As far as you can go – The Reclining Helena fades away

Then the farewells , the jokes, the hugs and the kisses have to stop.  The officials in the port start to gather the passengers for their security checks (yes even here) and line them up for the launch departures.  That moment where you drop down off the main wharf on the little platform under the cliffs to swing over to the launch, and sit there in your red lifejackets staring up at those left ashore, know you have left the island, but know you will be able to see it for several more hours to come, is another emotional hurdle to plough through.  No quick take off and away like aircraft.  The launch roars into full throttle and away you go – boarding the ship once more, the welcome and familiarity of the rooms and the staff, anticipation at the days of nice food and silly games.  But you must go up on deck one more time and look at the island.

And once you are there you cannot leave that deck.  You grab a mug of tea in your hand and piece of cake and head out, and with all the passengers, some you know, some you don’t, you longingly stare back at Jamestown proudly sitting in its gorge, the ladder and , if you are lucky, a glimpse of the green heartland in the clouds above.

You sit there for what seems like hours as all the official activities are seen through, finally the land crew disembark, the final doors are closed, but still you stare back at the land, you cannot bring yourself to embrace the ship.  You might be dragged back in for the safety briefing but once complete you are back on deck.  The island is starting to recede; first it gives you a wider view of the island – you spot a few new features you now know well – Flagstaff Hill, there is Lemon Valley, High Knoll Fort becomes prominent and you see the houses of Half Tree Hollow below.  Look – there is the Barn standing out at the end of the island one end, and now the peaks are standing proud as a backdrop.

Now it is starting to become fuzzy, the late afternoon haze is making the detail less visible.  But the overall shape of the island gives one final surprise – you see the shape of a beautiful maiden, maybe St Helena herself, lying on one side across the ocean, her shoulder pointing up where you used to know Flagstaff Hill was, and the Barn has taken on the curious shape of her curly hair.

I always planned to stay out here until the island sank beneath the horizon.  But it never did. It just faded, and faded and faded and then, no matter how tightly I screwed up my eyes, I could not be sure what I was seeing was land or just a billowing cloud.

St Helena was gone.

As far as you can go – The power of the RMS

Tiny, distant, away from the interaction of so much of the world but with a treasury of jewels to offer up, as well as an insight in how to live simply.  St Helena was a perfect location…. but on its own terms.  I feared the upheaval that the Access Project was to bring.  But knew there were many benefits for the island.  Since my last visit there, the Access Project has moved far beyond the consultation stage – the new port at Rupert’s Bay was put in place, a road etched out of Rupert’s Valley and onto Deadwood Plain to give access for trucks to take heavy plant, materials and supplies up to the airport site (the gate at Jamestown would never had been big enough to get what was needed through, let alone having traffic head up to the east through all the existing settlement in Jamestown and Alarm Forest), the Dry Gut is filled in, the runway built and the terminal building standing.  What will it be like when the tourists and visitors first arrive at the east end of the island and have to drop all the way in to Jamestown, instead of approaching the capital from the sea?


A runway is here now


I know what will change.  The rhythm of the island will never be the same again.  You get used to the quiet week or maybe several weeks when the RMS is away.  And you notice the ramping up of the pace of life when it draws near.  Wholesalers, traders, DIY enthusiasts, all rush down to the customs shed soon after the ship arrives to load up their pickup trucks and take their new supplies away. I saw one time where the process was too rushed.  I was sitting in the National Trust office at the end of my first visit, typing up the proposal we were making to the UK Government, when I heard an almighty crash.  We all rushed out of the office but came to a halt at the front steps, as our way was blocked by pints of yoghurt.  A small truck had picked up a month’s worth of yoghurt cartons, I think it was for Thorpe’s supermarket.  But the driver had not secured the ropes carefully enough round the palettes and as he sped up Main Street they became unstable and the load was spilt right outside the offices.  Fortunately no-one was walking along the pavement there at the time or there would have been some nasty injuries, but as it was there was a sticky mess for some time after this.  And a severe shortage of low calorie desserts for the next month!

Big events often take place on the island when the ship is in.  The same afternoon as the yoghurt spillage, I attended a moment in history.  Tucked away in a gorgeous old stone warehouse where once where electricity on the island was created, is now the island’s museum collection.  Well set out on two floors, it covers key stages in the island’s history – the early sail days, the immigration onto the island from so many nations that gave St Helena its diverse ethnic mix, the incarcerations of Zulu, Boer and of course Napoleon, the old houses and the history of the governors and other key people, the history of electricity and telegraphy, astronomy (Halley set up observatories here in the clear southern skies),  life on the island, the various RMS ships and other visiting craft, and key events.  As well as the large ground floor space there is a first floor terrace with displays.  The problem till that day was that anyone who had trouble with stairs could not visit the top floor.  So I went to see the inaugural journey of the first elevator or lift on the whole of St Helena.  The governor was there, with the bishop, the speaker of the house, the chief clerk,  the head of the National Trust, and the duty RMS captain, who presented a model of the RMS to the museum’s collection.  And the guest of honour was Mrs Thorpe, the matriarch of the Thorp family, in whose house I had been staying.  She took her place on the ground floor, and like an Aged Venus rising from the sea, she emerged to the crowd of dignitaries on the first floor.

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.


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.

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.


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.


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 – Ennui and Arrival

If you are heading north there was always a lively spirit.  People from St Helena were heading away to work or on holiday.  Tourists and visitors like me were on their way home and thoughts started to turn attention to the plane ride back from Ascension Island and the drive around the M25 (daft to think of that in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean but you did).  When you were heading south there was a different mood.

Firstly, if you were on the three day cruise, the last few hours seemed to drag and drag.  You had run out of things to do.  I would read pages and pages of books.  I could not concentrate on any work on the laptop.  I felt so lethargic at the quantity of food and drink consumed and the lack of exercise.  And everyone else’s mood changed too and compounded the sense of listlessness.

Down near the lobby there was a jigsaw laid out on a tray on one of the tables.  On my first trip it was a picture of a tiger walking through long grass.  I’d avoided it for two days but had seen a few people, mainly couples, having a little go.  On my third afternoon I gave in and sat down at the table.  For the next three hours I plugged away.  I made little progress.  The corners and sides had been done but only a few little areas in the centre had been completed. There were a couple of floating clusters of pieces that stuck together.  The trouble was the sandy soil and long grass was exactly the same colour as the tiger so the whole picture was a mass of orange, black and white stripes with buff patches.  But I stuck at it because, frankly, there was nothing else to do before dinner time.  A few passengers would pop over and assist for a few minutes, and being close to the purser’s office and one of the doors to the crew areas, several staff gave a smile and an encouraging word as they went past.

In the end, all these activities are just filling in the time before the arrival in St Helena.  My first time I arrived overnight.  I wanted to wake up early to see the approach but by the time I awoke after the heavy night before, I opened my curtains to see a few white streetlights dotted around a dark looming hillside.  The second time we approached in the daytime.  I joined a host of Saints up on the bridge deck to see the outline of this mountainous island come into focus, start to see details and eventually see the gash in the mountains where the capital, Jamestown, comes down to meet the sea.

On my first visit I had a lot of thoughts about what it might be like to live on this little rock in the middle of the ocean, what the people might be like and how the work was going to go.  For the saints there were usually strong emotions.  Some may not have been able to get back to the island for a couple of years; others were just overwhelmed with happiness to be back where they belonged.

We pulled in as close to James Bay as we could, slowing all the time, then the chain of the anchors were dropped and we had arrived.  The next part of the adventure was ready to start.

On the RMS – night time entertainment

Geoff’s other great talent was he knew every game you could ever play on a ship.  As well as the daytime exploits of quoits and cricket, some of the evening games were particularly inventive.  Once coffee was cleared away you might find the tables and chairs moved aside in the lounge and the carpet rolled up.  Eventually this would turn into a disco, but usually there was time for some strange games.  I got involved in one which ended up with another passenger sitting on my knee trying to throw quoits.  We also did frog racing.  A piece of string was threaded through a frog drawn on a piece of ply board; one end of the string was tied to a chair, the other end to a hand spindle.  The aim of the game was to get the frogs from one end of the room to the other by winding the string on the spindle.  There were also the games which involved doing intimate things with balloons. It was a good job the kids were tucked up in bed and could not see it.  I wondered where the purser staff kept all the props they used; they had an inexhaustible supply of bats and balls, wooden cut outs, pieces of string that appeared each night.

The entertainment staff did a grand job – they were up at the crack of dawn to get the days’ events going and they were playing music or tidying up long after most people had gone to bed. On the last night they would try and have a big event out on the sun deck.  I remembered my first trip the party was cancelled due to bad weather, but I had some memorable evenings up there.  By this stage in a voyage you knew everyone and mucked in.  The crew set up a barbecue and laid out a huge buffet table and you went back again and again to pile up the plates.  After dinner there were games – quizzes and the best game of nine pins I have ever had.  One particularly uproarious evening found a gang of us stripped to our underwear swimming in the pool.  I had a sore head after that night.

On the RMS – invitation to the captain’s table

By the time you had scrambled all over the engine room it was getting late in the afternoon so of course it was time for tea.  Despite having eaten huge meals all day and done precious little exercise, many of the passengers, including me, found myself either in the main or sun lounges hanging around for that moment where pots of tea and coffee were presented.  A cup of tea did no harm, of course, but they would lay out a couple of plates of sandwiches, biscuits and cake.  One small cake would be OK, and it would be rude not to sample the butties.  And when you go back for another top up of tea, why not accompany it with a Bourbon?


Dinner soon

Couple of hours more to dinner time.  What to do?  I tried to work.  It could be a bit lonely stuck in the cabin so I often would find a quiet corner of the main lounge.  Trouble was that almost everyone who came in there would want to exchange a few words.  Eventually I got too tired of trying to do anything.  There would be time for work once we got on to St Helena.

Dinner time would roll round again and more amazing choices would come out of the galley.  I did get a couple of nights on the Captain’s table, but more often than that I was on the junior officers tables.  When I travelled alone they made sure I was in the company of the crew’s table; they never seemed to worry so much when Edsel was with me.  The crew did their best to entertain but you could see for some of them it was awkward.  The Chief Engineer was with me a couple of times; very nice chap but he managed to get through his “where do you come from and what do you do” interrogation before the soups were served and from then on unless it was something about greasing cogs or fixing pipes he did not find it easy to engage.  The purser staff were of course, far more used to entertaining and the kindest was Geoff Shallcross.  On my way back to Ascension Island for the first time, I was privileged to be on Geoff’s final voyage.  From Ascension Island they were heading back to the UK where he would disembark at Portland for the last time and retire to his home in North Devon.

He was born to the Purser’s job – he did it with incredible but hidden efficiency and for most of the time he just looked like he was having fun and inviting you to join in.  For the tourists and first timers like me, he had a huge warmth.  With the Saints he loved them like they were his family.  Which indeed they were.  He had spent over twenty years sailing to and from the island, and had seen generations of Saints be born, grow up, marry, have kids and, I suppose, die.  He knew all their back stories, their nicknames, their foibles.  He would joke with them; sometimes you saw him in a corner with a little old lady and they would be quietly reminiscing, maybe even being sad together at the loss of another dear friend.

And he had the most wicked sense of humour.  On my last night back to Ascension I had joined him on his table in the dining room and we were bantering back and forth like two school kids; he then invited everyone upstairs for coffee in the main lounge and the usual port and brandy.  The chat went on for several hours and it felt not like you were being supervised by a crew member, but having spent the perfect evening with your best friend.

On the RMS – deep in the bowels of the ship

The other tour that could keep you busy was down to the engine rooms.  I found this far more fascinating than the bridge.  This time we grouped in the main lobby and the purser took us through the holy door that led to the crew’s area, past their rest rooms and canteen and down into the bowels of the ship.   We were introduced to the deputy chief engineer  – a big Scottish guy in a blue boiler suit.  He had a great patter and mocked the white uniformed bridge crew.  Of course, he said, they think they make the ship work but in fact it is the engineers that make it happen.  The officers can hit buttons and shout orders but it does little; he showed us the panel from where all the ship’s operations could really be controlled.  As he talked various alarms kept on going off and lights on the panel lit up.  He would nonchalantly take a look, press a button to cancel the alarm and carry on talking.  These alarms went off with alarming regularity.  In fact on my first night of sleep the one thing which did keep me awake was that I could hear these sirens through three decks.  Now I was down here they were deafening and accompanied by flashing orange lights.  We stood here listening to the descriptions from the engineer for several minutes, he explained that there were several areas of the engine room that were far too noisy.  We were also given a safety briefing.  He told us of a number of watertight doors that we should step through with care.  While they are all open they have automatic systems that if something serious happened in one part of a ship like a leak, a fire or chemical spillage, these doors shut themselves.  They slide across and because they are powered by strong hydraulic rams nothing can stop them; they could easily slice anyone caught in its way in half.  I must say that was about the most scary thing I heard on the whole trip and despite my consciousness telling me there was nothing wrong with the ship, my subconscious made me skip through these doorways pretty damn quick.

He showed us the panels, including the ship’s stabiliser controls, which turn out to be little more than slabs of metal that are poked out from the hull once underway.  He also told us of other simple technology.  The heating controls in our rooms were a sliding mechanism which you could move at varying degrees from hot to cold.  The engineer let us into a secret – the slide is connected to two tubes, one carrying cool air, the second carrying hot air and all you are doing by moving the slide was controlling the amount of air coming out of those tubes into the room.  But it worked very well.  The ship was built before so much computerisation and digitalisation of everything had taken hold, but what you had was very simple, very effective mechanical solutions.

We saw the twin diesel engines which power the ship’s propellers.  Only one was in use for the first trip.  A spike in diesel prices had meant that the shipping company who owned the RMS had to recalculate how to make savings and someone had said if they only used one engine for half the time and retimed the trip from the usual two nights to three nights between Ascension and St Helena it would still be cost efficient to run the service.  This had the downside that for the second half of the voyage you really did feel like you were sailing through treacle as you plodded along to the south east.

We were also shown the auxiliary engine which powered the lights and the freezers, the hospital and the music decks, the ships equipment and the vacuum cleaners.  When you were up on the public decks you get a sense of how ergonomic and self contained a ship can be, down here you realise just how self sufficient it is too.  We got to see the desalination plant which provided everyone with safe drinking water from the ocean around it, and also a huge (and slightly malodorous) vat full of the ship’s sewage.

On the RMS – The view beyond the guard rail

Only once on 6 trips on the RMS did I ever see another ship, though.  I was in the main lounge reading late one afternoon when someone came in and started staring out the window.  I asked what was up and he replied by pointing.  I went over to take a look but it was way off in the distance, so I hurried up to the promenade deck to find most of the ship’s passengers leaning over the guard rail on the starboard side.  How could something as simple as this become the focus of everyone’s attention?  Obvious – because there was so little else to do!


All at sea

Now I may have built this up to much  but the ship was not close – in fact it was only because it had three tall derricks that we could see it at all – the bulk of the ship was below the horizon.  It was heading in the other direction so we only had its company for about 15 minutes before it was lost to us forever.  I spoke with one of the crew saying about how this had been the first time I had seen another ship on any voyage.  I got a travel weary reply that yes we are off the main shipping routes but you do see ships from time to time.  The bridge will always try and make contact to get information from them, mainly about the weather and sea conditions but there had been some pirate activity in some parts and it was always good to know the way was clear – particularly at night.  I wondered what the little RMS looked like from a distance.  It had the appearance of a small provincial ferry at the back, and a coaster at the front.  Apart from its distinctive yellow funnel it was a very ordinary looking ship, but to see it from a distance plying through the deep ocean waters would always be a bit of a surprise, I surmised.

There was very little other activity to look at but most people were still fascinated by the rolling of the sea and the spray, the ever changing cloudscapes, and especially the dramatic sunrises and sunsets.  Seeing wildlife was a matter of chance.  Although dolphins were common round Ascension and St Helena themselves, you rarely saw them out here – the crew would report if there  were some chasing the bow wave.  The odd whale might breach way off but I never saw them.  One dull morning I went for a blow around the promenade deck.  About 100m out from the boat, a large tern was struggling in the wind.  We were about mid way between the islands and I wondered what had blown him so far off course and all alone out here.  You could see by his flight pattern that he was utterly exhausted.  I thought he might try for the ship but despite coming close by he flew overhead and continued on in a westward direction.  That way, his nearest land would be Brazil – over 1000 miles away.  Did he ever make it?

One species that made a regular appearance was the flying fish.  I could sit on deck for ages watching them.  I imagine it was the noise and wake of the ship that scared them but there may have been predators below.  A shoal would emerge from the water, flick their wings modified from fins as wide as they could and glide two three wave crests away.  If they caught the right breeze they must have been transported a couple of hundred metres in one flight.  It was almost as if they were catching thermals in the water, or maybe just supreme knowledge of their abilities, but they would be seemingly about to hit the water when they would pitch upwards again and continue their gliding for another ten seconds.

On the RMS – On the Bridge

More interesting for me was to go on one of the guided tours of the ship.  There was always a bridge tour at some point and we were asked to cluster up on the top deck at the appointed time and the Assistant purser would take us in.  We were introduced to the first or second officer who conducted the tour.  I was surprised at how spacious the bridge was.  A series of instruments were spread out across what looked no more than a glorified dashboard.  This effect was enhanced by the fact that the device by which the RMS was steered had come off a Ford Escort.  We were shown both the old chart table and all the modern equipment.  I call it modern but it already had a clunky feel about it even in the early 2000’s.  The computers were huge and sat within massive casings, the screens did one thing and one thing alone.  Nowadays I am sure you could just plug in a standard laptop and it would have calculated all the ships movements and locations and operations in one go.  They did have a small museum of old equipment and they showed us one of the sextants that the first office claimed they still had to use from time to time.

So much seemed to be automatic – once the course was set the ship just rolled on for day after day.  Only when you got to port was there a lot of activity and even there you got a pilot to guide you in.  But out on the open seas there were plenty of hazards.  The weather was constantly changing and although this section of the passage was relatively benign there could still be swells.  I was told the trip was much more uncomfortable south of St Helena as the effects of the Southern Ocean made it a real roller coaster ride.