‘World’s most spectacular airport’ makes global news. Mostly good

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.

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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.”

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BBC slideshow paints a bleak picture of a beautiful island

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”.

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Three sites to replace ‘unfit’ prison go before ExCo

Entrance to HMP Jamestown, stone building with blue-painted wooden balcony above barred door

HMP Jamestown dates back to the 1820s and cannot be brought up to modern standards. Picture: John Grimshaw

Three sites near Longwood are being considered for a new prison for St Helena, to replace the “totally unsatisfactory” one in Jamestown.

It comes after former governor Mark Capes was strongly condemned for trying to impose a new prison at Half Tree Hollow, disregarding protests about sex offenders being kept near young families.

The three sites are all at Bottom Woods and all within national conservation areas. The public will be consulted before any site is chosen.

One of the three, next to the meteorological station, is in part of the Millennium Forest where protected trees have been planted. A special licence would be needed to remove them.

Update: on 3 October 2017, executive councillors decided the Millennium Forest site was not suitable for the new prison because of its environmental importance. It agreed to put the two other proposed sites out to public consultation. 

Agricultural land further west of the met station offers more space for a level site, but water and sewage services would need improving. Part of the site is leased to a farmer.

The third site, at the goat pen area, is closer to homes but considered to be far enough away to be safe. Choosing this would mean building a road through precious farmland.

Legislative councillors visited the three sites in August and details were put before the prison project board and LegCo in mid-September.

Now the executive council is advised to approve all three for a public consultation at its meeting on Tuesday, 3 October. Both negative and positive views are expected, says the report to ExCo.

The new prison will need about three acres of land to meet international standards, including space for an outside recreation area. Other factors include security,  human rights, and providing for disable prisoners.

A prison farm could be established at a later stage.

All three sites are in the vicinity of the island’s new sport field, but “can be suitably far away.”

They are also all in the airport development area, but this should not be a problem if the building is no more than two storeys high.

The sites offer enough space to ensure Category B prisoners can be kept secure. A specialist from overseas would have to be brought in to install specialist security systems and doors.

They are close to wirebird and conservation sites, but this is not expected to present problems with planning approval.

The new prison would be close to the airport haul road, which would be used for the 35-minute drive from the police station and court house in Jamestown.

Three other possible prison sites have already been rejected, including one next to the batteries at Ladder Hill Fort, because there are still hopes of creating a five-star hotel there.

The island shooting range was dismissed because it is in a sensitive area for wirebirds, and another site at Bunker’s Hill, overlooking Rupert’s Valley, was ruled out because of cost.

The current building in Jamestown, dating from 1826, has repeatedly been declared unfit by visiting inspectors. Inmates’ human rights cannot be upheld in the cramped conditions.

Funding for a new prison at Sundale House, above Half Tree Hollow, was set aside in 2012. It was expected that inmates would move there by 2015.

When legislative councillors refused to endorse the plan in the face of vigorous public protests, Governor Capes disbanded the council and then waited the maximum three months to hold an election.

The reason for shutting down democracy was revealed in the 2015 Wass Report into governance on the island, which criticised him for disregarding concerns that convicted sex offenders would be allowed out of Sundale to exercise, close to homes.

But Mr Capes told Sasha Wass’s inquiry panel that he needed to address the human rights failings at HMP Jamestown.

He said councillors “had an attitude that prison is meant to be uncomfortable and unpleasant and there are other things to spend money on.”

In 2011, chief of police Peter Coll had repeated warnings about the “unsafe” pre-Victorian building. “Anyone who is under the impression that serving a prison sentence is a soft option is not aware of the conditions,” he said.

The prison had no fire exits, and arrested prisoners had to use toilets in full view of inmates and staff – male and female. Cells became very hot in summer, especially when there were three or four people in a cell – a regular problem.

The new proposals have been made public as part of St Helena Government’s new policy of openness. They are set out in the first set of Executive Council agenda reports ever to be made public, a major step in ending excessive secrecy.

However, the expected costs of the three sites have been blanked out. The report says the UK’s Department for Internation Development would be asked to pay for the new prison.

Democracy on St Helena: councillors opposed prison move – so ‘Enforcer’ Capes sacked them
Unfit prison ‘will move’ to Half Tree Hollow, says planning chief
‘Unfit’ prison to close by 2015 amid human rights failings

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UK recycles £290,000 on South Atlantic rubbish

Britain’s environmental bosses have been rebuked in the past for failing to engage with the UK overseas territories; now they might be criticised for doing so.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has committed £190,000 to increase paper and cardboard recycling on St Helena.

Crudely, that’s a little over £40 per Saint.

It is also spending £99,000 to bring in a waste management strategy on Ascension Island, said minister Therese Coffey in answer to a parliamentary question.

Those who have seen the rubbish tipped over the cliff at Ladder Hill Fort might see this as a good use of funds, especially given the need to tidy up St Helena in readiness for the arrival of flying tourists.

Probably best not to tell the Daily Mail, though: it has a very different idea of “waste”.

(Source: theyworkforyou.com)

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Crazy paving: 18th century slabs cause a ripple in Jamestown

When workmen broke up the concrete pathway at the bottom of Main Street, they uncovered an 18th century pavement that would have been the perfect finishing touch to the island’s new hotel.

Here was a historic feature almost as old as the hotel structure itself: a row of East India Company buildings soon to welcome the kind of high-end tourists who appreciate a bit of heritage.

Robert Midwinter, overseeing the work for Enterprise St Helena, was very excited. “When the contractors were breaking up the concrete, I was actually there,” he says. “I ran straight over to Jeremy.”

That’s Jeremy Harris of the St Helena National Trust. He contacted Adam Sizeland at the museum, who raced up with a camera to photograph the discovery.

“It was beautiful,” says Robert. “We got the chief engineer over and got in touch with the chief planning officer.”

They were asked if the planning consent for the hotel could be varied to incorporate the newly exposed stone slabs as a feature. They’d have to be raised up to the new height of the pavement, but it was all agreed.

The slabs provided an unexpected chance to complete work started by the former planning chief, David Taylor, to bring back the old look of Georgian Jamestown.

So far, so smooth. Unlike the stones, it seems. “Unfortunately, when the contractor started relaying them, [they] couldn’t get an even surface. They’re quite ripply on top.

“The contractor did a section, and the chief enginer came out and had a look and called out Jeremy, and it was agreed that for public safety couldn’t use them. We couldn’t get approval.”

Nick Thorpe, long-time champion of St Helena heritage, had been appalled to see the slabs replaced with modern concrete blocks.

“Could be a trip hazard, they say. ‘Visit historic St Helena is a sad joke.”

The old pavement outside 1-3 Main Street, freshly exposed

The old pavement outside 1-3 Main Street, freshly exposed

And Rob’s smooth explanation failed to satisfy Nick, who  produced a picture of the freshly-exposed slabs looking not exactly bumpy.

“The surface of the original pavement was perfect, as good as any you would encounter in Bath. My original comments still stand.”

The modern concrete paving blocks that have been laid are considered an improvement on the concrete, but they’re very obviously not historic. “They’ll weather over time,” says Robert, hopefully.

“It would have been so nice to incorporate the originals but unfortunately, we can’t. We had to try.”

And it wasn’t all disappointment. “Under that concrete was also the original kerbstones. They will be part of the project. That’s a continuation of what we’ve got in the rest of Main Street. We’ve put new pavement down but we’re using original kerb stones, so it looks almost the same.”

The hope had been that the pavement would be as pleasing as the cobblestones on the other side of the street that had also been covered by concrete and later brought back into the light… only for some of them to be dug up to make way for high-speed computer cabling.

At least these days, he says, there is an understanding of the importance of heritage features. “In the old days people didn’t show that level of care. People are getting on the ball now. We stopped the work. The National trust came over. There is a record of what was uncovered.”

As for the ancient slabs, they will be stored and preserved by the National Trust. “If they are able to be used in some heritage project somewhere, they will be.”

That’s as long as no one nicks them.

  • Far be it for us to suggest that the heightened concerns about safety might be something to do with a new breed of hotel guests, rich enough to sue for injuries…
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Red Cross launches appeal as hurricane hits UK territories

The British Red Cross has launched an appeal for people caught in the path of Hurricane Irma, including in UK overseas territories in the Caribbean.

The category five hurricane is the most powerful ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean.

Trevor Botting, former chief of police on St Helena, has been posting updates on Twitter from the Turks and Caicos Islands, where he is in the same role. “It’s going to be a rough few days,” he wrote, with the storm expected to hit on Thursday evening.

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Red Cross teams in Barbuda and the British territory of Anguilla are reporting extensive damage. Its volunteers have been gathering relief supplies in Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Photographs from the British Virgin Islands have shown a large fleet of hire yachts piled up on one another, with many overturned.

Click here to help survivors of Hurricane Irma

In the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have promised strong support, especially for the UK territories.

Mr Johnson said: “Our thoughts go out to the people who have been affected, to those families who have lost loved ones, and as you can expect we are doing everything we can with humanitarian relief and assistance.

“We have the fleet auxiliary boat RFS Mounts Bay in the vicinity, we have people on the ground.

“But what we will be doing now is making an urgent assessment of the further needs of communities in the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla to see what more can be done in terms of financial and humanitarian assistance.”

Ben Webster, head of emergencies at the British Red Cross, said: “Given the scale of the anticipated emergency, any response will likely be highly complex. Some of the islands that are expected to be hit are isolated, and lack basic infrastructure.

“The impact on those communities could be catastrophic.

“Many of the Red Cross branches are already in response mode as they have been dealing with floods in the weeks before Hurricane Irma. Now they must prepare for another emergency – and another storm is following behind.”

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Fund for Ascension shark victim reaches double its target

More than $10,000 has been raised for Kawika Matsu, the victim of a shark attack in English Bay on Ascension Island. That is double the initial target – which was raised within 24 hours.

The 37-year-old contract worker suffered severe lacerations to his torso on July 25 after being attacked within seconds of falling from his paddle board.

Click here to read about the attack on the Daily Telegraph website

Daniel Schempp, until recently head of the 45 Space Wing of the US Air Force on Ascension, started the fund to help meet the costs of his friend Kawika’s long recovery.

In a Facebook update, he posted: “Kawika made it back to Florida.

“He’s doing well, going to be in and out of surgeries and his family arrived. He’s absolutely floored and deeply touched by all the support. Thank you to everyone who gave of themselves financially, socially or in prayers!

“I am honored to have known such a community, it speaks volumes about the quality of Ascension and all her people.”

Saints were among those who made generous donations.

Click here to make a donation

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Official general election result: Russell Yon tops the poll

Newcomer Russell Yon has led the voting in the 2017 St Helena general election, polling 753 votes – just 11 more than second-placed Dr Corinda Essex, who returns for her second term as a legislative councillor.

But three of the six female candidates were among the five who were unsuccessful.

Council veterans Derek Thomas and Brian Isaac were third and fourth with 668 and 631 votes respectively.

The other eight new councillors are Lawson Henry (568), Cyril Leo (561), Clint Beard (513 votes), Anthony Green (476), Cruyff Buckley (471), Kylie Hercules (460), Gavin “Eddie Duff” Ellick (458), Christine Scipio o’Dean (392).

Russell Yon said: “I wasn’t expecting to come out on top. I was expecting to get through because I was getting real feedback. I’m really overwhelmed and I’m happy to say thank you to my team, my supporters, my sponsors…”

New councillor Kylie Hercules said: “I think it takes a bit to sink in.”

Clint Beard said: “The team needs to get together and work hard.”

Eddie Duff said: “I feel very happy, like. Four years ago I was in 11th place and this time I’m in 11th place, so I have consistency.”

Pamela Ward Pearce, who did not retain her seat, said: “The people of St Helena has spoken and this is their wish. I feel honoured to have served St Helena for the two years that I have done. I wish the people who have got in a great deal of luck. It’s going to be a very hard four years ahead of them with all the change and they can be assured of my support.”

She said she would now be able to finish moving house – a job she hadn’t had time for while serving as a councillor.

There had been concern that a recount would be needed.

Shortly after 3am local time, Saint FM said it understood the number of ballot papers counted did not tally with the 1,108 originally received.

Presenter Tony Leo told listeners: “I certainly don’t want to be here for a recount. It’s not a good thought that they might have to count them again.”

As it was, a recount was avoided.

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Deal signed for weekly flights to St Helena

A deal has finally been signed for an air service into St Helena’s £285 million airport  – 14 months after it should have opened.

No date has been set for the start of flights by South African operator SA Airlink.

Flights between the island and Johannesburg will include a stop at Windhoek in Namibia to connect with Cape Town.

Saints had been angry that the original, aborted air service would not have served the Cape, where the strong St Helenian community provides a support network for islanders having hospital treatment.

SA Airlink will also operate a monthly flight to Ascension Island, where workers have been virtually stranded for months after the RAF runway was declared unsafe. They’re expected to take place on the second Saturday of each month.

Dangerous winds meant the original operator could not land aircraft on the cliff-top runway.

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee in Westminster found December 2016 that “staggering” errors had been made by unnamed officials.

An investigation has yet to identify those responsible.


Until now, most flights into St Helena have been for medical evacuations on small aircraft.

Sixty passengers flew into the island on a “historic” charter flight in May after the island’s supply ship, the RMS St Helena, broke down for several weeks in Cape Town.

The ship, which takes five days to sail to the island, has had to be kept in service well past its due retirement age.

Flights will operate weekly flights between St Helena and OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, with a stop-over at Windhoek in Namibia for a connection to Cape Town.

A proving flight must take place before a licence can be given by the South African Civil Aviation Authority.

St Helena’s British governor, Lisa Phillips, said: “Very soon a trip to South Africa, for St Helenians, will take a matter of hours rather than days.  

“And we will be able to welcome tourists here in larger numbers and improve the economy of the island and offer a better life for those who live here.”

South African firm Comair won the original contract to run weekly flights into St Helena using aircraft with British Airways livery, subsidised by the UK’s Department for International Development.

But its pilot took three attempts to land on a test flight because of severe wind shear on the runway, apparently caused by mountains either side of the runway.

Solutions considered included blasting away the top of one of the mountains, but it was found that some aircraft could land safely with a tail wind, instead of the normal approach into the prevailing wind.


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The Last Farewell: Tony’s video tribute to the RMS St Helena

Captain Andrew Greentree had spent more than half his life at sea on the RMS St Helena. Patrick Williams and Eddie Benjamin had been on the maiden voyage up from Cape Town, 26 years earlier. Gay Marr was present when the keel was laid. And now here they all were, ploughing northward on what should have been the ship’s farewell trip.

When Voyage 242 was advertised, a year in advance, there was every expectation that “the RMS” would soon be retired, giving way to weekly flights into the island’s new airport. By the time the crew weighed anchor in James Bay and set course for London, St Helena had already given new meaning to the term, “flights delayed”. Wind problems on the runway meant the launch of the scheduled passenger service had slipped from “soon” to a not-very-reassuring “we’re working on it”.

The RMS St Helena: picture by Bruce Salt

The RMS St Helena: picture by Bruce Salt

Before the seriousness of the travel travails was officially admitted, there was talk of the RMS being sold to Alderney, in the Channel Islands. As the ship sailed teasingly close to the island on its way north, Captain Greentree announced to passengers the breaking news that the RMS would continue serving St Helena instead, for another six months (and he could have added, “at least”).

Tony Leo, veteran island broadcaster, was on the bridge to capture the announcement on camera. Just over a year later, it features in The Last Farewell, a documentary that pays tribute to this most loved of ships. The irony is that it was the RMS, still sailing doggedly on, that transported the DVDs to Jamestown for sale in the island shops. Clearly, the RMS and its crew were having trouble saying farewell after all.

Click here to buy a copy of The Last Farewell (from PM 14 July 2017)

The film emerged from the edit suite within days of SA Airlines being named as preferred bidder for the second attempt at providing an air service, with months still to wait for actual regular flights.

So maybe it wasn’t quite the adieu that had been anticipated when the voyage was planned; but it would be the last trip between St Helena and England, and that made it historic.

Among the passengers there was a poignant link to another momentous voyage. Eddie Leo was the last survivor of The Hundred Men, who had made this same journey in another ship in 1949, at a few days’ notice, to accept a grudging offer of work from the British government when it was scarce on the island. Some never returned to their families. Eddie finally went back after 67 years, planning to stay, but he couldn’t settle and so now he was rolling home to the UK. There was no better way to make the trip.

The arrival in London was spectacular, with a helicopter flying overhead as the ship passed triumphally through Tower Bridge (with very little clearance) to take up a berth next to HMS Belfast, within sight of officials and Parliamentarians in Westminster who could perhaps do with a visible reminder of St Helena’s existence.

“People could see the ship,” says Captain Rodney Young in the film. “Had it worked out, it would have been the time the island would be ready for tourism.” Ah well.

It wasn’t the only tiny detail that didn’t quite work out, says Rodney, who joined the ship in London to take command for the homeward voyage. They had to compromise on gifts. “We wanted honey but the island didn’t have any. We wanted tinned fish: not enough.” Instead, they took local goat meat, and crayfish from Tristan da Cunha.


Captain Rodney Young (picture: St Helena Government)

Tony filmed from the quayside as the RMS slipped back under Tower Bridge, stern-first this time, and made the trip down-river to Tilbury Docks for the real farewell. Saints had gathered from across the UK to wave goodbye to “the ship that probably brought them to England many years ago.”

Kedell Worboys, the island government’s indefatigable London representative, was among the 113 south-bound passengers. She had worked for eight years to bring the ship to London.

Gay Marr had been the London rep when the ship’s keel was laid at the Hall Russell yard in Aberdeen. As guest of honour, she took along a coin to place beneath the keel block – a shipbuilding tradition. “I gave the shipping people a St Helena crown, but they wouldn’t do it. They put it in a plaque which they presented afterwards. So I still have that.”

Cathy Hopkins was also making the journey south. She was Kedell’s predecessor in the London office, and had to deal with the chaos of the ship breaking down in the Bay of Biscay in 1999, which meant getting the crew and passengers back from France to England and then on a flight to South Africa to board a relief vessel. Many passengers abandoned their attempts to reach the island – as would happen again when a propellor failed in 2017. Cathy is glimpsed only briefly in the film, at the gala dinner on the final evening, linking hands with neighbours and singing Auld Lang Syne. She died in 2017, much mourned.

RMS St Helena

The RMS heads out of The Thames. Picture supplied by St Helena Government

At Tilbury, time for departure. A military band marched on the quayside. It rained a bit; and then confetti filled the sky and the mooring lines were let go, and the RMS eased out into the Thames Estuary and into a haze of spray from the escort vessels’ fire hoses. “This is the final voyage of this ship from the UK,” announces Captain Rodney over the tannoy, “Thus bringing to the end over 175 years of mail ships to the Cape. We are heading down the Thames…”

Out at sea, Tony shows us the life of the ship: the Captain’s cocktail party, the cricket on the after-deck, the invitation-only disco in the crew quarters, and evening events such as the Ascot Night parade of 26 hats in the forward lounge: “Pam’s come as the RMS,” says the compere. “I think the funnels are a bit big on that one.”

One passenger knitted five garments on the voyage, we learn. Food consumption included 360 eggs, 330 rolls and 228 loaves in a day.

This last UK run meant the revival of a tradition not seen on board for a few years: the Crossing the Line ceremony at the Equator, in which King Neptune and his courtiers command obeisance and selected passengers are covered in gunk (not suitable treatment for vegetarians), before a soaking in the pool. The greatest value of Tony Leo’s fine film is that it captures once-familiar moments like this that will not be seen again.

Adam Williams, 19 years at sea and unaware he would soon become the ship’s third St Helenian captain, is pragmatic. The ending of the RMS service will be “like losing a family member,” he says in the film. Without the arrival of air travel and the opportunities for tourism and maybe some export trade, the island cannot thrive in the 21st century. “It’ll be sad, but for me the needs of St Helena comes first.”

Adam Williams - captain of the RMS in its final months

Adam Williams – captain of the RMS in its final months

Nigel Thomas, petty officer, puts it in context: “For so many hundreds of years, St Helena has always been connected with ships, so it’s going to be a sad day when it sails away.”

What’s missing from these interviews, and the film, is the story of the RMS. A lot has happened in a quarter of a century and more than two million miles of voyaging. There have been moments of tragedy. Ship-board encounters have led to marriage. There has been spectacle, such as the ship’s role at the start of the Governor’s Cup yacht race to St Helena, and a close encounter in mid-ocean with a replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour (the only time the RMS has faced cannon fire).

Tony Leo will have reported on many of those stories in his 40 years of broadcasting on St Helena but his film sets out only to capture this one voyage: it gives a flavour, not a full history. The big story can be another project, perhaps best attempted on radio, Tony’s first medium.

The Last Farewell is a tribute not only to the ship and its personnel, but also to Tony’s own career, recognized just before the film’s release with the award of an MBE.

Tony Leo MBE

Tony Leo MBE

It has often been said that this ship is special not just because of its unique role as both cargo and passenger vessel, with the need to load and unload in open water, but because of the spirit that prevails on board.

What passengers may not have sensed is the strength of community among the officers and crew. Captain Andrew feels it deeply: “The ship is part of me,” he says.

Merchant seafarers might typically work on several ships in a career, but for most sea-going Saints, this has been their ship. Lenny Hayes, remembered bringing “the old RMS” from Vancouver at the start of its South Atlantic service, and here he was, still serving. Chief petty officer Pat Williams, nearly four decades at sea, was one of the volunteers who served in that same ship as part of the Task Force that sailed south during the Falklands War. “That was the highlight of my time out here,” he says. “A good crowd of guys was on board.”

The RMS: picture by Jonathan Clingham

The RMS: picture by Jonathan Clingham

Captain Rodney was interviewed by numerous film makers and journalists over the years: as the first island-born Master of the RMS, he was a seagoing ambassador for St Helena. His interview with Tony would be his last before his unexpected death on holiday in January 2017: an immense loss, felt all round the world. His pride in the ship and its personnel shines through.

“It’s been our home for over 25 years,” he says in the film. “One of the things about the ship is we actually look forward to coming back to work. Because there is a happy, family atmosphere on board. It doesn’t matter who’s on or who’s off. This is a team and one person can slip into another person’s shoes. It’s just the way we work.”

If one watches the ship sail away from high ground on St Helena, it is lost to sight long before the horizon is reached. When the final departure does come, a whole culture will vanish into the blue. We must be grateful to Tony Leo for capturing its essence in his documentary.

A few days before its release, another passing was announced: the death of Charles Frater, who recorded life on St Helena in the early 1960s, when the island’s flax mills were still working and their products were transported by donkeys. Like Charles’s film, The Last Farewell will surely become a St Helena classic.

  • The Last Farewell, Tony Leo’s film of the last UK voyage of the RMS St Helena, can be purchased online from Reach Back St Helena from 15 July 2017, and shipped anywhere in the world. A film trailer, information and updates can be found on Facebook pages for TL Productions and St Helena Local
  • The RMS leaves St Helena

    The RMS leaves St Helena

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