Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Tales of Samoa - o se malaga i Olohenga

o se malaga i Olohenga - A trip to Swains Island

     Swains Island, a doughnut shaped low coral atoll that is geologically part of the Tokelau Islands, has been privately owned by the Jennings family since 1856. In the 1960’s it had a total population of about 30 people from Tokelau, who call their island “Olohenga”. Although the Samoan islands are 200 miles south, Swains Island has been under the administration of the Government of American Samoa since 1925. A boat is chartered by the Jennings family once or twice a year to deliver a few supplies and to pick up the dried coconut copra that is the only source of external income.
     My only trip to Swains Island was in 1968, the year I taught Level III Science on television for third and fourth graders and Level V Oral English television lessons for high school students in American Samoa. Paul Pedro, a science curriculum supervisor for the department of education had family there, and invited me to go along.
     The 60 foot covered wooden motor launch MV Lady Elizabeth slogged its way through heavy seas and strong winds as we chugged out of Pago Pago harbor, around Cape Matatula, cleared the island of Tutuila, and headed north.
     I spent a sleepless night on top of the three-foot high hatch-cover. Occasional waves came surging over the bow and sluicing down the decks. It had cleared and calmed by the next morning, and Paul told me not to be too disappointed if we didn't FIND the island!
     Remember, this was the 1960's....there were no such things as Global Positioning Satellites that could pinpoint your location, anywhere in the world to an accuracy of 6 feet!
     He said that on more than one occasion they had steered the compass course from Tutuila to Swains for the estimated travel time of 24 hours, spent two days steaming back and forth, looking for any hint of the tops of green coconut trees protruding above the horizon, and then giving up and heading back for Tutuila. In those days before GPS navigation if you were more than 5 miles off course, Swains would remain hidden, and the captain had no knowledge of anything as sophisticated as a sextant!
     There is no break in the coral reef that makes up Swains Island. This means that visiting boats have to drop anchor in medium deep water beyond the breakers at the only village of Taulaga, and the men on the island come out through the surf to offload supplies and load copra to take back to Pago Pago. The village itself consists of a few thatch roofed open houses, a one room school, and a church.
     Dried copra is stored in a large shed whose tin roof captures precious fresh rainwater and channels it into a large cistern. This is the only source of drinking water on the island. The porous coral limestone allows the salty seawater to seep in from the ocean all the way to the brackish lake in the middle of the island.
     Wally Jennings, the owner, greeted us warmly, and took us in his jeep, the only vehicle on the island, on the single dirt track that circles the atoll. A drive almost halfway around, a distance of about three quarters of a mile, brought us to a run down house that looked like it might have been transplanted from New England. Wally told us that his grandfather had built the house, and named it “Etena” after the Garden of Eden. Wally, fresh out of an enlistment in the Marine Corps, had brought his new wife to live in Etena. When the marriage ended Wally moved into a small thatched fale in the village of Taulaga.
     We watched the few boys and men play a cruel island version of soccer on the village green as the sun set, using a live trussed chicken in place of a soccer ball. We sat on laufala mats in Wally’s house for a delicious chicken dinner. Later that evening I was sitting next to the captain of the MV Lady Elizabeth on the beach, watching the moonlight on the breaking waves. Suddenly he turned to me and said, apropos of nothing, "What's the reciprocal of three hundred and fifty?"
     My confused response was, "What do you mean?"
     He said, "You know, if I came up here on a compass heading of 350 degrees, and wanted to turn around and go back the other direction, what would be the compass heading?"
     And I was thinking, “Uh-oh! We're in trouble! This is the CAPTAIN!”  I did a quick subtraction of 180 degrees and came up with a hundred and seventy.
     The captain said, "Are you sure?", and I responded, "Yes". He thanked me and the conversation moved on to something else now forgotten.
     The following morning we started back toward Pago Pago, expecting to cover the 225 or so miles in about 24 hours. The seas were moderately rough, and sometime during the course of the following night a frontal passage brought the clouds down low, dumping rain at that rate only experienced in the tropics.
     The rain was still pouring down at the first light of dawn, and the deluge continued, uninterrupted as the morning wore on. We were all wet and tired, and eager to see land. Ten o'clock came and went, as did eleven. By noon everyone was a little anxious as we scanned the mostly obscured horizon to the front and sides of the boat. By two in the afternoon the rain had slacked off some, but the clouds and mist continued to hover close to the heaving ocean. The tension among the passengers was electric.
     The captain announced, "I think we've missed Tutuila. I'm going to turn around and go back."
     How could we have missed an island seventeen miles long with mountain peaks over 2,000 feet high? My concerns were split between two thoughts: "What if we run out of fuel?", and "I hope he can figure out the reciprocal!"
     At that precise moment from the back of the boat a voice cried out, "Land!" We all rushed toward the stern, and sure enough, off in the distance some miles away we could see a green headland, mostly hidden in the clouds, with steep black cliffs plunging into the sea.
     The boat changed course almost a hundred and eighty degrees (no need to calculate reciprocals now!), and headed for the island. We were almost home. We thought!
     After almost an hour of heaving and pitching in that direction the clouds began to lift somewhat, and with dismay we discovered that the island we were approaching was not Tutuila at all. As more of its shape was revealed we all realized that we were looking at the outline of Ta'u, and in 30 hours the boat had somehow managed to get off course by more than 70 miles!
     Maybe the captain had added a little too much "windage", or maybe had not been paying attention, or maybe he had just forgotten the reciprocal!
     It would be another ten hours before we finally staggered into the harbor at Pago Pago and tied up safely at the dock.


  1. Thanks for posting...sharing your experience about Olohenga-Swains Is. Enjoyed looking back in time.

  2. George, this is the first time I have heard anything about Swains Island. I knew Jennings owned it but that was the extent of it. I am so happy you were able to visit. What a treat. Why did you guys not stop in Faleasao? That would have been fun to have seen you - lost. Exciting times we all had in Samoa. I didn't write anything about Swains Island in my book because I never heard one person ever talk about Swains to me where we lived. Thanks for writing these stories. They really mean alot to us.

  3. Evelyn Lilio-SateleApril 13, 2012 at 1:14 AM

    My mother, Dorothy Lee, and I went to Swains Island, probably about this same time. The boat we traveled on was sent to deliver provisions, but she to visit the school. As I recall, the seas were too rough to allow us to leave so we spent an unplanned night on the island and I will never ever forget the hospitality in the form of fresh fish, coconuts and pagikeke in the morning of our departure and especially the supaketi/pisupo sandwiches. If only I could return.
    Evelyn Lilio-Satele

  4. Who was the captain of MV Lady Elizabeth...if I'm wright could be my father in law William Steffany...very interesting.

    1. Yeah it is Captain William Steffany. Hes my great great Grandfather.