On the RMS – Ennui and Arrival

If you are heading north there was always a lively spirit.  People from St Helena were heading away to work or on holiday.  Tourists and visitors like me were on their way home and thoughts started to turn attention to the plane ride back from Ascension Island and the drive around the M25 (daft to think of that in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean but you did).  When you were heading south there was a different mood.

Firstly, if you were on the three day cruise, the last few hours seemed to drag and drag.  You had run out of things to do.  I would read pages and pages of books.  I could not concentrate on any work on the laptop.  I felt so lethargic at the quantity of food and drink consumed and the lack of exercise.  And everyone else’s mood changed too and compounded the sense of listlessness.

Down near the lobby there was a jigsaw laid out on a tray on one of the tables.  On my first trip it was a picture of a tiger walking through long grass.  I’d avoided it for two days but had seen a few people, mainly couples, having a little go.  On my third afternoon I gave in and sat down at the table.  For the next three hours I plugged away.  I made little progress.  The corners and sides had been done but only a few little areas in the centre had been completed. There were a couple of floating clusters of pieces that stuck together.  The trouble was the sandy soil and long grass was exactly the same colour as the tiger so the whole picture was a mass of orange, black and white stripes with buff patches.  But I stuck at it because, frankly, there was nothing else to do before dinner time.  A few passengers would pop over and assist for a few minutes, and being close to the purser’s office and one of the doors to the crew areas, several staff gave a smile and an encouraging word as they went past.

In the end, all these activities are just filling in the time before the arrival in St Helena.  My first time I arrived overnight.  I wanted to wake up early to see the approach but by the time I awoke after the heavy night before, I opened my curtains to see a few white streetlights dotted around a dark looming hillside.  The second time we approached in the daytime.  I joined a host of Saints up on the bridge deck to see the outline of this mountainous island come into focus, start to see details and eventually see the gash in the mountains where the capital, Jamestown, comes down to meet the sea.

On my first visit I had a lot of thoughts about what it might be like to live on this little rock in the middle of the ocean, what the people might be like and how the work was going to go.  For the saints there were usually strong emotions.  Some may not have been able to get back to the island for a couple of years; others were just overwhelmed with happiness to be back where they belonged.

We pulled in as close to James Bay as we could, slowing all the time, then the chain of the anchors were dropped and we had arrived.  The next part of the adventure was ready to start.

On the RMS – night time entertainment

Geoff’s other great talent was he knew every game you could ever play on a ship.  As well as the daytime exploits of quoits and cricket, some of the evening games were particularly inventive.  Once coffee was cleared away you might find the tables and chairs moved aside in the lounge and the carpet rolled up.  Eventually this would turn into a disco, but usually there was time for some strange games.  I got involved in one which ended up with another passenger sitting on my knee trying to throw quoits.  We also did frog racing.  A piece of string was threaded through a frog drawn on a piece of ply board; one end of the string was tied to a chair, the other end to a hand spindle.  The aim of the game was to get the frogs from one end of the room to the other by winding the string on the spindle.  There were also the games which involved doing intimate things with balloons. It was a good job the kids were tucked up in bed and could not see it.  I wondered where the purser staff kept all the props they used; they had an inexhaustible supply of bats and balls, wooden cut outs, pieces of string that appeared each night.

The entertainment staff did a grand job – they were up at the crack of dawn to get the days’ events going and they were playing music or tidying up long after most people had gone to bed. On the last night they would try and have a big event out on the sun deck.  I remembered my first trip the party was cancelled due to bad weather, but I had some memorable evenings up there.  By this stage in a voyage you knew everyone and mucked in.  The crew set up a barbecue and laid out a huge buffet table and you went back again and again to pile up the plates.  After dinner there were games – quizzes and the best game of nine pins I have ever had.  One particularly uproarious evening found a gang of us stripped to our underwear swimming in the pool.  I had a sore head after that night.

On the RMS – invitation to the captain’s table

By the time you had scrambled all over the engine room it was getting late in the afternoon so of course it was time for tea.  Despite having eaten huge meals all day and done precious little exercise, many of the passengers, including me, found myself either in the main or sun lounges hanging around for that moment where pots of tea and coffee were presented.  A cup of tea did no harm, of course, but they would lay out a couple of plates of sandwiches, biscuits and cake.  One small cake would be OK, and it would be rude not to sample the butties.  And when you go back for another top up of tea, why not accompany it with a Bourbon?


Dinner soon

Couple of hours more to dinner time.  What to do?  I tried to work.  It could be a bit lonely stuck in the cabin so I often would find a quiet corner of the main lounge.  Trouble was that almost everyone who came in there would want to exchange a few words.  Eventually I got too tired of trying to do anything.  There would be time for work once we got on to St Helena.

Dinner time would roll round again and more amazing choices would come out of the galley.  I did get a couple of nights on the Captain’s table, but more often than that I was on the junior officers tables.  When I travelled alone they made sure I was in the company of the crew’s table; they never seemed to worry so much when Edsel was with me.  The crew did their best to entertain but you could see for some of them it was awkward.  The Chief Engineer was with me a couple of times; very nice chap but he managed to get through his “where do you come from and what do you do” interrogation before the soups were served and from then on unless it was something about greasing cogs or fixing pipes he did not find it easy to engage.  The purser staff were of course, far more used to entertaining and the kindest was Geoff Shallcross.  On my way back to Ascension Island for the first time, I was privileged to be on Geoff’s final voyage.  From Ascension Island they were heading back to the UK where he would disembark at Portland for the last time and retire to his home in North Devon.

He was born to the Purser’s job – he did it with incredible but hidden efficiency and for most of the time he just looked like he was having fun and inviting you to join in.  For the tourists and first timers like me, he had a huge warmth.  With the Saints he loved them like they were his family.  Which indeed they were.  He had spent over twenty years sailing to and from the island, and had seen generations of Saints be born, grow up, marry, have kids and, I suppose, die.  He knew all their back stories, their nicknames, their foibles.  He would joke with them; sometimes you saw him in a corner with a little old lady and they would be quietly reminiscing, maybe even being sad together at the loss of another dear friend.

And he had the most wicked sense of humour.  On my last night back to Ascension I had joined him on his table in the dining room and we were bantering back and forth like two school kids; he then invited everyone upstairs for coffee in the main lounge and the usual port and brandy.  The chat went on for several hours and it felt not like you were being supervised by a crew member, but having spent the perfect evening with your best friend.

On the RMS – deep in the bowels of the ship

The other tour that could keep you busy was down to the engine rooms.  I found this far more fascinating than the bridge.  This time we grouped in the main lobby and the purser took us through the holy door that led to the crew’s area, past their rest rooms and canteen and down into the bowels of the ship.   We were introduced to the deputy chief engineer  – a big Scottish guy in a blue boiler suit.  He had a great patter and mocked the white uniformed bridge crew.  Of course, he said, they think they make the ship work but in fact it is the engineers that make it happen.  The officers can hit buttons and shout orders but it does little; he showed us the panel from where all the ship’s operations could really be controlled.  As he talked various alarms kept on going off and lights on the panel lit up.  He would nonchalantly take a look, press a button to cancel the alarm and carry on talking.  These alarms went off with alarming regularity.  In fact on my first night of sleep the one thing which did keep me awake was that I could hear these sirens through three decks.  Now I was down here they were deafening and accompanied by flashing orange lights.  We stood here listening to the descriptions from the engineer for several minutes, he explained that there were several areas of the engine room that were far too noisy.  We were also given a safety briefing.  He told us of a number of watertight doors that we should step through with care.  While they are all open they have automatic systems that if something serious happened in one part of a ship like a leak, a fire or chemical spillage, these doors shut themselves.  They slide across and because they are powered by strong hydraulic rams nothing can stop them; they could easily slice anyone caught in its way in half.  I must say that was about the most scary thing I heard on the whole trip and despite my consciousness telling me there was nothing wrong with the ship, my subconscious made me skip through these doorways pretty damn quick.

He showed us the panels, including the ship’s stabiliser controls, which turn out to be little more than slabs of metal that are poked out from the hull once underway.  He also told us of other simple technology.  The heating controls in our rooms were a sliding mechanism which you could move at varying degrees from hot to cold.  The engineer let us into a secret – the slide is connected to two tubes, one carrying cool air, the second carrying hot air and all you are doing by moving the slide was controlling the amount of air coming out of those tubes into the room.  But it worked very well.  The ship was built before so much computerisation and digitalisation of everything had taken hold, but what you had was very simple, very effective mechanical solutions.

We saw the twin diesel engines which power the ship’s propellers.  Only one was in use for the first trip.  A spike in diesel prices had meant that the shipping company who owned the RMS had to recalculate how to make savings and someone had said if they only used one engine for half the time and retimed the trip from the usual two nights to three nights between Ascension and St Helena it would still be cost efficient to run the service.  This had the downside that for the second half of the voyage you really did feel like you were sailing through treacle as you plodded along to the south east.

We were also shown the auxiliary engine which powered the lights and the freezers, the hospital and the music decks, the ships equipment and the vacuum cleaners.  When you were up on the public decks you get a sense of how ergonomic and self contained a ship can be, down here you realise just how self sufficient it is too.  We got to see the desalination plant which provided everyone with safe drinking water from the ocean around it, and also a huge (and slightly malodorous) vat full of the ship’s sewage.

On the RMS – The view beyond the guard rail

Only once on 6 trips on the RMS did I ever see another ship, though.  I was in the main lounge reading late one afternoon when someone came in and started staring out the window.  I asked what was up and he replied by pointing.  I went over to take a look but it was way off in the distance, so I hurried up to the promenade deck to find most of the ship’s passengers leaning over the guard rail on the starboard side.  How could something as simple as this become the focus of everyone’s attention?  Obvious – because there was so little else to do!


All at sea

Now I may have built this up to much  but the ship was not close – in fact it was only because it had three tall derricks that we could see it at all – the bulk of the ship was below the horizon.  It was heading in the other direction so we only had its company for about 15 minutes before it was lost to us forever.  I spoke with one of the crew saying about how this had been the first time I had seen another ship on any voyage.  I got a travel weary reply that yes we are off the main shipping routes but you do see ships from time to time.  The bridge will always try and make contact to get information from them, mainly about the weather and sea conditions but there had been some pirate activity in some parts and it was always good to know the way was clear – particularly at night.  I wondered what the little RMS looked like from a distance.  It had the appearance of a small provincial ferry at the back, and a coaster at the front.  Apart from its distinctive yellow funnel it was a very ordinary looking ship, but to see it from a distance plying through the deep ocean waters would always be a bit of a surprise, I surmised.

There was very little other activity to look at but most people were still fascinated by the rolling of the sea and the spray, the ever changing cloudscapes, and especially the dramatic sunrises and sunsets.  Seeing wildlife was a matter of chance.  Although dolphins were common round Ascension and St Helena themselves, you rarely saw them out here – the crew would report if there  were some chasing the bow wave.  The odd whale might breach way off but I never saw them.  One dull morning I went for a blow around the promenade deck.  About 100m out from the boat, a large tern was struggling in the wind.  We were about mid way between the islands and I wondered what had blown him so far off course and all alone out here.  You could see by his flight pattern that he was utterly exhausted.  I thought he might try for the ship but despite coming close by he flew overhead and continued on in a westward direction.  That way, his nearest land would be Brazil – over 1000 miles away.  Did he ever make it?

One species that made a regular appearance was the flying fish.  I could sit on deck for ages watching them.  I imagine it was the noise and wake of the ship that scared them but there may have been predators below.  A shoal would emerge from the water, flick their wings modified from fins as wide as they could and glide two three wave crests away.  If they caught the right breeze they must have been transported a couple of hundred metres in one flight.  It was almost as if they were catching thermals in the water, or maybe just supreme knowledge of their abilities, but they would be seemingly about to hit the water when they would pitch upwards again and continue their gliding for another ten seconds.

On the RMS – On the Bridge

More interesting for me was to go on one of the guided tours of the ship.  There was always a bridge tour at some point and we were asked to cluster up on the top deck at the appointed time and the Assistant purser would take us in.  We were introduced to the first or second officer who conducted the tour.  I was surprised at how spacious the bridge was.  A series of instruments were spread out across what looked no more than a glorified dashboard.  This effect was enhanced by the fact that the device by which the RMS was steered had come off a Ford Escort.  We were shown both the old chart table and all the modern equipment.  I call it modern but it already had a clunky feel about it even in the early 2000’s.  The computers were huge and sat within massive casings, the screens did one thing and one thing alone.  Nowadays I am sure you could just plug in a standard laptop and it would have calculated all the ships movements and locations and operations in one go.  They did have a small museum of old equipment and they showed us one of the sextants that the first office claimed they still had to use from time to time.

So much seemed to be automatic – once the course was set the ship just rolled on for day after day.  Only when you got to port was there a lot of activity and even there you got a pilot to guide you in.  But out on the open seas there were plenty of hazards.  The weather was constantly changing and although this section of the passage was relatively benign there could still be swells.  I was told the trip was much more uncomfortable south of St Helena as the effects of the Southern Ocean made it a real roller coaster ride.

On the RMS – Bizarre games

And so to the afternoons.  There were a few options here.  I could join in with a game of deck quoits on the sun deck.  I got quite good at that once you had worked out the pitch of the ship and the wind effect.  I did not sign up to the Deck Cricket game on one trip, but Edsel, not wanting to shame his West Indian roots decided he would give it a go.  He was more naturally a tennis player and his stance was not particularly good for cricket – even in a steady sea.  The pursers put up nets all round the sun deck and piled the tables and chairs high against one wall and strapped them rigid.  Apart from the constrained pitch, the rules were pretty similar.  If someone hit the netting it was a four, if they hit a ball over the netting into the sea you got six, but because balls were a rare commodity on ship you were also declared out.  Otherwise other runs were scored running between two wickets.

Bowling was strictly underarm.  This infuriated one of the players; he was also west Indian, from St Vincent, long and lithe.  Even underarm he would demolish the wicket time after time. In the end they had to restrict his movements to no run up or else he would have bowled the other team out for zero.  Many of the crew pitched in on the team and even the captain had a go and got a lot of ribbing from the people he commanded when he was caught out.  I perched myself up on the top deck and got a grandstand view.

On the RMS – Settling into life on board

And that was pretty much your world for three days.  It  sounds a bit claustrophobic but in fact I was able to settle in to the lifestyle relatively quickly.  You learnt to slow down and not try to do everything at once.  It was best when the sun was out and the wind not so strong as you could settle up on the sun deck for several hours, grabbing the odd club soda from the upstairs bar.  I sat in the sun lounge occasionally, mainly for lunches, but there was a tendency amongst the saints that they would settle themselves up there early in the day and pretty much stay till dinner time.  They would use the time to chat; when I got to know some of them I might stop by for a few minutes and catch up, but they are such a tight knit community that there were stories and inferences that they would discuss that had no meaning to me.  The older ones would reminisce at length, and you could see the younger family members would sit alongside and pitch in from time to time.  They were basically in training to become long tale tellers themselves when the older generation passed on.  There was a lot of card games and dominoes up here; it was like a working men’s club.  If all the activity got too much I would head on down to the main lounge.  This was often quieter.  But I saw people who also wanted to escape the sun lounge chit chat and sometimes would spend an hour or two playing board games from the extensive collection in one of the built in cupboards.  I remember a four hour game of Monopoly that whiled away a long afternoon.


Chatting on the sun deck

At lunch time I would wonder whether I should head down to the formal dining room and take another three courses.  More often than not I would go up to the Sun Lounge and just partake in the buffet salad.  In theory this was more healthy but the number of options available meant that you still came out with a stacked plate.  I’d either take it in the lounge or if the weather was nice enough, go through the little assault course of heading out through one of the heavy doors and passed the swimming pool to the sun deck, all while protecting a plate of salad from being blown away and not spilling your fruit juice… or losing your hat.

On the RMS – Exploring the ship (2)

The A Deck below was predominantly for passenger accommodation – two long corridors running almost the whole length of the non-cargo part of the ship, with the lounge at the far end.  On one side of the lounge a small well stocked bar, nearby some tables where coffee and tea were usually on tap all day round.  And at the other end an area which could be curtained off to show movies.  I was pleased there was no TV on board and my cabins had no entertainment save the archaic radio dials on the wall.  It meant you did get around the ship more and had the chance to catch up with people.  On the first day you tended to make polite introductions and getting to know what you did and why you were travelling.  Second day it was  gossip about the ship’s progress and what to do.  Third day you were usually laughing and joking like you had known each other since school days.

The A Deck also contained a little launderette – which I suppose on the longer legs over to Africa could have been useful – and a hospital.  I chatted to several of the doctors on my trips and most of the time they had little to do and joined in with entertainment duties.  But other times they may never be seen.  St Helena has only modest medical facilities on the island and there are occasions where the RMS has to medevac people to Cape Town or UK for treatment, and the hospital on board ship has to keep any patient stable enough for up to five days.

Another deck down are the plusher cabins – usually taken up with tourists on their holiday of a lifetime or some of the elite of St Helena.  They take up only one side, the front is a series of rooms which serve as the reception and information stand, a small shop for souvenirs, and the purser and hotel offices.  I had not really thought much of the services given to the passengers and had always thought the purser’s staff would do everything.  But there were specific teams looking after the passengers’ activities including the kids club (which had a riotous play den on the promenade deck) and various games, while the two officers supervising the hotel staff ensured the cleaning and supplies of soap and towels was efficient and almost unseen.

The other side of B deck was for crew only and you got tempting glimpses into the life below decks when the connecting doors might suddenly open up.

A modern innovation at that time was the internet services.  I tried it out a couple of times but it was like going back to the early 1990s for email.  There was a ship to shore telephone which some people used to ring ahead, and then there was an old white desktop and a set of instructions to compose an email and send it up to the bridge for relaying onwards.  Trouble was you had to use the one account for the whole ship.  I did it just to impress my mother and a couple of friends – text only of course.  You had to make sure that the other end understood that the email was open to be read by anyone and that if you wanted to contact me directly, you needed to put my full name.  The ship’s bureau would print off the incoming email and the hotel staff would leave it on your desk in your cabin… if they could recognise who you were.

Then down one more set of stairs to C Deck.  Another set of cabins not far above the foam, the large dining room and kitchens.

On the RMS – Exploring the Ship (1)

I headed down to breakfast; after last night’s banquet I wanted to have a bowl of cereal and a coffee.  But then I saw the buffet of fresh fruits, and the smells of egg and bacon were overpowering, and the toast and marmalade… well it was just silly not to have at least a round.  So I ate heartily once more and headed back up.  I decided to spend some time that morning doing some work.  I had some more background reading to do about the job I was to do in St Helena.  But the hours passed slowly and I got through what I wanted to do easily.  I decided to explore the ship properly.  As I went up to the sun lounge, a pot of beef tea was being laid out on the small buffet.  I’ve never been a Bovril drinker but I thought, why not.  So I took up a cup, let it cool for a minute and took a taste.  It was a weak beefy taste, but it was another one of those ship’s drinks that settled the stomach.  As opposed to a mid morning coffee, beef tea was a legacy of British Sailors that the RMS could not quite struggle past.

I went out on the sun deck.  A number of tables and deck chairs strewn around a small deep square pool, it was a good place to soak up the sun, but when the weather was bad definitely an area to avoid.  The wind would whistle right across no matter what direction .  If you looked over the back you could see another small deck for the engine room staff.  Often you could lean over and have a quick hello with them as they took their breaks.  Either side of the sun deck were two short promenade areas.  If I was seeking quiet for reading outside I would stand or sit around here – the perspective being slightly different of course – you saw the water going past parallel to you instead of staring at the wake of where you had been.


The sun deck

Tucked away up here at the top of the stairs was a large cabin.  It was reserved for the Governor of St Helena when he was on board, or else sold out at a high price to someone wanting a bit of luxury.  Theoretically the RMS is the Governor’s Ship and he could direct it wherever he likes.  In practice of course, there is a fixed schedule.  When I was travelling up and down the ocean it was usually heading straight from Cape Town to St Helena over 5 nights, and then doing a shuttle to Ascension and back, and then back to Cape Town.  They would also call at Walvis Bay in Namibia, which at one time had been a tiny enclave of South Africa.  There had been some experimentation with stopping off in Lüderitz, a small town in the south west of Namibia.  The thought was that revenue could be increased by selling  a more cruise like experience.  Unfortunately there was little to do in Lüderitz except wander around in the intense heat looking at old Dutch style architecture and it was slowing up an already snail’s pace service to the islands.  Twice a year the RMS would head up to the UK, taking over two weeks to do the round trip.  It would stop off at Tenerife and at Vigo in north west Spain where the locals had got a taste for fish from the South Atlantic.  For many years the RMS would turn up at Portland just south of Weymouth in southern England.  Here some items which could not be shipped to other locations would be put on board.  Right hand drive cars for example would be stacked on board.  But the UK run was stopped in 2010 and the service simplified.  Twice a year, the ship would head over to Tristan Da Cunha, one of the world’s most isolated communities.  The UK Territory of St Helena covers both Ascension Island and Tristan, and The Governor would try and get down there at least once a year to carry out various duties.  Ascension was always an easy option for the Governor – he could pass through on his way to the UK for his duties or for leave, but a trip to Tristan had to be organised carefully.  Even with the time taken to get across to the island, there was no guarantee things would run smooth – the tiny harbour at Edinburgh-By-The-Sea, Tristan’s “capital city” of 200 souls, might not give enough shelter to let the RMS drop anchor.