Saturday, December 26, 2009

The effects of a tsunami, September 29, 2009, American Samoa

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Tuesday 29th September we were woken to the shaking of the boat and a deep rumbling sound. We raced on deck to see others milling on the dock, rubbing sleepy eyes and pulling on garments as they left their boat. Both Garry and I are were very sure it was an earthquake as we had experienced two while anchored off Panama City several months ago. We had discovered a website we had since kept on our favourites list ( and Garry raced below to check the latest reports, sure enough it was a large earthquake measuring 8.2 on the Richter scale only 120 nautical miles away. I remember looking around the mountains to see if we would have aftershocks or landslides and nothing eventuated. We had our radios on, as we always do, and there was no warning, sirens, broadcasts or anything to let us know we were in any imminent danger. We figured we were lucky and had come out unscathed and wandered below decks to make coffee and start the day.

Within minutes of getting below, in fact it was now, 7.20am my husband began yelling at us, for “everyone get on deck”. I remember dressing as I climbed the companion way to a sight that I just did not comprehend. Our crew member Chris was already on the dock, my husband was pushing our son, Jacob up the side of the dock and our boat was several metres below the dock. Our neighbour Wayne’s boat was on its side and I could see the fish flapping in the bottom of the harbour. We were dropping like we were in an elevator; it was like someone had pulled a plug on the harbour. I don’t know how I did it, but I knew there was no way my husband would be able to lift me off the boat, I am no light weight. I climbed onto the foredeck and our new bimini, and then walked down our main boom like a tight rope walker to shimmy up the mast and manage to get a foothold on some of the tyres that lined the dock before I hoisted myself up that last metre to the top. I could never repeat what I did and I remember my husband yelling at me to not tread on our new canvas work. I used to call him Captain Garry Bligh and I think I may have used a few expletives at this point basically stating that I did not care for the canvas work at this particular time. I yelled at my husband to get off. We don’t know if that was the correct thing to do or not, others were not quick enough to get off or cut their lines before they wore torn from their mooring like a mere plaything. The forces that were at play were beyond comprehension. That harbour emptied in about 30 seconds. As we attempted to race for high ground, our neighbour Wayne threw his small sailing companion, Ruby the cockerpoo to our son. She was sliding off the deck of his boat and he could not save her or deal with the situation on his boat at the same time. Jacob made a good catch and held onto that small black dog. There was no time to cut lines, undo them all or pull away from that dock before the water began to pour back in. We had envisaged a large wave, but it was more like a huge surge, the water was rising rapidly, our boat was the first on the pier, we tried to fend her off from the dock and Garry wanted to get back on and try and steer her in what we now knew was to come. There was no chance to do any of this. She was suddenly free and Garry wrung his hands in dismay and flung his hands to his head as he watched his pride and joy being tossed around out of his reach. She peeled off that dock, snapping 6 lines and pulled away from us like a twig. 21 tons of fibreglass was tossed around like a plaything in the maelstrom of water that swirled around us. We tried to help others still attached. My husband raced to a fellow cruiser’s boat “Mainly” from Merritt Island in Florida. We had a conversation with her owner Dan, the day before, as we had spent several months in this area and it was a favourite destination of our family. His wife Joan was standing at the helm, she asked Garry if he had seen her husband. Garry did not really understand what had happened, but asked if she could steer the boat and helped her off the dock. It was not until several hours later he realised the tragedy that had taken place.

At this stage we realised that the water was rising faster than we could run. There was no way we could race to the mountain until the water would be over our heads. I frantically searched for any handhold or some higher ground. In the middle of the dock was a raised flower bed with a lamppost cemented into the middle. I yelled at everyone to run and hold on. We waded through thigh high water to this pole. I yelled at Garry there was nothing now he could do for our boat and to come and hold on. The water was continuing to rise; we clung for our life to that skinny pole, not knowing how long we may be under water or how high it would go. Jacob realised he could not hold onto Ruby any longer and Garry grabbed her and placed around his shoulders and neck. He needed both hands free to safe himself and Jacob. That dog did not struggle or move during the entire ordeal.

I remember watching another boat, “Gallivanter” with Kirk, Catherine and Stewart on board get washed over and past our heads. It just did not make sense, they could have only missed the dock and the wall we were standing on by mere feet. They were extremely lucky they got washed out to clear water without impacting on the debris swirling around us. It seemed like an eternity, but perhaps only minutes that the water was over our head and suddenly we could see daylight again and we were coughing and spluttering water from our nostrils and mouths. I could not believe we had survived, but the horror was not over. I was facing towards the end of the bay and I could now see a wall of water coming back towards us. Oh my God, this was a wave and huge, but this time it had boats, cars, sea containers and bodies soaring towards us. I looked towards the pole in front of us to spy another cruiser, Emily from a Californian yacht who had become separated from her four other crew members. They were on their boat in the middle of the harbour. I yelled at her to hold on as this wall of water bore down on us carrying all manner of flotsam and jetsam. The forces were unimaginable, our hands were being plucked from that pole, Garry dug his fingers into Jacob’s arm and I remember letting go of our Canadian crew member, Chris’s arm as my fingers were about to be torn from their fragile handhold on the lamppost. The water was trying to pull our legs from underneath us. I would not let go and could not, I had my 11 year old daughter waiting for me at home. We discussed later that she must have had a “vision” as she begged us not to make her sail the Pacific Ocean back to Australia. After careful negotiation, our family had her in their care and she had been back in West Australia for the last six weeks of the trip. In hindsight this was a wise decision as I do not think we could have held her and our son and saved all of our lives.

As we re-emerged from this second onslaught we looked around at the devastation around us. It was like a war zone! We took our chances and raced down the end of the concrete dock some 150 metres in length and up the neighbouring hill face were a crowd of local Samoans had gathered for protection. As we reached their level they could not believe we had been the people momentarily standing below them clinging for our lives on that slender pole. They were sure we had been washed away. As we stood on that hill side we surveyed the damage that surrounded us. Our beautiful yacht who had carried us so far was no where to be seen. A few of our fellow cruiser’s boats could be seen still swirling in the whirlpools and ebbs and flows that were still occurring in the harbour. They struggled to maintain control of their vessels in the disturbed water. Around us were cars, buildings, sea containers, loose pleasure and commercial fishing vessels some around 45 metres in length. We later learned without gear boxes and engines in for repair, they had been at the mercy of this force of nature. The havoc that surrounded us was beyond description. What had been a beautiful and neat village was now a mere mound of rubble.

Garry needed to find “Biscayne Bay” and he headed back to the dock with Chris. I was dreading them leaving the relative safety of this elevated vantage point, but I also desperately wanted to know the outcome of our yacht and home. Jacob and I, with Ruby shivering on our lap watched as they approached the dock, Wayne on his yacht “Learnativity” saw them and tried to get as close to them as he could in the hope that he could take them on board to search the harbour for “Biscayne Bay.” It was just too dangerous to approach the dock and Garry decided to hike down the end of the harbour through the rubble, mud, flapping fish and eels to find her. I lost sight of him at this point and begun to fear the worst when police sirens started warning everyone to seek high ground again as another surge was on its way. We waited for several hours until the all clear was given and began the search for Garry, Chris and “Biscayne Bay”. The Samoan people we run into along the way kept asking us if we had found our boat and my husband. They had lost so much, yet were still concerned for our well being. I reasoned that our boat would be down the far end of the boat where I could see the large fishing vessels. Along the way we came across several boats stranded in the main street of Pago Pago village and the owners of these vessels later told us stories how they sailed down the main street taking down the power lines with their masts. Where there had been whole buildings was now only concrete slabs. Rescue workers were desperately trying to find missing people buried under the remains of these buildings. There were cars sticking out second story windows and we weaved our way slowly though this mess with the mud-sticking to our clothes and shoes as we dodged fallen power lines.

As we got closer we spied “Biscayne Bay” and could see Garry and Chris trying to move her off rocks at the end of the bay. I was amazed she was still afloat and from a distance she did not look too bad. As we got closer we realised the damage was more extensive than met the eye. She had laid on her side at some stage with a greasy, dirty high water mark and extensive damage to her teak cap rails and stanchions. We managed to scramble aboard as she lay against a muddy bank. Witnesses later told us she had been on the oval and then flung back to sea where she came to rest. The bilge pumps were working and she was obviously taking on water. I was so relieved that we were all back together.

Garry and Chris managed to lower our rib tender into the water and Garry went to see if he could get help or to ask if we could remove some of our belongings to Wayne’s vessel. We did not think “Biscayne Bay” would stay afloat let alone be habitable. As he journeyed across the bay he noticed Joan on “Mainly” still circling in the bay. He approached her and asked if she needed assistance. As he climbed aboard he realised that her husband, Dan was missing. He had been washed away why trying to cut the lines from the dock. The magnitude of the situation took on a new meaning as we realised that one of our fellow cruisers only two boats in front of us had lost his life. For Joan and Dan this was their retirement dream and now that dream was ended. Over the coming weeks as we talked and analysed and consoled each other the fragility of our existence became very apparent.

Garry helped Joan secure her boat, made sure she was safe and went in search of some assistance. Over the coming hours it became apparent that the local officials had their hands full and we would have to help ourselves. Garry made arrangements to ferry our personal belongings and valuables to “Learnativity” who was now secure back on the customs dock and we began shuffling our gear off “Biscayne Bay”. We dare not leave her unattended as she was vulnerable and already the looters where on the prowl. In the days that followed we met some of the “elders” who apologised for the behaviour of some of their people. I would have to say that these opportunists where the exception in the Samoan culture and they were a most generous and helpful people.

We learnt that the internet was still working and so I started contacting family and friends to advise we were safe. While I was doing this Garry began to push and shove “Biscayne Bay” off the bank and rocks using the rib tender. He could not start the engine as the propeller had fouled. He pushed her to the middle of the bay with Jacob at the helm and dropped the anchor. They sat for several hours to ensure the bilge pumps could cope and that she was not going to end up on the bottom of the bay. With Chris now at the helm and Jacob ready to throw lines, myself and Wayne remained on the dock as Garry pushed her back to the customs dock using the rib tender. We had a 25hp outboard and so Garry used the rib tender like a tug boat. With limited steering, amazingly we managed to secure her back where she started and could now survey the damage. She had always been a beautiful yacht and Garry had spent countless hours sanding, varnishing and cleaning her. I looked at the hull I had spent hours cleaning in Tahiti and wondered why we had ever bothered, she was a mess. We spent the evening having a meal on “Learnativity” that Wayne so kindly prepared, it was now 7:30 pm, 12 hours since the tsunami hit and we had not drunk or eaten all day. We decided to spend a rather fitful and sleepless night on “Biscayne Bay”. We thought it best to ensure we could keep the batteries charged and the bilge pumps going. We dare not leave her for fear of vandals and looters prowling the dock. The emergency services were strapped and could offer little assistance at this time. I was thankful for the water and supplies I had bought the day before as we had no idea of the extent of the damage to the island. There was no sanitation, fresh water, power or supplies on our side of the island and hence over the days that followed we were so grateful for the Red Cross and other aid workers who worked diligently to help us and others less fortunate than us. Some of the cruiser’s boats were so badly damaged they were inhabitable and there was no accommodation available on the island as space was limited and the services down. I was glad we had our trusty “Biscayne Bay” to still sleep on, as many slept on the dock or on the deck of other boats. She was not her normal beautiful self, but at least we had a roof over our head, a tank full of uncontaminated water and enough supplies to keep us going for several days.

In the days that followed the emergency services began to arrive onto the island. We were amazed at the lack of resources and assumed being a US territory that the response would be immediate. It was 48 hours before we saw anybody. The locals began the clean-up almost immediately and everyone pitched in to help. The security improved over the days that followed and there was a stop to the looters prowling the dock. I learned later that the USCG is land based only and it was over three hours later that they were able to respond with any presence on the water. Nor was their any help from the port authority, no Navy presence, and we were left to our own devices to help each other and coordinate as best we could.

The sad news is that many people died, including people close to us. It was several hours after the boat was secure on the dock that we learnt that Joan had gone to the hospital to identify Dan’s body. He had been found washed up at the west end of the bay. This was the sobering reality of the tsunami. Many people lost their lives and their families and friends were left to deal with the aftermath.

Over the weeks that followed we spent many hours reliving the nightmare, debriefing and consoling each other. We moved between the boats, but we felt like empty shells, drained and exhausted. We would quietly talk amongst each other and help where we could. As new cruising yachts arrived to port, some did not stay for very long. It was a depressing place to be and they would quietly slip in and out again. We managed to get our son back to West Australia with the assistance of the Australian Deputy High Commissioner to Samoa and our travel insurance company. In the days immediately following the tsunami I was frustrated beyond believe trying to get assistance. Unfortunately being Australian in a US territory was inconvenient! All the Australian aid was based in Western Samoa and we were the only Australians in this part of the world. It took several days to get any response from insurance companies and officials. It worked out in the end, but it took a lot of talking and negotiation on my part. Friends and family back in Australia were doing their best to help us, including members of our yacht club, Fremantle Sailing Club. They found a local bank manager on the island from our part of the world who was based in Pago Pago, David and his wife, Sue were our saviours and assisted us no end.

In the end we decided we were the lucky ones. We had our yacht insured unlike anyone else that had sustained damage. I had also taken out travel insurance prior to our adventure. I learnt that these are expensive options, but when you need them they are the best investment you could ever make! We also learnt that in the end it is the people we love and cherish that are the most important things in your life. We lost our boat, but would have it no other way if it meant we could have lost one of our family members. We asked ourselves over the months that followed should we have left the boat when we did. It was a natural reaction and we decided that we all survived so it was the best and only decision to make. We found out from eye witnesses later that “Biscayne Bay” was squashed between two large fishing vessels and so we would not have liked to be on her at the time. The amount of damage she sustained was extensive and the insurance company “wrote her off”. The remoteness of our location made the repairs required impossible. However, most of the people lucky enough to get swept out to the middle of the harbour sustained little damage . I have learnt over my time sailing that the best place to be is in open water. Our most dangerous times have always been in an anchorage or port. We had been so careful and well prepared for this journey, Garry was a diligent Captain and spent hours every day checking and maintaining systems on this boat. We had spare parts for every conceivable system and often loaned them to other cruisers who did not have such an extensive inventory. However, in the end nothing could prepare you for this disaster. There was no skill needed for survival here and if you come out alive and unscathed it was pure luck.

We eventually sold the wreck of “Biscayne Bay” to a local family who will take their time and gradually restore her to her former glory. We packed our personal belongings and sent them back to WA in a container, we said goodbye to our friends and flew back to Australia. The friendships formed we will sustain for our lifetime, when you survive a disaster like we did you bond in a special way. So quickly life changes! Suddenly our dream was over and now we face the reality of land-based living again. We had thought we would be travelling for at least another year, but I have learnt to be adaptable and take each day as it comes. I would like to think we have become stronger and more resilient from our experiences. I would like to think that we will be planning another adventure in the future and we will eventually have another boat, but for the time being we are just going to catch our breath and savour life.


Geoff and Pat Craigen said...

Having enjoyed your company in the Bahamas, and having Jake, Anastasia and Logan from Northern Rebel as substitute grandchildren, we watched your progress westward with envy, interest and concern.
We were glad you'd arrived safely in Pago Pago, then horrified by the news of the tsunami and elated that you survived.
Too bad about the "Bay" but you had a great time and have lived to tell the tale.
Good luck in the future,
Love Geoff & Pat
sv Beach House

Phoenix said...

Garry and Lisa, Merry Christmas! We met you many years ago in 2008 in the Bahamas. We were on our beloved RapscallionII. Dennis and trudy groom

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