On the RMS – First night at sea

On my first trip, the evening came towards an end; it had been a quiet night and my thoughts turned to how I would spend my first ever night at sea.  I worked my way back to my cabin down the corridor from the main lounge.  Unlocked the door, fumbled for the light, fumbled for the bathroom door, abluted and headed for the bed to undress.  An evening of good food and plenty of booze had made me forget I was nursing a horrible injury but as soon as I tried to undress a searing pain crossed my lower ribs.  I struggled to remove my shirt, and it was even worse when I tried to bend to take off my shoes.  After a couple of low groans and contorted face expressions,  I managed to push back the crisp white sheets, fall as gingerly as possible into my cot and draw the sheets back across me.

Then I had to get out again as I realised I had forgotten to turn the bathroom light off.

Lying in the dark I tried not to think of the pain in my chest.  The motion of the ship rocked me side to side in my bunk and the low throbbing of the engines three floors below me was ever present.  I found that I nodded off very quickly and another experience was under my belt.  I slept so well and it was almost as if the RMS itself was rocking me and singing me a lullaby.  For the first time of many, I started to think of the ship as a person.

Next morning the thin curtains across the port hole let in light as soon as the sun made its first rays come up over the Atlantic.  I rose soon afterwards, well rested but my torso very stiff from the bruising.


Not glass on this occasion but still a lot calmer than you might expect

I got myself together and went for a quick breath of air on deck.  A few people were having a smoke up there but otherwise it was all quiet and as for the view, it was blank.  I was surprised to see that after the rolling of the night we were sailing across a sheet of glass.  Here in the middle of the Atlantic, the last thing I expected to see was a calm sea, but here it was – as level as a billiard table, as reflective as a new mirror.

On the RMS -What it feels like to migrate

My first evening aboard was very quiet, a few drinks around the lounge chatting to guests.  Nice to get to know who was going home, who was going to be working on the island, who was just starting out on their holiday of a lifetime.  At the bar before dinner I had come across a large Scotsman who was downing a pint of draught lager and getting ready to order a second.  He looked rather nervous and at first I thought it was the ship’s motion that was concerning him.  He told me he was planning to start on St Helena as the resident dentist.  He’d left his wife and small child behind in the UK and was going to get set up and if everything went OK they would follow him over.  I could see he was not certain about his mission, and this was the first few hours of “the point of no return”.  Here we were, at the mercy of the RMS, heading slowly but remorselessly to one of the most remote inhabited places on the earth’s surface.  I could empathise with him a little.  I took the plunge to move to the BVI in the October of 2001.  There was so much to do to arrange the move, put stuff in storage, work out what I was to do with my house, my finances, as well as contractual arrangements at the other end and finding out what life was going to be like there.  Emotions ran high from time to time, from excitement to sheer terror, to chastisement at how stupid I was being for giving up home comforts and familiarity.  I remember being taken to Heathrow Airport by my good friend, Vicky, and after a tearful farewell and assuring her that if it was not for all her support and assistance I would not have been able to uproot like this, I went through to the departure lounge and felt a numbness.  I was there – my life’s belongings either stored away in a shed in Maidstone ready for transhipment, or being processed into the hold of an American Airlines flight to New York.  I’d travelled through here so often but had never felt so isolated.

As I sat on the aircraft and watched the UK grow farther away below me, I had a sense of resignation.  It was not a particularly sad moment, although there were tears in my eyes.  It was that now I was fated.  I had no choice at this point.  I just had to sit here and go through with what I had planned.  And this was the sense I saw in this dentist’s eyes.  He looked nervous, but in fact had just come to terms with his fate.

I suppose the prospect of St Helena had different affects on everyone on board ship.  For the Saints, this was a homecoming; they looked forward to being with friends whom they may not have seen for a couple of years.  For the holiday makers there was the sense of mystery.  For some, like this dentist, it was more about the fears of whether the island, its people and infrastructure would be enough to sustain them.  And there were those of us who were planning to work on the island for a short term.  For a first visit, I fell more into the holidaymaker sense of excitement.  When I returned it was more like a returning Saint.  I’d already learnt to love many of its people and wondered at its scenery and could not wait to taste it all again.  Second time around I had Edsel with me and could not contain myself at preparing him for the richness of experiences about to hit him.  I had to hold back sometimes as I wanted him to explore and get involved himself, and particularly to experience that anticipation of doing everything for the first time.

On the RMS – The trials of walking and sickness on board

One of the aspects of this trip that had caused me some trepidation was the feeling of seasickness.  I’ve been on many boats and not had much trouble, but there was one very nasty experience in St Vincent when I was working on the coastal project there.  I had tried to prepare better for this, making sure before I boarded I had something sensible in my stomach.  And I also had found a tablet called Stugeron that others had recommended.  I’d taken a couple in good time before I got aboard but on the first trip I did feel a little queasy as we waited in harbour for the ship to be ready to depart.  I think it was because the stabilisers for the ship were not activated and the RMS was buffeted in lots of different directions at the same time.  It made it very difficult for my inner ear to decide which way was horizontal.  The way I had dealt with it in harbour was to grab a cup of tea in the sun lounge and head out on deck  Once in the fresh air, I was able to focus on the horizon and stabilize myself.

Now we were under way, I felt no ill effects at all, the stabilizers stopped the swaying in two  directions so all you had to deal with was the up and down of the waves we were crossing ahead of us.  I never had another queasy moment on any trip I had with the RMS.  However, on my second trip down the weather turned nasty not far out from Ascension Island and while I carried on as normal, I found I was amongst only a handful of the 70 or so passengers that were following the routine.  So many were holed up in their cabins, rolling around on their beds trying not to throw up, and many not succeeding.  I was in the bar in the evening and I commented on how quiet it was to one of the stewardesses.  She said yes, she had been helping the doctor go round the cabins and injecting strong anti sickness shots into people to keep them calm (and hopefully let them get to sleep).

So while the sea sickness was solved, the movement of the ship still caused physical challenges.  When you have never been on a ship you think of all the comedy films that show items sliding back and forth across floors, but the carpets and the fixtures make sure things stay in place.  I loved the little sticky mats on the tables where you could put a plate or glass and be sure it was still there as you crossed the next wave.

You got used to walking down the corridors, timing the steps to go with the flow of the rocking.  I could even work out how to get water on the right part of my skin when in the shower, although in the confined space it was rare that I would get through a bathe without banging my head on something.  It was a bit of a surprise if you went over a crest of a particularly high wave as you sat on the loo – when it turned more into a bidet than a lavatory.  And you just had to concentrate very hard when shaving.


The Sun Deck but watch out for those heavy doors!

The areas in which you had to take extreme care were around the outside doors.  These were heavy duty watertight doors; left open in good weather to help ventilation, they were closed shut during any bad weather.  If you decided to chance your luck and head out to the open deck, you had to be ready with all your force to make those doors open and ensure all limbs were well away from the gap as it could swing back with many Newtons of force on the next wave.  I found all these dynamics just a series of new problems that needed to be adapted to and life on the ship settled down easily within a few hours of boarding.

On the RMS – Pavlov’s Dogs

Every day the entertainment staff would leave a few documents on our desk in a glossy folder.  There would be the ship’s news telling us of the order of the day, times of meals and entertainments and when different facilities would be opened and closed; the gym, the laundry, the bar. There would also be information of which table I might be invited onto for dinner.  There were three class of cabins on board.  The luxury or B deck, the standard or A deck where I was resting, and the economy or C deck down amongst the galley and dining room.  Depending on how much you were paying it seemed, you would be invited to sit at one of the officer’s or maybe, the captain’s table.  Otherwise you just came in and found a gap on one of the other tables.  If the ship were busy there would be two sittings.  But whatever, you were not allowed in the room till the call was given over the tannoy.  This is an annoyingly catchy tunelet, somewhere between “Come to the cookhouse door” and Lily Bolero.  Over the days on board you almost hang around the speakers like Pavlov’s Dogs waiting for the call.  I would tend to get changed and head over to the bar for a quick beer.  On the first ever night I looked at the prospect of being all at sea, miles from coast.  As the stewards went round the lounge and closed the curtains, I appreciated that the best way to deal with all that ocean was to shut it out and get comfort for being in a warm, cosy room with lots of easy chairs, bright orange and red decor all round me and the idle chit chat of people in transit.  Don’t worry that there are thousands of metres of water below you, and no chance of survival if something went wrong.


On board the RMS

When the jingle sounds it is down to the belly of the ship to fill your own belly.  After the austerity of Ascension Island it was a treat to open the blue mock leather menus.  Three weeks of chips and burgers and pizzas, the odd roast dinner and lots and lots of tuna fish cakes, it was a pleasure to see soup and salad starters, a choice of main courses longer than three options, and a range of delicious cakes and desserts, biscuits and cheese.  All served as professionally as in a good restaurant back home.  And washed down with a wine or a beer.  And with conversation thrown in.  It was a little bit of a shock for a development worker like myself, more used to sidling into a cheap restaurant or sit silently in a hotel bar and wolf down your meal as quickly as possible before getting too drunk to find your way back to your hotel room.

Three courses of lovely food later, I would head back up to the main lounge where coffee was served by white gloved stewards, and I went for a digestif from the bar.  On my first night I met the Government of St Helena’s lawyer, and he introduced me to the delights of port and brandy.  I love a good port, having been introduced to it in my university days on a trip to northern Portugal.  Brandy I can take a few and I love it in Christmas Fayre, but never become a connoisseur.  Put together I found a deep smooth drink with a rich sweet flavour, texture and colour.  And what is more, it warmed the innards so wonderfully that even if there is no medical proof that it does you good, it felt like it settled a full stomach.

On the RMS – Navigating round Ascension

St Helena is to the south east but the anchorage next to Georgetown is on the north west side of the Ascension.  So it makes little difference which way you head out.  I’ve been both ways.  If you travel down the west coast you get to see the fuel depot and the American air base before turning the corner round by the airstrip and all the weird and wonderful masts which make up Mars Bay.  But I much preferred going round the east side of the island.  You leave Georgetown behind and pass the golf balls near Comfortless Cove but then have a superb vista of the BBC World Service Transmitters and power station.  The backdrop of the taller mountains in the centre of the island is incredible here, the colours so vivid in the sun, but it only gets better and you come turn southbound.  As I’ve already explored in other places, there are only a few places you come down to the coast on this eastern side of Ascension Island, and although it is good to see North East Bay from the sea side, it was much more revealing to see the low coast beyond the firing range, and then the dramatic cliffs of Spire Bay, White Horse and on to Boatswainbird Island and the Letterbox, all of these unreachable by vehicle under normal circumstances.  The sea bird colonies were a hive of activity, the sun was starting to set behind Green Mountain making that even more dramatic than usual, a fiery cauldron of light and cloud against the dark silhouette.

I stayed on deck as we passed by, but I could see as we turned the north east corner of the island that we were not going to stay close inshore and the island started to retreat into the distance.  As an escort to the departing ship, a pod of pantropical spotted dolphins leaped about in the RMS’ bow wave.

As it went dark I headed on inside and back to the cabin.  It was getting to dinner time and I needed to get changed.

On the RMS – Watching the stevedores

Under the bed was a metal box containing a couple of stout lifejackets.  This reminded me that I was told on being shown to the cabin that the safety drill would take place once everyone was aboard.  There were three short blasts across the ships tannoy and I dragged my jacket out and followed people up to the sun lounge at the top of the ship.

Geoff Shallcross, the fantastic purser, warmly welcomed everyone on board.  He and a couple of crew helped explain all the rules about being on board the ship.  The two major fears were fire and water.  Smoking was banned indoors and outdoors there were strict rules on disposing of butt ends.  All too easily the smouldering remains of a cigarette could end up sucked through the air vents into the bowels of the ship.  We had several minutes of fun putting on the lifejackets.  Once you had the knack they were simple but if you misinterpreted the instructions or just started from the wrong angle you could get yourself tied up in knots.  We were also told about what to do if someone was suspected of going overboard.  One simple trick that makes so much sense to me once told was to fling one of the lifebelts over.  Not so much for the casualty, as the ship moves so fast that it is unlikely your aim could be that good in a swell to reach them, but just as a marker.  By the time the ship has slowed, turned and come back the person could have drifted a long way and is unlikely to be spotted in amongst the grey rolling waves, but at least an accompanying bright orange ring might be spotted through binoculars from the bridge.

Having scared us all to death with the safety drill, we were warmly welcomed on board again and told of the schedule for the rest of the day.  As he did so we could hear the anchor being drawn up and we softly glided away from Ascension Island.

For the other two passages to St Helena, Edsel was alongside me.  One time when we boarded at Ascension Island the captain decided to change the order of service.  We were called early to the wharf and were put on board while the cargo was still being loaded and offloaded.  We travelled over in the new launch (which was covered) and, knowing we had a few hours before heading off, I grabbed myself a cup of tea from the sun lounge and headed out forward to watch the stevedoring.

The RMS is a curious shaped ship.  The rear half is for passengers, the front half contains most of the cargo placed within a giant hold between the bridge and the derrick.  The derrick is on a single swivelling pole but there are two cranes attached to this.  On the day I watched only one crane was in operation and it seemed to be that a generous amount of cargo was being taken off to Ascension.  I think it was probably because it was a month since the ship had last visited.  I was interested to see that a pile of containers had been loaded from the wharf into the hold already and that a few items going off had been left till last.



It was slow progress and I had time to look over to the mass of Ascension Island in the late afternoon sunshine.  I’ve crawled all over the volcanic peaks and valleys of this island and could pick out and name every feature, the towering Green Mountain the most dominating and for once not with its head buried in cloud.  The island looked so quiet and peaceful even now – the activity of the RMS one of the few dynamic events of the month.  The launch was making another trip across with some more passengers.  The barge was heading out with one container to be picked up by the wharf crane.


The view back to Georgetown

The crew in the hold were preparing to do some lifting and I realised what was left was not the routine containers but delicate items that needed some careful handling.  Crew were positioned all around the hold, one guy nonchalantly dangling his legs over the side of three stacked containers waiting for the process to begin.  A supervisor got everyone positioned and the crane operator moved the crane’s hook over the deck.  A cradle was attached to this hook – a square formation of clips were made by metal poles fixed between the ropes.  A  series of long slings were attached  to each corner of the cradle and it was dropped deep into the hold.  More crew detached the ropes and spread them out across the lower deck and a car was driven from deep within the ship over the ropes.  Reattached to the crane’s hook the car was gently lifted vertically to the main deck then eased out over the edge of the ship.  More ropes attached to the axles were held in place by four people to keep the alignment of the car square and stop it swinging against the swell or wind.  Ever so slowly it was dropped down onto the waiting barge.  The process was repeated for a second car.  Next pallets stacked high with onions, potatoes and rolls of paper were offloaded in nets.

As the last launch arrived with boarding passengers, the two cars were sailed across the wharf and the last two precious items were moved.  From the ship came a small red wooden crate with about ten grey bags in it.  This was the Royal Mail delivered to Ascension from St Helena (and possible further afield), the raison d’être for the ship in the first place.  Considering the size of the ship and all the other activity, this little box of bags looked pretty insignificant.

A second crate was offloaded from the ship, this time it was empty.  With great care several staff packed it with cardboard boxes marked “eggs”.  I assumed this was a delivery of eggs which had come down from the UK by the Airbridge and was intended for use on the ship; after all St Helena did have chickens.

The crate came back over the side of the ship with more care than for the cars and the mail, placed meticulously on the main deck and offloaded an carried below by hand.  Then, the tidying commenced.  The crew on deck gathered up all the loose ropes and cables and nets, the barge below was let loose from the ship and sailed back to a mooring point in James Bay.  The crane operator took his crane and turned it along the side of the ship facing straight at the bridge.  He then transferred to the other cabin and turned the crane which had been stationary to point towards the prow.  The cranes locked in position by crew at either end of the deck, the operator shut down the machines and descended his ladder to the deck.

I was close by the bridge and I watched the ship’s officers pace up and down.  They could do little till the foreman below had finished his work and tidied up the decks.  Finally the instruction was given and the roof of the hold closed to seal in the containers.  Just one or two containers were left on deck; one a refrigerated unit.

And then we were away.

On the RMS – Exploring the cabin

The ship loomed up; it did not look as fragile as when I had first seen it from the shore.  We drew alongside a flat barge and were marshalled across one by one.  A metal step ladder was dropped down from the ship and we were guided on to its bottom rung.  It swayed a little but it was relatively easy to get up on board and through the smallest of water tight doors and into the foyer of the ship.

At once everything was different.  I was in a hotel.  Wall to wall carpeting, atmospheric lighting, a reception desk and a whole heap of crew in uniform keen to get our lifejackets off and move us away from the entrance where more passengers were trying to get through.

I was directed over to the reception desk and checked off against the manifest.  I had the luxury of a 2 person cabin to myself and was handed some keys and shown up one deck.  My big red suitcase was just behind the door and I busied myself with some unpacking.  As ever, if I stay more than one night I like to unpack and spread out.  I was impressed by the ergonomics of the cabin.  Just to my left was a small cubicle that contained a wash basin and toilet and a shower with curtain.  The whole floor was part of the shower and it drained in one corner.  Beyond to the left was a small wardrobe and then my single bed, with the top bunk folded away.  At the far end by the porthole was a small desk with a few drawers and a locker and a chair.  Everything was chunky and solid.  The drawers and doors on the furniture closed with a satisfying clunk, the bed had a small lip to stop you falling out in the night.


My cabin

The RMS had been built in 1989 to replace a much older ship and the decor had a feel of that age – coming out of the drabness of the 1980s but still with a slight simplicity  that was neither as delicate as Art Deco nor as clean as more modern interiors.  It also had a slight smell that you get on so many forms of transportation or in many hotels.  It was clean but you could see that efforts were made to eliminate all evidence of the previous occupiers and sometimes this meant a level of disinfectant did not smell homely.

I was excited and keen to try out everything.  The simple heating mechanism said HOT COLD and you pushed a lever from one side to the other to make it work.  I was to find out just how simple this was when I went to the engine room on one trip.  There was a radio dial attached to the wall that picked up short wave, but the effect of having one of the largest short wave transmitting stations in the world just a few miles away on Ascension meant that all I could hear at present was static.

On the RMS – On to the launch

The wait seemed interminable and from my position I could not really see much progress but I knew from the trucks coming past on the road that the cargo was steadily being loaded up or carried off.  It was a laborious process as the RMS cannot tie up at the pier head at Ascension.  The little stone breakwater hardly dips its toe in the water, and the water itself is always too rough to let big ships in – it would bash itself to bits in an hour.  So all the cargo has to be gently lowered by crane onto flat barges which bob up and down dangerously close to the wharf, it is then chugged out to the RMS waiting safely at an anchorage about half a mile out to sea.  Derricks on board ship then lift the containers or other goods aboard.


Loading cargo

The same is true of the passengers.  When we were finally called we had no easy passage across and for this reason the port officials take our safety very seriously.  I had a brief word with Lawson Henry who was controlling the operations.  He had been very kind and helpful in our work on this first trip, exploring how to use marine data in the big island wide GIS.  He directed his staff to hand out the lifejackets to us and assist people in the correct way to wear them.  I  peered over the edge of the pier and saw how the swell came up six feet at a wave.  I started to regret carrying my laptop as my hand luggage – its heavy body could only be carried by a rather long and difficult strap.  We all queued next to the steps.  A small launch had pulled alongside but given the swell could not tie up.  The helmsman had to skilfully steer the launch back and forth to keep it close to the steps.  The engine was being constantly thrust forwards or into reverse.  A couple of guys held on to either end with ropes but I think that was only to reduce the nerves of some of the older and frailer people in the queue.  One by one we were guided down the slippery steps, encouraged to hold on to a rope and, when the boat was heading closer to the jetty, be told to jump into the arms of one of the boat’s crew.  If they were lucky they could get two or three across before the launch moved too far away, sometimes you had to wait a minute or so for the launch to be repositioned into a spot close enough for the jump.

Finally it was my turn; I had reduced the strap on my laptop as much as possible and tightened it across my chest to give me both hands free and then in an instant I was across.  I then had to get used to a whole new sensation, the rolling of the boat as it fought against the swell.

I was directed to a seat on the far side of the launch and looked back up at the next set of passengers leaping across from the wharf.  Abruptly the helmsman thrust the engines forward and span around to head off to the RMS.  Once away from the breaking waves the passage was a little easier but given this was the calmest harbour in the whole of Ascension I still felt like a lettuce in a tossed salad as we headed out.

On the RMS – Anticipation to board

That buzz never matched the first time I was due to travel on the ship.  Edsel and I had worked for Conservation for about three weeks and I had seen him off at the airhead a few days before to return to Nashville.  I alone had been invited to go on to St Helena.  To fill in the time,  I’d been out surveying with the Conservation guys, including falling over on the hard volcanic rocks and damaging my ribs.  I spent a restless last night on Ascension, in pain from my ribs, but also full of expectation of going on a new form of transport for me to a location that is so exotic even I could not fail to be impressed.

I’ve been on the water a few times of course.  The Mersey Ferries were a  treat from when I was a kid.  The ferries to Scottish Isles and the Isle of Wight, a canoe here or there, a river trip up the Norfolk Broads,  and hopping around the BVI archipelago for work and pleasure.  And I’d had a windsurfing lesson in BVI.  Not really a list that could make me a master mariner.

Contemplating the three days ahead I realised in all my forays onto the water I had never been out of sight of land before.  This would put right to that  – once away from Ascension Island I would see no land till we approached St Helena, some 750 miles to the south east.

I’d collected the all important tickets from the Dock Office near the pier head in Ascension.  It was a fascinating little envelope with a letter proving I was allowed on board, some instructions for how I should get ready for boarding, a couple of tags – “Hold” and “Cabin” – for my luggage.  I said goodbye to many of the staff down at Conservation, checked out of the Obsidian, and Tara loaded up my bags in the Land Rover for the short drive down to the Pier Head.  We parked up on the large car park below the huge stone store house.  When the RMS arrives, the Pier Head itself is closed off and I had to head to a shed to have my bags x-rayed and checked in.  Despite this being one of the remotest islands in the world and with its two military bases, the shadow of September 11th still hung over all travel.


Edsel in the waiting pen on the second trip over

I then had to wait.  I went over to the open shed on the left of the pier head and settled down on one of the benches along with a number of other Saints and visitors.  Some people I had been working with on Ascension Island; they were travelling home to St Helena to see their families.  Others I may have seen the last couple of days since the last southbound flight had come through and they had been billeted at the Obsidian in transit.

On the RMS – A visitor to Ascension

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.