As far as you can go – Disembarking

From the sea, St Helena looks like a fortress with huge, sheer cliffs completely encircling the land mass.  Only in three places can you drive a car to the coast.  From the deck of the RMS we were facing two of these right now.  To my left was Rupert’s Bay, where the oil supply for the island would be transhipped, and the tuna from the fishermen of St Helena exported.  To the right was Jamestown where most of the rest of the cargo of the island was offloaded and, of course, us.

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Jamestown from the RMS

Even Jamestown looks like a fortress.  Apart from the wharf, a small swimming pool and a tiny park, the rest of the town is hidden up the valley behind a strong white castle wall.  I could just make out a cluster of handsome buildings and a sturdy church tower crammed into the valley.  But the most striking feature in front of us was a set of steps.  In the half light of an early morning they were lit by a string of lamps and reached from the town to the top of the cliff.  This is the longest set of single flight steps in the world and one of several key landmarks that I wanted to explore on the island – Jacob’s Ladder.

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Early morning arrival

Disembarkment takes over an hour.  First the immigration officers come aboard and run through the passports in the main lounge.  Then the launch starts to ferry people back and forth.  Down onto the floating platform – leaving behind the comfort of the ship into the blustery turbulent environment of James Bay.  Then a helping hand on to the launch and the short journey to land.  The cliffs look impressive enough from the ship, they are overwhelming as you draw close.  Like in Ascension Island the ship cannot dock on the wharf, and has to stay about 1/2 kilometre offshore.  The promenade goes from end to end of the valley mouth, but the only truly deep enough, sheltered spot to bring the launch in close is at the far eastern end.  Sheltered is a relative term, as the little boat comes up close a rolling wave can easily push it close in to the overhanging cliffs.  With supreme skill they keep the launch as stationary as possible while the passengers swing over on ropes onto the hard.

I had some trepidation about coming ashore after three days at sea, and I was not disappointed.  The old sea legs had been quite easy to obtain on the RMS, but the land legs took about three days to find.  It was not so much the wobbliness of my limbs, but the disorientation at being on solid ground.  Particularly if I lowered my head to look at the ground, the earth would come up to meet me.  There was a low throbbing in my head which seemed to echo the lost noise of the ship’s engines.

A small white bus sat next to the ropes and carried the frail and infirm along the wharf.  Most of us elected to walk, dodging the port staff starting the process of bring ashore the containers.  One large crane was already in position hanging over the sea wall in readiness for the barge.

We headed into an open shed where the hold cases had been already discharged.  But this first trip to St Helena was the only time that happened.  Once I arrived early evening and although it was dark we were allowed off.  Our hold baggage did not make it though and we had to make do with overnight bags before heading back down to the wharf the following afternoon to retrieve our bags.

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 – 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.