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.
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.