Douglas on the pier that Tom Neal rebuilt. Suwarrow.
Suwarrow to Pago Pago, American Samoa
Over the past few weeks we’ve had a pretty good run sailing from Bora Bora to Suwarrrow and on to Pago Pago in American Samoa. We had a mix of weather on both passages, the first passage, about 750 miles, was pretty wild, with strong winds and fully developed seas, running pretty much dead downwind. The passage from Suwarrow to Pago Pago, 450 miles, was a mix of medium winds, a couple days becalmed, and a 2 day run with 25 knot winds gusting mostly into the 30’s but pegging 40 knots at times. It was a pretty wild run and we arrived in Pago Pago tuckered out.
Suwarrow is a national park in the northern Cook Islands, a remote atoll between French Polynesia and Samoa. There are two resident rangers, Harry and Katu, who are on a five month long shift and oversee that the natural reserve is kept pretty pristine. Activities are limited and few boats visit, when we arrived there was a sail boat that departed the next morning and we had the anchorage to ourselves for a couple days. Soon a few other boats arrived but never more than six were in the harbor while we were there.
The atoll is somewhat famous in the cruising world due to the book “An Island to Oneself” by Tom Neal, who lived alone on the island for several years over three visits. It’s a classic memoir of one wanting to step away from society and deal with life on their own terms. Neal’s writing is engaging and he describes in detail all the tasks that he took on to live on the small island. It was cool to anchor off the small pier that he rebuilt by hand, the intense labor almost killing him. His house is used by the rangers as an office and looks much the same as from the photos in his book. The view of the sunset from the beach down a coconut shaded path is as captivating as he described. It is a fairly magic place and I wish we could have visited for another week. As it was we were given a two week visa and needed to leave a few days early to catch a weather window.
There are a lot of black tip sharks in the anchorage and that kept us from swimming. The rangers reported that there was a sighting of a Tiger shark in the deeper waters outside the anchorage and that they are aggressive and pretty bad all around, that also curtailed our swimming. We did venture out a couple times to see where the mantarays gather for cleaning. There is a concentration of wrasse fish in a area not too far off the anchorage where the lagoon shallows and it is possible to anchor a dinghy and snorkel around and watch for them clean the mantarays. We watched two massive rays one early afternoon but never caught them in the morning. We heard from other cruisers that they had seen many of the rays, six or more at a time.
Harry and Katu, the rangers at Suwarrow, were friendly and welcoming. They came out to the boat once we dropped anchor and checked us in. We had written to the immigration office in Rarotonga a week in advance but had not received a reply to give us permission to visit the park. The rangers didn’t seemed concerned that the paperwork had not arrived. There is a nice section on Anchorage island for sailors to hang out, with a little fire pit. We had a cruisers potluck one night and it started to rain heavily, the rangers invited us back to the shelter that they use for their kitchen and storage, they had a couple long tables set up quickly and we had an enjoyable dinner out of the rain. A frenchman brought his guitar and Katu, one of the rangers, showed he was a deft master of the ukulele. He is a big guy with massive hands and to watch his fingers fly up and down the frets and pick out complex tunes was impressive.
Katu demonstrated the Cook Island way to open a coconut - folks, we’ve all been doing it wrong. No machetes, or hacking away, it’s all in the wrist. After husking the coconut on a stick jammed into the ground, he showed us how to align the coconut and tap in a certain spot with a stone, a couple sharp raps and the coconut begins to split, then you work around the coconut, tapping along the seam that opens
We are anchored at Pago Pago after a mixed sail from Suwarrow. We had a couple of decent days of sailing once we left Suwarrow, then had two days becalmed that transitioned to two days of strong winds and large seas. The days we were becalmed the ocean was about as calm as I can recall seeing it, long slow rolling swell with small scratches of wind on the surface. It was sunny and the sea took on a deep blue that was mesmerizing. For the two days we sat becalmed we played cribbage, read, lounged in the sun, ate well and really enjoyed being at what we called the sea spa. It felt like we were at anchor in a bay with a bit of swell. The moon was near full and the light on the sea those nights was otherworldly, silver reflections that undulated with the swell.
The forecast was pretty accurate as the weather changed from a couple of knots of wind over the course of an hour to blowing 20 knots and kept climbing. Over the last two days of our passage to Pago Pago the winds stayed pretty steady around 25 knots with gust mostly into the low 30’s but pegging 40 regularly. It was a rude awakening from our two cozy days lolling in the sun. The sky went grey and we had regular rain squalls. The motion below was dangerous, we had to always keep a hand on the boat when moving about, a moment of lapsed attention and the nearest bulkhead or counter surface would come rushing at full speed making its best attempt to leave us with a black eye. It was exhilarating and exhausting. It was athrill being on deck as Tumbleweed crashed through the seas, particularly at night under the full moon that made a glowing ceiling of the cloud cover. Valiants are built for that sort of scenario, high winds and large seas. We would bash through a large wave slow for a moment, gather speed, crash through the next wave, spray over the deck, water flooding back through the scuppers.
With the high winds we made excellent time the last two days to Pago Pago, sailing at 6.5 to 7 knots for the most part, often near 8, at times surfing along above 8 and clocking 9. I can’t imagine going faster, to hear of catamarans and larger yachts running at 10 knots and much faster seems like breaking the sound barrier from the perspective of a 42 foot boat. We kept Tumbleweed pretty well reefed down - we switched to the try’sl early on and kept the genoa double reefed until we needed to slow up and then rolled it down quite a bit, even then we bashed along over 6 knots. The motion on deck was fine, actually thrilling, it was below decks that the speed and bashing through waves was challenging. Meals shifted from a leisurely multi-course spread with fresh pita bread to granola bars, crackers and cheese, snacks. Grim. Sleeping was a bit of a wild card.
We take turns standing a three hour shift, Douglas goes to sleep after a last round of cribbage and a tonic sans rum at 8pm and relieves me at 11pm, and we alternate in 3 hour shifts until morning. We make up a crash pad sleep nest out of the slide out settee, the table folds down to create a bit of a wall and we pad the whole berth with duffel bags filled with clothes, so it is all pretty soft and like a giant cocoon. As we bounce through the waves we will levitate for a heart beat or two and then drop back down into the cocoon, to the point where we finally surrender to sleep. Once night falls we switch all the lights below over to red, giving the feeling of being on a submarine. Waking from the cocoon in the dim red light with the pounding of the waves on the hull and the slapping of various lines inside the mast wasn’t in the brochure. On nights when the weather is up, like the last two on this passage, it takes me a moment to pause and ready myself on the companionway steps before I slide back the hatch to the world above deck. When it is blowing above 20 knots the sound is ferocious, and the wind cuts into everything, it is an abrupt shock to the system to go from the relatively protected world below to the full blast of the sea.
The harbor of Pago Pago is sheltered by high, steep hillsides covered in jungle, it is dense and lush and impressive to enter after a week at sea. The harbor is well sheltered from the ocean with a shallow bar across the entrance, and once inside the bay proper the island opens up with a turn to port and that is where the anchorage for yachts is tucked away, and where the large commercial dock for container ships, tankers and other large vessels. It is also where the harbor master directed us to dock so that we could check in to American Samoa.
Checking in to American Samoa was the weirdest process we have had yet with entering a country. We were asked to tie up to a commercial dock and after an hour of circling and trying to figure a safe way to meet their request had to beg permission to anchor out and return in our dinghy the next morning to check in. We went a few rounds of the port captain asking us to tie alongside, and us saying it didn’t look safe to us, until finally I think we wore him down and we were allowed to anchor. It’s a challenge being in a situation set up for a large ships when you are in a small boat, the scale just doesn’t work, at least for us. We were grateful to be allowed to anchor and check in the next day.
The check in process once we made our way to shore the next morning was straightforward, a bit time consuming with visits to 6 different offices, including a walk to immigration a mile or two from the main port complex. Everyone was very polite and helpful with pointing us in the direction of the next official we needed to see.
So far the stand out quality of our visit has been that everyone has been really friendly, in stores, asking for directions, on the buses, around town, in traffic, in restaurants. There is a genuine sense of friendliness.
Yesterday we joined the crews of Wiz and Zatara for a hike up to a waterfall with a quick dip in the pool. It was a beautiful spot, surrounded by jungle and refreshing after being in the warm humidity all day.
The anchorage here has a reputation for poor holding, the tsunami that hit the island in 2009 deposited a lot of debris. There are stories of people dragging anchor and when they haul it up for inspection find furniture, clothing, yard tools, etc attached. We set well on a small undersea ridgeline and have been secure through some pretty strong winds.
Weather in Pago Pago has been overcast with frequent rain squalls. The rain keeps the temperature down, but is torrential. We’ve made a few trips to shore for grocery runs and topped off our butane. We are going to wrangle some diesel with help from Wiz and Zatara this weekend and should be ready to head for Tonga Monday evening.