Samoan Tsunami Survivor

Damage from the recent Samoan Tsunami.

Damage from the recent Samoan Tsunami.

Tsunami Survivor

Told by Neil Lumsden to Zachary Keenan. Check the photo gallery below this article…

At first light I was down at the shore loading up the boat same as any other day, getting ready for another sunrise session out on the shelf. I had my son Manoa and my good friend Stu Wallace’s son Kealoha, Manoa’s best buddy, with me cruising out on the boat. They were going to keep each other entertained playing with Lego’s in the boat while I went to get a few early morning barrels to start my day. I anchored my boat on the mooring I had setup in the channel, around the corner of the pass inside from the shelf. I left the groms to play and went to catch a few waves.

Tsunami survivors: Neil and Manoa Lumsden.

Tsunami survivors: Neil and Manoa Lumsden.

One of the surf camp boats was already out there with a few guys on it getting some good waves. Being one of the closest waves to the shore, about a half hour into my session another surfer, Darren, paddled out to join me, and we traded a few waves before things got hectic. We had no warning, being out in the water outside of the reef pass we didn’t feel the earthquake happen, and everyone was caught completely off guard.

I looked behind me to see the reef going dry all of the way to the shore until the shelf was sticking up about 15 feet out of the water.

All of a sudden, while sitting at the usual takeoff spot on the reef, I looked behind me to see the reef going dry all of the way to the shore until the shelf was sticking up about 15 feet out of the water. The normal channel turned into a puddle and my boat was nearly dry-docked sitting in a tiny pool of water. I knew instantly what the situation was, that this was extremely serious, and I began paddling as fast as I possibly could to get to the boat and the groms.


After the ocean receded, the surge began to fill back in within about a minute. The water hit my boat and began pushing it toward shore, but the mooring was still hooked and the force of the surge pulled the line taught until it began pushing the nose of the boat down into and under the water. There was only so much length on the line, and as the water level rose above normal sea level and continued pushing the boat toward shore, the nose of the boat began submerging. As this began happening the groms were thinking the boat was going to sink and were ready to jump out and swim, so I yelled at them both to stay in the boat. The force of the water was so powerful that even though I had gotten to the boat, the current was so strong sweeping past us and pulling on my legs that I couldn’t pull myself out of the water in order to climb into the boat. Somehow, my tomb-stoning surfboard flipped over so it was lying on top of the surface, which released the tension pulling on my leg and I told my son to grab me and help pull me into the boat. Darren, the surfer that had paddled out from the shore, paddled over to the boat also and had the same trouble climbing out of the force of the surge, with the current pulling on his board trying to drag him in. I told him to take off his leash in order to get free from the pull of the water and as soon as he did he was able to get up into the boat, but his surfboard was gone in an instant. The other surfers in the lineup went over toward their surf camp boat, which had come loose from its anchorage, and got it started so they could motor out to sea.

The tsunami that smashed parts of Samoa hits the outer reefs as it approaches land. Photo: AP

The tsunami that smashed parts of Samoa hits the outer reefs as it approaches land. Photo: AP

At this point my boat was so inverted by the tension on the nose that the rear of the boat was sticking up out of the water and the prop on the engine couldn’t move us anywhere because it wasn’t in contact with the water. Darren laid himself along the rear of the boat in order to put enough weight on the back end to get the prop into the water. We got the boat to power just barely fast enough against the speed of the surge so that we could get just enough slack on the line in order to pull the lanyard off of the hook on the nose of the boat and release us from getting pulled under. As soon as we got free from the mooring line I turned us out through the channel and we went out to sea to wait out the tsunami.

We sat way outside of the shelf just to be safe, and watched as the surges powered toward shore and absolutely leveled everything. Complete devastation the likes of which I have never witnessed before, everything was washed away into everything else, boats into huts into cars into trees, with water surging about a mile inland in some areas. The melee of destruction was unfathomable, as the muddy and debris-saturated flow of water pulsed in and out about 4 times before finally receding back into the ocean.

watched as the surges powered toward shore and absolutely leveled everything.

When we came back in to survey the damage is when the severity of the situation really began to sink in. Everything on the south coast was leveled, from high-end luxury resorts and low-budget surf huts, to churches and the local Samoans’ traditional fales (open-walled dwellings with a cement foundation and four posts supporting a tin roof). It was absolutely devastating to see the power of the ocean take everything out in a matter of minutes. I found my car about a quarter of a mile inland, crushed like it was in a trash compactor, flipped upside down and sitting on top of another car’s roof, stuck in between some trees. I realized I was one of the only people on the south coast whose boat had not been destroyed because it was out at sea when the tsunami struck. Unfortunately, numerous people lost their lives during this tragedy and our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those suffering from this loss. It was an intensely depressing day, with everyone in shock at how to begin the recovery process from this horrific event. Without a doubt this was the gnarliest experience I have ever gone through in my life.

From Neil Lumsden:
Malo Lava Family And Friends,
Thank you all so much for your emails and support, we really appreciate it. So many of you have expressed an interest in helping the people of Samoa get back on their feet, which they badly need. Many of you may know our beloved family in Tafitoala who run the Sina PJ beach fales (Malae, Netina, Sina , PJ, Jery, Aska, little Will, and the elders). Fortunately the entire family survived the horrific ordeal of the tsunami, but now they need all the help they can get to rebuild their homes as well as their lives. A Relief Fund has been set up in their name to help mitigate the costs of rebuilding. Anyone interested in helping out this wonderful family please send donations to:

Sina PJ Tsunami Relief Fund
National Bank of Samoa
Account# 5-138777-005
Swift Code: NBSLWSWS

Check out the photo gallery below…