St Helena Online

Tag: Tony Leo

The Last Farewell: Tony’s video tribute to the RMS St Helena

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”.

The RMS St Helena: picture by Bruce Salt
The RMS St Helena: picture by Bruce Salt

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.

381-rms-st-helena-captain-rodney-young-jb
Captain Rodney Young (picture: St Helena Government)

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.

RMS St Helena
The RMS heads out of The Thames. Picture supplied by St Helena Government

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.”

Adam Williams - captain of the RMS in its final months
Adam Williams – captain of the RMS in its final months

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.

Tony Leo MBE
Tony Leo 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.”

The RMS: picture by Jonathan Clingham
The RMS: picture by Jonathan Clingham

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 Last Farewell, Tony Leo’s film of the last UK voyage of the RMS St Helena, can be purchased online from Reach Back St Helena from 15 July 2017, and shipped anywhere in the world. A film trailer, information and updates can be found on Facebook pages for TL Productions and St Helena Local
  • The RMS leaves St Helena
    The RMS leaves St Helena

Saint FM vital to island spirit, says director Dieter

Tony Leo, as he appeared on the BBC
Tony Leo, as he appeared on the BBC

Three minutes into Dieter Deswarte’s BBC film about St Helena, viewers around the world heard the smooth welcome of Tony Leo, veteran island broadcaster.

“This is Saint FM Community Radio. The people’s station at its best,” he said. “Our unique little island will soon be a part of the bigger world…”

He wasn’t there just to help the script along. Saint FM logo 300The young film-maker places great significance on the radio station that was revived by its listeners, against resistance from officials who were funding a slicker, better-behaved rival.

Saint FM is helping islanders break away from a restrictive colonial past, as Dieter sees it.

“I spent a lot of time there,” he says. “I liked the way it wasn’t perfect but it was done with a lot of enthusiasm, for the island.

“And a lot of people are involved. They have a lot of volunteers. They struggle a lot financially, but it’s good that this came out of the people. It’s a great example of initiative and people getting on and trying to do something.

“I spoke to a lot of people and the independent media has done a lot for people in helping  them to voice their opinion. Because I think until it came around it was really, really difficult.

“It’s incredibly important. There is this colonial legacy and this past is still being processed, not only by the government but also by the people.

“It’s very important to have this idea that people don’t feel suppressed. That is something that is constantly causing frustration and conflict on the island.

“It can be made better by better communications between the people and its government. Also feeling they have a voice within the community.

“I think Saint FM and the Independent… the mere fact that it’s independent media, I think that’s something that the people really needed.”

SEE ALSO: 
It gives me great pleasure: Julie declares Saint FM open
New radio group bids to revive Saint FM

“I think Saint FM and the Independent… the mere fact that it’s independent media, I think that’s something that the people really needed.” SEE ALSO:  It gives me great pleasure: Julie declares Saint FM open New radio group bids to revive Saint FM

St Helena’s Mister Radio just keeps on going: please support Tony Leo’s marathon broadcast

Tony Leo, live and lively in the studio for his marathon broacast. Picture by Saint FM
Tony Leo, live and lively in the studio for his marathon broacast. Picture by Saint FM

St Helena Online salutes the achievements of the indefatigable Tony Leo, St Helena’s own Mr Radio.

After 45 years on air, Tony decided he might as well move into the studio on a long-term basis. At 7am on Saturday, 6 July 2013, he began a marathon broadcasting session in aid of the relaunched Saint FM Community Radio.

It was classic Saint broadcasting; the hours rolled by but the chat was as perky as ever.

Readers who haven’t signed up to hear the paid-for internet streaming are encouraged to pay tribute to Tony’s efforts by doing so – or at least, to join St Helena Online in making a small (or large) donation.

Tony suggests a pound an hour…

Saint FM does not benefit from the tens of thousands of pounds paid by the British taxpayer to sustain the rival – and often very good – SAMS Radio 1.

Saint FM exists because people on the island were determined to get it back on air after it closed just before Christmas Day 2012.

It is possibly the best and biggest example of Saints acting together to give the people what they wanted, and not what the government decided they should have (the government, we should acknowledge, did grant a broadcasting licence).

It is, quite simply, the people’s radio station. For that reason, and for many others, it deserves support.

SIGN UP or DONATE via the Saint FM website.

Saint FM recalls fire at sea, 40 years ago

The story of a near-disaster aboard a ship bound for St Helena has been retold in a 40th anniversary radio programme – by the presenter who covered it at the time.

Tony Leo revisited interviews he recorded with survivors of the 1973 fire aboard the Good Hope Castle, as well as talking to people who remembered their involvement. His colleague Ralph Peters spent hours searching out archive recordings.

The 40-minute programme was broadcast at lunchtime on 29 June 2013 – four decades to the day after the fire broke out, just as passengers had been sitting down to dinner.

Discussions will now taking place about how to make the programme available for download.

Eighty four passengers and crew took to the ship’s lifeboats as the fire on the Union Castle ship spread out of control. Noxious fumes meant the radio officer could not send a distress message, so the vessel’s position was unknown to other shipping.

But the ship’s failure to arrive in James Bay had already caused consternation in Jamestown, where Rodney Buckley played a small part in events.

“I was senior shipping clerk at the time,” he said, “but don’t remember too much except communicating with the London office and Ascension that vessel way overdue and no contact. Good Hope and the Southampton Castle were never late.”

The people in the drifting lifeboats were lucky: they were spotted from another ship and taken back to Ascension Island.

The fire broke out soon after the Good Hope Castle left Ascension on its run down the Atlantic from the UK to the Cape, on 29 June 2013. The fire eventually burned out and the ship was towed to Europe for repairs.

A number of St Helenians were on board the vessel when it caught fire – many of them expecting to sleep on deck.

Tony Leo covered the story for the five-year-old Radio St Helena when they finally reached home – and his interviews have survived, thanks to the archive that was carefully maintained over the station’s 45-year life.

It ceased broadcasting on Christmas Day 2012, and the archive – mostly old reel-to-reel tapes – was transferred to the museum in Jamestown.

The special programme was suggested after St Helena Online ran a feature on the fire, prompted by the return to the island of Jonathan Mercer, one of the junior officers who spent anxious hours in the lifeboats.

He came back as Master of the cruise ship Amsterdam in April 2013.

Tony Leo is also planning to stage a fund-raising marathon broadcast, starting at 7am island time on Saturday 6 July 2013, staying on air as long as he can.

Click here to hear a live broadcast stream from the new Saint FM Community Radio website (www.saint.fm). The station begins charging to listen online from today (29 June) in order to help meet the high cost of streaming on the internet.

SEE ALSO: We took to the lifeboats off Ascension – a captain’s story

‘Nationettes’ star in Sunday Times Magazine

The iconic Sunday Times Magazines has chosen to celebrate its 50th anniversary issue with a superb picture spread from the UK’s South Atlantic territories. Well, naturally.

Jon Tonks has spent four years capturing the character of St Helena, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha, the Falklands and Gibraltar – ‘little rocky relics of empire’ that ‘cling to the motherland’s apron,’ as the magazine puts it.

Sadly, Jon’s picture of Tony Leo’s caravan didn’t make the magazine, but it can be found on his website.

Islanders may not appreciate the accompanying text by the celebrated writer AA Gill, which dwells much on the death of the British Empire but tells us virtually nothing about Gibraltar and the South Atlantic islands as they are today.

‘Now we’re left with these specks and corners of empire,’ he writes, ‘the tiny shards, little nationettes too small, too far and too slight to make it on their own.’ He’s got a point, though.

Gill does recall, interestingly, that his father made a television documentary about Tristan da Cunha in 1962, without actually going there. Since the Tristanians were all in the UK at the time, this is understandable.

He also rather wittily describes the loss of a succession of British colonies as ‘the end of stamp-collecting as we knew it.’

But The Sunday Times Magazine is renowned for its photo-journalism, and it’s the documentary pictures of Mr Tonks that carry the feature.

He doesn’t take the usual shots. The main picture on the opening double-page spread shows a couple of lifeboats that have come to rest amid rocks and lush greenery on Tristan, well up from the shore. Apparently they’re from the oil rig that bumped into the island in 2006.

Then there’s another of one of the beaches on Ascension.

Others show the governer of the Falkland Islands, posing in full uniform (which says something for the persuasive powers of Mr Tonks), fisherman Noddy with a freshly-caught tuna off Ascension, and a flight of steps on Gibraltar painted with a ‘defiantly British’ Union flag.

There’s also a picture of a past mayor of Gibraltar, slouching in a low chair in front of a placard that reads, ‘I was born British and I want to die British’.

There is only one picture of St Helena, looking down on Jamestown – a familiar view, but slightly different in a way that’s hard to pin down. The road up Ladder Hill can be seen snaking away to one side, so it has not been taken from the usual position at the top of Jacob’s Ladder.

However, there are 27 more St Helena pictures to be found on Jon’s website, including one of Governor Gurr at Plantation, and another of trainee mechanics Jamie and Dylan, working on an old truck at Prince Andrew School. We’re not told the names of the two girls snapped in their school uniforms.

In other pictures, Tara Thomas and musician Tom relax on the verandah at The Briars; Ivor Bowers, Fabian Peters and Cedrick Henry lean against a truck at Sandy Bay; Kerisha Stevens sits on a doorstep, toes turned inwards; Steve Biggs poses in an un-Saint-like cravat; ‘the only Frenchman on the island’, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, stands in the garden at Longwood House; and Jimmy Thomas of Half Tree Hollow leans against a blue wall in a blue shirt, not looking blue at all.

There are landscapes too, and also quite a few pictures of cars. Jon had a gift of a subject in the 1930s Austin Ambassador that was used to drive King George VI and his family around the island in 1947. If Prince William ever turns up on the island, he won’t by riding in that.

Jon had an excellent guide to the island in Ed Thorpe, also a gifted photographer.

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