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Swains Island – Tokelau Group

By Sue Richards last modified Nov 27, 2008 08:08 PM

Published: 2008-11-27 20:08:14
Countries: American Samoa


One day the Port Captain of Pago Pago called all ships in the harbour with a request if anyone could conceive of going to the little atoll of Swains Island, some 220 nautical miles to the north of American Samoa, carrying provisions. Departure was as soon as possible.

Cyclone season was approaching, and the freighter M/V Sili, that usually does these trips about 2-4 times a year, had just been in dry dock, and was not seaworthy. Swains Island is a privately owned island, that was all but destroyed by cyclone Percy in 2005. The approximately 50 inhabitants have since lived in American Samoa, whilst they await the reconstruction of their community. Plans are to bring the island up to modern standards with an internet link to the school and administration.

Swains Island, or Olosenga as it is called in Polynesian, is geographically a part of the Tokelau islands, one of the most desolate and least visited areas of the enormous Pacific Ocean. None of the four atolls there have airports. Two janitors, Palapi and Alatina, now live on the island, making repairs and preparing the reconstruction. It was these two that hadn’t had visitors in almost two months, and who needed provisions.

Aboard Underveis, we saw this as an opportunity to not only return all the favours and hospitality that we have enjoyed here, but also to visit an island that practically no one else (other than those living on the island) had ever visited. As islanders from the island of Røst, we also know how precarious life can be with communications breaking down. We volunteered, and the following morning we took onboard the cargo bound for the two chaps at Swains, and set sail. The distance of some 220 nautical miles each way, is roughly equivalent to the distance between Bergen and Shetland. Getting there took us two days, and when our sails rose to the horizon, the two boys came speeding out in their skiff to welcome us, very happy indeed to see us.

Swains Island doesn’t have a seawater lagoon, and no proper passes in the coral reef surrounding the island where one can enter. We therefore had to sail all the way up to the reef and anchor faithful Underveis as close to the reef as possible. Only a hundred meters from the reef, the seabed plunges to a depth of more than 600 metres, and continuing downwards, so it is steep and hard to find a good spot to anchor. With the help and guidance of our newfound friends, we were able to find a good anchorage, and spent two entire days exploring the island, hunting langusters, a Pacific lobster without claws, and eating coconut crabs, big crabs that live on terra firma and eat coconuts.

Walking around on the sandy white beaches, with no trace of human activity, was an awkward feeling. In some places we saw the tracks of turtles that come ashore at night and lay their precious eggs. The palm trees in Swains Island are very tall, over 100 feet! The Polynesians use the coconut for everything from food, drink, mosquito repellent and fodder for their poultry.

As we were getting ready to depart, the islands’ two janitors became a bit saddened, and declared that they missed their families and wives sometimes. They gave a big farewell banquet for us and gave us several baskets full of fish, coconuts, breadfruit, crabs, lobsters, palm leaves and bananas, and some packages with small gifts that they wanted us to give to their families. All contact with the mainland is by SSB radio. They have no telephone and no regular postal service. We were much more loaded upon our departure than when we had first arrived! Hopefully, the inhabitants of Swains Island will soon be able to move back home to new, cyclone safe homes and a newly constructed church, schoolhouse and infirmary.

After two days of sailing, we entered Pago Pago again, where senator Alex Jennings (the islands representative in the parliament of American Samoa) greeted us, and we gave him the gifts and unloaded the cargo, fruit and crabs that we brought for him and his family from Palapi and Alatina. When we had been away, the islands newspaper had written about our voyage, so we had almost become local celebrities. Jolly fun, and a very rewarding thing to be able to contribute a little.

So far on our voyage we have too often felt like net receivers of hospitality and services, so we always try to do something in return. Palapi and Alatina received a picture book from Norway, a large carton of red wine, seasickness pills and some Cola glasses from us as thanks for the incredible hospitality that they had shown us.

Rune Ellingsen
Port Vila, Efate, 26.10.2008