Looking out over the ocean from any headland in Ascension, you saw ocean. It is after all the only piece of rock breaking above the waves for several hundred miles around. You don’t see ships sailing past or planes flying overhead. It is hardly on the way to anywhere. It’s vital importance to the UK is as a refuelling stop on the way to the Falkland Islands so a couple of planes a week come in early morning and head off southwards soon afterwards, a couple arrive late evening from the south and carry on back to Brize Norton a couple of hours later. A US plane may come in from Antigua every week. Except for a very rare visitor, there are no other planes in and out.
On the sea, a small cargo freighter comes in to Clarence Bay every so often, working a passage around the South Atlantic including the Falklands and Ascension Island. The US military station a ship in James Bay from time to time, but otherwise the essential life line that links onto the island is down to one very special ship.
St Helena also relies on this ship to deliver the majority of its requirements. Apart from fuel and the odd tourist day out from an adventurous yacht crew, all the people, the cargo, the perishable goods, the cars, must be delivered by this ship. The ship is named after the island, but is more widely known by the three letters that go before it; the RMS or Royal Mail Ship St Helena. It is one of the last RMS in existence but is the end of a long legacy of delivering communications around the world. Naval ships in the UK are given the prefix HMS or Her Majesty’s Ship. Since 1840, several ships were designated to carry the British mail abroad, allowed to fly the Royal Mail pennant. Despite all the other RMS St Helena’s other purposes, it is this vital connection that even with the predominance of electrical communication defines the service it provides in the South Atlantic. The RMS St Helena is in auspicious company, the Titanic was also an RMS and the current Queen Mary II also carries the moniker.
When you know that most of the time the ocean is empty of ships, to see this modest brightly painted vessel approach is a magical moment. Many a time I have been working on Ascension Island and I have such anticipation to get up early in the morning of its arrival, head down to Long Beach and see it sitting there quietly in the offing, a wispy trail of black smoke emitting from its stack.