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.
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.
Some truly stunning pictures accompany a travel article urging tourists to seize a last chance to make the “iconic” voyage to Jamestown on the RMS St Helena.
One panorama, looking across Bamboo Hedge to Lot and Lot’s Wife, presents an image of an exotic paradise (except, perhaps, for the farm buildings).
The article is slightly geographically confused, putting the island 1,200 miles off Angola and 1,200 miles from the much-more-distant Cape Town.
But it does a good job of promoting a one-off holiday package:
“The 20-day tour offered by Discover the World also includes a unique hosted farm stay in a former East India Company plantation owner’s home and offers plenty of opportunity to enjoy the island’s scenery and historic sites by car.”
It also quotes managing director Clive Stacey, who says: “There are so few places left on the planet that enjoy the veneers of modern civilization but yet are so unaffected by the stresses these can produce.”
This being a promotional travel puff, no mention is made of the very dark stresses that have blighted island life for many, and brought unwelcome media coverage.
Some might find this slightly surprising, given that the article is published by The Daily Mail… the paper that first reported the contents of the leaked report on sex abuse on St Helena.
Read it here
Photographer Christopher Godden has kindly given consent for this site to publish his fine picture of the RMS St Helena at Cape Town, taken from the MSC Sinfonia. Christopher is a member of The Ship Society of South Africa, whose club house in the city’s harbour area has a library of several hundred books and journals on shipping. Christopher says that a party of 30-or-so members of the society are planning a voyage to St Helena in March or April of 2015. Doubtless they’ll enjoy swapping tales with Bruce Salt, the island’s own shipping enthusiast and a much-valued contributor to this site.
By St Helena Government writer
The Queen’s Baton has arrived at St Helena island, the 40th stop in its relay around the 70 nations and territories of the Commonwealth.
The baton stops at the island for two days en-route from Cape Town to Ascension Island, accompanied by sports officials, a BBC team and a photojournalist.
It was brought ashore from the RMS St Helena and received by His Excellency Governor Capes at the wharf on the morning of 19 February 2014, with schoolchildren and members of the public looking on.
Prince Andrew School students relayed the baton up the 699 steps of the Ladder before it was brought back to Jamestown by members of New Horizons youth group.
The Queen’s Baton was then officially received in the Governor’s Office and by Members of St Helena Legislative Council.
HE Governor Capes said: “The people of St Helena are delighted to be included in the Queen’s Baton Relay and I am sure that the team accompanying the baton will receive a warm welcome as the baton tours our Island.
“And after the pleasant five-day journey from Cape Town on the RMS St Helena, I have no doubt that our visitors will be excited to see the beauty of St Helena and to meet as many as Saints as possible.”
The baton then began making its way around various assembly points on the island, where the community has been encouraged to take part in this international event by touching and viewing the baton.
It was due to visit all schools, Longwood House, the airport site, the Community Care Complex, the disability charity SHAPE, the hospital, and Plantation House – to visit the island’s oldest resident, Jonathan the tortoise.
The baton will leave on the RMS St Helena on Friday 21 February, bound for her next stop at Ascension Island.
This is the third time St Helena island has participated in the Queen’s Baton Relay celebrations. The first baton visited in May 2005 and the second in February 2010.
The Queen’s Baton Relay is a much loved tradition of the Commonwealth Games and symbolises the coming together of all Commonwealth nations and territories in preparation for the four-yearly festival of sport.
The Glasgow 2014 Queen’s Baton Relay is the curtain-raiser to the 20th Commonwealth Games. Over a period of 288 days the Baton will have visited 70 nations and territories and covered 190,000 kilometres.
The finish line is in the host nation, Scotland, where it is due to arrive just in time for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony in Glasgow on 23 July 2014, where Her Majesty The Queen will read aloud a message to the Commonwealth.
Click on any thumbnail below to see a gallery of images
Sandy Bay’s arid landscape could be the setting for a science-fiction fantasy and Diana’s Peak would need no make-up for a role in a remake of Jurassic Park, according to writer Captain Greybeard on the Cruise International website.
He highlights the familiar attractions of St Helena in a stylish piece, but many might challenge his statement that the “incredible blue waters” around the island offer no safe location for swimming or sunbathing.
The Captain finds the cabins on the RMS St Helena “as basic as those on a cross-Channel ferry” but is nonetheless keen to spend more time in them: “It’s a long journey,” he says, “but it’s one I’d like to make again.”
Perhaps he wants a second taste of victory in the ship’s quiz.
The full article is here – and it’s worth a click just to see the superb accompanying photographs, including one of a tropic bird flying over Jamestown.
It’s too bad that Jonathan the tortoise no longer has much of a sense of smell. The Commonwealth Games baton is to arrive on St Helena on 19 February 2014, and it might well carry, to the well-tuned nose, the faint whiff of a giant tortoise.
Which would doubtless make an interesting change from the aroma of the other giant tortoises that share a paddock at Plantation House with Jonathan, the oldest known living creature on the planet.
It has been the custom, in past years, for the baton to be presented for Jonathan’s approval. The Games wouldn’t be the same without it.
But this time, some other tortoises got there first – and in the Seychelles, of all places, which happens to be where Jonathan comes from.
The diplomatic slight is revealed in a press release marking the half-way mark in the baton’s journey through 70 nations and territories of the Commonwealth, en route to Glasgow.
“Tt’s been taken diving in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, paraded by elephants in Sri Lanka and sniffed by giant tortoises in the Seychelles,” says the release.
It’s also been carried to the top of the tallest building in Oceania, and honoured with a national holiday in the island nation of Nauru.
- Animals met along the way include Koalas in Australia, and tigers in Kenya.
- It has travelled in a 19th Century steam train in Sri Lanka, motorised tricycles in Australia, and an outrigger canoe in Kiribati.
“The baton has visited some of the most remote regions in the world,” say the relay organisers, “including Kavieng, in Papua New Guinea, Tarawa Island in Kiribati, and the island nation of Niue, which is only connected by one weekly flight.
“Highlights of the international journey of the baton include a historic first visit to Rwanda, the youngest member of the Commonwealth, and – still to come – the last-ever baton sail to St Helena, in the South Atlantic, as the Royal Mail Ship will soon be replaced by an air link to the island.”
The baton will be on the island from 19 to 21 February, during which time it will be carried up Jacob’s Ladder. Its full schedule is still being finalised, according to the St Helena Tourism newsletter.
Visit the Commonwealth Games website here
The new sailing schedule for the RMS St Helena includes two voyages beyond the planned opening of St Helena’s first airport.
And they may not be the ship’s last trips to the island, according to a statement issued after executive councillors approved the schedule.
The ship is also set to drop anchor in James Bay on the day before the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s arrival on the island on 15 October 1815.
A ten-day spell in dry dock has been booked for August 2015, and a Christmas voyage to Cape Town is scheduled for the end of the year.
The ship is set to leave Cape Town on its last scheduled voyage, number 241, on 25 March 2016, in the month after the projected opening of the airport.
It appears that there might be further voyages beyond that date, though – including to Tristan da Cunha. Previous trips to St Helena’s sister island have sold out very quickly.
A press release said: “A question had been raised about the possibility of a voyage to Tristan, but the expected demand on berths as a result of airport construction and economic development ruled this out.
“The schedule post airport opening has yet to be confirmed and possible voyages such as this will be considered nearer the time.”
Executive councillors approved the schedule after consultation with various groups on the island.
The last listed voyage, number 241, sees the ship depart Ascension on 3 April 2016, leaving James Bay four days later. It ends in Cape Town on 12 April.
The ship entered service in 1990 after being built by Hall, Russell & Company in Scotland.
Its capacity was extended in 2012 with the addition of 24 extra cabin berths, giving space for 152 passengers.
The ship broke down while heading south from the UK in 1999 and had to put into the French port of Brest for repairs, leaving passengers stranded – including one family who had been heading to the island for a wedding.
The incident intensified the battle to secure an airport for the island, which was left without deliveries of supplies.
- Executive councillors also approved a “small” rise in passenger and freight tariffs, in line with inflation and a commitment to reduce subsidies.