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Back-pedalling in mid-Atlantic: the new way to reach St Helena?

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The RMS St Helena gets under way, photographed from Munden's Road on St Helena
The RMS St Helena: undergoing transformation

When The Goons sang I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas (Across the Irish Sea), it was considered the very zenith of zany humour. But even Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers never suggested cycling backwards across the South Atlantic.

That, however, could soon be the new way to pass the time on the RMS St Helena.

The gym on B Deck is being turned into the doctor’s surgery and a new fitness suite is being fitted on the funnel deck, after being manufactured in the UK and shipped out to Cape Town in a 40-foot container.

The RMS is in dry dock for two weeks

Don Hawkes, general manager of Andrew Weir Shipping, said: “It gives everybody a better view and although it’s inside, it’ll be fully air-conditioned.

“It will have more equipment because it’s a bit larger. There won’t be bundles of equipment but there will more more. I’m not quite sure what is going in there yet. We are going to wait until it’s up and then decide.”

Until now, fitness enthusiasts have had only a porthole to look through while pounding away on equipment, and a fairly confined space – but at least they were facing in the direction of travel.

The funnel deck looks out over the stern of the ship, meaning passengers using an exercise bike – if there is one – may well have the sensation of travelling backwards while pedalling forwards.

But as Don said, watching the ship’s wash disappear in the disance is a popular pastime on the RMS.

Refit staff with parts of the engine on deck
Engineers have been stripping down the ship’s engines

The installation of the gym is the first substantial change to the ship’s superstructure since she was launched in 1989.

“We did a little bit of container improvement but this is the first time anything really significant has been done,” said Don.

It is part of a reorganisation, funded by the UK government, to add nearly 30 berths to the ship by creating extra cabins, and fitting bunks in existing cabins that can be set up when needed.

Don said: “For the last few years we have been running at full capacity with passengers, so they decided they wanted a few more passenger cabins. The space on the RMS is not huge, but moving the doctor’s surgery to where the gym is has created an extra cabin.”

Most of those cabins will be created in the existing female crew quarters, which were gutted even as the ship was still waiting to enter dry dock. A large office is also being converted.

A new office will be set up in the former radio room in another part of the ship, said Don. “It’s essentially a space where junk gets put, because radio is not the same as it was in the days when the ship was built. So that’s freed up space.

“We think it will all look very nice once it’s done.”

Passenger numbers have actually been low on recent voyages, but Don said: “We stopped calling at the UK and it tends to take time for passengers to get used to changes.

“We added a couple more voyages from Cape Town and because it’s the first year, bookings are lower, but next year we will be back to finding we have no space. During South African winters it’s always fairly quiet anyway. Once the refit is done we will be back to normal.”

Other work being carried out in dry dock includes pressure-washing the hull, cleaning the anchors, overhauling the engines and prop shafts, and renewing the propellors.

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Andrew Weir Shipping

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