Whew! Now THAT was a full day! As most of you will know by now I am in Pago Pago Harbor in American Samoa and yesterday (Tues Sept. 29, 2009) we took a direct hit from the tsunami effect caused by the undersea volcanic eruption that took place about 130nm south of here. Reports seem to estimate it at 8.0-8.3 on the Richter scale so that counts as quite significant I think; certainly was on the Wayne scale!
** Paste my lat/long 14 16.514S 170 41.554W into Google Earth to see for yourself. This is obviously be the "before" photo and we'll have to wait for the next satellite pass to see the "after"
I’m writing this a day later (Wed afternoon) now that I have a bit more time as things have calmed down a bit, both in terms of water action and more recently all the work in dealing with the aftermath. Many of you have been able to follow this via various means thanks to the efforts of my main man ashore and overall phenomenal resource; John Alonso in Florida. Shortly after escaping from the docks where Learnativity was tied up, I was able to get a few satellite phone connections and both talk to John as well as text him while I did my best to deal with the constant draining and then refilling of the harbor and dodge the endless onslaught of other ships, mostly empty, derelict hulls, containers, docks, oil drums and every other sort of debris you can imagine. John was then able to relay these to all of you via Twitter and Emails and I can’t thank him enough for helping to get the word out and let everyone know what was going on here. Now that I’ve got a bit more time let me start at the beginning and take you through the day of September 29th, 2009 on the good ship Learnativity.
I am up as usual about 6:30 and getting ready to go for my morning shower up on the deck when I became aware of a low frequency thrumming that I could both hear and feel. This continued and my first thought was that there was a large freighter or other ship nearby and I was simply feeling the effects of its large propellers churning the water. Stepping up into the cockpit to look around there was nothing in sight and it was otherwise the start of another day in paradise with the verdant hills surround Pago Pago Harbor rising up steeply all around me and piercing the few clouds in an otherwise brilliant blue sky. The calm harbor waters stretched out as Learnativity tugged gently on her dock lines securing us to the large concrete wharf where we have been docked in about 15’ of water since arriving on Friday afternoon and joined about six other sailboats and cruisers from Australia, USA and Canada.
But what IS that vibration?? It is about 06:50 as I step off the boat onto the concrete dock to see if it was perhaps just on Learnativity or the water? No, it continued and was intensifying if anything. Having experienced several other quakes including Mount St. Helens and the big quake in San Francisco and LA in the 90’s I began to suspect this as the source however it was too gentle and going on too long for my understanding of what an earthquake feels like. And I can HEAR it as much as feel it. Over a minute has gone by now and as I look ashore in search of other points of reference sure enough I can see that the lamp posts and telephone poles are waving back and forth like they were blades of grass in a gentle breeze. Hmmm, I’ve only seen poles move like that once before and that was as I looked outside my office window in Sausalito during the 1989 Loma Preita earthquake. OK, it may be different but I’ve solved the riddle and we got ourselves an earthquake.
A few of my fellow cruisers (people who live aboard their boats while cruising the world) have been awakened and are crawling sleepily out of their beds and joining me on the concrete wharf. The mood is typically easy and friendly as we say quietly say good morning, compare notes and discuss just what’s going on. The thrumming continues through most of this and I’d estimate at least 3 minutes in total. We agree it must have been an earthquake and Gary, an Australian from Freemantle on his 52’ Irwin “Biscayne Bay” with wife Lisa, son Jake and Canadian crewmember Chris, joins us and tells that he has just checked it out online and found reports filed under “latest earthquake” of an underwater eruption about 20 minutes ago 130nm south of us
We continued to casually chat and discuss how unique the characteristics were. None of us had ever experienced an undersea eruption or other such disturbances on our boats and we just left it at that as we dispersed back to our boats for breakfast and one person casually joked that we should just watch for any big wave we see. No such wave ever materialized, it was much worse.
Just as I was bout to step back onto my boat it started to drop. Huh? Before I could even comprehend what was happening it then started to rapidly lean sideways as the dock lines strain and screech, tightening more and more as they take on the full weight of my very heavy steel home. My instincts scream GET ON THE BOAT! I jump aboard and grab onto the rigging as she continues to lean more and more and more. THUD! Holy #^%& we are hard over on our side and ……. WHAT the …..? the bottom of the bay is staring back at me as I dangle by one hand from the rigging.
My mind is cycling through every possible explanation, trying to come to terms with all the inputs and amongst the cacophony of sights and sounds as boats smash around me, deck lines snap, rigging strains. These sounds are overlaid and an ominous and enormous rushing and sucking sound as the water all around my boat suddenly drains away!
But a new noise, like fingernails across a blackboard divert my attention to the near vertical deck and I see poor Ruby (my 2 year old cockapoo and sailing companion) trying in vain to dig her claws into the steel deck, her legs thrashing like a cartoon animation character as she gathers speed going the other way and her tail end is headed for all the fish I now see and hear flopping around on the bottom of the bay as they search of their missing watery home.
Ruby’s a gonner if she leaves the boat so I let go of the rigging, do my best imitation of a full 180 mid air flip and lunge after her with one outstretched hand and desperately reach out with the other in the hopes of grabbing some other hand hold. Just as Ruby is launched off the deck I get a right handful of the scruff of her neck and harness as my left hand wraps itself around the lifeline cable. No time to think, just act. Ruby in hand I scramble up to the opposite (Port) high side of the deck. All hell is breaking loose around me both on my boat and all the others and I’m not going to be able to do much with one hand. I look up above me and spot Jake, Gary’s son (14) standing on the edge of the wharf looking down at me and I yell “Jake! Catch!” and throw Ruby up to his thankfully open arms. He makes a great catch, Ruby is in good hands and I’ve got both of mine back.
Interesting how we all react differently. Back aboard Biscayne Bay, Gary and family have been below making breakfast, when they notice the concrete dock rushing up past their porthole windows as if they were in an elevator shaft. Their boat is in much deeper water around the corner from where I Learnativity is docked, so they are going straight down, lines straining, fiberglass crunching and that ever present surreal sucking sound all around. Gary’s reaction, understandably is to GET OUT! and so they all dash up into the cockpit and scramble up the vertical wall of concrete and rubber tires as Gary pushes and shoves each of them up onto the top of the concrete wharf.
The sucking sound stops.
There is a moment of seeming silence that you’d think would be comforting but you’d be wrong. It’s ominous. And then a new set of sounds begin. The volume with a ferocious velocity. Faster than it has left, all that water is now coming back! All the problems reverse. Learnativity rights itself and is now rocketing skyward. I grab my always-on-my-belt knife and dash down the port side from bow to stern slashing all the dock lines. Scramble back into the cockpit, start the engine, simultaneously shove both control levers ahead, putting the transmission into forward gear and the throttle lever on full. All six cylinders pick up speed as the revs cling, the turbine whines, the prop bites hard into the swirling water below and Learnativity starts to pull away from the ………………………… wharf. What wharf? It’s GONE!
The water rushing back into the bay doesn’t stop at it’s previous level, it continues to go up and up and up the sides of the wharf. It floods over the top and keeps going. The speed and force of of the current created by millions of gallons of water flooding into the harbor is unbelievable water and is doing its best to push Learnativity backwards into the dock and marina as I put my faith into the power of diesel fuel and take a minute to look back and see if I’m going forward or backwards.
It is hard to describe what I see. Closest to me, Gary, Lisa, Jake (clutching Ruby) and Chris are running as fast and best they can through the rushing water for a stone walled garden area in the middle of the concrete wharf that happens to have a small but tall light post embedded into it. I watch helplessly as they climb up onto the base of the light pole, wrap their arms around each other and hang on as the water rushes past them, continuing to rise; up, up, up.
I glance along where I know the edge of the dock to have been and watch as one other boat with a great young crew of five from California have jumped aboard even quicker than I and are motoring quickly away. No wait, on the other matching lamp post down the dock I spot one of their female crewmembers who got caught ashore now clinging to this lamp pole. Other sailboats, including Biscayne Bay have now ripped free of their tethers and I watch as they turn with the continuously rising current and crash into each other, taking the other boats in their path like falling dominos. On the left is the “after” picture of this infamous light pole with (from left to right) Chris, Jake, Lisa, Ruby and Gary posing with much different expressions on their faces. Imagine them and the water level half way up this pole!
As my eyes continue to travel further down the dock, I watch in horror as one cruiser is on the dock trying to untie his lines and is swept off his feet by the torrent of water. His wife is aboard and manages to control the boat as it comes free but I can’t see any sign of her husband in all the flotsam and jetsam churning in the water.
Worse than just the water though, almost everything imaginable has been picked up by this flood of water, torn lose from anything silly enough to try to hold them down and is now looking to smash into anything and everything in its erratic path. I glance back to the lamp post where the Biscayne Bay crew are now climbing higher and higher up the lamp post, Gary has Ruby wrapped around his neck so he can use both his arms to hold on to his family and try to keep from being ripped off the post by the force of the water or hit by one of the boats or containers rushing toward and past them. My brain is cycling through the question of “What can I do to help them?” but it is quite literally out of my hands and I have to turn away and bring my attention back aboard and foreword. Fortunately diesel power overcomes even these humbling forces of nature and Learnativity and I escape to the safety of the middle of the bay. Or is it?
========== to be continued ==========
That will need to do for the first installment, I’ll do the rest for you tomorrow. I’m just back from a lovely diner aboard Biscayne Bay which while badly knocked up and damaged is inhabitable and afloat. And as my Aussie friends would say, “I’m knackered”, too tired to do much more cogent writing tonight. Hope you enjoy the details and 'I’ll have the rest of the story, more photos and video tomorrow.
Night for now.