Captain Adam Williams allowed the club a two-hour slot between ship operations on the afternoon of Thursday 8 February 2018, in recognition of past services. Sam said: “Some of the dive club members have been involved in prop inspections over the years, and this was a final ‘thank you and goodbye RMS’ before she left here.” A guide rope was attached to one of the blades for safety. “We had a few nervous people – some novices – and 60 metres of water below, plus a bit of current,” said Sam. “We had some shoals of fish come in occasionally too.” A large St Helena flag was unfurled underwater for photographs, and then it was back to the surface.”We were very privileged,” said Sam.
Some watched from the quayside, and some climbed to the high ground to watch the RMS St Helena steam across James Bay and out towards the horizon, for what everyone thought would be the last time. It didn’t turn out that way. Just when everyone was coming down from two days of high emotion in Jamestown, the news came through that the ship had turned around. There was an emergency on board, its nature not disclosed. Few wanted to see the RMS sail away after 27 years service; few would have wanted to see her return in such circumstances. It would be the briefest of return visits.
Friday 9 February 2018, the day before the intended final departure, had been declared a public holiday by the governor, Lisa Phillips – who had been aboard the RMS for the ship’s final voyage to Tristan da Cunha a few weeks earlier. But celebrations of the ship’s significance to the island had already begun with a church service earlier in the week, at which Captain Adam Williams returned a Bible that had been presented to the first RMS St Helena many years before. There followed, on Friday and Saturday, “a true St Helenian style programme of farewell events,” as Kerisha Stevens put it in the report from The Castle.
Flags hung from the cranes on the wharf, there was a fancy hat competition – judged by Governor Phillips in a red and blue creation of her own. And there was cake, crafted in the shape of the ship by former crew member Steve Yon, and shared among the crowd.
An open day was held on the ship on the Friday morning. For those who could not get tickets, Saint FM broadcast a live programme from the deck. Who knew there were so many songs about farewells?
In a speech on the Friday evening, Governor Phillips pondered what people would want her to say.
“I think it would be that the RMS St Helena has been as much a part of the island as the island is a part of the RMS. She has been Intricately woven into the lives of all St Helenians wherever they are in the world.”
There would be thank-yous, and many of them: for babies brought home, for families reunited, and potatoes delivered (though more potatoes would have been good).
The highlight, though, said Kerisha, “was the evening performance by the RMS Amateur Dramatics Society as they performed their Final Act of Stupidity much to the crowd’s delight.
“A firework display and release of lanterns rounded off the evening.”
On Saturday morning, the crew of the RMS led uniformed groups in a parade from The Canister to the seafront, watched by a large crowd. And on the Landing Steps, a white “paying off” pennant was presented by Kedell Warboys MBE, director of the St Helena Line, to Captain Adam Williams, its newest captain.
The pennant was 27 feet long – one foot for every year of the ship’s service.
On the rocks above the wharf, in island tradition, the fire service had “updated” a farewell message, originally painted in 1989 by a young Dale Bowers – now Father Dale – in 1989. The earlier message was written at the request of a councillor to mark the final departure of the first RMS St Helena; it just needed refreshing, and the addition of the date – 2018.
The fire service artists were roped up, but young Dale had no such safety measures. He was dangled over the edge and painted the letters on freehand. As he told Sharon Henry of What The Saints Did Next, he was used to coping with upside-down writing, because he worked in the printing office.
When the time came for departure, a flotilla of boats, including lighters, yachts and jet skis, encircled the ship. The fire & rescue service saluted her with a water arch, fired from one of the floating pontoons normally used to carry cargo between ship and shore. Passengers looking down from the decks could see a rainbow formed in the spray.
They had had to go aboard several hours early because a day’s delay to the weekly flight from South Africa meant the customs service had to process all the ship’s passengers before going up to the airport. But they had a close-up view when dozens of red, white and blue balloons were released into the sky after being held down in the ship’s tiny (and otherwise empty) swimming pool.
The anchor hauled up, the RMS made her way to Buttermilk Point, turned around and steamed past the harbour in full dress.
Around the world, many St Helenians watched video footage of the weekend’s events to keep them in touch with what Jackie Stevens called “the saddest day on St Helena, the Final Farewell of our lifeline to our home.”Spectacular footage of the ship sailing, and the wake of the flotilla of following vessels, can be seen on the St Helena Phantom View page on Facebook.
On Facebook, Catherine Turner thanked the RMS “and her wonderful crew.”
“You are the rhythm we live our lives by, time measured in ship-cycles. You have been our lifeline and link to family and friends for so long.”
And Paul Blake wrote: “I just have to say that today has been one if those days that you were glad to say you were there. As promised I shed a tear or two for you that could not be on island in this special day as the RMS upped anchor shortly after 4pm.
“But what a sight she was, speeding across James Bay towards Lemon Valley. Something unique.”
Like many others, he headed to vantage points across the island to watch the ship round South West Point and pass below Sandy Bay before turning sharply for The Cape.
“Goodbye old lady,” he wrote. “Remembering memories sailing away.”
- This was not the first “farewell voyage” that had not turned out quite as expected. In 2016, a last voyage was made to the UK in anticipation of the ship’s retirement from island service, with the new airport opening for scheduled flights. The airport did not open, and the ship stayed in service. Island broadcaster Tony Leo was on board and made a film of the voyage that captured the working life of the ship and its traditions. One of those featured was Adam Williams, who would soon become the third St Helenian Master of the RMS St Helena, and the person who would skipper the ship when she sailed away for the last time.
After voicing misgivings about risk, unfairness and public distrust, St Helena’s councillors have agreed to underwrite a half-million pound loan to the government’s own hotel.
The money is needed partly to pay the contractor for converting run-down offices into four-star luxury accommodation at 1, 2 and 3 Main Street in Jamestown.
Councillor Cruyff Buckley said he would support the guarantee for the loan solely to save the jobs of 32 Saints.
The Hon. Tony Green said: “We cannot possibly allow the hotel to fail.”
The decision was taken by Legislative Council yesterday, after members were told that there was “no risk” that the government would have to pay the full half-million pounds if St Helena Hotel Development Ltd defaulted on the loan.
Four councillors voted against the guarantee: Gavin Elliot, Brian Isaac, Kylie Hercules and Clint Beard. Others voiced their reluctant support.
The coffers in The Castle would only have to cover any instalment that was missed by the company – which is 100% owned by the government itself.
Councillors also heard that the Bank of St Helena had yet to decide whether to approve the loan.
The government decided to fund the hotel in May 2016 after failing to attract an investor willing to take a risk on a remote island with barely any established tourism.
It went over budget by 13.9 per cent because of international currency fluctuations, delays to RMS St Helena sailings, and the cost of bringing artisans to the island to finish the work.
The acting Financial Secretary, Nicholas Yon, said councillors had legitimate concerns about the risks of guaranteeing a loan to pay off the contractor – and keep the hotel running.
But there were “equally significant risks” to the viability of the hotel company without the loan. The hotel could close and jobs would be lost, along with all the investment already made.
“This would have significant economic implications for St Helena in building a sustainable economy and taking full advantage of air access.”
Revenue would be closely monitored to ensure payments were kept. And the government would firm up an “exit strategy” for selling the hotel when it could.
Councillor Tony Green said that if the hotel failed, it was unlikely that “anybody would then have confidence” in development on St Helena.
But he believed the hotel would be a success.
Dr Corinda Essex said she refused to call it the Mantis Hotel because it implied it was owned by the South African boutique hotel chain that runs it.
She said the level of public concern “should not be underestimated.”
“The current undesirable financial situation, however justified it may be, has only fanned the flames of public opinion once again.
“It cannot be denied that SHG should not usually be competing directly with the local private sector and this is a key reason why a clear exit strategy has been developed.”
But she said the island now had a valuable asset at 1, 2, 3 Main Street that enhanced the island’s reputation.
It had yet to bring much return but had great potential. “Those who point out there is considerable risk are correct in their view. We can only hope for the best.
“To effectively pull the plug on such a new venture… is convincingly not in the best interest of St Helena as a whole.”
The Hon. Cruyff Buckley said he supported the guarantee with reluctance.
“I feel I have no choice, bearing in mind the 32 people who work at the hotel,” he said.
“It has been perceived that the hotel is in direct competition with many accomodation providers here, but they have no safety net under their belts when they invest their hard earned cash, unlike the St Helena Hotel Development company.
He wanted Saints to be able to buy shares in the hotel and eventually take a controlling interest.
He expressed doubts about the high cost of loan repayments of at least £50,000 a year.
“On a place like St Helena that is a lot of money, so to downplay any repercussions of what we are about to do is not only misleading, it is unrealistic, and we have to be honest.”
He said people who stayed at the Mantis Hotel had told him they were unhappy to find themselves in a high-end hotel, on top of the high cost of reaching the island.
“Had they known there was other accommodation they would not have been in the Mantis,” he said.
The Hon. Christine Scipio O’Dean questioned the financial projections that had been made in 2016.
“Once more the business plan has turned out to be a dream without much practical realisation, and here we have once more to pick up the broken pieces.
“There is a huge risk the guarantee may crystalise into a liability for St Helena Government.”
Councillor Brian Isaac said he could not vote for the loan guarantee. “I must listen to the people,” he said.
The Hon. Cyril Leo quoted failures by the UK’s Department for International Development in supporting St Helena.
He said the island government’s decision to fund the hotel was made in good faith.
He supported the guarantee with “profound reservations” but called for “an urgent, thorough investigative review of the project oversight, the project spend and the running costs of the hotel”.
Allegations that St Helena’s financial secretary is tied up in conflicts of interest are “grossly unfair”, legislative councillors have been told.
Chief secretary Roy Burke defended Dax Richards after concerns were raised by the island’s public accounts committee.
They resurfaced during yesterday’s debate over whether St Helena Government should underwrite a £500,000 bank loan to its own hotel company.
Mr Richards – one of the highest-ranking Saints in the history of St Helena – sat on the boards of both the hotel and the bank, as well as being in charge of the government’s finances.
Mr Burke said he and Governor Lisa Phillips were reviewing the finance chief’s many roles.
The Hon. Cruyff Buckley told fellow councillors: “Questions have to be asked about our financial secretary and his position on various boards which play vital roles in St Helena’s development – namely the Bank of St Helena, the St Helena Hotel, and also Connect St Helena.
“This council has to ask if this is conducive to public perception of neutrality.
“Moreover, the capacity of the human being to deliver enough focus in one’s primary role, which is attending to the finances of the St Helena Government.”
Mr Burke told councillors: “It’s important to ensure wherever possible we protect members of staff from those perceptions and allegations of conflict of interest, which in all cases are grossly unfair.
“So we are reviewing those posts.
“We are fishing in a very small pond here and when we have individuals who shine it’s inevitable that those individuals get put forward for those posts.”
He said ways would be found to offer such roles to other members of St Helena Government.
He also admitted a need to “make sure we look after our state-controlled entitites in a much better way than we have in the past.”
The Hon. Lawson Henry said the public had “legitimate concerns”, but the government should “allay rumours” surrounding the hotel and its directors.
“In the spirit of openness and transparency and to protect those directors… there should be a full independent audit of the processes and the management of the hotel so far.”
St Helena’s paymasters in Britain have been accused by councillors of breaking their funding promises in the wake of the airport opening. Dr Corinda Essex said that with no investment agreed for the island from January 2018, its failing facilities were becoming “weeping sores”.
Another scandal could blow up after the British government insisted on building a wharf in Rupert’s Bay that could not be used, she warned.
And money was needed for a new prison to end human rights failures, she said. Councillor Derek Thomas called the Jamestown prison “a disaster waiting to happen”.
He reported that Andrew Mitchell, who had signed off the contract to build the airport when he was international development secretary, was “livid” to see the island held back by unkept funding pledges.
The Hon. Lawson Henry said ministers were more interested in protecting officials whose blunders left the island without an air service for more than a year.
The accusations were made during a legislative council debate initiated by Dr Essex on Tuesday.
Councillors unanimously agreed to record their “grave concerns relating to the continuing absence of an agreed capital investment programme to address the essential development needs of St Helena after 1 January 2018.”
Several said they would spell out the island’s “critical” situation in a video conference due to take place later in the week with a minister at the Department for International Development (DFID).
Councillors referred several times to promises that DFID would continue to fund investment after the airport was built, to enable the island to build a tourism-based economy.
But more than one councillor said DFID now appeared to be reluctant to keep its promise – possibly because of damaging media coverage of the airport failures.
Opening the debate, Dr Essex said the situation was unacceptable. “How can St Helena be expected to develop and move forward without the capital injection to do so?
“As we look around us, the urgent need for such investment is blindingly obvious.
“We know we have a prison that is not human rights compliant. Yet when it comes to obtaining funding to build a new prison our hands are tied.”
She also cited the jetty at Rupert’s Bay – funded by DFID – which needs to be protected from rock falls before it can be fully used.
“There is a real risk the British press will be able to call the jetty a white elephant with a lot more justification than underpinned their condemnation of the airport, which caused such a sharp reaction in high places in the British government.”
Other councillors said DFID had pressured St Helena Government (SHG) into dropping its plans to improve the wharf at Jamestown, despite being warned of the problems.
St Helena facilities across the island were “inadequate and crumbling”, Dr Essex said.
Deteriorating roads could not cope with the growing traffic, and there were “critical issues” with sewerage, including the Jamestown outfall. House building was being held up because there was not enough money to put in services at the development areas.
DFID had previously advocated a “spend now to save later” policy, said Dr Essex.”It appears there is now a u-turn in their thinking.
“A number of Saints have made significant investments on which they are waiting to receive some return.
“The British government is always urging us to reduce our dependence but how can they expect us to do so without the required resources to address key issues that are becoming weeping sores, undermining sustainable development?”
The Hon. Derek Thomas said a 32-page economic strategy issued by DFID talked about global challenges but made no mention of UK overseas territories, “so you can see we are being left out.”
“Now we are being set up to fail.”
The Hon. Lawson Henry said attitudes changed when “the airport did not deliver on time” because officials did not follow consultants’ advice to conduct test flights to check the alignment of the runway.
“What DFID has done throughout the last 18 months is to protect those who were responsible for making the decisions that were not in keeping with the feasibility study,” he said.
“Everything about St Helena now has to pass what civil servants call the Daily Mail test. The publicity the Daily Mail has given to the St Helena airport has caused huge reputational damage.
“The British public is clearly upset by the publicity. They don’t want foreign aid to be spent on St Helena any more.”
He said a former minister had admitted he preferred to see money spent on his own constituents.
“We did not create this situation,” he said. “We are the victims in this case.”
He said he was convinced from his recent visit to Westminster that “the minister responsible for St Helena is not fully aware of the issues or serious infrastructure requirements that are needed on the island.”
The minister needed to visit to see for himself, he said.
- Councillors’ video conference with DFID minister Lord Bates took place on Thursday morning. SHG said it was a private meeting and it would not be releasing details of the discussion.
Marriage between same-sex couples has been approved by St Helena’s legislative council by nine votes to two – meaning weddings could take place within weeks.
The Honourable Cyril Leo warned of a “deep divide” on the island and said he feared a negative reaction from “homophobic elements” in society.
But he said people should embrace the outcome of democratic debate. Councillors should “make love our greatest quest,” he said.
The Hon. Kylie Hercules, supporting the Marriage Bill, said: “We are dealing with people’s lives and emotions.”
And the Hon. Christine Scipio-o’Dean said: “We cannot discriminate. We must not, and we must strive to ensure equality.”
The Hon. Anthony Green explained that an attempt to present the same bill to the previous legislative council in 2016 had faltered.
A legal challenge to the existing marriage law – passed in 1851 – was due to be heard in the Supreme Court in January 2018 and could be appealed all the way to the Privy Council in London – a process that could take years.
“This law is silent on whether marriage between two persons of the same gender is permissible,” he said.
Barristers from the UK were on standby to represent various parties.
He said that denying same-sex couples the same marriage rights as other people would breach their human rights under the St Helena Constitution.
Cyril Leo and Brian Isaac were the only councillors to vote against the bill becoming law. Dr Corinda Essex abstained.
She said she knew her view would be controversial. “I have no objection to same-sex relationships and indeed I respect them,” she said. “I know a number of people who have entered into them. I am no way homophobic in any respect.
“However I believe that can be achieved through civil partnership.”
She added: “I believe very strongly that marriage was ordained not just in the Christian faith but in all the [main] faiths of the world… [as being] between a man and a woman.”
But she said the public had now had a proper chance to express their views and understand the issue – referring to a series of consultation meetings, and two petitions for and against same-sex marriage.
She said: “The number signing the two petitions was very similar. I had a lot of people lobbying me and saying we have serious concerns about this bill being passed. I do agree that the rights of minorities are important.
“But let us not deceive ourselves that the decision we make is going to be popular whichever way it goes because it is still an extremely emotive and sensitive topic on the island.
“We do need to be aware that worldwide, attitudes are changing and moving forward and we need to be more open minded. … and put our personal views aside and consider the bigger picture.
“As a result of that I will not be opposing the bill.”
The Hon. Brian Isaac said there other issues that caused distress to people on the island and deserved to be given higher priority.
The European Court of Human Rights had already declared that civil unions fully protected the rights of same-sex couples so there was no need for same-sex marriage, he said.
And he pointed out that members of the parliament on Bermuda, another UK overseas territory, had just voted to rescind a law allowing same-sex marriage. St Helena should look to the reasons they had done that, he said.
The Hon. Cruyff Buckley said he was a Christian but supported a change in the law. “This bill ushers in a new level of respect for minority groups,” he said.
The Hon. Derek Thomas said he was one of the councillors who blocked the progress of the bill a year ago because too few members of the public had expressed a view on it. The public had now had a fair say and he saw no justification for objecting.
The Hon. Lawson Henry said the St Helena Constitution – the supreme law of any country – guaranteed protection of equal rights.
“It is simply about equality,” he said “If this house cannot uphold the constitution then why are we here today, and why do we have a constitution? This bill has never been about religion, it is about equality and protection of minority groups.”
Many members sitting round the table had supported human rights legislation, “but some of them seem not to have supported equality,” he said.
He also warned St Helena Government would face heavy costs in the courts if the bill was rejected, and the island’s reputation would be damaged.
“We are a fledgling economy that has just gone into a new form of access,” he said, referring to the opening of the island’s airport.
“People who would like to visit this island will be looking at things like this. If they feel this is an island that can’t uphold its constitution [it] will cause more damage.”
The courts could nullify the existing marriage law and criticise the legislative council because members “can’t protect minority groups under our own constitution.”
Anthony Green, closing the debate, dismissed the reference to Bermuda. “We do not follow the Bermuda constitution,” he said. “We have our own constitution.” He praised Cyril Leo’s call for people to embrace the decision.
Governor Lisa Phillips will now be asked to ratify the bill and make it law, giving people on St Helena the same rights as same-sex couples on Ascension, Tristan da Cunha and most other UK overseas territories outside the Caribbean.
Speaking later in the traditional adjournment debate, Lawson Henry said it was a great day for St Helena.
St Helena’s 2017 Marriage Bill does not compel ministers to marry same-sex couples if it conflicts with religious doctrine. It also deals with other aspects of marriage law, including allowing weddings to take place outside places of worship.
A bill to allow same-sex marriage on St Helena was approved by the island’s executive council on 5 December 2017 – raising the possibility that gay couples could legally wed within weeks.
The same bill will allow people to have their marriages solemnised at venues such as The Castle, the governor’s residence at Plantation House and hotels.
Exco’s vote cleared the way for a new marriage law to go before the legislative council for final approval at its sitting on 15 December 2017.
The decision was made only a day before Australia legalised same-sex marriage, provoking scenes of celebration that were reported around the world.
The existing law had resulted in a challenge in court – because it apparently assumed that any marriage would be between a man and a woman, leaving it unclear whether gay couples could marry.
A new law would settle the matter without the need for a court ruling.
The issue had sharply divided opinion on St Helena, with two petitions drawing similar levels of support for and against gay marriage.
If passed, the Marriage Ordinance 2017 will allow clergy to decline to perform a marriage ceremony if it is forbidden by their branch of religion.
This is the second attempt to pass a new marriage law addressing equality. An earlier version went before the previous legislative council in December 2016 but was withdrawn during later committee discussions.
After the 2017 general election, the new social and community development committee (SCDC) was asked to look at the matter again.
Seven public meetings were held in October and two public petitions were organised – one in favour of equal marriage, the other opposing it.
A St Helena Government statement said: “Overall, there was no clear majority view, with similar numbers expressing support for enacting the marriage bill and for enacting legislation for civil partnerships.
“The marriage bill expressly permits two people of the same gender to marry; thereby ending the uncertainty that is the subject of current court proceedings. Although that is the most conspicuous feature of the bill, it also deals with other aspects of marriage.
“The bill provides that clergy may decline to solemnise a marriage (for instance between two persons of the same gender) if such a marriage is not in accordance with the rules or customs of the relevant communion or denomination.”
If the new law is passed, rules for approving non-religious premises for civil weddings and solemnising marriages will need to be approved by the executive council.
It took a week for Donald Trump’s favourite news outlet to get round to reporting on the first commercial flight to St Helena. But when it did so, Fox News introduced an interesting new word for the airport project.
It said it was “condemned last year by British taxpayers as a boondoggle.”
Various online dictionaries define a boondoggle as an American word meaning a pointless, wasteful project. Fox News might (not) like to put that to Governor Lisa Phillips, and see if she has another good word for them.
Urbandictionary.com helpfully gives an example of the correct use of the word:
“You’re such a Boondoggle, all you like to do is drink urine while staring at the dead corpse of your grandma.”
It’s also what American boy scouts use to hold their neckerchiefs in place. British scouts call this a woggle, another term that doesn’t really describe an airport.
The Fox News piece actually offers some good insights into St Helena life and heritage, including the wrangling over whether jury trials can ever work on the island.
It opens by listing some of the quirky place names to be found on St Helena, including The Gates of Chaos (that one’s always seemed apt) and Old Woman’s Valley.
They’re a lot more sensible than “boondoggle”.
If they wanted quirky place names, why no mention of Half Tree Hollow – which isn’t hollow, and doesn’t have half a tree?
(Does anyone know how Half Tree Hollow got its name? Maybe it was the half-tree that was hollow?).
The Daily Mirror headline read: ‘World’s most useless airport’ finally gets its first commercial flight – and it’s LATE.
Well, it was an irresistable line.
The paper’s report of St Helena’s first commercial flight included a nice quote from tour operator Libby Weir-Breen, who had flown specially from Scotland. “I’ve never felt so emotional in all my life,” she said.
Japan, Germany, New Zealand, America… even the UK: the story pretty much flew round the world.
And people on the island helped tell to tell it. A video of the landing, shot by Geoff Cooper from one of the public vantage points, was re-tweeted to 12 million followers of America’s ABC News.
A picture by Ed Thorpe of the Devil’s Hole Black Rocks, on a part of the island few tourists will ever see, gained international exposure from Associated Press, which told of champagne and chocolates being handed out on the island-bound flight.
The historic flight from Johannesburg made all the BBC’s national radio news bulletins.
Ed Cropley’s piece for Reuters, transmitted to news platforms and print publications worldwide, declared that the airport brought Saints “another step closer to their inclusion in the 21st century.”
Then he spoiled it a bit by saying the island got the internet only 18 months ago – though it was true that the mobile phone network went public just days after the very first aircraft flight arrived from Africa in 2015 (a bit of a nuisance for reporters at the time).
He told how Craig Yon of Into The Blue took a booking from a group of Swedish divers within minutes of them reading online that the first flight had touched down safely.
But he might have been teasing, just a little, when he quoted Craig saying, “Things are really picking up. Before, I’d only check my emails once a day. Now I have to check them in the morning and the afternoon.”
The story in The Times was written by Michael Binyon, who spent several weeks on St Helena as a media adviser and knew what to make of it all. He disclosed that the Embraer aircraft took on enough fuel at Windhoek to allow it to circle the island for two hours if wind shear presented a problem.
The Times’s headline called the flight “nerve-shredding” – but then, Michael was quite candid about feeling nervous when walking in the steeper parts of St Helena. The headline contrasted with the comment made by one American passenger quoted by Michael: “Wind shear – my ass.”
Britain’s Daily Telegraph carried a lengthy preview piece, but noted that its travel team had been able to find unsold tickets for the inaugural flight on ebookers.com at £395 one-way.
Sadly, its piece was accompanied by a picture of St Helena’s Church on the island of Lundy, in the Bristol Channel: not the first time that image has featured in St Helena coverage.
The story turned up in some surprising places. DeathRattleSports.com was unusual in acknowledging the “colossal civil engineering challenge” involved in building the airport, though it didn’t convey the enormous scale of the achievement.
A write-up in Dive Magazine had some complimentary things to say about the island and its surrounding waters, especially the presence of whale sharks, following writer Mark “Crowley” Russell’s visit in early 2017. The magazine is somewhat specialised, but there could be strong interest among its readers in visiting St Helena.
Chris Morris’s opening paragraph for fortune.com might have caused a few disappointed sighs at the St Helena Tourism office.
“Ever wanted to visit the British island of St. Helena?” it ran. “Of course you haven’t. Virtually no one does. But now you can.”
Actually you always could, Chris – and lots of people did.
But then, Chris seems to have been a bit confused about the nature of islands, telling readers that St Helena “is literally in the middle of nowhere, floating in the Atlantic ocean between Brazil and the African coastline.”
Islands don’t actually float, Chris. And “literally” literally means… oh, never mind.
Emma Weaver’s well-researched preview of the flight in The Guardian says travel companies are actually showing interest in St Helena, “in a world where remoteness is seen as a luxury”.
The BBC also got muddled up about its seasons, stating that safety tests happened “in the summer”. Could the piece have been knocked out by a journalist in London who didn’t know that August is winter time in the southern hemisphere? (And this was on the BBC Africa pages!).
Bizarrely, the mistake was then repeated on the Radio New Zealand website, which apparently got it from The Guardian.
The Mail Online carried a lengthy, fact-filled piece alongside two agency reports, detailing the island’s history and attractions but also references to the amount of aid the island receives (the Daily Mail has a thing about overseas aid). Sadly, it blew up in the final few words:
“St Helena is a remote volcanic outpost covering just over 75 miles squared,” it declared.
On an island measuring ten miles by six at the widest points, that would involve a neat bit of land-reclamation, even for Basil Read. And “miles squared” is not the same as square miles: 75 miles squared is, let’s see… 75 times 75… that’s 5,625 square miles.
The website’s multi-level headline also muddled up the flight time and the length of the sea voyage to St Helena:
“The British overseas territory was previously only reachable by a six-hour boat,” it said. At that speed, no wonder the RMS has had propellor problems.
The BBC said the RMS was “a ship that sailed every three weeks”. So what did it do the rest of the time?
Inevitably, many outlets recycled the “world’s most useless airport” tag, without saying who was being quoted, or where the quote came from. It started appearing in various newspapers in May this year, and keeps cropping up. A parliamentary committee report called the airport “useless”, but “world’s most useless” is a big step up.
Governor Phillips had a firm response to all that. “I’ve seen the headlines about the world’s most useless airport,” she told Reuters, “but for St. Helenians, this has already been the most useful airport. It’s priceless.”
Ed Cropley, who is Africa bureau chief for Reuters, tweeted a departing shot of the runway that bestowed an even more flattering tag: “St Helena airport, certainly world’s most spectacular airport.”
BBC Africa’s online slideshow on the first commercial flight to St Helena might be felt to misrepresent the island’s beauty. It opens with Gianluigi Guercia’s striking image of the aircraft wing, with the looming bulk of The Barn in the background.
A few airport shots follow, and then the piece closes with the gloomiest possible quotation from Napoleon, whose view of St Helena was hardly going to be positive:
“In this accursed island… there is neither sun nor moon to be seen for the greatest part of the year. Constant rain and fog. It is worse than Capri.”
And that’s the end of the slideshow. No jaw-dropping images of the island’s green heartland, or the spectacle of Sandy Bay, or the colonial charm of Jamestown. None of the BBC’s famous “balance”.
Many of the media reports dwelt heavily on the reasons for the long delay in opening the airport, with very little description of the island.
Mail Online and a few others carried spectacular photographs, which went some way to telling readers why they might actually want to visit.
The Travel Pulse website was one of the few to devote any words to the island’s attractions, including Napoleana, hiking, stunning landscapes and “interactions with marine life”.