave began to crash down, the bow of the longboat miraculously came smashing up at a 50 degree angle through the breaking curl, the bow coming down with a resounding smack on the backside of the wave as if to punish it for its bad behavior. Immediately six or seven people jumped overboard from the now-flooded boat to keep it from sinking, and our longboat quickly went to the aid of the other, helping to pull it out away from other waves while everyone assisted in bailing out the half swamped boat with much laughing and hilarity.
The same reef opening almost claimed our whole family on another occasion. We had decided to make the crossing on a fine, sunny day. Although there were some medium size waves as I dragged our 16' aluminum boat across the Aunu'u beach and attached the 20 hp motor, I could see that just beyond the surf the cobalt surface was glassy. Two teenage boys from the village asked if they could come with me, Jan, my 4 year old son Mark, and my 1 year old daughter Lynne. I had no idea at the time my affirmative answer would be so important.
The mile and a half trip across to Tutuila was uneventful, although I started to get a bit apprehensive as we approached Auasi. Although the surface of the channel was very smooth, the ocean swells were very large, and as we got closer to shore we could hear the deep booming sounds that warned that the waves were breaking heavily on the reef.
It was soon apparent that there was no opening in the crashing waves, and that if we wanted to get to shore it would be a matter of waiting outside the surf line and going though the avaava in the gap between the breakers. We waited….and waited some more, trying to get the feel and timing of the approaching waves. At last it seemed that there was a little bit longer opening, and I let one wave pass under us, then followed the breaker close behind... a strange sensation, since we were going forward, but actually climbing up the back of the wave. It left us, crashed down on the reef in front of us, and gave us a clear view of the opening in the reef, marked by the swift backwash of water from the previous wave.
I approached the choppy outflow cautiously. Suddenly one of the boys in the boat yelled, "Look out!"
I glanced over my shoulder to see another huge wave starting to build behind us. I slowed the engine to idle, expecting the wave to pass under us so that we could follow it in. Bad mistake!
Instead, the stern of the aluminum craft was lifted at such a steep angle that the boat began to slide down the face of the wave. If I had cranked the throttle to wide open at that instant, we might have made it to calm water safely. A second's hesitation was all it took; the skidding bow slid off to the left. The wave began to curl. The right gunwale scooped up the choppy water, and the entire boat went stern over bow as the sea crashed down on us.
My feet slammed onto the bottom, and with a push I shot to the surface. Jan had our one year old daughter Lynne securely in her arms. The boys were bobbing in the outrushing water. I couldn't see my son Mark!
As the capsized boat, baskets, suitcase, and all of us were swept back out toward deeper water I heard a muffled "Daddy!" coming from the air pocket under the bow. I reached under the edge and dragged a very frightened boy still in his lifejacket out of the gasoline fumes to the fresh air.
I wrestled with the boat, turning it right side up, but the weight of the outboard motor kept the transom at the stern submerged, making it impossible to bail out the water. I put Jan, Lynne, and Mark in the swamped boat, and grabbed the bow, for it was becoming obvious that the current was slowly pulling us toward the point of rocks where the huge waves were still crashing.
The very next swell unbalanced the flooded boat, and it tipped over again, slow motion. We clung to the overturned hull, and I gripped the bow handle, side-stroking as hard as I could, trying to fight the relentless current.
The two boys in the meantime and swum across the reef, body surfing in on large waves that kept them from being torn to pieces on the sharp coral. They gained the beach, and without hesitation ran up the hill to a house in the village where earlier longboat crews had stored their oars for the day.
They rushed back down to the shallow waters near shore where there were several longboats floating at anchor. Leaping in to one of them and casting off the mooring line from the bow, they began to maneuver the heavy wooden boat to a point near the reef opening. They struggled to keep from being swept into the incoming waves. Without a third person in the stern to man a steering oar, they were hard pressed to keep the longboat from turning sideways and being swamped by the breaking surf.
Somehow the two of them managed to get that boat, normally manned by four or six oarsman and another man at the steering oar, out through surf that would have challenged a full crew, arriving just in time to keep us from being swept by the towering waves onto the rocks on the Auasi point. We all sat in the longboat, thankful that we were alive. Eventually we paddled around to collect still floating suitcase and baskets, but we weren’t yet ready to attempt the reef opening again.
Some sharp eyed observer on Aunu'u had noticed that there was trouble on the other side of the channel, and soon another well-manned longboat came to our rescue, providing extra hands for disconnecting the drowned outboard motor and rowing both boats ashore, towing the aluminum boat. (The outboard never DID run properly after that!)


  1. What an amazing story. Glad you and your family survived. You have an amazing memory. Well told and well written, George.

  2. Talofa Siaosi, love your stories. I, too, am glad you and your family survived the sami faigata.