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‘A true St Helenian farewell’: RMS St Helena departs on final voyage.

Picture courtesy of St Helena Government
Picture courtesy of St Helena Government

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.

Picture courtesy of St Helena Government
Picture courtesy of St Helena Government

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.

Picture by Delphia Leo
Picture by Delphia Leo

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?

Picture courtesy of St Helena Government
Picture courtesy of St Helena Government

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.”

Picture courtesy of St Helena Government
Picture courtesy of St Helena Government

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.

Picture courtesy of St Helena Government
Picture courtesy of St Helena Government

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.

Picture courtesy of St Helena Government
Picture courtesy of St Helena Government

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.

Picture courtesy of St Helena Government
Picture courtesy of St Helena Government

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.

Read more:

Tony’s video tribute to the RMS St Helena
Last Biscay boogie as ship leaves the UK – personal memories of sailing on the RMS

Last hurrah for St Helena boatmen as sea freight deal is signed

A contract to operate a cargo ship to replace the RMS St Helena has been signed – and it will include a small number of passenger berths for the Ascension run.

The deal with AW Ship Management Ltd has been completed four months before the planned retirement date for the RMS St Helena. The company has yet to buy a ship to operate the service.

But it appears the legendary skills of the St Helena boatmen in unloading cargo at sea will no longer be needed: the new vessel will be able to berth at the wharf that is nearing completion in Rupert’s Bay.

It will sail from Cape Town to St Helena and back every five weeks, moving to a four-weekly cycle after a year. It will also operate a voyage to Ascension every two months.

It is expected to depart Cape Town for the first time voyage to St Helena on 27 July 2016, arriving on 2 August.

Unlike the RMS St Helena, the new service will not be subsidised, meaning some cargo prices may rise.

A St Helena Government statement says:

“The intention is for the new cargo service to continue on as seamlessly as possible from the St Helena Line service.

“AW Ship Management will now move ahead with purchasing its own vessel dedicated to the St Helena and Ascension service. ”

“The ship selected will be a geared container ship capable of carrying 250 TEU or equivalent. The vessel will be around 100m long, with a breadth of approximately 18m and a summer draft of 4.5m. Thus, AWSM will be able to discharge cargo alongside at Rupert’s Bay even in a fully loaded condition.

“Cargo bookings for the new service are now being accepted. AWSM’s agents and contact details remain the same as the current service for ease of transition.

“AWSM will be making a small number of passenger cabins available on the new vessel so that passenger sea services can be maintained for those wishing to travel by sea to and from Ascension.

“The dedicated ship for this service will be owned by AWSM and operated with the same skill and dedication that has been applied to the RMS St Helena since 2001. The use of a dedicated ship will ensure that a reliable schedule can be maintained.

“AWSM has been involved in the shipping of cargo to and from St Helena for sixteen years and is fully aware of the importance of a regular, reliable and direct freight service to the island.”

Freight rates are expected to be “broadly the same as the rates for the RMS”. They have been submitted to the island government for approval.

“It is inevitable that rates for certain types of cargo will have to rise given that the RMS is heavily subsidised, but AWSM has worked hard to ensure that such increases are kept to an absolute minimum.”

Pricing will take account of fuel prices, exchange rates and anticipated volumes.

RMS St Helena lands patient at Walvis Bay and sails on

A patient has been transferred to hospital in Namibia from the RMS St Helena after the ship diverted by 399 nautical miles to put them ashore.

St Helena Government issued for the following statement on Tuesday, 28 January 2014:

At 2.30pm this afternoon, local time, the RMS arrived at the pilot station in Walvis Bay, Namibia, as planned.
Shortly after, two paramedics came onboard from a launch, and the patient was prepared for evacuation. The transfer went smoothly and family members accompanied the patient, who has now been transferred to hospital.
At 3.40pm local time, the operation was complete and the RMS departed Walvis Bay for St Helena. The RMS will monitor her speed over the next 12 hours and advise accordingly on the estimated time of arrival at St Helena.
Credit goes to the crew and medical team for a rapid and professional response.

No information has been given about the nature of the medical emergency that prompted the rare decision to change course on Monday, two days after the ship left Cape Town.

Rupert’s set to be new ‘port’ as wharf is approved

Rupert's Bay: set to become island's new port
Rupert’s Bay: set to become island’s new port

It won’t quite be a harbour, as such, but approval has been given to new plans for a wharf for Rupert’s Bay, big enough for cargo ships to come alongside for the first time in the island’s history.

The decision has been made by the Governor in Council after extensive public consultation, with only minor amendments to the plan.

It will include a jetty, a slipway, an access road and a facility for launching a sea rescue boat – in sheltered water.

Cranes for unloading cargo will be transferred from Jamestown, freeing up the wharf there for passenger handling and tourism development.

Artist's impression
Artist’s impression

Construction was scheduled to start in early 2014 and be completed before the arrival of heavy seas at the end of the year.

The final decision came 17 months after the NP Glory 4 became the first ocean-going ship to dock on the island, using a temporary wharf built specially to land materials for the airport project.

The new jetty will be built out from the south west point of the bay. The design previously approved would have seen it project into the bay from the beach.

In late 2012 there were doubts over whether the scheme could be funded, despite money being allocated as part of the airport project – to take advantage of construction firm Basil Read’s presence on the island.

The project was saved when the island government gave up on plans for a new, sheltered landing stage for Jamestown.

An appraisal published in December 12 found the wharf would dramatically bring down the cost of landing goods and fuel on St Helena, and potentially increase income from cruise ship passengers.

The island would be able to charter cargo vessels that did not have their own cranes and did not need to unload goods onto lighters for transporting to the shore.

A review found a number of fleets operating off the south and west African coasts with charter ships that could be berthed at Rupert’s.

Turnaround time for ships would be much lower, with less risk of delays because of bad weather.

Fuel tankers will continue to discharge both diesel and aviation fuel via a floating pipeline, on no more than six days a year.

Even with a new airport due to open in early 2016, the appraisal said improved sea access was a priority, to support economic development.

An increase in cruise ship passengers would not bring enough money to justify the cost of a breakwater for Jamestown, it said.

SEE ALSO:
Wharf plan, in pictures (September 2013)
Rupert’s Bay wharf – story archive

Wharf works will bring noise and dust, but benefits too

Building a new wharf in Rupert’s Bay will bring both benefits and burdens to St Helena.

They include a heavy increase in traffic in Rupert’s Valley, bringing noise and dust – listed as a “major adverse” impact. A speed limit of 10 mph has been proposed.

Airport construction firm Basil Read has asked to be allowed to work extended hours on the wharf, because of the need to complete it within a single season, before heavy seas arrive. Permission for longer working days would be considered case-by-case.

The effects of noise and vibration from blasting at the quarry up the valley would be eased by giving residents 24 hours’ warning, with inspections to guard against damage to homes.

The impact assessment for the project warns of possible major damage to the historic military defences across the bay – known as the Lines.

But measures to protect the Lines, and a bridge over the Rupert’s Run, have already proved successful during the construction of the temporary wharf built in 2012.

The new design is said to offer better protection to heritage features.

The report also warns of a low risk that workers could be killed or injured by a rockfall.

But it points out that most work will be carried out on the breakwater, away from the cliff face – making it safer than working on the wharf in Jamestown.

Loose rocks should be dislodged before construction starts.

The report also warns of commercial fishermen being unable to land catches at the Shears at times during the construction period. Jamestown could be used instead, with compensation paid for the cost of transport to the freezer facility.

But there are benefits too – including employment opportunities for Saints. Some might be trained in underwater construction techniques.

Highly skilled jobs operating cargo lighters will be lost – but the cost of cargo operations will go down dramatically. The new port would create some employment.

Larger fishing vessels would be able to land catches at Rupert’s Bay, and it could provide an alternative landing place for cruise ship passengers.

Freeing up space at Jamestown wharf could also mean better facilities for yachtsmen.

Saints will still be able to use the popular barbecue and swimming area at Rupert’s.

Water quality for swimmers might even be improved as a result of changes in the water current, meaning any pollution is washed out to sea.

Measures will also be taken to reduce litter gathering on the beach.

The new wharf might also be good for marine life, creating new habitat for tiny creatures such as sea slugs.

Read the full planning statement here

Sailors welcome: but don’t leave any nasty gifts

Visiting mariners have been described as a potential health risk to people on St Helena – because of what they might get up to on shore.

The danger of them passing on diseases through amorous encounters has been identified as one of the impacts of the newly-approved plan to build a port in Rupert’s Bay.

Proposed measures to deal with the threat to community health include making free condoms available in the island’s bars, as well as health screening.

A risk of increased teenage pregnancy could be tackled with more sex education – though that would not benefit girls who have already left school.

Other measures include providing accommodation for seamen, and “strict controls on the import of drugs”.

The report includes a wry comment on the threat to local morals and health:

“This is not new to St Helena,” it says, “as the island has a long history as a port of call.”

Siting of a dock in the bay…

Rupert's wharf impression 640Work could start in early 2014 on building of a new, permanent wharf in Rupert’s Bay, allowing ships to come alongside a dock to discharge cargo and passengers for the first time in St Helena’s history. Click here to see a gallery of plans and artists’ impressions.

Work ‘in hand’ on inter-islands link – but no answer yet

The RMS St Helena approaches Ascension Island - but not for much longer
The RMS St Helena approaches Ascension Island – but not for much longer

The British government has been asked how people and supplies will be transported between St Helena and other islands in the South Atlantic after the RMS St Helena is withdrawn from service in 2016.

But no clear answer has emerged in response to a written question in the House of Lords by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Jones of Cheltenham – one of the figures behind the revival of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on St Helena.

His question was:

“To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the future reliability of inter-island links in the South Atlantic for the transport of imports and exports and the mobility of labour in the South Atlantic British Overseas Territories after the St Helena airport is operational and the RMS St Helena ceases to operate.”

Baroness Warsi (Conservative) has replied:

“We are working closely with the St Helena and Ascension authorities as plans are developed for the transportation of supplies and passengers domestically among the islands after the introduction of air access to St Helena.

“These plans are progressing although work remains to be done in the run up to the opening of the airport and the withdrawal of the Royal Mail Ship St Helena service.”

25 days after setting out, Tristan passengers still couldn’t land

Three and a half weeks after first sailing from Cape Town, passengers on the beleaguered MV Edinburgh finally reached Tristan da Cunha on Monday 17 June 2013 – only to find they could not go ashore.

Sea conditions were too rough at Calshot Harbour and Captain Clarence October decided to  sit out the weather in the lee of the island.

They finally got ashore – along with fresh provisions and long-awaited mail for the islanders – on Tuesday 18 June.

The ship departed from South Africa on 23 May 2013 on what should have been a seven-day voyage, but turned back only 403 nautical miles from the island because of technical problems.

A tug was sent out to intercept the vessel, taking spare parts that were used to carry out repairs at sea.

The ship reached Cape Town on 6 June for further repairs and sea trials, while the 11 passengers – including children and a Foreign Office official – spent the weekend at Tristan House.

The vessel set out for the island again on Monday 10 June, with the Tristan website commenting: “If any voyage deserves good weather with a following wind, the possibility of a six-day transit and an immediate landing of passengers, it is this particular sailing.”

It was not to be.

Islanders were also keenly awaiting the landing of supplies: rationing had been introduced at the store in the settlement.

Read the full saga on the Tristan website.

Tea and fruit run out as Tristan supply ship turns back

Rationing has been introduced at the store on Tristan da Cunha after the supply ship MV Edinburgh was forced to turn back while en route to the island.

The ship was 500 miles from Tristan on 30 May 2013 when Captain Clarence October MBE decided to return to Cape Town because of technical problems.

The last delivery of fresh produce and mail was on 26 March 2013. The Edinburgh is not expected to reach the island until 18 June, meaning a gap of 12 weeks without fresh supplies.

The Tristan website has reported that the island store was rationing flour and milk, and stocks of tea had sold out.

It quoted islander Dawn Repetto, saying: “The children are longing for fruit as we have been out of apples and oranges for quite a while.”

The 11 passengers on board the Edinburgh will have spent a fortnight at sea by the time the ship reaches South Africa, probably on Thursday 6 June 2013.

According to the island website, www.tristandc.com, they include the Tristan desk officer at the Foreign Office, the administrator’s daughter, and two children.

A tug sent out to meet the vessel has successfully transferred spares and repairs have been carried out to enable the ship to continue under its own power, travelling at about nine knots.

If further repairs and sea trials go well, the Edinburgh is scheduled to set out on 11 June 2013 for the week-long voyage to the island – a trip of 1,700 miles.

By the time the passengers reach the island, they will have sailed more than 4,000 miles.

Despite “challenging” weather conditions, all those on board were said to be well.

The island website listed the passengers as: education adviser Carl Lander, his wife and two children; locum medical officer Dr D’Silva; an Ovenstone factory engineer; administrator Sean Burns’ daughter, Kelly; Ian Cramman, the Tristan desk officer at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; and islanders Shaun and Renee Green and Glenys Swain.

Fresh produce and perishables aboard the MV Edinburgh are to be inspected when the vessel arrives in Cape Town, and replaced if required.

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