Very carefully I placed the strap of my laptop around my neck and made sure all the loose change, keys and passport were safely put away and could not fall out of my pockets. The boardwalk was OK, and our tickets were ripped apart, then we were told to approach the jetty itself one at a time, and walk, as calmly and with as much dignity as you could muster, to the boat to be helped on board.
We were each given orange life jackets that in the humidity were uncomfortable to wear – hard and itchy and making you sweat all the more. The boat had a plastic awning that you could not have open for fear of being drenched, and the mixture of people, oil and west African humidity gave the space a fairly noxious odour.
Packed into the ferry
Once underway it did improve – yes the noise of engine and waves was deafening but we did get some through flow of salty air. I was on the ocean side of the boat could not gauge much of our progress until the lights of the city loomed up on the left and we came into a small inlet. I was glad to see that there was a proper wooden jetty on this side. My next challenges were to retrieve my luggage and find my lift. I had tried to text my driver from the airport side but had received no reply. I need not have worried. Wearing a USAID t shirt and a trilby hat, there stood Haba, a Guinean man who had settled in Freetown. And I got my bag back in one piece.
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.