When Nichols Brothers Boat Builders employee Jim Stach departed South Whidbey onboard a Nichols built mixed-use ferry Dec. 14, the surroundings were quiet with only a few onlookers.
Fast forward to the morning of Jan. 4. Stach is on board the vessel as it sails into Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, to a large crowd, fanfare and the sound of horns echoing throughout the harbor. This is how American Samoa greeted their newest vessel built by Nichols Brothers, the MV Manu’atele.
“What people wouldn’t understand is this wasn’t just Nichols delivering a boat to American Samoa,” Stach said. “When we sailed into the harbor, there was fanfare you wouldn’t believe.”
Stach traveled to American Samoa as the company liaison to make sure things ran smoothly on the cross-sea voyage and to represent the company when the ship arrived to the South Pacific island. He oversaw the American Samoan crew that operated the vessel from Langley to Pago Pago before receiving a hero’s welcome in the nation’s capital. He and Peggy Stach, his wife who flew to Pago Pago to meet him, even met government officials and the country’s newly elected governor, Lolo Matalasi Moliga. Moliga was inaugurated the day before the vessel arrived, but Peggy Stach said the boat’s arrival was more festive than the inauguration.
The vessel departed Nichols Brothers Aug. 29 for South Whidbey Harbor, where finishing touches were applied. The boat departed Dec. 14 for Hawai’i, where the crew refueled, before heading toward Pago Pago Dec. 26.
The American Samoan government purchased the 140-foot vessel for $13.6 million.
Local newspaper Samoa News reported the boat was joined by the country’s other ferry and fautasi, traditional Samoan rowboats that can hold up to 50 people, as it sailed into Pago Pago Harbor. The port administration building sounded a horn signaling the ferry vessel’s arrival and was followed by horns from the ships and cars on board. The horns echoed throughout the harbor for 30 minutes as crowds cheered the American Samoan crew.
“The ceremony goes beyond words for how excited the Samoan people were about this boat,” Peggy Stach said. “Everybody from Joe Schmo down to the governor was thrilled about it. It’ll be a huge boon for local commerce.”
The celebrations weren’t simply for show. American Samoa previously only had a single, aging mixed-use ferry cargo vessel to transport people and goods from the largest island, Tutuila, to the other six islands. The MV Manu’atele will primarily serve Tutuila and the other significantly populated island, Manu’a, but will at times be used to venture to the other islands and neighboring Samoa. The boat represents a boon for commerce as well as improving connectivity between the islands.
“Manu’a island lawmakers expressed appreciation to the government for the new Manu’atele vessel, which they say will further important transportation service to the island,” Samoa News reported.
Jim Stach said some people are already relocating to some of the smaller islands, or moving back after initially leaving to be closer to services and work. He said it opens more than the island’s commerce, but also villages that were once so isolated it was hard to make a living.
For American Samoa, the MV Manu’atele isn’t “just some boat,” according to Stach. It’s a symbol of pride, of community and of forward progress. While Stach admits some island residents may have been more welcoming to him and his wife because he worked on the boat, he added the generous welcome was just the American Samoan way. He described the people he met as some of the most genuine and friendly people he has come across over the years, and built lasting friendships with one particular family. For him, the trip mixed business and pleasure.
“I basically have a whole Samoan family: a brother, a sister and six nieces and nephews,” Stach said. “I’m just journeyman Jim, but they treated me like one of their own. Peggy and I will probably end up retiring there.”