Monday, August 23, 2010

King for a Day

Fagasa, American Samoa

Today will go down in our memories as one our most special days. We started off with a visit to church. Sili (our talking chief host) met us at the beach and explained to the Marine Patrol who were waiting on the beach for us that we were here under his invitation. We then headed to church where we were seated in the front rows. While weary of the potential for lightening bolts to come thru the windows, we enjoyed the singing, and were treated to some English readings for our benefit. The singing was amazing by this choir that had just celebrated their 90th anniversary the week before. Dressed all in white, they made up about half the people visiting the church that day and boy could they sing.

After that we were walked to an open sided house to meet the chiefs. We were seated at tables around the perimeter with the 5 chiefs and served a meal with the chiefs. First dish was the Mahi Mahi we had caught and gave to the village and we were thanked for our gift. We were given WAY too much food, but after eating our soup we wrapped up the food in the tin foil it was served on for later. We were then excused while the chiefs had their meeting.

We walked around a bit then visited with a "palangie" Polynesian for "come from away" originally from Virginia, but moved here when she was in 8th grade. She is is married to a lower chief here, but is moving to a different village in a few weeks where he is being installed as the high chief. She was incredibly friendly, is the principal of the private school, and quite the historian. She told us lots of details of the tsunami last year and then took us on a tour of the east side of the island. We learned just how special it was that we were invited to eat with the chiefs and had a truly amazing day.

We will certainly remember this day forever.

Friday, August 20, 2010

To Boldly Go Where No Boat Has Gone Before (in 15 years anyway)

American Samoa

Bill has been a busy bee. Lots of Politicking, including 3 days to visit congress, a lunch, and many meetings with Senators, Representatives, Port Directors, and many others, but we are cleared and welcome to visit Fagassa, where we hear no yacht has visited in 15 years, and we are waiting to hear back from Aoa, where an old chief said that he doesn't remember any yachts EVER visiting. I will let Bill give details on his whole process and what the dedicated might have to go through to follow our footsteps.

A very nice side benefit of the visits to congress was that we got to see and hear their opening hymn each day. If you are in American Samoa while congress is in session, it is definitely worth a visit. The session starts at 10:00 am and last about an hour. Proceedings are in Samoan, with occasional English words thrown in as each representative gives a statement, but the opening hymn is beautiful with all the men led by the female clerk and the secretaries joining in from the gallery.

Samoan Congressional Opening Hymn

Here is the audio I recorded. It doesn't quite do it or the acoustics justice, but you get the idea. I imagine this is what a church service here might be like. I imagine we will see next weekend.

We fuel up tomorrow morning, then head on to Fagassa.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

So Good you'll want Samoa

Pago Pago, American Samoa, South Pacific

For reasons that aren't clear, Western Polynesians have an invisible N, so the harbor we are in is pronounced Pango Pango. The harbor is a pleasant surprise....built up and fairly dirty, but with great natural beauty that almost overcomes the container terminal and tuna canneries. Mom flies out tonight so then it will be just Bill and I to get some work done and explore American Samoa and then head west to Samoa (formerly Western Samoa, but they dropped the Western a few years ago). The Samoans are very friendly and we are rather enjoying the place.

The reason I thought of this title is that apparently New Zealand doesn't have Graham Crackers...this would be bad enough for little Kiwi children to suffer, but the real collateral damage is that they therefore don't have So-mores. They love to camp and have camp fires, but they never seemed to have thought of putting marshmellows between cookies with chocolate....almost as amazing as the Chinese never figuring out the fork!

I have started educating Kiwi's, one family at a time...some day I hope they will know me as Johny graham cracker seed, or something.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Vaikona Cave - Extreme Exploration

Vaikona Cave - Niue - South Pacific

The other day we rented a car with Rod and Elizabeth on Proximity and explored the island. It was an awesome day including Togo Chasms, Limu Pools and most of the other attractions on Niue we hadn't gotten to yet. We also went on a REALLY cool hike towards Vaikona Cave. We ignored the "Dangerous - Guided Only" sign as we had heard the hike was very doable, but stopped at the cave entrance with the "Dangerous - Falling Rocks" sign. The cave was steep, somewhat slippery, and we hadn't heard one way or the other how doable it was, plus we had heard conflicting reports on what to expect inside. We continued on the path down to the ocean (VERY COOL) and really enjoyed the hike overall, only getting off trail once, and quickly found our way again. We started asking around and got the skinny from Willie who owns the Washaway Cafe and Crazy Uga Cafe as well as a fishing business (very go get-em guy). He drew us a map and said we "couldn't get lost" - never as reassuring as it sounds. The couple on Quartermoon had been partway in and suggested a rope and climbing harness if we had one.

Today Bill, Rod, Elizabeth, and myself (Gram) headed back - mom smartly decided this wasn't for her. The hike in was enjoyable again and a bit faster this time. The trail is marked with red arrows in trees, but it isn't too hard to loose the path, so keep a keen eye out for the markers (Elizabeth is excellent at this). Also, there are many spiderwebs so a "swizzle stick", i.e a stick held in front of you at head height is rather helpful to clear the way. I have been told there are no dangerous spiders on Niue, but they are rather large. We got to the cave in about 30-40 mins, but it probably took us an hour or more the first time as we stopped to admire the scenery more. The entrance to the cave is just to the left of the danger sign, slightly after you can look down into the open hole.

First a bit of a warning for those following in our footsteps. I would not suggest this cave to just anybody. You have to be fit, and a bit of rock climbing/bouldering experience will really help. Elizabeth decided it wasn't for her and Rod stayed to keep her company. Bill struggled greatly, but I was able to coach him through the climb. I am by no means a climber, but I have gone to a rock gym a few times and am comfortable trusting my life on a rope. We brought a 25m line (30m would have been better) and a climbing harness. I do not have a descender so used 3 wraps on a caribeaner and ascenders would have made getting back up much easier and safer. It is certainly possible to do the climb with the ropes in the cave, but a secondary longer rope made it much easier. I didn't use the harness or caribeaners, but did use the 25m line to lower myself down the face and pull myself back up.

Here is my map of the cave system:

I will also host this file in our documents section (link on the right) for download.

When you enter the cave you have to almost crab walk under the overhang (especially if you have a pack on as I did). After that you come to the first slope which does get a little slick if wet, but isn't too bad. You can climb to the left and it is much better. About 15 feet from the entrance I found a nice rock to tie my line onto. This helped to get down the next steeper slope. There is a yellow line to help with the steepest portion of this face, but I tied on about 5 feet higher on the slope and it was helpful, but not necessary. From there you can get yourself down to plateau and prepare for the real climb. Just about anyone can get to this point and you get a nice view of the large cavern with lots of plants and moss and fairly good light.

From the plateau you will see a knotted pink line that runs down a face and then spans a gap and is tied around a large rock. There is also a vertical line way over to the left but getting there is hard and then you have to lower or raise yourself without any rock wall put your feet on for help (think high school gym class). This rock face is quite slippery so you pretty much have to trust the rope (and/or your rope)and belay yourself down. Once down the face, you must turn and bridge the narrow gap to the rock the pink line is tied around. This rock is not slippery at all and has lots of good handholds so traversing across it is not too difficult especially with the pink line tied around it to use for purchase.

Once around the large rock with the rope you must scurry across several moss covered, wet, slippery rocks to get to the first pool. It seemed the best route was to stay left along the wall and stay as low as possible. At least here there was not very far to fall. Careful crab-walking gets this done fine and you will then find yourself at the edge of the first pool. There are some nice photographic vantage points from here and it is quite pretty. We left our bags, camera and t-shirts and donned our masks and flashlights (torches) as well as our dive camera for the journey to the center of the earth.

The first pool is a nice swim. Slightly brackish water temp was about 72ish degrees, not too cold, but chillier than the ocean. The first swim through is easy, just 1 foot down, and 2 feet to get problem at all. This puts you into a large, dark (one minor source of light in an upper corner) cave. There is a large rock in the middle of the cave. Directions from Willy were to look to the left to find the swim through. We explored this area left of the rock greatly and found nothing, so went to the right of the rock and found a way through. It does appear that you could climb up and over to the 3rd pool by going to the left of the rock and climbing up through a narrow gap. This looked fairly difficult and would likely result in some scrapes. The swim through to the right is fairly difficult.

As you approach the end of the channel on the right it terminates in a underwater crack just large enough to swim up or down through, but not with a lot of clearance. The swim through is under that and then down further under a fairly deep and large rock. I took 3 tries of going down, and back up, going further each time before I was sure this was a valid swim-through with air on the other side. I would not suggest even thinking about this swim through unless you can hold your breath for over 1 minute. It is probably 1.5 meters deep and 2 meters long. Getting down isn't so hard as the water is almost fresh and you can pull yourself along with your hands pretty well, but it is a long swim and the passageway is narrow at the beginning (just to get down, then it is wide open. This swim through will land you in the 3rd cave, much smaller than the first two with a decent amount of natural light, but not tons (photos still need a flash, but you can see without a flashlight. 4 people would fill this and the 4th cave up pretty well.

From there it is a very shallow and easy swim through to cave number 4 which is quite dark and also fairly small. Here we probably saw the best stalactites and stalagmites and other cool formations. I took some photos here (see smiling fools to the left) but we were starting to get a bit cold so we started back. In the 3rd cave we had a bit of hard time finding the swim through back to cave number 2. I dove down to find it, swam along and then surfaced. It didn't look quite right, but I cam up and yelled to Bill, "I'm Through!" as we had been doing to keep the other appraised, only to have him say "No Your Not!" right behind me...Oops. Second try solved the problem and I cam up through the narrow crack about 3 feet below the surface no problem. My light then guided Bill in the right direction for his dive.

The last swim through back is quite spectacular due to the lighting in cave number 1 and the crystal clear, bluish water. We yelled to Rod and Elizabeth that we were back so they could stop worrying. We climbed out, dried off, scampered back across the mossy rocks and I gave Bill the climbing harness back to put on. I climbed back around the rock with the pink rope tied around it then had to make the faith move using the pink line to hold my weight and turn putting my left foot across the gap onto the slippery wall. I could then grab the line we placed and using both lines for stability was able to swing my right foot across so I was now on the face of the cave entrance. Using our line I was able to climb up the slippery face. This is difficult as it is hard to get a good foot hold, but not horrible. When in doubt stay left as the rock is sticker there and there seem to be more edges to get a foot hold on. I was then able to use the pink line to finish the face and got myself onto the plateau to the left along the wall of the cave.

Now it was Bill's turn. He climbed around the first rock fine but struggled with approaching the face backwards and making the step across the gap. He tried frontwards a bit, but that didn't work well. He finally made the mental leap to trust his weight on the pink rope and made the step across. At this point he grabbed our line and clipped into the caribeaner with two wraps to act as a belay device. Now he was at least safe and was able to make the step across with his second foot using both lines as well to steady his rotation. He then pretty much pulled himself up with his arms as he didn't have the technique down to get as good a grip on the face. He joined me on the plateau and we were home free. The climb up from there is easy enough with the permanent ropes and with our extra line was quite easy. I coiled our line up as I went, untied it from the rock and we were ready for a quick snack before heading back out the trail to the car, skipping the ocean part this time.

All told it took us over 5 hours, probably 1.5 hours of that was coaching Bill down the rock face into the first cave, but it is still a lengthy trip so leave plenty of time to enjoy it. Time in the water was about 20 mins and hiking was probably 1.25 hours total. We took our time to be careful and safe as you are far from any help with no good way to get there if you get hurt. It was probably the most extreme adventure I have ever had and was a real rush as well as gorgeous and relaxing at the same time. It was also cool to think about how few people on the island, let along the world had ever been in that 4th cave.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

news from Nuie

The island of Nuie at 19 03.3S 169 55.5W

Since I wrote last we made it to Beveridge Reef and spent two days there. It was a unique experience as we really were anchored in the middle of the ocean. The reef there is literally out in the middle of the Pacific and there is NO land in sight. Made us laugh as the most common question we get asked is what do we do at night???Do we just put down an anchor....not quite as most passages have us in 1000 + ft of water but in this case we really did anchor in the middle of nowhere. We had hoped for some really good diving there but either the wicked Crown of Thorns ( a growth that feeds on and destroys the coral) or the cyclones had pretty much wiped out the coral and there was not significant fish life either. So being disappointed and having to contend with a rolly anchorage we cut our stay there short and headed to Nuie on Mon July 26 along with 6 other boats. It was fun sailing in such a caravan/very different from the passages when you see noone for days on end but had to pay alot of attention at night especially. We were the first to make Nuie and pick up one of the moorings there. There is an entity that calls itself the Nuie Yacht Club and they offer alot to the cruisers including moorings in Alofi Bay. Nuie is independent but pretty well linked to New Zealand...much money and infrastructure comes from NZ and many of the officials here take posts for a year or two and are kiwis. When we got here there were about 15 other boats in the harbor and within a few days all the moorings were filled and a few boats even had to anchor (not a good bottom for holding hence the 20 moorings that have been provided). I think on Sun or Mon there were 26 boats here which apparently is a record. One of the main attractions here are the whales which migrate past here in Aug and Sept. Nuie is pretty different topographically. It was a volcano which sunk like the others but has now risen above the sea again so is made up of limestone and coral.There are lots of caves and caverns to explore both in and out of the water.

We have gone on a few dives here and they are pretty different since one of the options is cave diving. I didn't think I would like it all but it has been quite interesting and not scary. The coolest one was a tunnel we went thru and came up in the interior of the island in a cave that had breathable air (regulators were held out of the water while we looked at all the stalagmites and stalagtites that had formed in this moist interior). Felt like Indiana Jones revisited. The rays of light coming thru the crevases and into the pools of turquoise water have been gorgeous and there are some different fish and animal life to be viewed. Snakes...lots of them and electric blue eels and lobsters in the caves have been some of the new finds. We have been able to swim with dolphins twice and yesterday saw whales pretty close by. Tried to be in the water with them but they kept alluding us. Got some great visuals on flukes and tail slapping tho and while under the water on our dive could clearly hear them singing...very magical!

Much of the weekend was devoted to birthday celebrations...our friend Trish on Curious had an Aug 1st bday so Bill and Steve and Gram organized a big pot luck party at the yacht club on Sat. Our two boats provided a bbque feast of fish, pork and turkey kabobs that were grilled to perfection and all attendees brought a dish to share...lots of chatting, drinking and feasting. Ended up with 5 or 6 other early Aug birthdays being added into the celebration so we had a great time. That night just as we got back to the boats we saw lightning and a pretty significant squall blew in. Pretty uncomfortable anchorage that night with swells wrappping around the island and into the harbor. A 57 ft catamaran between here and Tonga actually capsized that night but was rescued the next morning by the freighter that was headed here. The two fellows on board were bruised up an bit but were so lucky that that was all. Unfortunately the boat is still afloat and will have to be watched out for by all the people in these waters for the next few weeks at least. We will be going in a different direction when we do leave so will not have much to think about. Kind of a wake up scary experience tho'. Glad to be on a monohull with a much more stable tipping point and alot more lead and weight under our keel. Think that this was the largest cat to ever go over tho' so ....

On Sunday we went on an around island tour in the hopital administrator's( Anne) car. She took us to a number of caves which we climbed in and around and to a few gorgeous pools. It was kind of a rainy day so we did not snorkle but will hope to go back there this week and check out the snorkelable spots. It is a gorgeous island and very different with these cliffs and beaches per say but still quite lovely. Had lunch at a local place called the Washaway run by a real character named Willy. Huge delicious burgers which have an egg and beets as accoutrements...a tasty treat and a fun place to hang out. Will hope for another Sunday(only day he is open there) when we can go back and snorkel at his cove as well. That night we had another bday celebration on Curious with the 5 of us and another boat(Bubas) a great couple from Australia who have been hanging with us as well. We have become so close to Curious these past 6-7 weeks of cruising together...hope they will remain lifelong friends as they are such wonderful people and we all got on so finely.

Last night we had a farewell dinner for Steve and Trish (and included Anne and another local...Shelley the police chief's wife). Curious left for Tonga very early this morning and we will not see them again til New Zealand as they are on a different route from us at this point. Today I am feeling quite sad at my loss of a wonderful woman friend. She was probably the most compatible with me of anyone we have met on this trip and such a great lady. They will head for Tonga and then Figi where they will leave the boat for a month to fly home to So. Wales to be there for their first grandchild to be born in Sept. We will stay here till mid week next week probably, will watch the weather and pick a window to head up to American Samoa so that I can fly home on the 15th. Bill and Gram will most likely head to Western Samoa to hang out the 2 weeks I am away as Pago Pago (the main anchorage in Amer. Samoa) is good only for provisioning and flying in and out of...not particularly pretty or cultural from what we have heard. So that brings us up to date on the goings on in our little boat world.

Dive to Snake Gully

Niue - Snake Gully

It was an early morning to get to shore, drive to the dive shop, then gear up and get out on the water. The fisherman who was pulling his boat and 30lb wahoo out of the water told us there were Whales in the bay, so first before our dive we headed off in search of a whale interaction. We saw two whales right away, and headed to where they had surfaced. I jumped in to spot the dive boat and see if they were in the area still. I didn't see the whales, but I did see a LARGE Blue Marlin (8'body plus 3'sword at least) about 40 feet below me....VERY COOL majestic fish. The whales surfaced further north, so out of the water and we kept chasing. We got some great views as they surfaced from the dive boat, and one swim by but the single whale was fairly deep so we saw more of the hint of a whale than anything else. Still, very cool and hopefully we will get a better look in the next week. After that we jumped in to swim with some dolphins for a few minutes, then headed to Snake Gully for our dive.

Snake Gully gets its name from the plethora of snakes that call this region home. The snakes vary from 2' to 4' and though VERY poisonous, have very small mouths, so aren't very dangerous to humans. They surface about every 30 minutes to breath and are quite inquisitive when they aren't sleeping. Other than the snakes and some nice early growth coral (Niue was hit pretty hard by a cyclone in 2004ish and the coral is just coming back now) there is a very cool, but small cave with TONS of Lobster and another Chavern with very cool light filtering through the gaps. A lovely dive, but by then we were getting pretty cool in the 80 degree (27 C) water.

Tonight we had Ann (Hospital administrator - read head of state health and human services) and Shelly (Chief of Police's wife) over for dinner along with Steve and Trish. Very nice conversation and a great dinner. Unfortunately, Steve and Trish are leaving us tomorrow and we won't see them again until New Zealand in November for Steve, and January for Trish. We will miss them greatly. About half the harbor had emptied out in the last two days, but we have another week or so to explore Niue and plan to make the most of it.

Pics have been updated through the Cook islands and Niue should be up soon, so go check out the web albums (link on the right). The other big news is that a 57' catamaran flipped on their way here the other day and were rescued by the ship that came in on Monday. The Crew is fine, but it is a wake up call to a lot of sailors here and makes us very glad we have a big heavy keel under our boat unlike a catamaran which is more stable upside down then right-side up. My quick write-up of the incident made the front page of

Monday, August 2, 2010

Happy Birthday Johanna


Johanna’s birthday weekend included caves and caverns, stalagtites and stalagmites, a big birthday barbeque party at the Nuie Yacht Club, and a birthday dinner aboard Curious – along with August 1 birthday girl Trish. A special birthday indeed, and one that nearly sets a new standard.

Hugs and love to and from all…

The Crew of Visions of Johanna