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The Two Captains


2C Update #129 - American Samoa - July 25 to August 16, 2005

(Photographs by the Two Captains)

We had a rousing 480-mile passage from Suwarrow to American Samoa in 20-25 knot trade winds setting a record for the fat old condo of three 150-mile days in a row! We made such good time, our planned Monday morning arrival actually happened Sunday evening, and it would have been mid-afternoon had we not been trounced by a huge and nasty squall system on our final approach that blew straight from the direction we wanted to go.

American Samoa is comprised of seven islands, the principal island of territory Tutuila – where most of the population lives – , three islands in the Manua Group and plus outlying Rose Atoll way to the east and Swains Island way to the NW. The Manua islands, said to be the most stunning scenery in the territory and culturally considered the Garden of Eden of the Samoan people, of course lie sixty miles to windward of the check-in port and are not supposed to be visited before check-in. We, sadly, passed them in the night, although other bots we know stopped and anchored for a few nights.

Tutuila itself is beautiful. Steep and lush, it reminded us as we approached of a cross between St. Thomas and Tortola, and the Pago Pago harbor, when we pulled in at sunset that first evening, was one of the most striking we have yet seen. The waterway doglegs to the left, and then left again, turns that totally block out sight of the sea, and it is surrounded by steep mountains and an almost vertical 1600' rise to wraparound Maugaloa Ridge. The commercial wharf lines a good section of the town waterfront on the southern shore, but work goes on quietly and ships come and go less obtrusively than do the cruise ships in St. Thomas. The yacht anchorage is past all that, so deep into the bay that our chartplotter shows us up a river.

There were maybe ten boats here when we arrived along with our newest best friends from Suwarrow, Bud and Nita on their beautifully refitted Kelly Petersen 44 Passage. Only about half of boats, some at anchor, the others on private moorings, had anyone on board, and we were here a week before any other boats came in. Some of the cruisers here have been here for a couple of years, having found jobs ashore to boost the cruising kitty, and although all of them strike us as independent souls, there is a comfortably regular social round : Friday night cocktails at the Pago Pago Yacht Club (no docks), Sunday nights at Evalani’s for Mexican food and a free movie.

We had no idea what to expect from Pago Pago (pronounced Pahngo Pahngo), American Samoa’s capital “city” and principal harbor. A commercial port of some significance, its reputation is not good. The harbor, one of the naturally most protected in the South Pacific, has a big container depot and two large tuna canneries, and the scuttlebutt was that the bay was full of trash, the holding poor thanks to debris on the bottom, the water foul, and the air full of cannery stink. For these persuasive reasons, and its pricey harbor fees, most cruisers pass American Samoa by. Its two acknowledged virtues are that it is part of the US mail and phone systems, and that US products -- both foodstuffs and 110v appliances -- are available at US prices. This is what drew us to risk the horrors; we simply couldn’t resist the chance to replace some things on board either locally or by easy mail that otherwise we would have had to either do without or schlep back from the US by plane some time in the future.

Well, it has been an unexpected surprise. Yes, there is a cannery and a big generating plant to boot that emits a 24-hour rumble, and yes, there is some trash that appears and disappears with the state of the tide and how much rain has fallen upriver, and yes, the bottom does have some debris that can make anchoring a challenge, and yes, on occasion there’s some smell, BUT it’s our opinion that none of these things are worse than some other popular cruiser destinations like Trinidad, Golfito, Mazatlan or even back home in Charlotte Amalie. In fact, American Samoa’s bad PR seems very like the prejudice the USVI endures compared to the BVI. Here the people are super nice, prices reasonable, plus we have found plenty of the kind of services we needed. Indeed, we finally were able to get our liferaft serviced and inspected, something we had not found anywhere since Panama. (Yes, we were a little overdue.)

Most importantly, however, the environment has seen real improvement, thanks to the EPA which has done good things here the past few years. The cannery debris is now piped and/or shipped way offshore for disposal, and unpleasant odor is infrequent. A major anti-littering campaign is working at re-educating the locals, who previously considered trash a reflection of their ability to purchase it! To our eyes the floating stuff and water quality of Pago Pago is no worse than Trinidad, which, you'll remember is a hugely popular cruising destination, and, while the bottom issues are real (our friends hooked into a spool of rigging wire, a coil of line and a plastic garbage bag the first time they put the hook down), we have anchored twice with no problems and a good set and have held in 25 knot gusts…so far. The cannery stink is intermittent, maybe 10% of the time, and the generator roar quickly becomes white noise over which you can easily hear the busy land birds and the froggies in the hills at night.

The Samoan islands, logically and culturally one group, became divided politically into two -- Samoa (formerly called Western Samoa) and American Samoa – at the end of the nineteenth century. An already existing schism between local “kings” became formalized when the United States took control of the eastern islands and Germany the western group. Germany lost control of Western Samoa during WWI (when they were busy elsewhere!), at which time New Zealand took over. Western Samoa became independent in 1962, during which time American Samoa became, well, ever more American.

We had always imagined American Samoa to be much like the USVI., and in many ways it is. You have a tropical island and a tropical people over which a veneer of Americana lies; you have the lingering heritage of a former military base; you have a slew of buildings with Federal, bureaucratic-sounding signs scattered all over in town, and, out in the area near the airport, known as “Little America” you have the commercial familiarities of Cost-U-Less (just like in St. Thomas, full of bulk American goods) as well as McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Napa, True Value and Ace.

Most all the cars are US models (and there are plenty of them), although the busses definitely are not! (The busses are homemade boxes plopped on top of cut-apart truck chassis and then painted and decorated almost as much as a Panamanian Bluebird.) There is even American TV – one non-commercial, PBS-type station and one commercial station mixing choices from the networks – and US sounding radio. Money is US green, distances are in miles, and at the fuel pump the price is for gallons.

Most amazing to us of all, after four year in Spanish and French-speaking countries, is the fact that the locals actually speak English. I’m sure storekeepers must think I’m slightly dull-witted since every conversation I start begins with a 60 second pause while I sort through what language should be coming out of my mouth!

But as comforting as the familiarities are, the fact is this is a very different place. The first clue is the dress. One does not walk around town in shorts and a tank top. Everyone wears shirts covering their shoulders and dresses or skirts to mid-calf, including many of the men! Seriously. We saw a few lava-lava’s on men in town, including some of suit-like colors with shirt and tie, but when we reached Immigration and found about half the officers wearing navy blue, government issue wrap-around skirts, we knew we weren’t in Kansas, Toto. Even high-school boys wear lava lava “skirts”, imprinted with their school seal and colors. The boys usually have baggy shorts on underneath, and I’ve noticed on rainy days that a lot more people, women included, wear Capri-length pants. The people themselves are a big change. They are big: tall and solid. Bulk is prized. After years of our feeling like “Gullivers in Lilliput-land”, we are actually smaller (if not shorter) than the locals. Belatedly you realize that while most people do speak English well and colloquially, among themselves they speak a different language – full of all the vowels and glottal stops of Polynesia of which you can’t guess a word.. …Well, perhaps that isn’t so different than the VI!


The missionaries must count Samoa as one of their biggest successes. In addition to the conservative dress, which makes little sense to us in a hot humid climate, public behavior is somewhat circumscribed. In other words my inclination to link arms, hold hands, or smooch with my hubbie must be curbed in public.

The Lonely Planet says about half the population belongs to the Congregational church, about 25% are Catholic, 12% Methodist and the rest mostly Mormon, although we notice many Latter Day Saints and Pentecostal churches as well. The sheer number of churches is amazing, and they are all large. Every evening between six and seven pm, gongs (the gongs are made from old propane cylinders) sound around the island to announce the beginning of “Sa”, a period of prayer, where everything stops for about ten minutes.

They say that if you are in a store when Sa begins, they will lock you in, and if you are on the street you should stop and sit or pull over if in a car. From the boat, we haven’t noticed the traffic stopping on the main road in Pago Pago, but then again there isn’t much traffic by that time of night, since the busses stop around six. Sundays are days of rest, and playing tourist in small villages on a Sunday, when our presence might disrupt the family routines, is strongly discouraged.
Missionary work is not just a thing of the past. The Pago Pago Seafarers’ Center, who make themselves available as an mailing address for cruisers, is an endeavor of the Baptist church. Situated on the NW corner of the harbor, this mission has books, videos, pool tables, computer and telephone service for al sailors, from cruisers to the seamen of the tuna boats and container ships.

But even the intense Christianity seems to me still to lie like a veneer over something older. It is called Fa’asamoa – The Samoan Way. The Samoan culture is Polynesia’s oldest, and even the political deal struck with the United States way back in 1899 insisted on protection of Samoan rights and ways. Like the USVI, the territory is represented by non-voting delegates to the Congress and the Senate and like the USVI the residents can’t vote in Presidential elections. But unlike the USVI, Samoa is an unincorporated territory of the US and its residents are American Nationals, not automatically granted citizenship. They have their own constitution, and are not governed by an Act of Congress.

Fundamental to the Fa’asamoa is its hierarchical village structure. According to my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook, the main component of this is the extended family or ‘aiga. Each ‘aiga has a matai (chief) who represents the family’s interest in the village council, called a fono, and the fono itself has a chief, and so on up the line. Our most pointed glimpse of this came about at S.O.S, the company that services life-rafts. The manager, Tony, with pony-tail, earring, and manner, seemed pretty All-American at first glance with typical sailor’s tattoos on his substantial biceps But peeking out from under his knee length shorts were the edges of a much more extensive tattoo.

Over the hours spent inflating, inspecting and repacking the life raft, we got a little of his story. In short, although most of his childhood was in the US, his Samoan father raised him in the Samoan way (tough love). When Tony came back to Samoa to work and raise a family, he found himself entwined in his very extended family, in a culture where if someone needs something and you have the means to help, you must. Because his family has some chiefly rank, pressure has built for him to step up to his inherited “duties.” This led to his recently getting the traditional men’s tattoo – a dense patterning reaching from the knees to the waist, and covering – here Tony’s eyes opened wide for emphasis –everything in between. The tattoo was applied in the traditional way with a sharpened boar’s tusk, and took seven days, five hours a day to apply, and is, Tony assured us, the most painful thing he’d ever experienced. In the old days, he said, it was supposed to prove your manhood, and, of course, failure to complete the tattoo brought shame to the family. Although I didn’t ask Tony, one wonders when, in a society of knee length shorts and lava lavas, anyone ever sees these tattoos.

Surely the most striking thing about this territory’s Americanism is its patriotism. Upon arrival in Pago Pago, we ended up after the circuit through Immigration and Customs in the Harbormaster’s Office. Captain Silila Patane settled us on the sofa in his office and launched into a long explanation of why he must receive us with his foot propped up on his desk (an injury), which then led to an explanation of how, as squad leader of the local Army Reserve Unit, he should be in Iraq right now with his men, but that because his medical had not been approved he was here and his replacement, a staff sergeant well liked on the island, was coming home from Iraq in a box this very week, the first American Samoan casualty of the war. We had noticed the yellow ribbons proliferating everywhere, the American flags, and the “We support our Troops” bumper stickers, Captain Patane wanted us to be aware of what was going on in the community, and so in some way be a part of it, which I think we have, following events in the daily paper and watching processionals go by with sirens wailing. The Harbormaster’s two oldest sons are serving in Iraq and the youngest wants to sign-up. The only indignation we heard in his voice was that he was not there himself, and he let us know that Samoans understood very clearly the importance of taking care of the fight there and keeping it away from your own mainland. It’s quite a thought, thinking about burly Samoan reservists worrying about protecting a “mainland” some 4000 miles away from their island.

When we arrived in Pago Pago, we didn’t expect to stay longer than a week or at tops two, whatever it took to get our packages here. We got a misleading impression of the mail’s efficiency when our packet of forwarded St. Thomas mail arrived two days after it was sent. However, we later learned that the mail actually arrives on island only twice a week, and has been known to gets bumped when passenger seats are full, so our time here stretched over that as we waited for our big lumps, a new water heater and the wind generator we sent to Florida for servicing and balancing by the manufacturer.

We have easily kept ourselves occupied. Our first package to arrive was a new satellite telephone. We have thought about a satellite phone since before we left St. Thomas, but the high price kept putting us off, especially as the HF radio email systems continued to serve our daily email needs. From the Marquesas onwards, though, connections on the radio became harder and harder to effect, not just thanks to narrowing propagation opportunities, fewer stations to choose from, and greater distances, but also to the number of boats trying to use them. Increasingly, we became aware of how many boats we knew had Iridium phones aboard (Iridium being the only service covering the mid-Pacific other than the big-boat Immarsat) and how they could use those phones to get weather reports any time of day as they needed or wanted them. With the longer passages to plan for, this was an attractive option. And finally, we had acquaintances from Raiatea who suffered a terrible tragedy when in moments their rig came down and the boat broke apart in a collision with a remote reef leaving the family injured and adrift in their life raft for eleven hours. Although the Amateur Radio folks maintain a vigilant Maritime Mobil Net all day on 14,300 mHz, if things are happening fast, it is hard to imagine a two-person crew managing such an accident AND calling for help by radio at the same time while the boat perhaps is sinking underneath them. Unlike the radio, the sat-phone can abandon ship with you. That incident was more persuasive than any of the value of the sat phone investment, so we promptly placed our order with Sea Tech Systems, the company I worked for at the Miami Boat Show last March, and the phone was all but waiting for us upon our arrival in Pago Pago. Of course having the phone, and figuring out how to use it are two different things. Somehow the suppliers of these high tech toys just assume that if the item is something you need, you must already know how to use it. For us, we had about a week-long learning curve to get our email working properly. I still don’t entirely understand how to get the weather!

Meanwhile Don has kept himself busy with replacing our microwave and water heater, the two big projects we had in mind when we came here, as well as repairs to the Aries windvane and the wind-generator. In between we have shopped taking advantage of all the bounty in the American scale stores. And we have shipped out packages of French Polynesian charts and guidebooks back to VI friends Judy and Bryan who are making noises about following our wake in the next year or so.

It has not all been projects, though. There have been lots of social activities, most centered on eating and drinking. The two regular cruiser get-togethers in the harbor are, as I mentioned before, Friday-night happy hours at the Pago Pago Yacht Club and Mexican and movie night at Evalani’s. These simple evening events loom far more important to us than one might think coming as they do after so much time in French Polynesia where such things simply don’t have a chance. Hang-outs – affordable hang-outs – with fellow cruisers over good food and drink have been sorely missed. There is a comfort to it I can’t stress enough, and it is like cream on top that English is the spoken language.

We have also been twice to the Wednesday night dance performance, in Samoan called a fiafia, in the courtyard of Sadie Thompson Restaurant just up from the dinghy dock. This nice little show follows Sadie’s $19 buffet, but you can attend at no charge if you wish. It features a troupe of Sadie’s female employees – attractive gals in full length red outfits – presenting three or four traditional Samoan dances backed by a small percussion group.

These dances are much more conservative than other Polynesian dancing we have seen, using hands much more than hips to tell the story, although you can see and hear the shared ancestry. Just in case you forget that difference, a troupe of three young gals takes turns with Sadie’s Girls presenting the more sexually-charged Tahitian-style tamure and Hawaian hula.


The show is capped off by the featured fire-dancing, surely one of the most exciting and almost scary performances we have seen in our travels. The fire-dancers, all brothers from one family, clothe themselves in skimpy lava-lavas and palm leaves and dance with knives which they set alight through gasoline. These they twirl and toss like batons singly and doubly and even triply to the feverish beat of the drums. This is a good time not to be in the front row. I actually saw girls cowering in the face of some of the acrobatics. It is hot…literally and figuratively!

Finally, we went one night to a Samoan umu as presented by Teesa’s Barefoot Bar in Alega Beach. As it was in the Marquesas and Easter Island, the umu is a Polynesian barbecue baked in hot stones and banana leaves. Unlike the ones we attended before, which were buried in a pit, Samoan umus are above ground. According to my guide books, it is traditional for the families to have an umu feast on their leisurely Sundays, hence the noticeable increase in smoky wood fires we see burning all around us on that day.
Interestingly, although the buffet and fiafia at Sadie’s drew lots of local folk, Teesa’s more traditional-style dinner drew only Americans. I guess why pay for what you can get easily (and more cheaply) at home? We went with Dale and Heather of C’est La Vie, cruising friends from last year who’d left their boat on a mooring here in Pago Pago through cyclone season. In addition to us there was a group of teachers on Tutuila for a week doing language skills testing, a young couple from Georgia who’d been here a couple of years working and teaching, and a sole American lady from Chicago who was the only regular tourist we’ve met, and a repeat one at that. We sat at one long table covered in banana leaves and our food was served traditionally, placed in piles in front of us without plates or utensils. Not even napkins! I will say the food was great.
Unlike our Marquesan umu experiences, nothing was overcooked, and the variety of food cooked in the umu much more interesting. In addition to the expected pork, there were prawns, turkey, chicken, octopus, lamb and beef riblets as wells as breadfruit, plantain, pumpkin and papaya. The breadfruit was accompanied by two dips of taro-leaf and seafood-flavored coconut cream baked in coconut husks that were rich and scrumptious, but the starchy whole plaintains were a bust and lay largely untouched the length of the table.

The drive to Teesa’s, unfortunately at dusk in deeply overcast weather, took us in a direction we had not yet had occasion to travel, and reminded us forcefully that despite having been in American Samoa two whole weeks, we had yet to make an island tour. I don’t know when we will learn not to let ourselves get so wrapped up in practical matters that we don’t leave seeing the island we’ve come to visit until the last minute!

It wasn’t until Saturday, August 13 – Don’s Birthday – that we found ourselves in a rental car, along with Bud and Nita of Passage, finally setting out on a drive around the island. People had said the island could be seen in one day, but I don’t see how. We spent all day Saturday and only saw the rugged Eastern half, although we did go up and over every side road that crossed to the spectacularly scenic north side.


Once out of Pago Pago, the countryside becomes abruptly rural with small, neat, and very quiet villages strung out along the one road. Everybody waves as we pass and says “Hi!” or “Bye!”

Most intriguing to us (beyond the incredible number of very large churches) are the fales. The word fale means house, but these days most American Samoans live in vaguely westernized houses, clustered in family groups, with the fales built in the front yard. The best way I can describe them is large empty pavilions – roofed, floored, with support columns around the outside -- built in the traditional, oblong fale shape – each large enough to hold 50-100 people or more. My best guess is that these pavilions are where the large extended families gather for meetings, but we have seen little more than a few people chilling out in their shade. The other unusual custom is the burial crypts in the front yard. This takes keeping the extended family together to a whole new level!


Since the main road on Tutuila only runs along the south coast, we had to double back to town. We stopped at Teesa’s to show Bud and Nita the site of our umu feast, with hopes of lunch, but it seems Teesa’s doesn’t operate as a full time restaurant. However she made us welcome, provided a round of cold beer, and fixed us a snack of grilled prawns.

AND we had a chance to watch a traditional tattoo like Tony’s being applied to a guy’s backside (on the same platform we’d eaten dinner from three nights earlier!) with boar’s tooth, mallet and “support staff”. We were told they’d been at it three days, eight hours a day!

With hunger temporarily staved off, we drove over Rte 006, the road twisting up past Rainmaker Mountain through the Afono Pass and the Amalau Valley where it is said you can see flying foxes (fruit bats) during the day. But the male appetites in the car were more focused on getting to a restaurant in town than any naturalist activities so we hustled back to Mel and Gretchen’s, a kind of all-day Chinese buffet with very tasty food at very cheap prices. By now it was mid-afternoon, so instead of continuing on we doubled back to watch the rugby matches going on in the local playing field. Since the PA announcements were in Samoan, we all relied on Don’s vague understanding of the game to have a clue what was happening. Rugby seems a made-to-order sport for tough Samoans….but they can’t wear their lava-lavas on the field. It was nice to see some leg!

Our car rental was a two-day package, so we set off the next morning to drive the western end of the island. From town west, the road hugs a narrow shore much like Tortola’s road from Roadtown to West End. Extensive shoring projects are underway to protect this artery from erosion. About five miles out of town the coastal plain widens and this is the area of more suburban development, including the airport, the old military base, car dealers, industrial businesses and all the other commercial Americana – eg McDonalds and KFC. The residential areas also seem more westernized, at least as far as the town of Leone, where the coast narrows again, the road twists, and the villages once again become small and more traditional.

Possibly the most pleasing stretch of road we traveled all weekend was the five miles past Cape Taputapu where the road snakes its way back northeastward above a series of indented coves of clear blue water and green reef. On the islands leeward side, the clouds cleared and the sun shone hot. Here the tiny villages on the shores of the coves were spurs away from the road, so we did not have to worry about intruding on the sacred Sunday activities, and we were able to stop for a picnic under a big shade tree.

All in all, as I suspect you can tell, we have really enjoyed our stay in American Samoa. We’ve been here three weeks, and there are twenty-three boats now at anchor here! Although staying so long in one port seems wasteful of good cruising season, we do seem to be happiest with the places where we have taken enough time for them to grow familiar. American Samoa is the type of place where locals quickly recognize you, remember your orders, and make you feel at home. It’s a place of easy shopping, good food and convivial gatherings. It’s been a great place for cheap phone calls home and lots of mail. However those empty coves we saw on our drive have nudged awake our instincts for more remote anchorages, so I think we are ready at last to give up the comforts of civilization and move on.



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