The Last Voyage of RMS St Helena

A travel report by KMSTC Member, Chris Pinn

On the 14th April 2017 I went on the last voyage of the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) St Helena to Tristan da Cunha and then onwards to the Island of St. Helena. This mail ship supports these two islands and Ascension Island but was coming to the end of its working life. In the near future St Helena would be served by an air service and Tristan da Cunha by a three-monthly service by a small container ship that calls to collect fish products from a small canning factory.

The captain made an announcement that the weather was too rough to lower the gangway, so to go ashore we would have to go over the side of the ship down a rope ladder!

At 14.00 I arrived at Duncan Dock in Cape Town and after the usual formalities, boarded the RMS, went to my cabin and met the three other chaps I was sharing with. The ship was completely full with 150 passengers and 35 crew. At 16.30 we set sail heading due south to Cape Point. The sun was shining on Table Mountain; spectacular as usual, and as it receded we passed the ‘Seven Sisters’ range along the Peninsula, then at Cape Point we headed south west into the south Atlantic.

A turn in the weather

We cruised for four days. The first two days were sunny and fairly calm but then conditions started to deteriorate as low pressure arrived from the SW. For the next two days we had swells of up to five metres and breaking waves . At 40 degrees South we reached the steeply sloped Gough Island with a weather station manned by three people. The weather was now so atrocious that we could hardly see the towering island. We gave three blasts of the horn, did a few circles, then headed off for Tristan. It was already dark when we arrived at our destination, but, because of the weather we set sail for an nearby island appropriately called Inaccessible. The RMS had decided to weather out the storm here and the next morning again set out for Calshot Harbour where we moored at anchor about half a mile out.

The captain made an announcement that the weather was too rough to lower the gangway, so to go ashore we would have to go over the side of the ship down a rope ladder! At the bottom we would be caught by the Tristan crew on a tender and taken to the little harbour.

First ashore was the new Governor designate of Tristan and St Helena who was to be welcomed by the excited islanders. Those that were going ashore were to follow the Governor down the rope ladder and into the tender.

It was now my turn to go down the ladder and was advised by the crew on deck that when I’d arrived at the bottom I was to respond to the crew on the tender. They would shout ‘jump’ and I should then let go of the ladder immediately and land on deck in the hands of the crew. This had to be done the moment the tender was at the right height; any delay would mean the tender was too high or low.

First I threw my stick down then proceeded down the ladder. After a dozen steps or so I heard the command and immediately let go to land safely on the tender. I couldn’t believe it!

I took a walk around and visited the small white-washed island church. I joined the road again and arrived at ‘The Albatross’ where I had lunch. I was served up lobster toast and had ‘lite’ beer, as fresh stocks hadn’t been offloaded from our ship. I don’t know how they got two huge containers from our ship to a tender, into the small harbour and then off loaded onto the quay, but they did! The Tristans said it was always done quite easily in all weather conditions as they relied on the goods inside.

At about 16.00 we all had to reverse the performance of the morning; getting from shore to rubber boat, plying through the waves and getting wet, then climbing up the rope ladder to get on deck. One had to wait for the ladder to appear, then on command, jump onto the bottom rung and climb up. Just in time for tea and cake!

St Helena

By the 8th day of our voyage the RMS St Helena was heading north to the tropics at 20 knots an hour. The sea was now not as rough before so we were hoping the worst was over.

This morning I did a wash of my clothes and by noon everything was dry and ironed. After lunch the after deck was cleared and games of deck quoits began, won by the Saints in the end.

On the 21st April, at our dinner had free champagne to toast the Queen on her birthday and wine for our meal. Everyone grateful; further toasts ensued as time went on!

A further three days cruising north was idyllic, as we reached the doldrums the winds had subdued and the sea was like a millpond. During this time we had a lecture by a returning Saint on life on St Helena. He told us about life in Jamestown. The new Governor gave a talk on her work in the Foreign Office and how she was looking forward to her new challenge.

The little swimming pool was filled with sea water and I enjoyed some refreshing dips as the temperature had risen to 27C. On one day cricket was played on the after deck and, as usual, the Saints won.

Jamestown, St Helena

On the morning of the fifth day after leaving Tristan we approached the high, steep sloping mountains of an extinct volcano that is St Helena. We dropped anchor a little way outside Jamestown that nestled in a steep valley. After the Governor went ashore to a flag waving reception, the rest of us followed. I walked up Main Street and was met by Colin Yon the owner of The Town House  B & B where I was to stay.

In the afternoon there was a welcoming ceremony with speeches and a march past by all the island’s groups. The Governor then inspected and talked to many in the groups assembled.

Jonathan the Tortoise

On subsequent days we (my cabin mates and I) toured the little island and visited a few landmarks and houses. Plantation House was the official residence of the Governor and is famous for Jonathan the 186 year old tortoise. He doesn’t look his age!

We toured the 2 houses that Napoleon stayed in while banished here, the second, Longwood House, where you can see the macabre death mask and the deathbed, unmade, of the Emperor. Outside the tricolour was flying, it was said, because the land on which the house stands belongs to France. Few French visit as the island is only reached by private yacht or our mail boat. We visited the grave of Napoleon in a glade but were told that in the a few years ago, his body had been exhumed and returned to France.

699 Steps of Jacob’s Ladder!

From Jamestown there is a stairway of 699 steps called Jacob’s Ladder that rises very steeply to the local suburb 1500 feet up the side of cliffs. This was originally to get stores and ammunition to a lookout post and fortification for the protection of the island. It is a must for tourists and so we all climbed up the steep staircase at different times which took just over an hour for me. The steps were all of different height so every step was an effort. As our climb was planned we waited at the top to see the Cunard liner, Queen Victoria, passing on its way to Ascension and Cape Verde. She blew her horn and was answered from our ship in the bay and the shore.

After our four days ashore we were now ready to sail south to Cape Town. We mostly sunned ourselves on the deck over the journey passing Walvis and Saldanha Bays en route. We eventually arrived at the port at 16.30 and our amazing trip was all over.