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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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 RMS St Helena has a new master: Adam Williams, a Saint who started his career on the ship as a 16-year-old cadet, will take over from Captain Rodney Young MBE, who died unexpectedly in the new year.
Adam will become one of three St Helenians to have captained the ship, alongside Captain Andrew Greentree.
The new master will take command of the vessel during Voyage 252, which departs Cape Town on 24 January 2017 and reaches James Bay on 29 January.
Adam left St Helena to begin college in South Tyneside in the UK in January 1998.
As a cadet he served mainly on the RMS St Helena, but also spent four months on the Queen Elizabeth 2, among other ships.
He qualified as officer of the watch in 2001, joining the RMS in August that year as a 3rd officer. He was then promoted to 2nd officer in 2003.
He was made permanent chief officer in September 2007 and qualified as a master mariner in December 2009. He takes command in the closing months of the ship’s career – though no date has been set for its retirement.