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.
My first ever view of St Helena
St Helena in the morning twilight
A peek at the hills above
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?
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.
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.
One of the engines
The sewage and water systems
Deep in the dark
The electrical control points
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.
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.
On the Bridge
Glimpse into the control room
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.
And that was pretty much your world for three days. It sounds a bit claustrophobic but in fact I was able to settle in to the lifestyle relatively quickly. You learnt to slow down and not try to do everything at once. It was best when the sun was out and the wind not so strong as you could settle up on the sun deck for several hours, grabbing the odd club soda from the upstairs bar. I sat in the sun lounge occasionally, mainly for lunches, but there was a tendency amongst the saints that they would settle themselves up there early in the day and pretty much stay till dinner time. They would use the time to chat; when I got to know some of them I might stop by for a few minutes and catch up, but they are such a tight knit community that there were stories and inferences that they would discuss that had no meaning to me. The older ones would reminisce at length, and you could see the younger family members would sit alongside and pitch in from time to time. They were basically in training to become long tale tellers themselves when the older generation passed on. There was a lot of card games and dominoes up here; it was like a working men’s club. If all the activity got too much I would head on down to the main lounge. This was often quieter. But I saw people who also wanted to escape the sun lounge chit chat and sometimes would spend an hour or two playing board games from the extensive collection in one of the built in cupboards. I remember a four hour game of Monopoly that whiled away a long afternoon.
Chatting on the sun deck
At lunch time I would wonder whether I should head down to the formal dining room and take another three courses. More often than not I would go up to the Sun Lounge and just partake in the buffet salad. In theory this was more healthy but the number of options available meant that you still came out with a stacked plate. I’d either take it in the lounge or if the weather was nice enough, go through the little assault course of heading out through one of the heavy doors and passed the swimming pool to the sun deck, all while protecting a plate of salad from being blown away and not spilling your fruit juice… or losing your hat.
The A Deck below was predominantly for passenger accommodation – two long corridors running almost the whole length of the non-cargo part of the ship, with the lounge at the far end. On one side of the lounge a small well stocked bar, nearby some tables where coffee and tea were usually on tap all day round. And at the other end an area which could be curtained off to show movies. I was pleased there was no TV on board and my cabins had no entertainment save the archaic radio dials on the wall. It meant you did get around the ship more and had the chance to catch up with people. On the first day you tended to make polite introductions and getting to know what you did and why you were travelling. Second day it was gossip about the ship’s progress and what to do. Third day you were usually laughing and joking like you had known each other since school days.
The A Deck also contained a little launderette – which I suppose on the longer legs over to Africa could have been useful – and a hospital. I chatted to several of the doctors on my trips and most of the time they had little to do and joined in with entertainment duties. But other times they may never be seen. St Helena has only modest medical facilities on the island and there are occasions where the RMS has to medevac people to Cape Town or UK for treatment, and the hospital on board ship has to keep any patient stable enough for up to five days.
Another deck down are the plusher cabins – usually taken up with tourists on their holiday of a lifetime or some of the elite of St Helena. They take up only one side, the front is a series of rooms which serve as the reception and information stand, a small shop for souvenirs, and the purser and hotel offices. I had not really thought much of the services given to the passengers and had always thought the purser’s staff would do everything. But there were specific teams looking after the passengers’ activities including the kids club (which had a riotous play den on the promenade deck) and various games, while the two officers supervising the hotel staff ensured the cleaning and supplies of soap and towels was efficient and almost unseen.
See the A, B and C decks coming down the back of the ship
The other side of B deck was for crew only and you got tempting glimpses into the life below decks when the connecting doors might suddenly open up.
A modern innovation at that time was the internet services. I tried it out a couple of times but it was like going back to the early 1990s for email. There was a ship to shore telephone which some people used to ring ahead, and then there was an old white desktop and a set of instructions to compose an email and send it up to the bridge for relaying onwards. Trouble was you had to use the one account for the whole ship. I did it just to impress my mother and a couple of friends – text only of course. You had to make sure that the other end understood that the email was open to be read by anyone and that if you wanted to contact me directly, you needed to put my full name. The ship’s bureau would print off the incoming email and the hotel staff would leave it on your desk in your cabin… if they could recognise who you were.
Then down one more set of stairs to C Deck. Another set of cabins not far above the foam, the large dining room and kitchens.