February 16, 2020, Sailing away form Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Chile
Easter Island is not an easy place to visit on a ship. For the past 4 sea days most of the conversation was whether we would be able to land. The island does not have a sheltered harbor and tendering can be rough and dangerous. Many of my shipmates have been on cruises that were supposed to call at Easter Island but didn’t make it.
Captain Mercer calls Easter Island his nemesis. Last year he assessed the situation and decided to give it a try. The swells got bigger as the morning wore on and after the first few tenders were ashore; he canceled the operation and recalled the passengers. Tendering priority goes to those who’ve booked Holland America tours so they were easy to find and get back to the ship safely. He cruised around the island so people, especially those with binoculars or good zoom lenses, could see the Moai, or giant statues that guard the lands of different island tribes.
All week the ship’s staff tried to lower our expectations. The day before Captain Mercer told us that while he could not download a weather map because of our terrible internet his conversations with port officials said conditions were “marginal.” At the port talk Glenn-Michael showed us pictures of surf crashing against the sea wall on either side of the entrance to the small boat harbor where the tenders land. And the night before we got notice in our stateroom that no one with wheelchairs, walkers or scooters would be allowed to land and the elevators would not take us down to the tendering deck. We would have to walk down the stairs to give staff a chance to watch and evaluate our fitness to take the tender.
Tender tickets were handed out at 8:30. Folks got on line for the tickets at least an hour and a half before that. Those on Holland America tours did not need tickets but were to meet in the main theater at designated times. We arrived off Easter Island an hour before sunrise. Suzi and I, along with Diane, the piano bar entertainer (who’s from Ketchikan) watched a beautiful sunrise playing against the thunderheads, we had just had a storm. Both anchorages were occupied by freighters. We couldn’t drop anchor because the sea floor is coral, so the captain had to hold the ship in position using its AziPods aft (The props are on pods that can swing 360 degrees) and the bow thruster, (He called it “joy- sticking”) but he decided to give it a go. If this had been another port, one that was not on so many passenger’s “bucket lists” I think he may have given Easter Island a pass.
We were on tour #8 scheduled to leave at 8:45. We weren’t called to the tender until 9:45. After walking down the stairs each of us waited at the platform, held back by two crew members, until the swell brought the tender up to the platform. On the command “now” the we stepped off the platform onto the arms of two “catchers” on the tender who pulled us aboard as the boat dropped with the swell. They waited for the boat to rise again before catching the next passenger. Walking to the seat was rough as the boat slammed against the side of the ship creating a tremendous jolt. The tendering process that normally takes 20 minutes took 45 but we all got ashore safely. People not on HAL tours got off later. Peter got on the ticket line at 7 AM and got on a tender at noon. Another couple that had arranged a private land tour got on line even earlier and met their guide on shore at 11:30. They were scheduled for an all-day tour starting at 8:30 so their all-day tour was shortened. The return to the ship was just as dramatic. We were bobbing in a tender off the ship for several minutes while the crew worked to retrieve a hat that blew off someone’s head as they made the jump to the ship — from the tender before us. The ship is not allowed to dump anything, including, I assume, hats, into the seas off of Rapa Nui. Listening to the radio traffic from the hat recovery operation was hilarious. “I think he has it with the pole, no it got away, Tender number 9, do you see it?” Hat recovered we got on the ship. Suzi had a rough landing. The swell that raised the tender to the platform when she got off was particularly big so when they said “now” Suzi stepped off into thin air, to be caught by the two catchers and into the arms of Henk, the hotel director. I was off first and heard the gasp of those following Suzi so turned and see my wife held, mid-air by crew members. She was fine.
Once on shore it was sunny, not too hot, in the mid-70s, just a beautiful day. And it’s a beautiful island even without the big statues. But after the drama of tendering the rest of it seemed almost anticlimactic. The Moai were magnificent but I did not feel their “Mana” (spirits). Our Polynesian lecturer told us to be open to the “Mana” but I saw big rock statues created to protect tribes from enemies. The statues didn’t work. Rival tribes simply tipped them over, face down, before attacking, draining the Moai’s power. To me they were big rock statues, fascinating and beautiful, but built at the cost of denuding the island of trees to use as rollers to get them from the quarry to where they were erected, creating an environmental disaster. When Captain Cook arrived some of the statues were still standing but 50 years later all the statues had been tipped over to be re-raised in the last century. Some were again toppled by tsunamis.
The Moai get their “Mana” when the eyes are installed. They are carved in a quarry (Rano Raraku) which is the side of a volcanic mountain. It was the most interesting of many interesting places on the tour. The almost complete Moai were rolled down the hill and across the island on logs to their sites, only then are eyes sockets carved and eyes inserted. If they break on the way they never receive their eyes or “mana.” The hillside and fields are littered with broken sightless Moai. Some half buried sticking out of the earth at odd angles. Of the existing standing Moai only one still has its eyes. There are eyes in the museum, which was closed, it was Sunday. (While over a thousand Amsterdam passengers were on shore, I never felt crowded at the sites, there are so many of them they can absorb the crowds, and the tours were on smaller, 18 seat buses.)
The other highlight was a beach (Anakena) where palm trees from Tahiti were planted giving it the south seas look. It is called the birthplace of Rapa Nui culture. After the Moai there were topped the winds covered them with sand, which meant they were better preserved than most. Thor Heyerdahl helped recover those from the sand and re-raise one of them using the traditional method of log levers and rocks piled under the statue after each levering. It took 11 men more than a week. After that they used cranes. The one female statue from this site (one of only 5 female statues on the island) was not reinstalled but carted off to the museum. I found the whole thing fascinating and horrifying, knowing that a people created an environmental disaster to build statues to protect them that didn’t work. A lesson for our world today.
That evening the ship was happy. People who had failed to get to the island in the past had gotten there. Even those on their own got ashore, although for less time than they had planned. The crew came in for universal praise and in the piano bar Diane from Ketchikan, who writes a port song outlining the experiences of each day, sang a parody of “Sounds of Silence” about the tendering process “The seas go violent.”
We are heading west toward Pitcairn Island. We’ve finally crossed into a time zone west of where we started. Our circumnavigation has now really begun, although it will be hard to beat the “prelude.”