Monday, October 24, 2011

American Samoa - Pago Pago (2011)

On Monday, August 29th, we said farewell to Suwarrow, and set sail for American Samoa, 460 miles to the southwest.  The forecast showed a good weather window, and we left at the same time as three other boats in the anchorage.  The winds were ESE 12-18 knots, and Saviah sailed along nicely on a broad reach under double-reefed main and poled-out genoa.  We averaged 6 knots the first day, making 139 miles.  The winds lightened on Tuesday and Wednesday to E 10-15 knots, and we only made 120 miles on those days.
On Thursday, we realized with the lighter winds that we wouldn’t make it to our destination during daylight hours, and we discussed whether to make an approach at night.  We were on track to arrive around 1 am, and the harbor is well marked with lighted buoys.  After discussing it for a while, we decided to do the prudent thing and heave to, which we did for several hours about 20 miles offshore.  Around 4 am, we set sail again and approached the island of Tutuila as the sun began to rise.   We dropped our sails and motored the last couple miles into the calm waters of Pago Pago harbor.
Since we were still down a heavy primary bow anchor, Andrew connected a 25lb CQR to the anchor chain and then attached another 10 feet of chain with our 35 lb Danforth to that. We found a spot in 35 feet, and Andrew got both anchors in the water.  It was a bit awkward to deploy them, but we were glad to have the extra ground tackle in this anchorage, which has a reputation for poor holding.     
In fact, high winds the week before caused every boat anchored in the harbor to drag.  Part of the problem is that the bottom is soft mud, but it is also foul with lots of debris thanks to a tsunami that hit in 2009.  All sorts of junk is scattered around the sea floor, including tires, lawn furniture and even cars, among other things.  One morning, we heard the boat in front of us on the VHF say that they dove on their anchor, and found the chain wrapped around the hull and mast of a 30ft sailboat that was sitting below them on the sea floor. 
views of Pago Pago harbor from Mt Alava
After we got settled in, we showered and rowed ashore to complete our check-in formalities.   The process involved visits to customs, the harbor master, the accounting office, and immigration.  Once officially cleared in, we stopped at McDonalds for lunch, where they have free Wi-Fi and spent a couple hours catching up on three weeks worth of email.  We then made our way back to Saviah for some much needed rest and were asleep by 4 pm.
American Samoa is a US territory that includes six islands and has a population of about 60,000 people. We only stopped at the largest and most populated of the islands, Tutuila, which has a generally bad reputation among cruisers because of the water pollution and the smelly tuna canning factory in the main harbor.  However, the island is really quite beautiful once you get a short distance away from the main harbor, and the Samoan people are very friendly.
Our visit was not so much for site-seeing as it was for working on projects and provisioning.  This is one of the best spots along our route to do these things as prices are much more affordable.  Also, if you can’t find what you are looking for, American Samoa is on the US Postal Service route, so parts can be shipped for reasonable prices if necessary.  High on the priority list was to replace our primary anchor since we left our last one in pieces in Suwarrow.  We were unsuccessful finding an anchor in any of the stores, but lucked out when a fellow cruiser had a 48 pound CQR that he was willing to sell.  We were glad to avoid having one shipped.    
The next project was figuring out our battery situation.  We were having a hard time keeping our batteries topped off as we don’t have another source of charging them (i.e. wind generator or solar panels) other than the alternator on the engine.  We didn’t expect to need much help keeping the batteries charged since we don’t have any high draw appliances like refrigeration, radar or an autopilot.  While in Mexico, we had to run the engine for an hour once every three or four days to top off the batteries, but lately it was almost a daily event.  One solution was to buy a couple more batteries and have them shipped from the states, which was going to be pricey.
Fortunately, another boat in the anchorage had a used solar panel that they were trying to sell, and we jumped at the opportunity.  We bolted it to our boom gallows and found some aluminum braces at the Ace Hardware to help support it.  We hooked it up to our batteries and were excited at the prospect of making power.  We left the boat on that sunny morning to run some errands and were expecting the batteries to be at least a little more charged when we returned. 
When we got back to the boat, it was disappointing to find that according to the voltmeter on our electrical panel, our house battery bank had gone down even further.  Di thought that it seemed like our starting battery was charged a bit more than when we left it.  Andrew knew that couldn’t be the case, since he hooked the panel up directly to the house bank, but we decided to write down the voltages of both battery banks the next morning and see what happened after another day of charging. 
Sure enough, the voltage on the starting battery had increased, which was really baffling. After spending some time diagnosing the problem and reading (for the first time) the instructions for the battery switch, we realized that it was hooked up backwards.  Apparently battery one was supposed to be connected to the bolt directly behind the switch labeled battery two and vice versa.  This should have been obvious right away, but we also mixed up the wires leading from the batteries to the voltmeters on the panel.  This meant that for the last five years, we have been using our small starting battery for virtually all of our power consumption and our larger bank deep cycle batteries for starting the engine.  Sometimes we aren’t sure how we made it this far. 
After we got the batteries wired correctly, it was like we had a brand new system, as our house batteries had barely been used.  This was quite exciting, and we were able to listen to music on the stereo again.  We had rarely turned it on over the last six months in order to save battery juice.  In fact, we now have the opposite problem and are starting to worry that our new solar panel may over charge our batteries, so we’re now looking for a regulator to avoid that. 
During all of this work on the electrical system, our head stopped flushing.  Before leaving Seattle, we bought a couple of rebuild kits, just in case, but we were really hoping we wouldn’t have to use them.  This was not realistic, as toilets on boats use saltwater to flush and the resulting calcium deposits in the valves and hoses inevitably have to be cleaned out.  After it stopped working, Andrew put off fixing it for a day, but rowing to shore and walking down the street to the McDonalds to use their restroom got old quickly.   So, we pulled out the re-build kit and lots of gloves and bleach, and Andrew started the disgusting job of re-building the head.  The entire head had to be disassembled and about nine gaskets replaced in addition to scraping out all of the bronze castings.  It took about six miserable hours to rebuild and reinstall it, and we hope to go another five years before having to do that again.
After all that work, it was time to take the day off and do some hiking.  We left very early the next day and walked about a mile up a very steep, windy road through the village of Pago Pago to the beginning of the trailhead that leads through the national park.  The trail went along the ridge of the mountains separating the north side of the island from the south.  After two hours of hiking, we made it to the top of Mt Alava at 1,610 ft of elevation, and enjoyed the great views of the Pago Pago harbor.  There is a radio tower at the top as well as the dilapidated structure of the old aerial tram that ran from this point down and over the harbor to the village on the other side.  This tram was shut down about 30 years ago when a US Navy plane snagged the cable during an air show.   
From there we followed the trail a few miles down the other side of the mountain to the village of Vatia.   This part was much steeper, with many sections of ladders and ropes and we finally made it to Vatia around noon. A walk through the small village brought us to the next trail leading to our final destination, which was Pola Island.  We brought our snorkeling gear with us, as we heard that there was a nice reef and Andrew was excited to try out his new underwater camera. 
As we made our way down to the beach, we could see the reefs in the water, and it looked like some great snorkeling.  We hiked along, and found a little protected spot where the swell wasn’t crashing on the beach and rocks and jumped in.  It was nice to cool down in the water, but after about 30 minutes we headed back so we could make it to the boat before dark.   After the long hot walk, we were exhausted and decided to cheat and hitchhike back into town.  Fortunately, the last bus of the day pulled up after we had walked a few hundred yards so we didn’t have to. 
hiking in American Samoa
Aside from a few boat projects that we needed to take care of, provisioning was another priority.  We were running low on just about everything: food, water, diesel and propane.   The public water in American Samoa is really bad, but fortunately we anchored in front of a gas station that also had a water filtering machine.  So we made several trips back and forth with our jerry jugs and filled up on both water and diesel. 
The grocery and propane stores were quite a ways from the harbor, so we had to take the bus.  Riding the bus in American Samoa is an interesting experience.  This is not a public bus system controlled by the municipality, but instead they have privately owned aiga (family) busses.  They don’t run on a schedule, but there are a lot of them, so you don’t have to wait long.  The actual busses themselves are built locally, starting with a flat bed truck and adding a crudely constructed enclosure and benches, made primarily with plywood and two by four’s.  Definitely a custom job and none of them look the same.  Some are very basic, but most have lots of “flare”.  All of the busses that we rode on had one common element, which is a serious stereo system, including large amplifiers, subwoofers, tweeters and often a flat screen TV showing music videos.  It didn’t seem to matter who was on the bus, babies or grandmothers, they all have to endure the ear shattering and uncensored rap music. 
They were however, very convenient and only cost $1 - $2, depending on how long you stay on the bus.  We figured out what the general routes were, but sometimes the bus drivers would turn off onto a side street to drop off a passenger at their house.  At first it was concerning, but then we figured out that they would get back to the usual route eventually.   The bus drivers were very helpful and would often drop us off right outside our destination.  They don’t have bus stops either, so you can just flag one down, and they would pull over and pick you up.  They also didn’t mind when we lugged our two propane tanks on board.
We made two trips to the village of Tafuna, a 30 minute bus ride away, to stock up on groceries.  The first stop was at Cost U Less (a store similar to Costco, but smaller) to buy bulk items.  We filled up a jumbo shopping cart, and were barely able to fit everything into the trunk of the taxi.  The next day we made the trip back to Tafuna to visit KS Mart, a large grocery store, filling another cart.  Now that we have reprovisioned, Saviah is once again sitting quite low on her waterline. 
Our plan was for a five day stop in American Samoa, but as usual, it took us longer than expected.  Two weeks after arriving, we were finally ready to head out.  We had finished our projects and had stocked up on plenty of food to get us to New Zealand in a couple months.  So, on Thursday, September 15th, we checked out of American Samoa and set our course for Tonga.     
Fatu Rock and Futi Rock