The end is approaching for a very special ship
The RMS St Helena passes between Africa and some of the worlds most isolated islands, St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. These volcanic rocks, barely 200 square miles between them and with a total population of a very small town, make up one of the fourteen UK Overseas Territories. Their remoteness is linked by the RMS St Helena, which takes a lonely route over the seas to act as an arterial lifeline.
The ship brings post, cargo, food and people, known and unknown, to and fro across its 2000 mile route. Its beatings are a metronome rhythm, which St Helena in particular lives by. The island residents, known as Saints, use the ship for long range commutes to Ascension, or travel onwards to the Falkland Islands or the UK. Tourists step aboard to experience a world that’s gone elsewhere. The sense of a community is riveted firmly into the hull of the ship; it pervades the ship's journeys over a four kilometre deep sea.
The ship's personnel make every day interesting and, along with the Saint passengers, provide insights into the small island where Napoleon spent his final six years. They create games, cook deck barbeques, serve evening drinks, organise films including wildlife films of St Helena. The chefs prepare fantastic meals which make you eat too much. But the excess weight can be burned off trekking up and down the leg-destroying 699 foot high steps of Jacobs Ladder on arrival in Jamestown, or on the steep hills that make the landscape stretch further then the reality of its 47 square miles.
If you’re lucky you watch albatross follow the ship for days after departing Cape Town, or capture brief sightings of humpback whales on their long range migrations to the calving seas surrounding St Helena and Ascension Island. I’ve stood on the port side and watched flying fish scatter from out of the wash created by the ships passing. The speed and distance these long finned gliders travel is incredible.
The RMS St Helena will have run its course in 2016 when St Helena’s airport opens, taking with it a 512 year history of oceanic travel. The five day journey from Cape Town will be replaced by an air service that will take a few hours of a traveller’s time. What the planes won’t offer is peace and the fun of being aboard the ship. The games of deck cricket played under the tropical sun, the evening skittles and shuffle board under the southern stars will be replaced with cramped seats, economy food and stale air. And while the ship’s long run to St Helena slows you down, taking you from city pace to the more natural slow-step of these islands, a plane can never do that.
While it is easy to understand why Saints voted for the airport – the speed of such travel will save lives whenever a medivac is required – the loss of the RMS is a sadness that will haunt the islands for many years. The ship will be missed, the change in life as it arrives to rest in James Bay, the commuting runs to Ascension, the subtle melancholy as it departs back into the Atlantic, these rhythms will be lost to St Helena. And with this loss a centuries old history will be scrubbed from the future.
Ship days, as they're presently known, will be gone. When out at South-West Point watching whales, you won't be able to see her sturdy frame on the horizon. When driving passed The Briars on a night the lights of the RMS will be gone from the bay, creating an absence of beauty. The demise of this ship will change life as much as the opening of the airport will.
The RMS St Helena isn’t just an icon; it’s a wonderful piece of history that will be torn from the island. With this change comes uncertainty that, in the short term at least, will replace the centuries old rhythms of life here.
David Higgins is a scientist and conservationist working for the government of St Helena. He also spends time visiting other islands in the South Atlantic.