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 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.