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.

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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.

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.

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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.