Dance of the Mooring

We’ve done this all before! Yes, that’s right, we’ve come into crowded harbors under sail alone. We arrived in the mile wide bay of Taiohae on Nuku Hiva under sail alone, we’ve entered the tiny harbor of Hakahau on Ua Pou under sail alone, Controller Bay and Hakatea Bay also make that list. But on the constantly moving surface of the water even such an impressive resume does not guarantee smooth sailing, so to speak! The red buoy anchored on Whale rock is fast sliding past our beams and over the bows the massive complex of the Starkist Cannery approaches. The sides of the bay are lined with shallow reefs where white breakers warn to stay at bay. Once the old, decrepit Rainmaker hotel is on our beam the rest of the harbor is coming into view and we turn ninety degrees to port. I call the harbormaster on the radio to get instructions on where to anchor. Nobody answers. I call a second time and now get an answer from an Aussie chap. He presents himself as Bernie on SV Australia 31 and informs us that hardly ever does harbor control answer radio calls. “There’s a free mooring buoy, right next to a beat up blue fishing boat when you come in”, Bernie informs us, “there was a Frenchman on it and he left this morning, so it should be alright for you to pick it up.” “We’re under sail alone and might need some assistance,” I confess. “Hm,” answers Bernie, “you might get my pot belly some exercise! Let me step out on deck.” The wind is picking up as we approach the maybe ten anchored yachts at the bottom of the bay. We’ve already passed the cannery and container port. The blue fishing boat is quickly coming closer and I can now make out the yellow mooring float Bernie was talking about. It is lying too close to the fishing boat, so close that I will not be able to turn Aluna around into the wind to pick it up. How about if I leave the fishing boat to port and swing around its stern? There’s a hesitation lurking in the tendons that move my hands on the wheel. The water is murky and I remember from reading the charts earlier that the fringing reef of the bay extends quite a bit from the shore. There’s no way of telling how far out it comes right here and going to the right of that boat won’t I put Aluna on some submerged jagged bottom and rip up her underbelly? I quickly correct our course to pass that rusty hulk on the left. But of course with that we’re bound to miss the buoy.

Here the fun is about to begin. By now we’re surrounded by three other sailboats. The bay is at this spot maybe two hundred yards wide. Before losing way Aluna is sailing close hauled and we’re getting ready for a short tack. A Zodiac is approaching with what I figure must be Bernie. Much later only will we figure out the mystery. Another yachtie had sprung to help, and this is actually Dick from SV Barbarella. While chatting with what I think is Bernie, but is actually Dick, about the best way to proceed we’re failing the tack. I stumble to the foredeck to throw Dick, who I think is Bernie, a line. He manages to pull Aluna back on the port tack but now we have a classic Swedish flagged ketch right in front of our bows. I fall off to pass to the lee of her, but that also brings us to the lee of the buoy. The wind has picked up and Dick is not able to pull Aluna enough to make any headway against the strong gusts. We’re heading straight for the rusted sides of the fishing boat. Alice S. is painted in elegant letters on her bows. She is chained to a sizeable steel drum painted in danger orange with two lengths of chain and three steel cables. Our buoy is way too far upwind; another tack is due. Again Dick’s pull is what brings us through the eye but not enough to avoid drifting back towards the floating steel drum. I jump to the stern and wedge my leg against it to soften the impact, but still our rudders bang on it just a bit. The sails finally fill and start to pull Aluna towards those two little yellow floats that mark the end of the thick rope coming up from the bottom of the bay and promises to provide stability to our rather volatile situation. A dash towards the foredeck grabbing the boat hook on the way has me fishing the float out of the dark green water. I pull it up, but there’s no piece of rope anywhere nearby. The five tons of Aluna’s loaded self start pulling on the rope, but I will never ever let it go! “A rope”, I scream, “a damn rope!” Sailors must swear, there’s no way around it! I hear Beatriz fumbling around on deck behind me, while my fingers start to cramp and my forearms seem to be stretching under the load. “Run it through here, quick!” I direct her, opening the loop of line in my hands. Done! I run to cleat the two ends of the red line off on our anchor cleats. Dick aptly thinks it’s not yet time to relax: “I’ll help you run a better line through there.” He’s right, for Christ’s sake. I detach the sturdy anchor line from our Danforth. Dick runs it through the loop at the end of the heavy mooring line. What I had grabbed was only the line with which the two fishing floats are attached to it! After tying each end of our anchor line up on Aluna’s two bows to form a bridle we’re finally able to take a breather. Aluna’s standing still, a quick scan around us confirms it. “Maybe you should take your sails down!” Dick suggests, and of course he’s right again. Are we under some kind of shock to be so much out of touch? Once the two crab claws are down on deck Dick dashes off, he does not want to know anything of coffee.

We’re soaking in the first impressions of our new home. The rumble of a giant generator plant right on shore is potent enough to make me wonder if I’ll ever be able to catch some sleep here. The stench from the Tuna cannery isn’t very nice either. Plastic and Styrofoam cups and all kinds of other trash float silently on the water. The guidebooks for once have been right: This is the armpit of the South Pacific! But Aluna has landed and we need to get under way to face the authorities. It’s Friday around noon and if we don’t get the clearance formalities done this afternoon we’ll be spending the weekend bound and bored on the boat. Did I mention that the yellow quarantine flag we had cut from an old T-shirt of mine looks quite cute half way up the stay?

Alunita splashes in the water off the starboard bow where we usually store her when Aluna’s underway in the open ocean. All the documents are stashed in a watertight ziplock bag in my backpack and soon we’re paddling into the stiff breeze and quite a sizeable chop, into which the outrigger digs with quite a bit of splashing. Everybody leaves the dinghies at McDonald’s, we’ve been informed. Oh, that’s right welcome to US territory! There it is, the golden arcs shouting loud and clear across the harbor that prosperity reigns in this corner of the universe.

A brisk half-mile walk brings us to the dark grey concrete building of the Pago Pago Container port Administration. On its flat, asphalted roof, three stories above the ground, sits a little blue shed, where the harbormaster’s office is located. “You should have called me when you came into the harbor!”, en elderly gentleman greets us. “We did! A couple times actually, nobody answered,” is our obvious response. “It’s okay, I’ll clear you in, just fill out this form,” we’re happy to hear. Later in our conversation we learn the Mr. Harbormaster is just home from a trip to visit family in the States. Where in the States? In San Leandro of all places, where Aluna was built! It turns out this very gentle man returned yesterday with the late flight from Hawai’i, is terribly jet lagged and it is only understandable that there was nobody in the office when we had called in. But still, officially we should have called, he’s perfectly right…

He instructs us of the next four stops on the remaining leg of our journey through American Samoan officialdom. Health, customs, and agriculture are all in the same building. Immigration is a maybe 15 minutes walk away. Health is no problems and we confirm our next stop. Customs! Customs is no problems, a very friendly chap sits there and receives our previously mentioned clearance documents from Tongareva. “Where next, we have been told agriculture,” I ask once done. “Oh, no, you don’t have to go to agriculture,” the officer explains with a grave voice of importance, “just if they come by your boat you show them these papers.” He points to the stack of four carbon copies of the form we filled out in the harbormasters office. That’s perfectly fine with us and we go for the very welcome walk, after nine days at sea, to the government office building. Immigration does not have a sign on their doors, but asking you arrive in Rome. Everybody there is dressed in the traditional Samoan lavalava, a square piece of fabric, in this case sky blue, tied around men’s waists like a skirt. Very informally our passports are stamped. We get one month free, and another one if we pay $50 each for filing an extension. When we mention the name of our boat the officer goes: “Aluna? That’s funny.” “Why funny?” I ask. “In Samoan aluna means pillow!” Everybody in the office giggles. “Well,” I say, “May we return to our pillow?” Everybody in the office laughs. Happy folks they are! “And have a great weekend!”

Done! We’re cleared, ready to start exploring this new but somehow a little too familiar world. A world of big trucks and SUVs, McDonald’s and Jack in the Box, strange hairdos with iPod ear buts, custom ringtones and ice-cream shops! Orange light lingers over the harbor at night and to the rumbling noise of the generator plant we lay our heads heavily on the pillows inside the starboard hull of our “pillow”.

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