No time to think, just act. With the chaos of other ships, some manned, most not, surrounding me and with the water swirling in every direction it was impossible to tell if I was moving forward or back. I pushed Learnativity as hard as I could with full throttle to overcome the unbelievable opposing force of millions of gallons of water now rushing back in to refill Pago Pago Harbor and doing its best to suck Learnativity backwards into the concrete dock we were fleeing. Looking back to try to gauge direction and progress I couldn’t believe what I could not see. There was no dock to be seen! Just boats and water everywhere. Was I that disoriented? Had we drifted that far? Searching for the dock, I finally got my bearings from the buildings on shore and confirmed that I was just where I thought I was, about 100 feet away from the dock that wasn’t there. What I can see is a pencil thin vertical line that is the light post which now has Gary, Lisa, Jake, Chris literally hanging on for dear life and Ruby wrapped around Gary’s neck. I glance further west and see Emily, the stranded young lady from the California yacht Banyan clinging to the other light post. Then I watch as Kirk, Catherine and Stewart on their sailboat Galivanter motor across the TOP of the dock and get out behind me!
When I think about tsunamis I envision this giant wall of water, a monster wave. There was no wave here. The bay simply emptied like someone had pulled the stopper out of a really big bathtub and then equally as fast put it back in and filled it all up from a giant valve below.
** For some great graphics and explanations of how tsunamis work see this “Tsunami Infographics” site which John kindly passed on.
My brain is struggling to process these visual inputs and try to make sense of it all as I realize the whole dock is under water! That safe, solid, secure concrete wharf which used to sit about 8 feet above the water is now about five feet under water and rising. Boats which were previously tied up to the inside edge of the dock between the shore and the dock have broken free and are careening about in the swirling current, posting great threats to Gary et al on the pole. I look west down to the end of the bay and see that it is filling up with a collection of every floating vessel known to man; pleasure boats both motor and sail of every size, 100’ steel purse seiner fishing boats, trawlers, cargo ships and rowboats. Most seem to be unmanned and are randomly dancing together, running into each other and all headed West. Biscayne Bay amongst them.
Learnativity and I escape the clutches of the incoming current and suddenly speed forward. Hmmm, where did all that ferocious current go? The water becomes eerily calm and smooth. Again, you’d think this would be a good thing and again you’d be wrong. The cycle is now reversing. All that water piled up at the end of the bay, having run up onshore and floated everything there from full buildings to cars, now wants to go back out. This is the first sign of any wave I saw through the whole ordeal as the water rushes back from its momentary travels ashore and has now formed a low wide wave that is headed east back towards me. I’ve now made it out into the middle of the harbor where the water is deepest and I have the most room to run and avoid all the oncoming ships and Looking. I turn Learnativity to face this new rush of water, throttle at the ready to ride out the next surge of current.
Glancing ashore through all this I watch the concrete dock magically reappear as if it is rising up out of the water in some perverse magic trick. Then my brain realizes that the dock isn’t moving up, the water is moving down as gazillions of water molecules all rush to join their buddies down at the West end of the bay. I watch in humbled awe as the water again drains away leaving the dock fully out of the water pilings and all.
On the left here is one of the few photos I was able to snap in the midst of all this you can see the concrete dock with the tires on the side and the water at the level it would normally be at. I was only able to take time for a photo because it is in that lull between surges in and out so this water level is between its high and low. Oh, and you might also notice the sailboat that has been deposited up on top of the wharf! Minutes earlier it had been tied up alongside the dock. Think about it and you will have a better sense of the height of the water as it flooded in such that the boat could float up and over the top of the dock and then be dropped on top as the water receeded.
I would estimate the sea level dropped over 15’ in less than 30 seconds. Then someone hits the rewind button on the video I’m watching and as fast as it dropped the water level starts moving up and my friends on the light poles rush back to it and brace for another dunking. As it turned out, the worst one yet.
Due I suspect to the additional forces gained by the water all collecting its energy up on the western shore, the speed of the water now rushing out of the bay is the highest yet. To make matters worse this was no longer “just” water, it was a giant tossed salad of debris from ships to cars to docks to scrap and crap. All headed back for us with increasing velocity. And again I am rendered helpless to watch with the disgust of not being able to do anything and the embarrassment of being so relatively safe and dry aboard strong steel Learnativity. Lisa, Gary, Jake and Chris grip each other and that slender pole, their bodies now trailing off almost horizontal as the slimy soup rises and rushes past them making every effort to rip their hands from the pole and sweep them away like insignificant insects. They would later recount that this second surge out was the worst of them all and they were within seconds of loosing their grip and the torrent of water began to slack and they returned to vertical as the cycle repeats; current subsides, water goes slack and starts to drop again. The photo on the right is of this infamous life saving light pole in the middle of the dock and was taken just after I’ve come back in and tied Learnativity up just across from it. Four people and a dog are alive today because this pole was there, and a similar one right beside me where the Emily from receded was able to hang on and survive.
As the water dropped away and drained off the dock, I can see Lisa and Jake, with Ruby in tow, make a mad dash across the now dry concrete, hit the shore running and kept on going, climbing up the hillside to watch safely from higher ground. I spot Gary and Chris down on the dock and I speed over close enough that we can yell back and forth. I’m desperate to help them get onto Biscayne Bay and be able to keep it out of any further harm. I try to make a pass alongside the wharf so they can jump aboard Learnativity, but now there isn’t enough water beside the dock to float my boat! I head back out to the middle of the bay and watch and wait for another cycle and then try another pass at the dock to pick them up, but the currents are simply changing too rapidly, there is too much debris to avoid and too dangerous for them to jump. We all watch over the next 15 minutes as Biscayne Bay pilots itself westward down the bay being hit and hitting back other boats along the way. With one of the next big surges she is lifted up onto the mud banks and leans over onto her side to rest high and dry, covered in oil and fuels and badly beaten up.
Another cruiser, Mike from Eureka California was having better luck and an amazing experience as his 27’ sailboat motored down the main street at the far west end of the harbor, circled around the intersection and went back out into the harbor! As the surge he was riding went out it dropped him and his boat onto the ground and then just as nicely picked him right back up again on the next cycle and he was able to get it back into the harbor. He quickly headed out to the far eastern end of the harbor for some clear water and space to inspect below but all signs show that he only suffered some serious gouging of the keel and hull. Amazing!
While all this is going on, Joan on Mainly the boat out of South Merrit Island in Florida is letting us know on the VHF that she has still not seen her husband Dan, the one I saw being swept of the docks in the first surge. One of the big disappointments of this whole experience is the complete lack of response or rescue resources from ashore. I assumed, very incorrectly, with this being US soil there would be plenty such resources; again I was wrong. I learned later that the USCG is land based only and it was over three hours later that they were able to respond with any presence on the water. Nor was their any help from the port authority, no Navy presence, and we were left to our own devices to help each other and coordinate as best we could. There were now about six or more other sailboats motoring around in circles with me in the middle of the bay as we turned back and forth to point into the next surge and tried to dodge the continuing barrage of unmanned ships, hulls and garbage. Joan was doing a great job of single handing her boat and I and others started widening our circles to come closer to shore and cover more area in search of Dan or others who were in the water. This cycle of the tsunami “tide” coming in and out continued for several hours and was like a pendulum, continuously decreasing in height and velocity.
When I was first got out in the middle of the bay my instinct for some reason was to get the word out to both friends and family that I was safe and to let the rest of the world know what was going on. I imagined that there would be lots of news reports about the eruption but very little information on just what was happening locally and I also desperately wanted to know if more was coming and what to expect. Fortunately I carry a satellite phone and while expensive it certainly more than paid for itself in this situation. I couldn’t take my eyes and hands off the tasks of piloting Learnativity and searching for people, but I was able to hit my sat phone speed dial and call John in Florida. Thankfully the time worked out, it was mid day in Florida and John picked up! I gave him a quick synopsis of the situation and asked him to send out a note to the Email list of “Learnativity Followers” (people I send my daily updates to while sailing), post a note to my blog and log on as me on Twitter to relay the text messages I would try to send out as regularly as I could. John has been my lifeline in so many ways, so many times, and once again came through with flying colors as he acted as my ship to satellite to shore relay station. With his help and the wonders of modern communication technology I was able to let my friends and family know I was alive and get to the world at large with some first hand news about the situation here. It seemed to work amazingly fast and I received inquiries from several individuals within the first 20 minutes, wanting to know about their friends and family and very soon thereafter started receiving calls and text messages from news centers around the world. The Twitter feed was particularly interesting and seemed to be the one which spread virally the fastest. It also allowed John and I to get a series of time stamped updates out which people could then review and see the progression of events here. (see https://twitter.com/#search?q=wwwayne for the feed of these Tweets)
Meanwhile, back in the all too real and present situation I was still circling the center of the bay with others, trying to see if I could find a Wi-Fi signal to get on the internet to get updates, avoiding the ever present danger of other ships and debris and be on the lookout for Dan and the growing list of other people who were now missing. I wasn’t able to get on the net but was able to get updates from John and was well informed about the second eruption which fortunately didn’t produce any further surge or tsunami that we detected here in Pago Pago. Whew! Maybe this part is over?
================= end of Part II ============ to be continued ============