Leaving American Samoa Finally
We're finally about to depart American Samoa, and somehow I never managed to get in an update describing our experiences here or adding pictures, so that will have to wait.
Next stop is likely Wallis Islands, a French territory about 400 miles NW of here, weather permitting. If not, maybe Funafuti, Tuvalu another 400 miles NNW of Wallis. We hope to reach the Marshall Islands, about 1500 miles away, by early December. Hopefully in one of those spots I'll have fast internet access and get in all the new photos and tales.
10/19/2007, Pago Pago, American Samoa
We've been in Pago Pago a little over two weeks now, and hope to leave early next week if all the things we have ordered arrive. First priority when we arrived was to get checked out at the hospital. The bottom line is that I did suffer a stroke, but apparently fairly minor as there was never any affect on my speech or motion, only a 5 hour memory loss. My blood pressure is too high, and so I'm taking some new meds. If I can keep it under control, I should be just fine my doctor in Michigan reports after hearing the results.
My experiences dealing with the health care system are a story in themselves. The only way to get into the medical system here seems to be through the ER. This involved waiting outside the emergency room (could have waited inside in the air conditioning, but as there's a lot of flu around, the outside benches seemed a healthier choice) for 6 hours before seeing a doctor. The wait was fairly typical from what I heard. Finally saw a nice young Filipina doctor who ordered a CT scan and labwork for the next morning. Seeing her cost $10. In the morning the labwork and CT scan (total cost - $200) went very quickly and efficiently, with results sent well within an hour to the Medical Clinic, where I then waited for 4 hours to see a doc. He was a very nice older Samoan man, but didn't impress me as a very up-to-date doc. He did confirm I'd had a stroke (actually, I think he agreed with my guess that I'd had a TIA when my doc at home says it was a stroke, not a TIA, if it showed up on the CT scan), and prescribed a new blood pressure med - 30 days worth. I asked if it would be possible to get more, as we'd be sailing off through really isolated islands over the next few months where the likelihood of getting any drugs was unlikely. He agreed, then went ahead and wrote the script for 30 and said to ask the pharmacist. The pharmacist said their policy is to only dispense 30 days at a time, but she finally relented and gave me 90 days worth after I "proved" I was on a boat (by showing our business card). The hospital pharmacy is the only one on the island, and apparently suffers many of the financial woes I've seen in other island medical systems. I later read that a shipment of their meds was held up in Hawaii, because the airline was running a smaller airplane on the route. Whether it was that, or just never having a sizeable stock of meds on-island, I'm not sure.
The doc said there were no blood pressure monitors available on-island (mine had ceased working several months ago), and suggested I have someone send one from home. Not wanting to bother my family with the chore, I spent a few days trying to order one on-line from a company that sent me one very quickly last year in Michigan. The only way they would send it was UPS surface, which would probably take a month or more, so we scratched that idea, and made the call to the family, also asking them to get a prescription for some extra medication from my doc in Michigan as she had said I might need to increase the dosage in a few weeks if my BP didn't decrease enough on the low dose they gave me here. My Dad got right on it, but when he tried to mail it, the Post Office told him that only doctors or pharmacies can mail medicine, even over-the-counter ones. I swear our government is regulating us til we die! At any rate, it's supposed to be on its way now, and hopefully will come in time for us to leave early next week to start heading north.
This week we went back to the hospital to get a flu shot for me (Bryan doesn't believe in them) and pills for filiariasis, a mosquito-born worm that causes elephantiasis, a nasty condition that makes one's extremities resemble the limbs of an elephant - not something we'd like to get. My blood pressure was down significantly, so it looks like the new med is helping.
Just added: three albums of pictures from Suwarrow, one of John and Veronica and their 4 boys, another of the various wildlife that abounds at Suwarrow, and a third of a variety of other pictures of scenery, Bryan''s Birthday party, sunsets, and friends.
Find them on the last page of the photo gallery.
Suwarrow Atoll, National Park in the Cook Islands, Sept. 17-29, 2007, in which we had several idyllic days on a remote atoll, made several new friends, caught several fish, and Judy had a small stroke.
Suwarrow Atoll (formerly Suvorov after the Russian explorer who found it) was one of the highlights of our trip to date. It is a national park of the Cook Islands, inhabited only 6 months of the year by a delightful caretaker family, John and Veronica Samuela and their 4 boys Jeremiah, Jonathon, Giovanni (Vanni) and Augustino (Tino), the last two 6 year old twins. Four other yachts were anchored there during our 12 day stay, plus a few other boats that popped in for only a day or two. There were several beach potlucks at the small thatched beach shelter which was built by cruisers including our friends Gwen and Don of Tackless II who were there a few years ago. John and Veronica supplied many varieties and styles of fish, lots of drinking coconuts, and island treats such as coconut pancakes, breadfruit chips, and fritters, while the cruisers provided an amazing assortment of favorite dishes including more styles of fish, salads, pasta, puddings, chili, and more. We had grouper, tuna, wrasse, trevally, and others, cooked many different ways: barbecued, raw in lime juice and coconut milk, fried, pickled, baked. One of the potlucks was a birthday party for Bryan's 64th, when I contributed a cake as well as a pasta salad. Our last night, John brought out his guitar and he and Veronica entertained us with a variety of songs that we knew, as well as some from the Cook Islands. Memories of sitting around a big coconut bonfire, eating fish, drinking rum in coconut water and listening to John and Veronica's delightful voices will stay with us a long time.
John and Veronica and family took us all on a few tours to some of the other small islands in the atoll. Gull Island, a ways down the reef on the other side of the pass, was full of nesting sooty terns and chicks, adorable frigate chicks sitting in the trees, booby birds, tropic birds and others. As we walked ashore, thousands of birds took to the air, and the noise was raucous. John takes very seriously his mandate to protect the wildlife of the atoll, and showed us how to observe the various birds without damaging the eggs or spooking any of the birds. Many of the eggs just lie on the ground, so there were only certain areas safe to walk. If you get too close to a very young frigate chick, the parents may throw it away, so we all stayed at safe distances. Another day, they took us to Turtle Island, at the very northern tip of the atoll. While we didn't see any turtles (the island gets its name from its appearance, although some turtles do nest there as well as elsewhere). Here we found miles of reef to walk along the ocean side, where one of the German cruisers had been given permission to search for lobster which he did without success. Jeremiah took us into a damp, swampy area where coconut crabs abounded, and caught several to let us see. We were not allowed to take any, although later John presented us with a cooked one for Bryan's birthday. We stopped at a fantastic spot for snorkeling on the return trip, with huge coral heads towering almost to the surface from 30-40' of water. Other days we snorkeled on the reefs around the boat and along Anchorage Island, and saw an amazing variety of fish, plus a turtle and an eagle ray, but alas still not a manta ray although they were reported to be around. There were some sharks around, but we rarely saw them while snorkeling - mostly we just saw 4' black-tipped reef sharks circling the boat during the day.
John has lots of rules the cruisers need to abide by. One is not cleaning fish on the boat or throwing fish parts in the water of the anchorage, to discourage sharks from associating yachts with bloody fish. A good rule! In the pass there are many more sharks, including white-tips and grays, and sometimes hammerheads. Spearfishing used to be allowed, but no longer, since someone had a serious run-in with a shark while spearfishing. John still tells the story of Don and Gwen (whom he refers to as the 'wonder couple') when Don was in the water spearfishing while Gwen was in the dinghy above. He was approached aggressively by a shark, and raised his speargun to bop it on the head. Gwen, seeing the speargun lifted out of the water, thought Don was passing it up to her and took it from his hands before he had a chance to bop the shark. We've seen Don since and he still has all his appendages, so I guess the shark's intentions were honorable. John used to be much looser with the rules, he told us, but too many cruisers, especially those who had been there before, wanted to hunt and take as much as they could possibly catch. If he didn't keep some kind of control over them, they'd disregard the rules and recklessly take under-sized crabs and lobsters, as well as otherwise being disrespectful of the environment.
We added an old but very colorful flag from the Virgin Islands Charteryacht League to the collection adorning the rafters around the open-air dining area beneath the family's sleeping quarters. Flags of many nations and many boats flutter gaily in the breeze around the big dining table where everyone gathers, and remind visitors of the many who have enjoyed Suwarrow before them. This year they've had a few over 100 yachts visit, with over 20 at one time. We were happy to share the island with only 4 or 5 other yachts at a time - it must be very crowded with 20.
Suwarrow was inhabited for periods totaling 16 years by a lone hermit from New Zealand named Tom Neale, who welcomed cruisers to his paradise. He wrote a book about his experiences entitled "An Island to Oneself". After he died of cancer in 1978, the Cook Islands sent caretakers to preserve the atoll as a park and nature preserve. John and his family love it so much here they would love to stay year round.
The pass into the lagoon is said by the cruising guides to be accessible only in good weather and calm seas, but we entered it easily in 20-25 knots of wind with large swells from the east. We had the nerve to try it in these conditions after having read other yachts' accounts of their entries on the internet. It is truly amazing what a difference modern technology has made to our cruising!
One of the unusual aspects of Suwarrow is that there is no ciguatera, the fish toxin which is found commonly at inhabited coral islands all around the world. All through French Polynesia we would see huge beautiful grouper while snorkeling, who I swear would laugh at us, saying "Ha Ha, you'd love to catch and eat me but I'd probably poison you!" The toxin is thought to thrive on reef which has been damaged by blasting, development or bad storms. It was prevalent in both the Virgins and the Marshalls, the two tropical islands I have lived on the longest, so I had many years ago come to view reef fish as inedible. You can't tell if a fish has it; it doesn't hurt the fish in any way; but if a human gets it in too great a concentration, he can become very sick. However, being so remote it doesn't exist at Suwarrow, so we had a great time trolling with the dinghy in the lagoon here, and caught 3 large fish while there: a grouper, an emperor wrasse and a red snapper, all 2-3 feet long and quite meaty, and all delicious. I caught a big parrot fish head on a hand-line from the big boat at anchor - a shark got the rest.
Yachts are only able to anchor at the main island, Anchorage Island, just inside the pass. With scattered coral heads on the bottom, it was a bit of a challenge, and having a few buoys on the anchor chain helped avoid wrapping the chain around the coral heads. We only had one to begin with, but after a few wind shifts our chain was close to getting into trouble, so the morning after Bryan's birthday bash we picked much of it up with me in the water directing and occasionally pushing the boat by the chain to move it around obstacles. Our goal was to add some additional floats to it, so it wouldn't touch any coral at all. After about 30 minutes working on it, Bryan finally picked the anchor up, moved to a slightly better spot and dropped it again with an additional float.
Before we could proceed to set it properly, I suddenly could not recognize any of the other boats or people on them, and told Bryan I was disoriented. He watched carefully while I swam to the back of the boat, climbed aboard, showered and changed to dry clothes, all the time still very confused about where I was and who was around us. I did know Bryan and our boat, but nothing else. Bryan called over another crew, and they went to get Antje, a nurse on one of the German boats nearby. For the next 5 hours I apparently repeatedly asked the same questions, never absorbing the answers: Who are you? What happened? Did I have a stroke? Did I get out of the water by myself? There were no motor problems or slurring of speech, only confusion and loss of memory. Antje administered 3 saline IVs (dehydration was thought to be a possible factor), a few doses of something like valium (to lower my BP I think), and finally some aspirin and my blood pressure med, while regularly monitoring my blood pressure and pulse, both of which were high. She called a doc in Germany for some advice. While Norbert and Simon re-set our anchor firmly, Bryan, with help from Allison on the yacht Roxi spent much of the time on the single sideband radio and the sat phone talking to Hawaii Coast Guard, New Zealand Rescue, my family and various other places, investigating the possibility of medical evacuation should it prove necessary. New Zealand was the most helpful, as they were coordinating with officials in Raratonga, the capital of the Cook Islands. The US Coast Guard was not very helpful at all. Suwarrow is very isolated, hundreds of miles from anywhere, with no airstrip. There were no government or navy ships near the area. Fortunately, as it turned out, I did not need evacuation at all. After about 5 hours (shortly after the aspirin I believe) I could remember everyone, and when I again asked all the same questions, the answers stayed with me. My memories of the previous week which had been lost to me during my "memory out" came back, and all that is missing now is memory of those 5 hours.
We later heard various inaccurate reports on the radio and in emails from friends that we'd put out a mayday, that we were 500 miles away on another island, and various other non-truths. Another rumor floating around that week was that another yacht had put out a mayday, sunk and been rescued by a freighter, when in fact the only problem they'd suffered was a problem with their radio. I was quick the next morning to get on to the radio net myself to reassure everyone I was functioning fine, after I heard one boat talking about my head injury and notification of the authorities at Palmerston, another isolated island hundreds of miles from us where apparently someone thought we were.
I had not been taking my meds for awhile, and learned the hard way how important it is to take them regularly. While on passage some weeks before I had gotten out of the habit of taking them, and somehow just never started up again. My blood pressure monitor had conked out several months ago, so I had gone to a clinic in the Tuamotus to have my BP checked and it was fine then. I hate taking meds, and I guess I subconsciously decided that since my BP was OK that one day, I didn't need to take the BP med anymore, or the aspirin I had also been taking. The day after the incident I had a lingering headache, but was otherwise fine. After taking it easy for a day, I was back snorkeling and doing my regular chores, while Bryan was tearing the boat apart trying to find out why the water pump was running so often - our water heater had sprung a leak and needs replacing. After a few days more of relaxing and enjoying Suwarrow and a last farewell beach potluck, we upped anchor and motored out the pass about 2 p.m. for the 440 mile passage to Pago Pago, American Samoa. John and the whole family came out in their boat to say good-bye and wish us well. We would have loved to stay for another week or two, there were still several things we hadn't done. But I needed to get a medical evaluation and American Samoa was the closest place we could do it. We also need to keep moving so we can get north before cyclone season.
Passage from Bora Bora to Suwarrow, Sept. 12-17, 2007, in which we had rolly, uncomfortable seas ,strong gusts, two accidental jibes, a little spill, and no traffic at all.
On Wednesday September 12, after using up the last of our wi-fi minutes with Ioranet, doing last minute checks for email and weather, and lots of last minute stowing of items that scatter themselves around the boat so quickly while we're safely at anchor, we picked up our anchor at 10:30 a.m. and headed for the pass out of Bora Bora to begin the 675 miles to Suwarrow Atoll. Just after exiting the pass, we saw our friends on Zazoo just arriving. Sadly, we wouldn't have any time to visit with them, but it was very nice to see them again, however briefly, and to know that all was well with them. The last we'd seen them was in Fakarava in the Tuamotus, when they had been talking of going back to the Marquesas for the cyclone season. (It was Ben who free dove 50+ feet to free our anchor in Fakarava so we could leave.) They had since decided to continue on to New Zealand, where Ben can safely leave the boat while he looks for work as a professional diver in Singapore for a bit to boost the cruising kitty. Once we passed them, we did not see another boat until we arrived at Suwarrow 5 days later!
This may have been our most uncomfortable passage yet, but nothing the boat (and its intrepid crew) couldn't handle easily. After a very easy first day, the winds and seas increased, with one day mid-passage of nasty squally skies, gusts to 30 and 40 knots, and building boxy seas. The last few days the winds came down, but the seas stayed up, making for very rolly motion as we slewed through the mountainous peaks of the sea. Occasionally the seas would cascade over the cockpit coaming, dousing anyone sitting there. Amazingly, the huge following seas behind us would almost always just slide under the boat, only once or twice sending a stream of water in under our "back door" to briefly wet the cockpit floor. Of course, every time the sea slid under the stern, the aft end of the boat rose and slewed from side to side, occasionally throwing something or someone out of place. I had one nasty slide - the cushion I was sitting on suddenly slid to the floor with me on it, causing severe pain in my shoulder, elbow and various other spots. I remember sitting there, stunned, wondering if I'd broken anything. In a few minutes I moved everything and realized nothing was broken. Bryan was very helpful, rushing to get me ice packs for my shoulder and elbow, and some aspirin. It was sore for a few days, but the ice seemed to help a lot and I was cranking winches again the next day.
Lizzie, our windvane, steered beautifully in the beginning, but as the seas became more confused we had two accidental jibes of the mainsail the second night out. On one, the preventer worked nicely and prevented the boom from crashing to the other side as the wind passed across our stern. On the second, the preventer pulled right off the cleat and the boom went banging to the other side, fortunately without any apparent damage but a jolt to our nerves. The entire passage we had the wind almost directly behind us, which meant having either the main or the genoa all the way out (with the seas and winds we were reluctant to use our sickly whisker pole so couldn't sail with both sails unless we altered course to a broad reach). Sailing dead downwind with just the main all the way out made it easy for a big sea to momentarily knock the wind out of the sail, sending the boom from one side to the other unless held firmly in place with the preventer, a line from the end of the boom to the rail which prevents the boom from swinging. If we sailed downwind with just the genoa, unpoled, it would pull nicely for a bit, then collapse as the seas rolled the boat and knocked the wind out of the sail. This worked OK occasionally during daylight hours, giving us slightly better speed than the main alone, but was intolerable in the dark when the noise of the collapses and jerks made sleeping difficult. As a result, we did most of the passage under mainsail alone, with 1-3 reefs in it depending on the wind, averaging 5-7 knots most of the way.
After the accidental jibes, we used the electric auto pilot for steering, not trusting Lizzie with the big seas. This uses a lot of power, and our continuing low voltage problems meant we had to run the engine a bit more than usual to stay topped up. When the auto pilot is on, the single sideband radio starts acting up. This radio is our link to other boats through various "nets" that we check in with daily on passage and for receiving weather information. So every time one of us got on the radio for a net, the other would have to hand steer. Fortunately, having the sat phone gives us good back up for obtaining weather info and email when the radio decides to be uncooperative. One day when Bryan turned the radio on while the auto pilot was steering, the radio wouldn't transmit again for 24 hours, then mysteriously started working again.
We had surprisingly little rain, given that nasty clouds often filled the horizon in all directions. We were both feeling a bit bummed and bored toward the end of the passage, tired of the big boxy seas coming from all directions tossing us around, so it's good we didn't have a lot of rain to make things worse. The winds were lighter the last few days, occasionally under 10 knots, so we motor sailed the last night to insure getting to Suwarrow by mid-day on Monday. We first saw land about 10 a.m., and were in through the pass and anchored by 12:30, with 4 other yachts as neighbors.