I’m not quite sure of the timing, but about 11am, four hours after the mayhem started on this fateful Tuesday, Sept. 29th, I decided that the surges were down enough and not coming back so I headed for the dock and tied Learnativity to the outside and jumped ashore to help others who were following my lead in. I was anxious to find Gary and Chris who I’d not seen in the past hour while I was circling out in the bay and also to see what assistance I could provide to others who were looking for lost crewmembers as well as the whole situation ashore.
On American Samoa, as with most other islands the only real road is the one which circles the coastal circumference so it is all very close to sea level. Normal sea level that is. When the tsunami hit, the water rose up to a level about 5’ above the roadway and several hundred feet inland. It cleaned out everything in its path, picking up vehicles and dropping them inside buildings and culverts. If the buildings were concrete and well built, the water neatly emptied all their contents, if not it simply washed away the entire building. Cars were strewn everywhere as if some giant hand picked up the island and gave it a good shake. As you walked up to the road there were manta rays, eels and tuna still flopping about on the dry pavement desperately searching for their watery homes. Several hardware stores along the road had been emptied and tools were strewn everywhere. Much of the edge of the water was lined with chain link fencing which had acted like a sieve and was now a colorful mosaic chockablock full of a plastic, paper, wood and weeds.
By the time I got up to the road though, people were already pitching in to help others in need and soon people started to clean up the mess that was everywhere. Traffic was at a standstill of course with vehicles all over the road, wrapped around trees, sticking out of doorways and windows and parked in culverts. Many had simply been washed into the bay. There were injured people everywhere and soon the sirens began and continued on through the night and the next few days as more were found amongst the wreckage and on the sides. Miraculously to me no fires had broken out which was a good thing as there was fuel and oil everywhere. The gas station immediately behind the dock had all four of its pumps knocked clean off their foundations as cars had floated by and the water rose up over them. Now they spewed raw gasoline and diesel out of their amputated pipes. While out in the bay the smell of diesel, gas and oil was overwhelming as most of the large fishing and commercial ships that were swept away had ruptured their tanks and the water was slick with petroleum.
I wanted so much to head for the West end of the bay to find Gary and Biscayne Bay and help them find Biscayne Bay, as well as see if Ruby had survived. But I dare not leave Learnativity alone and there was so much to do on the docks trying to help those whose boats were still there and those who were missing crew members. Gary actually showed up aboard Joan’s boat Mainly to help her dock it and there was still no sign or word of Dan. And so the afternoon progressed as we all pitched in and drifted from one job to the next; cleaning, consoling, assessing and trying to comprehend what had just happened. With son Jake on board Biscayne Bay to keep watch as looting had already begun on ships and ashore, Chris and Gary went back and forth between Learnativity and Biscayne Bay in the dingy, moving all their belongings and food aboard Learnativity as I invited them to live with me for the next while.
As we shuttled all their belongings from one boat to the other we decided to try to get Biscayne Bay back into the water and if she was not taking on water to try to bring her back to the dock. Gary and Chris went back to the boat and with the help of some others and the next big surge, miraculously got her upright and off the mud bank and bottom into deeper water. She was taking on some water, but it was minimal and the bilge pumps would be able to keep up with it. The engine would start but something was wrapped around the prop or shaft or both and they were locked up solid. There was limited steering but with a 25HP outboard on his dingy, Gary was able to push and shove her all the way up the bay and around the end of the concrete dock. With Chris at the wheel and Gary using the dingy as a mini tug boat, Jake threw me the bow line as she raced toward the dock and I was able to wrap the line around one of the large steel bollards and with a final crunch against the dock she was back home. It was hard to believe that only 8 hours earlier this crunched and battered dear boat had been quietly tied up next to Learnativity in pristine condition.
The search continued for our missing comrade cruiser Dan and with no sign of him by mid afternoon Joan went to the hospital and sadly arrived just as they were bringing Dan’s body to the morgue. His body had washed up at the west end of the bay. So difficult to comprehend all this. How is it possible that at 7am you are sipping your first morning coffee together as a happy retired couple in the cockpit of your sailboat docked in paradise on the cruise you’ve dreamed of and worked for your whole life, and then minutes later be washed off the dock never to be seen again? We all did out best to be with Joan as she worked her way through such questions and did what we could to be supportive and consoling. Her boat would not start now for some reason and we were all anxious to ensure that our boats were ready to go at a moments notice should another tsunami strike and so several of us went aboard to set it right. There was no shortage of skilled mechanics and electricians and we all provided tools and labor and Jack stayed aboard to find it was a bad solenoid and soon had it replaced so at least Mainly was back in working order. Hearts and minds would require different tools, techniques and time before they would be so mended.
Learnativity, Ruby and I came through it all pretty much unscathed. Just the stainless tubing bow pulpit had been ripped apart and so I set about removing it and seeing what could be done to repair it. It was beyond repair and so I salvaged the running lights and then set about using some low stretch line I had to create a makeshift set of lifelines to enclose the bow.
Fortunately none of this is structural or will prevent me from continuing to sail to New Zealand where there will be lots of facilities to build a new one. And I was planning on building a whole new dual anchor setup and sprit on the bow which would require a new pulpit anyway. I just didn’t plan on removing the old one quite so soon. Mother Nature apparently had a different schedule and I didn’t get the memo.
Gary and family were back onboard Biscayne Bay assessing the damage for the rest of the afternoon and it didn’t look good. The more you looked the more structural damage and failed systems you found. It was floating and they decided they could sleep aboard that night but I had them over for diner and cooked up a big feed of salad (expertly assembled by Chris) and my tummy filling spicy spaghetti and meatballs. None of us had eaten all day and now with a chance to relax just a bit, the hunger and exhaustion set in. We spent most of the evening quietly reflecting upon the day, dissecting it and discussing this extraordinary and harrowing experience. I think it was very therapeutic for each of us as our minds started to deal with the reality of what all had taken place on this eventful day and what we would need to do in the aftermath of the days ahead. Sleep was both restful and fitful for most of us that night.
Writing this now, two days later, we have continued in this pattern of cleanup, helping each other, repair and restoration of both ships, shore and souls. It will be a long process for all of these. The local people have continued to astound me with their genuine kindness and generosity. In spite of great loss of life all over the island we have had a steady stream of people binging us cases of bottled drinking water, boxed lunches and cooked diners.
In the span of two days I’ve witnessed the full spectrum of both human and mother nature and I’ve learned so many life lessons. It is no where near a complete list, but to finish up this posting I’ll share a few of the lessons I’ve learned through this experience.
Some Lessons I Learned from the Tsunami in Pago Pago:
- It may sound trite but it is SO true that you never know when the last time will be for most things. Living in the moment, maximizing every opportunity, are attitude and behavior to live by rather than cute phrases and platitudes.
- When it is all said and done, people, friendship and relationships are all that really matter.
- The best place to be when trouble or disaster strikes is ON your boat and out in open water. Get there and stay there at almost any cost.
- I’ve renewed my conviction and love for steel boats.
- In times of great stress and disaster, human nature is on full spectrum display and is the same in all places and cultures.
- Put your faith and optimism in people. There is much more good in the world than evil, many more good people than bad.
- A big powerful working engine in a sailboat is a safety device. Make sure it is always at the ready.
- Mother Nature is a majestic and powerful force on a scale that is truly humbling. It is likely a good thing to be reminded from time to time just how small and puny we are.
- Technology, especially communication technology is vastly under rated and under appreciated for how profound a difference it can make.
- Sat phones are essential safety devices for world cruisers.
- If are ever in the vicinity of a large underwater seismic eruption either get on a boat and head for open water or head inland as high and as quickly as you can.
I hope that by sharing some of these experiences I’ve been able in some small way to help others learn lessons of their own. I’m off to bed now for a few hours to let my head sort through more of this experience and get some rest before another busy day of dealing with the aftermath of this extraordinary life and learning experience.
Wayne & Ruby the Wonderdog
aboard the good ship Learnativity
docked in Pago Pago Harbor
14 16.514S 170 41.554W