Interisland boats in Samoa, 1965

Polynesian Airlines, 1966[Blog entry and photos by Mike Foley, originally published online, December 7, 2008]

In my “Mutiny in Samoa” entry, I referred to the fact that by 1965 most Mormon missionaries in Samoa flew between American and Western Samoa on a Polynesian Airlines DC3 [pictured at right]. New policy called for missionaries to fly whenever possible, but I still remember when I first arrived in March of that year President John Phillip Hanks came came to Tutuila to meet me and conduct mission business on a relatively small boat, about 60-feet long, that left Apia the evening before and arrived that morning in Pago Pago.

Even though he and many others suffered ma’i vasa (seasickness), he usually traveled on these va’a lalo (surface ships) because the ride only cost about $5 one way in those days.

In addition to the rough seas these boats commonly experienced between the islands, the strong engine fumes and the cloying smell of copra — which is nothing more than dried, rancid coconut meat that is eventually processed for its oil — added to the rampant seasickness. Many passengers felt its effects, and one common solution was to try to lie down, if there was room. It was not unusual, for example, to board one of these boats and see all of the flat spaces already occupied by reclining bodies before the voyage even began. Some of the Samoans would also wear plumeria ula or leis, holding them close to their noses to block out the engine and copra fumes.

On board the Manu’a Tele, 1965, off Faleasao, Ta’u, Manu’a:(left-right)
Elders Mike Foley, the late Wayne Willis, Tony Thornton and Randy Bott

So, most of the missionaries who came after me never had to ride the va’a lalo between the two countries, but we all still had plenty of opportunities to ride aboard ferries/copra boats for the two-to-four-hour transit across the blue-water gap between Mulifanua, Upolu, and Salelologa, Savaii. Likewise, I served for six months in Manu’a, a small and very beautiful three-island group that’s part of American Samoa located about 70 miles from Pago Pago. Going between those isalnds gave me numerous opportunities to overcome ma’i vasa.

Samoan geography sidenote: Living in Manu’a  and later on Savaii accomplished a traditional Samoan saying for me: Mai Saua i Falealupo refers to the eastern- and western-most points in Samoa, a saying I sometimes use when people ask me where in Samoa I’ve been.

In a few rarer cases, some missionaries even occasionally traveled by Samoan paopao — slender outrigger canoes that as often as not required more balancing skills than most non-Samoan missionaries could routinely muster. For example, my companion and I were stationed briefly on the island of Olosega in Manu’a, which was located within walking distance of its neighbor island, the island of Ofu (the other Manu’a island of Ta’u was about 10 miles beyond). At low tide the gap between the two islands was roughly comparable to walking to Goat Island off Laie, but the transit required a paopao ride at high tide (now there’s a bridge).

Likewise, missionaries arriving at any of the Manu’a ports in those days became familiar with tulula — long boats or lighters rowed by four-to-eight oarsmen who ferried passengers and cargo between ship and shore. Boarding a tulula could require considerable timing and balancing skill on rough days, as the gap between the ship and long boat could vary by five feet or more depending on the height of the swell. Riding the long boats through the reef also required all the skills of the tautai or steersman and crew to read the waves just right.

Elders Randy Bott (left) and the late Wayne Willis board a tulula
off Fitiuta, Ta’u, Manu’a, 1965

Overnight boat service was the only way to get to and from Manu’a, and there were several occasions when three or more weeks would pass without a boat. As those who have lived in some of the more remote Pacific islands in decades past can testify, boat service could be notoriously unpredictable. For example, one time in Tutuila I met two missionaries returning home from Rarotonga who had spent an extra four months there waiting for a boat to take them off one of the small northern Cook Islands, as well as a Canadian missionary who had spent an extra month in Niue waiting for the regular once-a-month boat service to be restored there.

Elder Foley on the Manu’a Tele, off Olosega, Manu’a, 1965

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