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Gripping sailor's tale of the Samoa Tsunami - and the lessons

by courtesy of Glenn Tuttle on 3 Oct 2009
Australian Gary Cross on his 52ft Irwin SV Biscayne Bay after the tsunami Wayne Hodgins
This vivid tale of the tsunami which hit Pago Pago in Samoa, and the lessons at the end of it, are told by Canadian cruising sailor Wayne Hodgins of SY Learnativity, who is sailing with his dog Ruby.

I am up as usual about 6:30 and getting ready to go for my morning shower up on the deck when I became aware of a low frequency thrumming that I could both hear and feel. This continued and my first thought was that there was a large freighter or other ship nearby and I was simply feeling the effects of its large propellers churning the water.

Stepping up into the cockpit to look around there was nothing in sight and it was otherwise the start of another day in paradise with the verdant hills surround Pago Pago Harbour rising up steeply all around me and piercing the few clouds in an otherwise brilliant blue sky.

The calm harbour waters stretched out as Learnativity tugged gently on her dock lines securing us to the large concrete wharf where we have been docked in about 15’ of water since arriving on Friday afternoon and joined about six other sailboats and cruisers from Australia, USA and Canada.


But what IS that vibration?? It is about 06:50 as I step off the boat onto the concrete dock to see if it was perhaps just on Learnativity or the water? No, it continued and was intensifying if anything. Having experienced several other quakes including Mount St. Helens and the big quake in San Francisco and LA in the 90’s I began to suspect this as the source however it was too gentle and going on too long for my understanding of what an earthquake feels like. And I can HEAR it as much as feel it.

Over a minute has gone by now and as I look ashore in search of other points of reference sure enough I can see that the lamp posts and telephone poles are waving back and forth like they were blades of grass in a gentle breeze. Hmmm, I’ve only seen poles move like that once before and that was as I looked outside my office window in Sausalito during the 1989 Loma Preita earthquake. OK, it may be different but I’ve solved the riddle and we got ourselves an earthquake.


A few of my fellow cruisers (people who live aboard their boats while cruising the world) have been awakened and are crawling sleepily out of their beds and joining me on the concrete wharf. The mood is typically easy and friendly as we say quietly say good morning, compare notes and discuss just what’s going on.

The thrumming continues through most of this and I’d estimate at least 3 minutes in total. We agree it must have been an earthquake and Gary, an Australian from Freemantle on his 52’ Irwin 'Biscayne Bay' with wife Lisa, son Jake and Canadian crewmember Chris, joins us and tells that he has just checked it out online and found reports filed under 'latest earthquake' of an underwater eruption about 20 minutes ago 130nm south of us

We continued to casually chat and discuss how unique the characteristics were. None of us had ever experienced an undersea eruption or other such disturbances on our boats and we just left it at that as we dispersed back to our boats for breakfast and one person casually joked that we should just watch for any big wave we see. No such wave ever materialized, it was much worse.

Just as I was bout to step back onto my boat it started to drop. Huh? Before I could even comprehend what was happening it then started to rapidly lean sideways as the dock lines strain and screech, tightening more and more as they take on the full weight of my very heavy steel home. My instincts scream GET ON THE BOAT! I jump aboard and grab onto the rigging as she continues to lean more and more and more. THUD! Holy #^%& we are hard over on our side and ……. WHAT the …..? the bottom of the bay is staring back at me as I dangle by one hand from the rigging.

My mind is cycling through every possible explanation, trying to come to terms with all the inputs and amongst the cacophony of sights and sounds as boats smash around me, deck lines snap, rigging strains. These sounds are overlaid and an ominous and enormous rushing and sucking sound as the water all around my boat suddenly drains away!

But a new noise, like fingernails across a blackboard divert my attention to the near vertical deck and I see poor Ruby (my 2 year old cockapoo and sailing companion) trying in vain to dig her claws into the steel deck, her legs thrashing like a cartoon animation character as she gathers speed going the other way and her tail end is headed for all the fish I now see and hear flopping around on the bottom of the bay as they search of their missing watery home.

Ruby’s a gonner if she leaves the boat so I let go of the rigging, do my best imitation of a full 180 mid air flip and lunge after her with one outstretched hand and desperately reach out with the other in the hopes of grabbing some other hand hold. Just as Ruby is launched off the deck I get a right handful of the scruff of her neck and harness as my left hand wraps itself around the lifeline cable. No time to think, just act. Ruby in hand I scramble up to the opposite (Port) high side of the deck.

All hell is breaking loose around me both on my boat and all the others and I’m not going to be able to do much with one hand. I look up above me and spot Jake, Gary’s son (14) standing on the edge of the wharf looking down at me and I yell 'Jake! Catch!' and throw Ruby up to his thankfully open arms. He makes a great catch, Ruby is in good hands and I’ve got both of mine back.

Interesting how we all react differently. Back aboard Australian boat Biscayne Bay, Gary Cross and wife Lisa, son Jake(11) and Canadian crew member Chris Deller have been below making breakfast, when they notice the concrete dock rushing up past their porthole windows as if they were in an elevator shaft. Their boat is in much deeper water around the corner from where I Learnativity is docked, so they are going straight down, lines straining, fiberglass crunching and that ever present surreal sucking sound all around. Gary’s reaction, understandably is to GET OUT! and so they all dash up into the cockpit and scramble up the vertical wall of concrete and rubber tires as Gary pushes and shoves each of them up onto the top of the concrete wharf.

The sucking sound stops.

There is a moment of seeming silence that you’d think would be comforting but you’d be wrong. It’s ominous. And then a new set of sounds begin. The volume with a ferocious velocity. Faster than it has left, all that water is now coming back! All the problems reverse. Learnativity rights itself and is now rocketing skyward.

I grab my always-on-my-belt knife and dash down the port side from bow to stern slashing all the dock lines. Scramble back into the cockpit, start the engine, simultaneously shove both control levers ahead, putting the transmission into forward gear and the throttle lever on full.

All six cylinders pick up speed as the revs cling, the turbine whines, the prop bites hard into the swirling water below and Learnativity starts to pull away from the ………………………… wharf. What wharf? It’s GONE!

The water rushing back into the bay doesn’t stop at its previous level, it continues to go up and up and up the sides of the wharf. It floods over the top and keeps going. The speed and force of of the current created by millions of gallons of water flooding into the harbour is unbelievable water and is doing its best to push Learnativity backwards into the dock and marina as I put my faith into the power of diesel fuel and take a minute to look back and see if I’m going forward or backwards.

It is hard to describe what I see. Closest to me, Gary, Lisa, Jake (clutching Ruby) and Chris are running as fast and best they can through the rushing water for a stone walled

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