'Wildest boat ride I've ever been on'

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A cruising family survives the American Samoa tsunami, but a dock neighbor isn’t as fortunate

Editor’s note: Kirk, 53, and Catherine McGeorge, 44, are cruising the South Pacific with their son, Stuart, 6, aboard their Sparkman & Stephens-designed Hylas 49, Gallivanter. They were berthed in Pago Pago on American Samoa when a Sept. 29 earthquake triggered a tsunami that ripped through the islands of the South Pacific. Here is their account.

Kirk and Catherine McGeorge, with son Stuart, 6, are longtime cruisers.

This morning we are shaken awake by an earthquake that seems to have no end. We are aboard Gallivanter and tied side-to to a big concrete dock in the heart of Pago Pago, American Samoa. After living up and down the California coast, I know this is no minor tremor.

After the rude awakening, Cath and I walk across the dock and chat with a few fellow sailors. One had just done a Google search for “recent earthquakes” and says this one measured 8.1 on the Richter scale and that the epicenter was only 120 miles distant.

We return to Gallivanter and I turn on our laptop and search the same Web site. Sure enough, there it is: “8.1 earthquake, American Samoa, 20 minutes ago.” I click on the “show map” option and notice the epicenter is southwest of Pago Pago, which is on the southern side of the island.

Just as I am considering the ramifications of that little fact, all hell starts breaking loose. Our boat is on the move. My first reaction is to start the engine and dash up on deck to see what’s going on. I see the water around us rapidly dropping. In the blink of an eye, we are on the bottom and the boat is falling away from the dock. Three of our big dock lines pop and we fall right over into the mud. The entire basin in which we had been floating only moments ago has completely drained. People are screaming.

To my recollection, some 15 seconds later, the water comes flooding back in at an even more alarming rate and, the next thing I know, we are floating directly above the dock — over the concrete slab and drifting toward a young lady we know from another boat, who is desperately hugging a power pole, up to her chin in swirling water. I tell Cath to cut the two remaining dock lines with our serrated bread knife and to be quick about it.

Yachts littered the landscape in American Samoa after the tsunami.

As I put the boat into gear, we are somehow washed off the dock and back into the basin. I advance to full throttle, and we accelerate through a debris field of floating docks and fuel drums, sinking boats, a shipping container and a barnacle-encrusted wreck, all of which are spinning in the torrent. It is absolute mayhem. As we steer toward the deep water in the center of the harbor, I look over my shoulder and see what appears to be a waterfall pouring off the dock and shore beyond. Not one of the dozen vessels remains at the dock. All are under way in a matter of seconds … with or without crews aboard.

We motor around in the middle of the harbor, watching the waves of floods and ebbs while wondering about aftershocks and our fellow cruising sailors. As we pass one of our neighbors, she shouts to us that her husband was washed off the dock as they were trying to get away. She is alone and seriously concerned. Other boats broke free from their moorings and anchors in the initial seismic waves and many have been driven ashore — or driven under by loose tuna boats.

After about three hours, we feel it is finally safe to return to the dock. All we have are lengths of old line and we are short a couple fenders. We are the first to head in and we start untangling lines and helping others get back alongside the concrete dock. All of the storefronts along the water are destroyed. Roving mobs of kids can be seen looting. The fence around the dock is gone. Every boat on stands in a nearby boatyard has been washed away. Big fishing boats are in parking lots across the street. There is absolute destruction everywhere along the shore.

Phones and power are down, but we get the computer back online right away. I immediately go back to the “recent earthquakes” Web site to see if things have calmed down in the center of the earth. A number of aftershocks as strong as 6.0 have been recorded in the last few hours. Thankfully, no more wave action has been noticed. We’ve been making Skype calls to our families and letting others use the computer to phone home.

Online news reports say the earthquake lasted three minutes and the highest floodwaters rose 25 feet above normal. There are 20 confirmed deaths at this point, including our neighbor who was swept off the dock. Most fatalities occurred in and around the harbor where we live. Boats are battered and nerves are fried.

One friend wound up on his boat nearly 1,000 feet from the water after breaking from his anchor and sailing right down Main Street, taking power and telephone wires down with his mast. Some people have lost everything. We came through remarkably well, with only minor damage to our toerail when the dock lines parted and to our fender basket, which was the only point of contact with that drifting wreck. I never felt any jarring loads while we were hurtling around above and below the concrete dock, so I believe our hull, keel and rudder suffered no damage from the wildest boat ride I’ve ever been on.

We’re all OK and very lucky. I made a new friend yesterday, and he died today. We’ve adopted a tiny kitten named Lucky.

And that’s the way it is.

Kirk McGeorge has been cruising since 1995, after a 20-year Navy career. A native of Roanoke, Va., he married Catherine, who is from Australia, in Guam, and their son, Stuart, was born in St. Thomas, BVI, in 2003.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.