As far as you can go – Eddy in the UK

Eddy was a strong character, full of bravado and often wanting to be at the centre of events.  But I saw a different side to him when we were leaving the island one time.  Edsel and I headed back to the UK, and Edsel was going to stay with me for a couple of days before going home to Nashville.  Eddy had been invited to a conference in Gibraltar and was to be a guest of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the UK beforehand.  He was full of life as usual on the ship, although he got a nasty bout of vertigo as we were getting off at Ascension Island.  To be honest, it was not his fault.  As usual the rollers were rocking the ship and the barge roughly, and the ladder on which we were descending was rolling back and forth and occasionally becoming detached from the platform before banging straight down on it.  The staff were trying their best to help the passengers to get safely from the ladder to the barge and on to the launch, but one lady was getting more and more frightened by the ladder jerking around.  Unaware of the hold up, the ship’s crew had let several other people onto the ladder.  Eddy started screaming at me to move and I had to scream back that it was out of my control.  We got off safely but I still have visions of the ladder breaking free of the ship and bashing  on to the barge, dropping everyone into the rough seas below.

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BBQ night – with Edsel and Eddie Duff

Eddy had worked at the airstrip in Ascension for a while and he spent the couple of days waiting for the plane going round all his haunts.  But then I learnt that he had never been any further in his life.  This well read, social animal had only ever been in St Helena and Ascension Island.  He flew with us to Brize Norton where he was supposed to be being met by someone from RSPB but nobody turned up.  His other friends were heading in all sorts of other directions, mainly to Swindon and London where there were concentrations of Saint populations.  We had a rental car and I offered to drive the north side of the M25 and drop Eddy off at a train station so he could get up to the RSPB headquarters in Sandy, Bedfordshire.

As we drove along the winding B road up to Witney, I realised Eddy was tensing up in the passenger seat next to me.  He said “I’ve never seen so many cars”.  He was not prepared for the steady increase in vehicles we then saw on the A40, the M40 and by the time we got to the M25 he just tightly shut his eyes.  En route on the M40 we passed Stokenchurch, a location famed for the concentration of the re-introduced Red Kites.  With his bird knowledge, I thought he might be fascinated to see them circling overhead, twitching their huge tail feathers this way and that to control their direction.  He said, peering out through one eye, ” I can see them, you keep your eyes on the road”.

We turned off the motorway at Potters Bar.  If it had been almost anyone else I would have dropped him at the station entrance, said farewell and gone on our way.  But of course, Eddy had never seen a train in his life before, had never bought a ticket from a machine, and I had visions of him catching the wrong train and ending up in Peterborough, or worse, Scotland.  So we parked up and walked him through the whole process.  As we sat on Potter’s Bar for about twenty minutes waiting for the local train to Sandy to arrive, I pointed out the expresses passing through at 120 miles per hour.  He cringed in  the seat and was worried about my safety as they approached.  Finally we put him on his train, told him the number of stops to count and got reassurance from another passenger that he would help Eddy get off at the right station.  The doors slid shut, Eddy waved like a little boy going to boarding school for the first time.

The next year when we went back to St Helena, Eddy was full of his trip, in a typical Eddy way.  He soon had mastered the British rail system, flown to Gibraltar, presented his paper and now was a king of storytelling of his amazing adventures in Europe to people in his local pub in Jamestown.  You can’t cow Eddy’s spirit for long.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 – 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.

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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.

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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.