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Last Biscay boogie as ship leaves UK

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Line dancing is best performed in mid-ocean, in my experience, and preferably in a rolling sea. The only time I’ve really tried it was on the after-deck of the RMS St Helena, steaming north up the African coast, and I’ve taken the view ever since that it’s not worth bothering if the floor isn’t lurching heavily.

RMS St Helena, pictured leaving James Bay

With thumbs tucked in belt hooks, we’d strut collectively to port and starboard, only for a sudden heave of the deck to send us grapevining wildly towards the safety rails.

We disembarked at Tenerife on our slow journey home from St Helena – wife, self and two-year-old Rosie – so we missed our opportunity to try our new steps across the bouncy Bay of Biscay. From what I gather, it wasn’t really a dancing sea.

Our chance has now gone. This month, the RMS slipped England’s shore for what we’re told is the last time. Once she’s back in the Southern Hemisphere, she’ll stay there, chugging doggedly between Cape Town and two of the most isolated remnants of the British Empire.

Her job is to keep St Helena supplied with tourists and South African food, and Ascension Island supplied with St Helenian workers. And that’s what she’ll do, pretty well non-stop apart from her annual wash-and-brush-up in dry dock. No more trips back to Portland Harbour, no more return journeys laden with Happy Shopper biscuits.

It was through the ship that I first became aware of St Helena in the 1980s. I was a writer on the Western Daily Press, and our library had a growing bundle of cuttings about this unique little vessel that was part cargo boat, part ocean-going bus.

In those days, it was at Avonmouth Docks that she and the previous RMS St Helena would tie up and unload stories of adventures at sea – including, once, a serious fire on board the old ship that prompted a call to man the lifeboats.

She also disembarked islanders (they’re called Saints) who’d provide the paper with entertaining copy, like the shopkeeper who’d travelled five thousand miles to meet his wholesaler.

A few years later, a chance conversation in a pub in Milton Keynes led to my wife getting a job as holiday-relief for the island doctors, and so we came to make the first of our four voyages on the RMS in 1996.

The shopkeeper’s now a good friend.

We went back in 2009, to let our three girls experience the peculiar atmosphere of a distant island that can be reached only by sea, while it was still possible. An advance party of airport contractors will arrive on the island next January, carried there, of course, aboard the ship they plan to put out of business.

Our girls liked the ship more than the island. The children’s room had computer games, and for Flora, aged eight, the RMS was really just a big, floating Playstation.

The modest salt-water swimming pool was like a second cabin for them. When the sea was lively, there was no need for a wave machine.

Many travel writers have described the pleasant life on board the world’s last true, working Royal Mail Ship. They usually knock out the same old stuff. A good exception is Gavin Bell’s piece for the Daily Telegraph this month, which opens with the ship’s officers doing musical battle with the Pirates of Penzance.

We never had that pleasure, but we did experience the Crossing The Line ceremony as we passed the Equator on our first homeward voyage. King Neptune strutted on the sun deck, waving his trident and looking vaguely like Captain Martin Smith, and people may have ended up fully-dressed in the pool. I recall no Saintly mermaids.

Now the RMS is headed for the Equator for the last time; in future, I suppose, Old Man Neptune will no longer be joining the ship’s company for sundowners.

RMS off Jamestown
RMS St Helena, viewed from Main Street, Jamestown
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