August 19, 1998-Samoa Samoa
No amount of imagination can conjure up an accurate image of a foreign port before you arrive there.
We really didn’t know what Pago Pago was going to look like, and when we first spotted the South Coast of American Somoa, after a fast six day passage from Bora Bora, we still didn’t know; it was just a gray featureless smudge on the horizon. As we got closer the mountains appeared, but there wasn’t a harbor to be seen, or even an opening to sail into.
Finally the hills resolved into two distinct sides, the gap between became visible, and we sailed into what has been called one of the best harbors in the Pacific, past anchored ships, industrial blight, native Burres, and non-descript office buildings, engrossed at the passing scene, just trying to absorb it all. In every new port you are forced to make the mental adjustment from what you might have been expecting, even if you think you have no expectations, to what it actually is. Part of the real excitement of arriving at a new port is knowing that you will go through this process of discovery, of changing a place from just a name to a complete mental picture, with sights, sounds, and smells.
Pago Pago might be one of the Pacific’s best harbors in the view of the US Navy, a great place to anchor aircraft carriers, but for a small sailboat, it leaves something to be desired. It is windy, rough, and stinky. What nature has presented, man has defaced. Pago Pago has been called the armpit of the Pacific, and we could see why: the rank smell of a fish cannery pervades the whole harbor. Picking an anchoring spot is more about finding some place where an eddy in the prevailing winds brings a clean whiff of the ocean rather than the thick corruption of dead fish. And wherever you anchor, you’ll be faced with a wet and choppy dingy ride, because the harbor is endlessly rough. We had to develop a new skill with our Avon, running it just off a plane with the bow sky high to deflect the spray, straight into the wind until we could make a right angle turn and cut across the waves to the dingy dock.
But our first introduction to Pago Pago was not the anchorage, it was the “wall”, a jagged piece of broken concrete, totally exposed to the wind and waves, where we were required to tie up to await our port clearance. We placed fenderboards between our hull and the wall and watched them quickly, and steadily, being ground away by that rough rock wall. We wondered if they would last until the officials finished with our paperwork.
On the other hand, we soon discovered that Pago Pago had a kind of funky charm, which made us feel welcome and comfortable there. We could overlook the crude landing place and the miserable anchorage when there were guys like Blackie and the other cruisers who collected around Wings when we tied up and helped us with lines, or just gave us a friendly greeting. These guys had each landed in Pago Pago themselves some time in the past, on whatever leaky boat they could find to carry them there, and they sort of grew roots. God knows that they could never find a good thing to say about the place, but they just never left. The marina was small, too shallow for a deep keel sailboat, and there weren’t any free spots there anyhow, but there was a home-built float on the lee side of the quay, with a bundle of logs to walk on and a precariously balanced plank from the shore that you could reach if you scrambled down the bank to the water’s edge, and there on that float was one of the oddest and scruffiest collection cruising boats you’ll find anywhere, nothing like the glossy gold plater’s which populate most of the ports on the normal cruiser routes. But the sailors were a good lot, and they gave us tips about where to buy supplies and get a bite to eat, and were quick to offer a beer.
We enjoyed Pago Pago, and wandered around Fa’Aotaota poking into dusty stores, looking for the provisions we came here to buy. We rode the local buses, each one overloaded with supersized Samoan’s, and we even found a stationary store with a computer in the back where we could get onto the internet and do some email. A trip to the other side of the island brought us to a Costco store and it was like being back in the USA. We bought bags of supplies, at US prices, and packed them back to the boat, our mission to Pago Pago accomplished.
So that was Samoa. Not much as a destination, and probably not as nice as Western Samoa, the independent country just 37 miles west which has a better reputation among cruisers, but it served it’s purpose for us, and after a few days, we were off again, headed for Fiji.
Fred & Judy, SV Wings, Pago Pago