Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Tales of Samoa - o moa i le sami - Chicken in the Sea

o moa i le sami - Chickens in the Ocean
o se tala moni: A True Story - High Surf, Frozen Chickens, and a Rescue

...sometime long ago, perhaps 1966

One of the more unusual jobs as principal on the small Samoan island of Aunu'u was making certain that all school supplies, including lesson plans, television sets, light bulbs, writing paper, pencils, cooking utensils for the kitchen, and of course food for the cafeteria arrived at the school promptly. The list may seem rather prosaic until the location of the school is taken into account.

There were two ways to get to Aunu'u. You could go to the open air market in Fagatogo in the afternoon when all the village aiga busses were there, and either by asking around for the bus to the village of Auasi, or if an experienced commuter, going directly to the correct bus. Clambering up the welded-on back steps, you'd pick your way up the center aisle between the two parallel wooden benches that stretched the length of the converted truck body, ducking your head to keep from banging it on the low supports for the plywood ceiling, and murmuring "tulou, excuse me, tulou" as you stepped in front of people, over bare feet, trussed chickens, and aiga baskets filled with green bananas, taro, breadfruit, and sometimes canned goods.

The driver - in our case a perpetually cheerful man with only one good eye - would engage the gear with a clash and a roar, and head out, usually with several people in pursuit, running to grab hold of the back and swing aboard at the last opportunity before the bus made a right turn past Nia Marie's Grocery, Haleck's Store, and gathering speed, rushed on down the road past the Burns-Philp store toward Pago Pago at the end of the bay.

The paved road toward the village of Auasi wound around the bay past the Van Camp and StarKist tuna canneries at Atu'u, past Aua, and up over a small rise and around the corner that marked the mouth of Pago Pago Harbor. The south-east trade winds would pick up a bit as we skirted the south shore of the island of Tutuila eastward past Lauli'i and Alega.

The paved road ended at the village of Faga'itua, and the coral gravel washboard climbed sharply for several hundred feet as it rounded the east end of Faga'itua Bay, narrowing to just barely bus-width. The waves broke directly on the rocks below, unimpeded by fringing coral reef at this point, and on days when there was not much wind each swell would build as it approached the shore, curving up and over and seeming to slow its motion just before curling over, opening a momentary crystal clear window into the ocean through which you could catch glimpses of fish swimming along, unaware of the world of air.

Lurching sharply back down and around a few more corners, the bus would stop at the village of Auasi long enough to unload before heading on to Tula at the eastern end of the island. Three or four longboats, their construction unchanged since they were first copied from the designs of 19th century whaling boats, would be tethered to coral heads in the shallow still water just off the beach.

Soon sets of long oars would begin to appear from the houses just up the hill from the road where they had been stored since morning, and the men carrying them would wade into the water, shipping them in the oarlocks, four on each side. In addition to the eight rowers the steersman would man the fa'auli, the long steering oar at the stern of each boat.

Meanwhile, everyone else would be hitching up skirts and lavalavas, wading to the long boats with baskets and burdens and scrambling over the gunwales to find seats between the rowers, or if a bit late, on top of someone else. Often the gently bobbing longboats would sink lower and lower under the increasing loads until there was not much more than a three or four inches of freeboard along the sides.

One by one the longboats would be untied. The rowers would cautiously maneuver the craft to align with the 'ava, or break in the coral reef, and then with short choppy movements backstroke, keeping the boat stationary in the outflowing current. The steersman perched in the stern, keeping a careful watch on the patterns of incoming breaking waves would determine that the time was right, and with a loud "hey-yo!" all eight rowers would bend their backs in unison and pull on the oars with long, powerful strokes, rapidly accelerating the longboat into the riffling current of the cut in the reef, racing to get out far enough to climb the steepening slope of the next incoming wave before it crested.

As the bow cleared the crest it would flop down the backside of the wave with a splash, often sending cascades of water over the edges into the boat. Often there was a carved wooden bailer or a plastic jug with the bottom cut out to get the incoming water back out, but frequently the seawater was ejected by many cupped hands, all splashing the water back out of the boat.

Once past the line of breakers, the mile and a quarter trip across the channel to the island of Aunu'u was uneventful. The landing on the beach on the opposite side was rarely as exciting, since it was on the more sheltered lee side of the island. The oars were shipped, people jumped out in to the shallow water, unloaded their belongings, and a number of small wooden logs, or lago were laid out on the sand leading up the beach to higher ground above the high tide line. Everyone would grab the sides of the longboat, and with a series of united heaves, slide the heavy wooden boats up to safety.

The OTHER way to get to Aunu'u was on the supply boat, dispatched once a week,, if the weather was good out of Pago Pago harbor, about eight miles away. This was the usual route for all supplies coming to Aunu'ufou School.

Our communication with the Department of Education and the rest of the world was through a single-sideband radio kept on all the time, sitting on top of a low bookcase in the living room of the principal's house. Orders could be called in through "Pago Radio", the communications center, and several week's supplies of groceries could be ordered via telephone patch to Sid Hill, the manager at Burns-Philp General Store. Some other merchants would also take orders for groceries over the radio, but Sid at B.P.’s was very reliable at getting the orders put in cardboard boxes and taken down to the boat shed in Pago Pago early in the morning on days the weekly supply boat was scheduled to run.

The normal supply boat schedule called for delivery of supplies to Aunu'u and then around the eastern tip of Tutuila to bring supplies to the isolated north shore villages of Aoa, Masefau, Afono, and Vatia, weather permitting. That last was significant, since neither boat used to deliver supplies was particularly seaworthy in rough weather.

The first boat "Fiafia" was a low slung diesel powered launch about 40 feet long. Many times it would start out from the mouth of the harbor, only to run into seas too large for it to handle, and turn back to safety. Soon after I would get a call on the single-sideband advising that the supply run for the day had been cancelled, and that they'd try again the next day.

Slightly more seaworthy but considerably more ungainly was an ancient and decrepit World War II era LCM or twin-diesel engine landing craft. The drop gate at the front had long since ceased to be functional, but it could venture out of the harbor when the smaller "Fiafia" could not.

I would leave the school office around 10:00 a.m. on supply boat day and walk the hundred yards or so to the top of a pile of coral gravel that made a low ridge just above the beach next to the school. Squinting into the sunglint off the water I could usually spot the supply boat coming a good half hour before its arrival at the mooring buoy just off the Aunu'u landing.

On sighting the Fiafia or the LCM I would head over to the 7th-8th grade classroom to inform the teacher/assistant principal Petero Savai'inaea that the boat was on the way. Instruction would stop at that point, and the students, teacher, and I would leave the school for the quarter mile walk through the banana plantation and along the narrow paths through the taro swamp to the boat landing. Most often, about the time we arrived the supply boat was idling just offshore.

The boys in the class along with the teacher would slide a longboat on the slippery lago logs down across the beach into the water and without delay row out to the waiting supply boat. Everything was loaded into the lighter, rowed back through the small surf to the beach, and carried up the slope. The longboat was dragged back up and propped in place, and then the long trek back to the school began.

Each student or adult would pick up a box or load and placing it on their shoulders, back or head, begin walking along the soft sand road that skirted the village, heading back to the school. The most cumbersome items were the classroom television sets that corroded out with disruptive regularity and had to be replaced. Two students usually had to pair up to lift and carry these TV's in short stretches with frequent stops to rest, but eventually everything got back to the school and classes resumed.

On the infrequent occasion when something as large as a refrigerator had to be transported from the landing to the school, that had to wait until the return of the village men in the late afternoon. A five inch thick trunk of ironwood, cut twelve to fifteen feet long would be placed on top of the tipped over appliance and tied on. Six or eight men would then position themselves to lift the supporting pole, and then go swinging off down the trail with the refrigerator, all stepping in unison.

It was on a day less than a week after a major storm that this story took place. The supply boat had attempted a delivery four days in a row, and had been turned back by huge seas each time. It was Friday, and from my vantage point on the coral mound I could see the LCM slogging toward Aunu'u, periodically disappearing completely in deep troughs and reappearing on the crests of the storm swells. I rallied the students and teacher, and also Mata'ivasa the cafeteria cook, since the monthly shipment of cafeteria supplies was also scheduled.

When we arrived at the beach there was only one old and rather leaky small longboat on shore, and my own 14 foot aluminum boat. The surf at the landing was rough, even on this sheltered side of the island. The teacher and boys maneuvered successfully through the breaking waves, and quickly rowed out to the waiting LCM. All the school supplies were offloaded into the longboat, which was quickly run back up on the beach so that the now somewhat soggy boxes of school supplies could be removed before the saltwater leaked through the plastic wrappings.

Mata'ivasa the cook, manning two oars, quickly pulled through the incoming surf in the aluminum boat, pulled alongside the LCM and efficiently stowed the boxes of cafeteria supplies, which included three cases of frozen chicken. In his eagerness to return to the beach he let his attention wander. As he exchanged joking comments with others on the sand, a large wave popped up just behind the boat and lifted the stern. Before he could react, the breaking wave had flipped the light aluminum boat stern over stem into the shallow water, dumping its entire load.

The cases of canned goods sank in three feet of water, and boys and girls plunged into the surf to retrieve them, convulsed with hilarity of the situation while Mata'ivasa, spluttering and hooting with laugher, staggered up out of the water, readjusting his sodden lavalava around his waist.

My boat! I watched in dismay as my upturned boat tumbled back out toward deeper water, floating amid splinters of the main seat, chunks of Styrofoam flotation material, and the disintegrating cardboard cases of frozen chicken. I kicked off my flip-flops, charged down the beach, and plunged into the surf in hot pursuit.

A few quick strokes brought me even with the boat, now bobbing upside down low in the water just outside the surf line. This should be simple. Don't bother with trying to turn it right side up. Just grab the bow and side-stroke back close enough so that the kids could help me pull it in the rest of the way to the beach. That was a major error in judgment that almost resulted in my drowning.

The tide was on the way in. As the tide ebbs and flows here, a strong current sets in the channel between Tutuila and Aunu'u. Just beyond the reef line and the breakers, the current was now flowing eastward, parallel to the shore, about as fast as a person can walk. There was no way I was going to be able to swim and tow the boat back to the landing.

I called out "'Aumai le va'a!" bring the other boat! I hung on tenaciously, determined that my boat would not float out to sea to be lost forever. I saw the students and Mata'ivasa running back up the beach to re-launch the longboat. I was not worried. Yet.

The water below my kicking bare feet turned rapidly from green to cobalt blue as I drifted into deeper water.

Bloop! A big chunk of flotation foam popped out from under the boat, and bobbed away rapidly, propelled by the stiff breeze that was blowing in the same direction as the current. The boat settled noticeably.

Smaller chunks of Styrofoam began to escape with alarming frequency, and the boat settled lower, dropping the already submerged stern even lower as I clung to the bow, urgently grabbing whatever pieces of white plastic I could reach to stuff back up underneath. Still the boat floated lower.

I could see that the longboat had been launched, and that they were now in pursuit, but still several hundred yards away. I was determined to hang on and hold out for their arrival.

I looked down into the deep blue water to discover that my white bare feet were almost exactly the same color as the countless pieces of semi-defrosted chicken that were drifting along with me under the surface just below.

I noticed that large fish were beginning to respond to the lure of chicken blood in the water, and were tearing with great gusto at the chunks of chicken. I began to pivot as much as I could, looking all around for the arrival of the first sharks.

Calunk! Another big chuck of flotation escaped. Now the boat was floating vertically, just eight to ten inches of the bow above the water, pointing at the sky. The current had by now carried me beyond the eastern end of the lee shore, and the swells and choppy water increased the difficulty of keeping my head above water.

Every few seconds another small wave would splash over the back of my head and cascade across my face, forcing me to breathe between assaults as I continued to the battle to retrieve pieces of escaping flotation. The longboat was getting closer, and as I yelled to them to hurry I took a great mouthful of saltwater.

I was choking and sputtering now, and gasping for air, and each successive wavelet submerged my head completely. The longboat was only a few yards away. People were shouting, "Hold on! Hold on!", and I gagged on another mouthful of water.

I felt the boat slip under the waves and begin to sink, pulling me with it. My brain processes slowed. Almost as an afterthought I remember thinking, "I'm going to drown! This boat isn't worth it!" I let go, and struggled toward the surface, only a foot or so above.

Two pair of strong arms reached into the water and grasped my wrists. I shot back into the world of air, and was catapulted over the side into the longboat. I coughed the remaining water out of my mouth and nose. When I looked around thankfully, I saw Lisi Thompson, my fifth-sixth grade teacher, leaning over the bow of the longboat, holding onto a rope that was stretched taught, straight down into the water. Could it be a shark?

"Lisi, what is it?” I called.

"It's your boat, Siosi!” he replied.

The last of the flotation had popped out just as the longboat had caught up, and Lisi had reached over and grabbed the floating bow line just as it was disappearing under the surface.

In short order the soggy school principal and his waterlogged boat were deposited safely back on the beach, and everyone laughed about the incident. As for the chickens…sharks and other reef-denizens must have had a special treat that afternoon!


  1. Thank you for sharing your time in Aunu'u, enjoyed the story. Lisi Thompson was a good man, past away around 1991-92. He was the acting faifeau for the LMS church. Mata'ivasa Asoau, the cook became a teacher in Aunu'u. He past away in around 2000-01.

  2. Thank you for posting this story, it made me smile and laugh reading it! I love staring at Aunu'u everytime I go back home. I'm from the Village of Ananoa nd Amouli and I so admired the Island across!! But so nervous to ride across the those rough waves! But thats was an Adventure you went through.

  3. Wow!!! Just wow!! All for a boat. Lol! I can imagine the adventure that day. I can almost hear the laughter afterwards, and some wondering, E! Talofa e! :) .... Leta Falo Tiumalu.