End of an era: catching the last boat to St Helena

Jono Waters joins the beloved mail ship, RMS St Helena, on its final voyage to the remote Atlantic outpost

01 April 2018 - 00:00 By Jono Waters

Travel stories are supposed to inspire people to follow your journey. This is not one of those. Rather, this is a tale about the end of an era - the final voyage of the last operating Royal Mail ship to the remote island of St Helena, and I was along for the ride.
Perhaps because not many could afford to bob around the South Atlantic for what was supposed to be an 18-day journey - it became 24 days after final festivities were accounted for - but I found the RMS St Helena totally devoid of hacks.
The island had a dedicated mailship service from 1978, after the Union Castle mailships stopped sailing between Southampton and Cape Town. The RMS St Helena - built specifically for the task in 1989 - was the last of her kind.
The ship has been made redundant by the island's controversial £300-million airport to which commercial flights began operating last October.Voyage 268 would be the last time the "RMS" sailed from Cape Town for James Bay. On January 24, she was piped out of Cape Town harbour by a Scots marching band and saluted with a spray from the tug Enseleni's firefighting cannon. Aboard were 128 passengers and 55 crew.
I felt a little emotional. The band played Auld Lang Syne as we slipped away from the dock. Then, to the strains of the Everly Brothers' Unchained Melody, we headed out into the South Atlantic.
It took nearly six days to get to St Helena but my private cabin meant I could choose my degree of social interaction.
The ship had a daily missive called the Ocean Mail, pushed under my door every morning, informing me what events were planned that day - cricket, quoits, skittles or shuffleboard - and what movies were showing. Each day at noon, the Master of the Watch delivered an update on the ship's position.One of the things the RMS prided itself on was its silver service and there was a lot of food - dinner was always a full six courses. The meeting point for most people on the RMS was over meals. I knew no one.
After suffering a few bores and stuffed shirts, I socialised regularly with a father and son involved in financial services on the Isle of Man and a Brummie translator based in Germany.After suffering a few bores and stuffed shirts, I socialised regularly with a father and son involved in financial services on the Isle of Man and a Brummie translator based in Germany.
St Helena came into view on the morning of January 29. We sailed towards the northeast point, past the new airport, around the flat-topped peak known as the Barn and into James Bay.
The principal settlement, Jamestown, is wedged in a valley on the northwest side of the island. Mostly Georgian in appearance, it has a main street with shops and offices, and two roads leaving the town, ascending both sides of the valley.
It was apparent the ship had been away for sometime as there were many empty shelves.
While ashore, the central gathering point for most of us from the ship was the 19th-century Consulate Hotel, run by Hazel Wilmot, where several of the passengers were staying.
As passengers on the last voyage, we were trailed by a film crew, who spent most of their time interviewing Gunter - an earnest German, whose parents escaped from the DDR (East Germany) via Cairo in 1977 - on his various thoughts on Napoleon, the airport, Jonathan the Tortoise and the island's flora and fauna.The ship also made one last call at Ascension, two days' sailing to the north.
Ascension, we were told, was famous for having relayed the first images from the moon and for being Monica Lewinsky's hiding place after her affair with Bill Clinton. Both claims were hard to prove, although Nasa did set up a tracking station there in 1965 during the Gemini and Apollo space programmes.
Like St Helena, Ascension was a stopover for vessels travelling to and from the East in the days of sail. It's busiest period, however, was during World War 2 when it was used as a refuelling stop for US transport aircraft ferrying troops and supplies to North Africa and India. The Americans arrived in March 1942 and built the airstrip, and the population soon swelled to 4,000.In April 1982, during the Falklands War, Wideawake Airfield became the busiest in the world and the island's population soared once more.
The first thing you see as you approach from the sea is the mass of aerials and antennas - the island is still a Royal Air Force base, a satelllite tracking station, and a relay station for the BBC's World Service.
A tour of the island took us from the village of Georgetown to a breeding colony of sooty terns, whose population has exploded since the removal of feral cats.Avoiding the land crabs, we then headed up Green Mountain to the island's highest point, where a farm operated until the 1990s.
That evening, a feast and final drinks were held at the St Helena Club, the local meeting point, to mark the final call of the RMS. We used the opportunity to watch turtles coming up the beach to lay their eggs.On Sunday morning, the RMS sailed from Ascension for the last time.
We were back in James Bay on Tuesday. Jamestown was decked with banners to say goodbye to the beloved ship. There was a thanksgiving service at St James Church, where Captain Adam Williams returned the Bible given to the first RMS at a service in Christmas 1978. The church overflowed as hundreds of the islanders - its population is 4,846 - attended.
The locals, termed Saints, are certainly not irreligious - aboard the ship the captain held a "Divine service" on the Sunday, where instead of red wine the participants swigged what is known as "Gin for Jesus".
The week's events culminated in dockside festivities the day before departure. The ship's sailing day had been declared a public holiday. The festivities were varied. There was some bad singing by two Irish girls who'd grown up on the island, the cutting of a giant cake in the shape of the ship and a performance by the staff of the RMS St Helena called "The Final Act of Stupidity".That morning, we went swimming with whale sharks, which, if you are a poor swimmer like I am, is mostly a pointless chase. The best view is when they randomly change direction.
Sailing day arrived. A flotilla of boats, jet-skis and yachts followed the last launch carrying the sentinel around the harbour while we quaffed Moët on deck.
Once all the passengers and crew were aboard, the RMS headed northeast to Buttermilk Point, before turning around and passing by James Bay for a final salute. The jet-skis chased us down to Lemon Valley, followed by a launch laden with photographers, out to catch the final picture of the ship leaving the island.
Then it was back to shipboard life.
Despite being the world's greatest non-team player, I managed to captain a cricket team and win all three matches against a much more sporty shipmate, Tristan, whose downfall was picking his mates. I also had the honour of being the only person on board Voyage 268 to attain a strike in the skittles.
However, we performed poorly in the quiz, unable as we were to answer such questions as "Who is the fourth officer?"
On the evening before arriving in Cape Town, passengers gathered on deck to sing God Save the Queen while the Red Ensign - the flag flown by British merchant ships - was lowered for the last time.After 24 days away, we arrived to the view seen by so many sailors in years past - Table Mountain set against a deep blue sky.
The ship - loved by both its crew and the Saints - may be sold or scrapped. Right now it is lying at a berth in Cape Town's Duncan Dock, its future uncertain. The island's paper, The St Helena Independent, noted that the RMS "isn't 6,707 gross tonnes of floating metal. It's the island's heritage."
Before sailing day, Mia Henry, second officer on his "second home" for 17 years, wrote this on a memorial paper wall at the harbour: "How can you forget the excitement of coming home after a long trip away, that feeling of 'let go' anchor in James Bay, the sounding of the whistle and giving the 'blue tug' a well-deserved rest for a few days?"
South African regional airline Airlink operates weekly flights on Saturdays between Joburg and St Helena. Return fares are currently just over R18,000.

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