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llewlella churchilll  : surfing canoes in somoa, 1901 

Llewella Pierce Churchill :  Canoeand Boat Surfing in Somoa, 1901.

 Extracts and illustrations from:
Churchill, Llewella Pierce
Samoa 'Uma, Where Life is Different
Sampson Low, Marston, London, [1902]

Open Library
http://archive.org/details/samoaumawherelif00churuoft


Introduction.
PAthough Churchill reports that the Samoans do not have "surf boards which the Hawaiians employ," she has witnessed theiir skill in canoe surf riding.
She also devotes an entire chapter, Shooting the Apolima Passage, to an inter island cruise in a open row baot, the climax of which is the shooting of a wave through the narrow passge in the reef, "where there is not room for oars."
With assistance from local guides, the helmsman selects a suitable "higher roller" and guides the boat successfully through to the placic lagoon.

Note that some ealier visitors had reported surfboard riding in Somoa, see:

1861 George Turner : Surf Riding in Somoa.
1866 W. T. Pritchard : Surf Riding in Somoa.


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[FISHERS AND SAILORS]

In connection with Samoan canoecraft may be mentioned the surf riding.
In this archipelago there are none of the surf boards which the Hawaiians employ in their sport of heenalu, but the Samoan does quite as well with his canoe, which he manages to place just in front of the combing crest of some great roller and comes dashing shoreward with tremendous speed and loud shouts of "U-hu-hu," which is the only in-
stance of the use of the aspirate in the language.

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[CHAPTER IX - SHOOTING THE APOLIMA PASSAGE]

To visit Apolima one must employ the usual vehicle of Samoan travel, an open row boat.
In these small and open craft the trader and the tourist alike put out upon the very ocean itself for trips from place to place on each island, and for the more venturesome voyage across the straits to other islands of the archipelago.
Exposed to the sun and the frequent downpours of the rain, thrown about by the heaving of the sea, and not infrequently deluged with the crest of some lopping wave, such voyaging can never be comfortable.
It is safe enough, however, for the Samoans are good boatmen even though they do have the terrifying custom of steering as close as possible to the combing edge of the huge breakers which sweep like resistless cavalry charges upon the reefs or crags of the shore.
When you go to windward your reliance is on the strength of the boatmen, who tug at the oars for incessant hours without wearying.
To leeward you have the swifter and more comfortable voyage with a scrap of sail.
That's all of the sense of direction you need in the islands.
For all practical purposes the compass is not needed.
The four cardinal points are windward and leeward, sea- ward and inland ; this simple equivalent of boxing the compass is contained in the Samoan jingle, which your boatmen will insist on your learning,

"Gagaifo, Gaga'e, Ganta, Gatai."

Still, if you have your boat and a good crew, and

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keep the little verse steadily in mind, not even then are you at all sure of seeing Apolima when you set out to see it.
The first part of the voyage is all plain sailing.
From Apia you run down to west and leeward in the still lagoon of shallow water inside the barrier reef.
You must make your start when it is close to high water, for the lagoon is shallow.
Just back of Mulinu'u Point, where formerly the Samoan Government sat all day and wondered what it was there for, there is a broad sand bank.
A few miles further along is a sad tangle of rocks, and to get past these difficulties the tide must be high.
But once past the rocks of Faleula, the lagoon is a fairway, and there is nothing to check the swift run before the wind down to Mulifanua, the end of the island of Upolu.
In every small bay which opens on the sight as you go whizzing from one headland to the next, a Samoan town is to be seen under the groves of cocoanuts which fringe the glittering beach.
Almost at the end of the island are the clustered structures of the largest of the German plantations.
Just past this station the channel setting close in shore gives opportunity to see the ruins of some mammoth erections of stone and earth, of which the history has been lost in the mists of Samoan tradition.
Here the lagoon widens out to include the island of Manono, for which the boat must head on its way out.
Here one must halt to ask of the people as to the chance of entering the sister inlet, which lies a few miles outside the still waters of the lagoon. Generally they can tell in Manono by the look of the sea breaking on a certain portion of

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their reef whether the Apolima pass is practicable.
If their judgment is adverse you halt at Manono and wait for a better opportunity.
They can always tell you surely if the pass is impracticable.
They are by no means so certain when it may be run.
As to that you have to take your chances.

After leaving Manono you are quite at sea ; there is no reef to still the stretch of water, the angle at which Savaii and Upolu lie with respect to one another creates a sort of funnel to direct the sea into the ten-mile strait and to magnify the waves.
Here you must take your chances on adjusting the physical system to the peculiar combination of squirm and wriggle, which is the motion of a small boat perched on the crest of the high sea waves, varied only by dizzy slides down water-sloped and painful climbing up shifting hills.
After some two miles of this sort of sailing you draw close alongside the rocky outer walls of Apolima, and the boat boys feel happy to be able to skirt the sea-beaten cliffs right in the highest swell of the outer line of breakers.
Their choice in this matter is responsible for. the intimate acquaintance you gain of the rock conformation of the outer face of the island. In a dull sort of despair you try to pick out the one particular spot on which you are about to be dashed in water-torn pieces.
While you are making this round you are sorry you came, it really seems scarcely worth the while to undergo the discomfort of coming so far only to be broken and drowned on a face of rock which nowhere offers even a crack in which the fingers might take a last hold on

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life.
A little more of the circuit and you see the outlying barrier of the gate of the island and a slim path of watery tumult between the surf ashore and the surf just a little way out in the sea.
Into this tumult you steer in a state of mental desperation as to which you are very honest in the confession that you really wish you had been content to trust to the pictures of the place.
All at once the gateway opens in plain sight before you ; you can feast your eyes on the marvelous beauty of such a landscape as is to be found nowhere else in the world, you pluck up courage and are now as anxious to get in and see more, as but a moment ago you were wishing you were well out of it.
Despite your access of courage, the most difficult part lies before you.
Up to this you have been in discomfort, now you will have to take your chances of a very real danger.
There is plenty of time to consider all the details of the peril, and the more those details are looked upon the more distinct do they become in every item of frowning rock and gnashing tusk of coral.
The first thing is to find the one spot in the world between the open gateway of the passage and the smother of surf on the reef outside, in which the boat can be kept still.
There you must wait the leisurely movements of the villagers of the island, who will make signals as to whether it is possible to come in, a matter which it is almost impossible to determine from the outside aspect of the passage.
If their signals are favorable, they will launch their canoes and cross their own duck pond of a lagoon to take positions on the rocky jaws of their island's gateway, to

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be in a position to give help, for there is always a bright prospect that help will be needed.
There is presented a sharp contrast.
Outside the gate your crew are rowing with long, steady strokes, merely to keep the boat in one place, in a smooth eddy of foam and whirling suds within a wild jabble of waves ; as you are lifted from the depths high into the air you look down upon the canoes on the lagoon within moving as smoothly as paper boats of children in a tub of water.

Between the tumult and the peace is a narrow and a crooked passage between the rocks, through which you must make your way.
It can be done only on the last two hours of the flood tide ; even then it is always dangerous, from outside it seems an impossibility.
As each wave recedes it lays bare the whole stretch of the rocky barrier, and discloses the twists of the narrow passage between lagoon and raging sea.
This barrier is only fifty feet across, that is, from the sea to the still waters beyond.
When the wave recedes the channel is seen to be no more than eight or ten feet wide, and partially blocked in places by coral formations.
Through this lane, where there is not room for oars, it is necessary to run with the utmost precision of fine steering, and the crew will seldom intrust that part of the operation to any white man unless they have learned that he is skilled in the quick handling of small boats.
Only a few white women have ventured to shoot the passage, and certainly none has been allowed to handle the rudder at the critical moment, for the lives of all depend on the

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man at the helm.
As the pass is far too narrow for oars, and as they would anyway be useless in the magnificent velocity of the wave stream, the sea is relied on to furnish the motive power.
The boat is kept in the smother of the eddy under the off shore ledge of rock while the crew and helmsman watch intently the way in which the sea breaks on and over that barrier.
Sea after sea passes by and tumbles into banks of fine spray on the threshold of the island gate.
Not one of those seas has promised to carry the boat through in safety.
At last a higher roller is seen to rear itself far out beyond the outer barrier, and to come rolling shoreward with a magnificent stretch of perpendicular face.
All are intent upon its progress as it sweeps grandly inward with ever accelerating velocity, for it may prove the wave so long waited for.
If it is seen to pass unbroken over a pinnacle outlying in front of the main ledge by a small interval, it is known that that is indeed the wave to use.
As its wall face sweeps on the boat is rowed shoreward out of the eddy, the oarsmen put then their every pound of muscle and courage into the oars as they back water into the very cliff of water which is swooping down upon the boat.
There is the thump of wood and water as the wave hits the stern of the boat and begins to heave it in the air.
The crew pull now like men possessed, for the few boat lengths which intervene they must keep the boat on the advancing face of the giant wave.
The speed is something terrific, the prospect is something appalling to view from the lifting stern of the boat, coasting with

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tremendous velocity down the steep slope of a hill of water, which is itself careering onward with far more than the speed of a railroad train.
Just in front lies the wall of the gateway, dripping yet with the foam of the last wave, tense figures of the islanders clinging to the rocks in readiness to reach out into the commotion and snatch the shipwrecked from drowning in case of disaster.
With a last struggling effort the crew bend to the oars and draw them inboard and out of the way of the rocks between which the boat must pass without a check, for even the slightest check would mean prompt destruction.
The ears are deafened with the roar of the breaking of the tons of water on the rock, the eyes are all but blinded with the salt cloud of mist into which the water is hammered by the impact.
The boat must be just one single instant ahead of that thunder and that breaking of the water, it must be headed exactly into the narrow rift in the rock just a foot before the crest of the propelling wave shatters over upon the immovable obstacle.
Then as the water boils into the constricted channel it seizes on the boat and hurls it onward until it seems that the might of giants would not avail to direct it away from the fangs of rock and coral which beset the way.
But answering the steering oar the boat is directed through those fifty dangerous feet, avoiding a danger on the right only to be confronted by another on the left, sliding past rocky perils with so close a margin that it looks as if a sheet of paper would be torn to rags between the boat and the rock.
With every minute fraction of an instant the still

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lagoon is nearer.
Still the peril is not yet past.
Just as the boat clears the walls of rock and is on the very instant of passing in and floating peacefully on quiet waters, the boys throw out the oars and pull as hard as ever.
With all their strength they can do no more than keep the stern of the boat just barely clear of the channel out of which on its inner side it has just escaped, into which the outward rush of the waters is seeking to drag it.
There by dint of hard rowing the boat just succeeds in standing still until the efflux is past, and the turn of the waters with the startling advance of the next incoming breaker allows of escape into the lagoon.
Then, as the crew, exhausted by the excitement, takes leisurely strokes across the smooth water, and to the landing place, the Apolima people set up a shout of welcome to those who have adventured so much to see the island.

They gather around and proffer that hospitality for which they expect so generous a reward ; they ask the crew whether the lady was frightened when the boat came through the pass, and when they get the answer that she was courageous they turn to congratulations and say how very few ladies have ever ventured on that trip, and how it often happens with white men who have come through the gap that they were too weak to take a step for a long time afterward.

Such is the getting into Apolima.
The getting out is even harder, for, as the boat is sucked out through the narrow channel, it meets just outside an incoming wave, up which the crew must row hard in order to get on the seaward face in time and slide

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down hill before it begins to break.
It can be done only on the first two hours of the ebb tide, seldom is it possible to go in and to come out on the same day ; often visitors are held for a week at a time waiting the chance to get out.


Churchill, Llewella Pierce
Samoa 'Uma, Where Life is Different
Sampson Low, Marston, London, [1902]

Open Library
http://archive.org/details/samoaumawherelif00churuoft


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home catalogue history references appendix

Geoff Cater (2013) : Llewella Pierce Churchill : Canoe and Boat Surfing in Samoa, 1901.
http://www.surfresearch.com.au/1901_Churchill_Somoa_Una.html