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The last boat to St Helena

Features |

As Britain’s remote island dependency acquires an airport, Matthew Engel makes a final voyage there by sea

I grew up as part of Britain’s first post-maritime generation. By the time I was travelling abroad, planes were ubiquitous and safe, if still a little exotic. I had occasionally been to sea, but never on an ocean, yet I saw in New Year’s Day 2016 at a barbecue-cum-disco on a calm, warm, cloudy evening, heading north-west through the South Atlantic, with Africa a hundred-plus miles to starboard and Brazil a couple of thousand to port. When the moment came, we did it in traditional style, with balloons and Auld Lang Syne, and I found myself being kissed by women of various nationalities, some of whom I had known for several hours.

At New Year, I often find myself wondering where – or if – I will see in the next one. But at that moment I was worrying more about the ship we were on. The chances are that the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) St Helena will see in 2017 on a tropical beach in Bangladesh, being broken up for scrap.

For a ship in its mid-twenties, an average lifespan, this would not be a tragedy in itself. But this vessel is not being replaced. Later this year St Helena, the remote island she has served all her life, will finally join the world’s air map. A £250m airport, paid for by the UK taxpayer, is nearing completion. Some on the island can hardly wait; others see it as an historic mistake.

At the very least it will be the end of a romantic era: the last regular long-distance service of its kind – the only practical way on and off this intriguing island for a substantial and quite sophisticated community, and for anyone who wants to go there at a steady speed of 15 knots. It takes five days to get there from South Africa; soon it will be five hours.

For the RMS, as she is known to all St Helenians, has never been just functional. She is the island’s figurehead and a bastion of old-fashioned charm. When she meets her breaker, it will mark a significant change, not just for the 4,500 inhabitants of St Helena, but in humanity’s relationship with the sea.

First trodden by man in 1502, St Helena became known both for its isolation – hence its selection as a high-security prison fit for an emperor – and its role as a kind of Birmingham New Street of the high seas. It became a vital stopping place for sailing ships: the East India Company ran it as a supply depot, particularly for ships heading north, borne that way by the wind and current. But steamships and the Suez Canal made the island less important, and by the 20th century the relationship had turned round completely: the ships no longer needed St Helena, but St Helena still needed the ships.

The island was then served by the Royal Mail ships run by Union-Castle between Southampton and Cape Town. But it was a grudging kind of stop, like a country railway halt: one old timetable lists St Helena alongside the word ‘occasional’. In other respects Union-Castle was famously precise: its weekly mail and passenger service left its two termini at 4pm every Thursday.

There must be a good few Oldie readers who made the journey on the various Castles: John Woodcock, now 89 and the doyen of cricket writing, went out to cover the 1956-57 MCC tour of South Africa on the Edinburgh Castle, returned on the Cape Town Castle, and remembers happy times of deck tennis and dinner jackets. ‘You’d get a lot of landowners who took their holidays after the pheasant shooting ended in February,’ he recalled. ‘A fortnight to Cape Town, a fortnight in the Mount Pleasant Hotel, a fortnight home’, stopping at St Helena ‘occasionally’.

But the enemy was overhead: jets were starting to trump jollity. In the 1960s Union-Castle tried to compete by building faster ships, cutting the journey to 11 days. The two remaining British colonies, St Helena and its next-door neighbour, Ascension (a mere 800 miles away), were left with new cargo vessels which could carry a dozen passengers. The islanders called them ‘two-hour ships’: the schedule was so tight that anything left unloaded after that time had to wait till the next run. But in 1977 the once-mighty Union-Castle line gave up the ghost and left St Helena to take its chances.

To prevent the colony from rotting, the British government had to buy a ship, the first RMS St Helena. By then many St Helenians – ‘the Saints’ – were escaping the chronic lack of opportunity at home to work on the RAF base at Ascension. Tim Walpole, now the chief engineer, joined the ship in 1978 and remembers the migrants being billeted on deck, steerage-style: 36 camp beds under a tarpaulin, with two shower/toilets between them.

Those paying more had an old-style experience. ‘The pursers came from Union-Castle and they brought with them the old traditions,’ says Walpole. ‘We wore white mess almost every night and dinner jackets were expected. Whatever Union-Castle did, we did.’

After the Falklands War, many Saints got work there as its garrison was built up; and there was a growing influx of expat Brits into the island, brought in on hefty salaries to help St Helena’s development with their expertise, or boss the Saints around and make a nuisance of themselves.

By now the old St Helena was clearly inadequate, so the new RMS was commissioned. At 7,000 tonnes it was twice as big as the old version, though still only a quarter the size of the old Castles and less than a twentieth the tonnage of today’s biggest cruise liners, which could comfortably hold the entire population of St Helena. The RMS normally arrives from Cape Town every 18 days, and the rhythms of the shipping schedule define island life: the hope of something nice arriving (‘Express delivery? Certainly, sir. Should be with you in a month or two’); the pain of a loved one departing.

I had this voyage in mind ever since a half-Saint family moved into our neighbourhood and told me tales of the ship and the island. When I realised that the ship might be near its end, I knew I had to go. I never regretted it. Everything our friends had told me was true, except for claiming there were eight courses at dinner when the true figure is six... and I never saw anyone but me get as far as the closing savoury.

The food rituals stem from Union-Castle, from the English breakfasts through mid-morning bouillon, lunch and tea to dinner-time. But the formality has become something of a pretence. Though there is a difference between the stately cabins of B deck and the four-bunkers on C, this is a one-class ship. And the regular journey is not from the UK but from the new South Africa.

‘The clientele has changed,’ one officer told me. ‘We carry a lot of South African tourists who, if they owned a tie, wouldn’t know how to tie it. And lately we’ve been carrying a lot of airport construction workers. We do like jacket and tie at dinner-time. But everyone’s paid for their ticket and if they’ve only got a pair of shorts, we can’t say they can’t eat.’

But in other respects the Castle spirit has continued. John Hamilton, the booming purser, presided amiably over quoits, shuffleboard and cricket, played with ship-made rope balls (hit one overboard and your score is wiped out).

The ship had the virtues of the island itself: an affability that has vanished from the connected world. After 20 years on the route, Hamilton must have known half the 127 passengers before we left port, and the rest by the time we arrived. The one drawback of life on board was that reading on deck was difficult because somehow a conversation would start.

Perhaps the Britishness was a bit too overwhelming, like the Welsh rarebit after the pudding. Questions like ‘What is a greasy spoon?’ in the ship’s quiz bewildered my Scandinavian team-mates. A French passenger told me that if you write to the shipping company in French they fail to reply. The trip could have been much better marketed – but for my personal connection I would never have known of it.

I doubt if the dullards who sit next to you on a plane for hours without saying hello will take to the old courtesies of St Helena. Visitor infrastructure is rickety, and though the southern-summer climate is near ideal, there are no decent beaches. There is great walking, fishing and diving. But it is a place for travellers, not tourists. As things stand, the only regular flight will be a weekly service from Johannesburg to a short, problematic runway that is prone to fog.

The arguments about the airport persist. ‘I genuinely believe that tourists will come,’ says Rodney Young, captain of the RMS and a Saint himself. ‘And Saints will find it much easier to travel. What we have now is not the way forward.’ Hamilton, who is British, disagrees. He accepts that it will be much easier to deal with medical emergencies but says that freight arrangements will be much worse. ‘For the price of the airport you could build a brand-new ship, 50 metres longer and run it for 20 years. Cape Town in three-and-a-half days, not five.’

In principle, it is too late for all that. The last voyage is set for July, with an elegiac trip to London, returning to Cape Town and thence to the knacker’s. Ticket availability for the remaining journeys is said to be ‘almost impossible’. But there are rumours of buyers who would give the old girl a new role. And the airport has still not been given its final safety certification.

The RMS may yet keep plying this route a little longer and maybe even chug gently into 2017. Cruising, but not cruising. Going somewhere special.

This story was from April 2016 issue. Subscribe Now