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.