The people of American Samoa are so very friendly, checking in was a delightful experience with all the officials. The Port Authority staff were also very welcoming and we instantly knew we would enjoy our time here. It was an interesting change in culture with both sexes wearing the traditional skirt, a wrap-around a bit like a sarong, called a ‘lava lava’. After clearing in we moved off the dock and into the anchorage, its bad reputation for poor holding foremost in our minds. This island had been hit by a tsunami in September 2009 following a nearby earthquake, and the harbour seabed is reported to be littered with household items such as mattresses, sheets and childrens toys as well as old moorings, ropes and machinery. We had heard reports of people requiring divers to free their anchors, and certainly while we were there three boats behind us spent several hours freeing their chain and one had to have a diver.
Pago Pago is a large well-protected harbour with an interesting history. The US became involved with the islands as far back as 1872 when Commander Meade negotiated facilities for a coaling station for the Navy from the Samoan High Chief. A small American naval base was stationed here from 1899 and then expanded in 1940 following the outbreak of WWII. In 1942 the base came under attack from a Japanese submarine that surfaced off the coast firing 15 shells from its deck gun. Most of the shells landed in the bay but two people were injured, ironically the only building that was damaged was a store owned by a Japanese expat!
When the naval base closed in 1951 the port returned to commercial use and control of these islands was transferred to the US Department of the Interior. The harbour is now a very busy base for tuna fishing boats, all delivering to the tuna canning factory on the north shore of the bay. The downside to anchoring in this beautiful natural harbour is the very noisy diesel fired power station and the tuna factory which emits a particularly intense smell every evening. I don’t think I could ever eat canned tuna again!
We were amazed to find that the parts we had ordered shortly before leaving Bora Bora had arrived the same day we had. The gas strut however was an en-route breakage and took a few days to get on order. Our main issue was getting the boom kicker apart, it took over a week of dismantling, drilling and then brute force to get the thing apart. Once apart we could see the problem, the sudden downward force that blew the gas strut had also obliterated the plastic bracket holding it in place, jamming everything inside. Our 3 day ‘express’ delivery then ended up taking 10 days when it was finally discovered awaiting ground shipment in Honolulu!
During our wait we did a few boat jobs and a little much needed maintenance, fitting in a little exploration using their excellent US$1 a ride bus system and a wonderful hike across the hills on the southern side of the bay to see the remains of the WWII gunnery.
On the hike we also discovered the remains of the tramway and cable car system which operated across the harbour to the mountain the otherside from 1965 to 1980. It was originally built to take engineers to service the telecommunication towers at the peak but then became a tourist attraction in the 1970’s. Here we also learned of another tragedy that these islanders have endured. On 17th April 1980, a US Navy P-3 Orion aircraft was taking part in Samoa’s flag day celebrations. After dropping skydivers it turned to do a second flyover across the harbour, but this time went too low and its wing clipped the tramway line causing it to crash into buildings. Tragically all 6 crew members were killed along with 2 onlookers.
When the gas strut finally arrived we wasted no time in fitting it and putting things back together. We returned to the officials to check out and obtain our clearance for the next port, the friendly male immigration officer wore a smart shirt, decorated with a necklace of very large bright coloured beads, a lava lava skirt with socks and shoes. Much more colourful and relaxed than the usual immigration uniforms.
It was a relief to pull up the anchor and only find a few bits of old rope and fishing line wrapped around the chain, we hadn’t snagged anything serious. And we had a perfect weather window to reach the northern-most Tongan island of Niuatoputapu just 200 miles away.