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Going Home To Say Goodbye – Last Voyage on the RMS St Helena

THE RMS SOUNDTRACK OF MAGIC MEMORIES | Darrin Henry

Breaking up is hard to do, even when it’s for the best. This one has been coming; we’ve had a few years to prepare, still I can’t believe how sad I feel.

After a lifetime of sea travel, here we are savouring our last voyage on the RMS St Helena, bidding farewell to a vital part of our 500-year-old island identity. After a faltering start, air travel is finally wrapping its sleek fingers around St Helena’s travel baton; the hand-over has begun.

Decorating the Sun Deck ahead of a barbeque in 2009 – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

 

The RMS, A Symbol Of Hope Or Despair?

While tourists have lamented the romance of the ocean passage, for me and my fellow Saints, the ship has always signified something different; a practical necessity. Transportation, basically.

Travel on the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) has signalled opportunity; if you’re boarding the ship, more often than not it meant taking up work overseas and the promise of exciting adventures ahead. The sight of the ship in the harbour has signalled happy reunions, goods in the shops, mail and packages from abroad.

The RMS has been a safe extension to the world. It’s always been ‘our’ ship so as long as we are on board it always feels like home; a part of St Helena with familiar faces looking after us.

But equally for Saints it has symbolised isolation, disconnection and limitations. Expensive fares preventing travel and the benefits that exposure brings. Watching as the ship becomes a tiny dot that disappears over the horizon has finality about it, we are alone once more, cut off and reliant on one another. Alternate options were zero, the 47 square miles of land might as well be a lifeboat as none of us were going anywhere.

So the ship over the years has come to mean many things for different people.

I’ve long wanted an airport for the island, but today my heart is heavy.

Moments after the ship drops anchor in St Helena the stevedores prepare to board (2016) – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

February 2015, a departing view of St Helena at the start of the journey to Cape Town – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Just in case anyone should forget this plaque is fixed on A deck – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Passengers on the Sun Deck as the ship leaves Cape Town – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Last voyage on the RMS St Helena – our C deck cabin, C51.

 

Hands Up, Baby Hands Up…

Sitting on the carpeted floor of our C deck cabin I’m acutely aware of the steady, muffled whine of the engines somewhere below me, the high pitch sound rising and falling with the ship’s movement. The gentle creaks and shuddering sounds of the panelling and furniture, and toiletries on the bedside cabinet as the vessel sways and lurches ever so slightly. They are familiar, comforting sounds and vibrations, the soundtrack of sea travel on the RMS St Helena.

The PA system is playing a 70s or 80s greatest hits collection, ‘Wig Wam Bam.’

Next it’s ‘Hands Up, Gimme Gimme Your Heart…’

I’m sure this music must have come on board when the ship was launched and is played every voyage. In the evenings it changes to pan pipes covers of pop classics from Celine Dion, Chris DeBurgh and Simon & Garfunkel. I imagine a drawer of cassette tapes being cycled from some hidden communications room.

Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’ is now on.

Scheduled flights to St Helena began just two weeks ago. Ironically, when Sharon and I (long-term airport supporters) got the opportunity to fly or sail back home, we opted for the ship. The nostalgia kicked in. Others on board feel the same way and are paying their last respects.

Kenny Rogers, ‘Coward of the County’ plays.

That’s the thing about tradition, it creeps up on you, stubbornly resisting the cry for change, digging in its toes until life doesn’t feel right without it. This music has survived a 27-year journey.

‘Little old wine drinker me.’ Foot tapping away now, can’t help it.

June 2017, a spectacular sunrise at sea on the way to Cape Town in – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Last voyage on the RMS St Helena with Boney M

A few days ago, even with Table Mountain still visible behind us, the TV in the Sun Lounge was featuring the video hits of Boney M. Sequinned body suits, platform shoes and big afros with some really suspect dance moves. Normally I would cringe and wish someone would do away with this old stuff. But this time I sat down with my coffee to watch it.

Boney M is embedded in the St Helena culture in a way you have to experience to understand. I remember well my Dad’s vinyl collection when I was growing up with audacious cover pictures – the Boney M singers all suspended, clinging onto a thick white rope looking back up to the camera.

From the moment we boarded in Cape Town Sharon and I have been savouring these five days at sea, soaking up the traditions one last time. A last voyage on the RMS St Helena.

‘Japanese Boy’ comes on.

The RMS St Helena has carried pets and livestock over the years in a purpose built animal enclosure at the front of the vessel. This trip in 2004 carried quite a few dogs, all well behaved.

Ships officers and crew, past and present, turn out for the ship’s 25th anniversary party at anchor in St Helena, 2014 – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Ships officers and crew, past and present, turn out for the ship’s 25th anniversary party at anchor in St Helena, 2014 – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

 

Don’t Be Late For 4 o’clock Tea

While passengers congregated on the Sun Deck capturing selfies against the Cape Town skyline, ‘My St Helena Island’ crackled from the PA speakers as the ship steamed clear of the sheltered docks and rolled her way into the Ocean swells. The song brought a lump to my throat. It is played whenever the ship leaves port. It was written and recorded by an American, Dave Mitchell, working on Ascension Island in the 70s, and has become the official anthem of the RMS.

The obligatory safety brief on the Sun Deck with all passengers wearing the bulky orange life jackets; I’ve heard this a hundred times over the years, the language has hardly changed since the days of Pursers Colin Dellar and Geoff Shallcross. Even some of the jokes have survived and are rolled out with deadpan automation. It finishes, as always, with a warning about trailing tapes from the life-jackets on the walk back to the cabins. I pay attention to every word. That nostalgia is everywhere.

Four o’clock tea in the Sun Lounge. There never seems to be enough sandwiches and those who turn up even a few minutes late have to scavenge the few stray biscuits left behind. The regular travellers on the ship know not to be late. Sharon and I have developed a fix for this! We routinely wrap a savoury each in a napkin from the breakfast buffet, stashing it in our cabin for afternoon tea later, thus beating the Sun Lounge queue! Little victories!

Safety brief on the Sun Deck and a chance to check everyone knows how to don the life jacket – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Night falls at sea – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Passengers at dinner, 2015 – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Cooked breakfast in the mornings, a luxury that has been hard to resist for many – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

 

Free Cigarettes For Everyone

At dinner the first night we met our table companions who we’ll sit with each evening. One of the ship’s pursers, Terrence, heads our table. We are always lucky it seems to sit with a good crowd, this farewell voyage is no different. Plenty of conversation and laughs as we deliberate island politics, compare how lazy we all are on board and make pathetic attempts to resist the amazing menu each night. I can feel the waistline expanding day by day but those desserts are just too tempting. Plus, it’s the last time, eh!

On the second day we get to meet the new Captain, Adrian Fitzgerald, at the cocktail party in the Main lounge. New captains are rare but there have been a few changes in this last year of the RMS. First impressions are good. Captain Fitzgerald seems like a good fit.

I remember my first cocktail party back in the early 90s, it was Captain Dave Roberts in charge. ‘Tickety-boo’ was his nickname. Alongside the obligatory peanut bowls on the tables those days were small jars of complimentary cigarettes! Smoking was normal throughout the ship back then with just the small alcove in the Main Lounge designated a smoke-free zone. How times have changed.

Captain Adrian Fitzgerald, in command on our last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Pillow fighting on a greasy pole in 2004 – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Magic memories, who can forget the frog racing finals, having to down a glass of beer/wine before the race can begin – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

 

A Ship Full Of Nosey People

Evening entertainment is a hit and miss affair on this voyage but no one seems fussy. Bingo is traditional the first night, but most passengers are tired from pre-RMS travel and retire early. I’m told only one person turned up for Bingo.

The second night is not much better, the ‘word challenge’ game fails to attract interest, but there’s a buzz to the chatter as people have found their sea legs and are just happy to socialise in the Sun Lounge. There’s a good atmosphere on board.

The standard questions pop up:

“Is this your first time to St Helena?”

“Are you a Saint?”

“What do you do on the island?”

“What are you going for?”

“Where are you staying on the island?”

Saint questions have a nosey undertone, a bluntness at times, but we can’t seem to help ourselves –

“Who are you?”

“Who you blongst to?” (translation, ‘who is your family,’ who do you belong to)

“You been on medical?” (tell me what’s wrong with you.)

We’re as guilty as anyone else and it makes me smile just writing it down.

An advantage of a small ship is being allowed to visit the bridge during the trip – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Gambling It All In The Sun Lounge

Friendships are forged on the five-day ocean passage that last a lifetime. It’s probably the enduring legacy of the RMS St Helena. There’s no networking event in the world quite like it.

On the third night we decide to watch the film in the main lounge, Tom Cruise in ‘The Mummy.’ What an awful film. Two hours of my life I’ll never get back.

On the fourth night the sun lounge is transformed into a casino and this goes down well with everyone it seems. Ten pence bets on the roulette table kept us entertained until they were all gone. The house always wins. Only our fellow passenger, Jean, a St Helenian on her way back to live on the island after many years away was on a winning streak, and couldn’t stop collecting. At the end she donated all her winnings to ship’s charities.

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed the lazy days, flicking through the magazines in the lounges and dozing away the mornings or afternoons in the cabin. The ship forces even the most eager workaholic to chill. It’s non-negotiable. I know it will be ‘all go’ when we get home so siestas for a few days are wonderful.

Casino night in the Sun Lounge on board the RMS St Helena.

Playing ‘deck quoits’ on the Sun Deck – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Afternoon videos in the Main Lounge have been a daily feature of the entertainment program at sea – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Competing for the RMS ‘South Atlantic Curry Cup’ – Cricket on the Sun Deck.

 

The Six O’Clock RMS Quiz And Other Entertainment

Cricket on the Sun Deck is energetic and fun as usual. Two teams of passengers playing against each other. It used to be passengers vs ship’s officers, which was better I think, much more competitive.

Quiz time at 6pm is a RMS tradition. We join in but as usual the general knowledge level is way above our own, but it’s still fun. When we do know an answer it’s a great feeling and we leap forward to write it down. Roger and Hannah from Australia are on our team, thank God, they are a pair of encyclopaedias those two. The quiz master, Terrence, comes under fire all three nights for some dubious questions but he chuckle-charms his way out of any disputes.

The bridge visit is ‘sold out’ on both days. Shuffleboard and deck quoits are great ways to pass the time although we both got knocked out by the eventual winners.

The Ocean Mail, (the daily newsletter) slides in under our cabin door every morning informing us of the activities ahead. Films in the lounges, currency exchanges, duty free purchases, shop opening times, sign-up lists for island tours…

Day before arrival the landing cards are issued. We are numbers 50 and 51. The queue is always quick to form for landing cards, the first passengers staking out their place half an hour in advance!

A barbeque on the Sun Deck is tradition on the final night. It’s a beautiful setting, coloured lights strung up, chequered table cloths and some of the crew wearing Hawaiian print shirts. The food is plentiful and delicious. The brisk breeze has us all huddled in jackets but I wouldn’t miss this special open air dinner for anything.

The night is rounded off with deck skittles which always brings out the competitive spirit. Teams of four hurling rope balls that seem to take on a mind (and direction) of their own once you let them go. ‘Don’t forget to turn your clocks back’ is the message as we all head off to bed.

Barbeque on the Sun Deck, one of the most enjoyable meals of the trip – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Barbeque on the Sun Deck, one of the most enjoyable meals of the trip – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

February 2015, some of the ship’s hotel services staff – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Making a final visit to the onboard shop for souvenirs and chocolate – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Very last dawn arrival for us by sea on the RMS – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Arriving at St Helena – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

It’s all over. Leaving the ship after our last voyage on the RMS St Helena.

Saying goodbye… we will miss this view from our house of the RMS St Helena at anchor in James Bay – Last voyage on the RMS St Helena

Completing Our Last Voyage on the RMS St Helena

We’ve blogged about a voyage on the RMS St Helena a couple of years ago, on that occasion we were leaving the island and unsure if we would make that journey again. This time we’re heading home and we know it’s our last voyage on the RMS St Helena. I want to see the island at dawn from the sea approach one last time. It’s normally dull and overcast, but spectacular in a quiet, foreboding sense. It’s likely I’ll never see this sight again.

The second officer on the bridge tells me sunrise is at 5.50am. I will be there. It’s the final ritual in this five-day goodbye.

I will always be grateful to have been one of the lucky Saints to have known sea travel. Not all have.

Future generations will probably wonder what all the fuss is about. But we will know; we will remember with a gentle ache, this incredible way of life that was once normal.

Goodbye RMS St Helena.

A blast from the past – Our first ever visit on board new RMS St Helena back in 1990. Not much has changed then!!

 

COMMENTS

  • conchscooter

    November 23, 2017

    I’ve never been to st helena but I feel like I have reading this. Nicely done.

  • cathy Alberts

    November 14, 2017

    Had to swallow a couple of times to get rid of this lump in my throat! Thanks for a great piece.XC

  • Liam

    November 9, 2017

    Great Piece Darrin… Honestly feeling kind of emotional after this!… So many memories, I notice you got my daddy looking rather unflattering yet determined to win that frog race haha

  • Rick and Sally Stucker

    November 9, 2017

    What a fantastic post! Your affection for the RMS is quite apparent, and wholly understood on our end. When we visited in 2015, it was with the certainty that we would never return, as much as we loved the island and the Saints. With a change in my employment situation and the fact that the RMS is still sailing the opportunity to return AND to sail the RMS again couldn’t be passed up. I think most of our family and friends think we have lost our minds. That’s OK, they have never had the privilege of visiting your island, so they can’t understand. WE can’t wait to be back.
    Cheers!

  • Patrick G Henry

    November 8, 2017

    You know!!when I see the RMS in harbour it’s like a piece of St Helena or a family member arrive home, when I heard the news that in February 2018 she would no longer be required to serve us I know many would miss her and really it would be sad when she hoot us goodbye. That sadness is bothering me and I’m sure many, many others after your story and photo’s. After reading this blog I really feel sorry for all the crew members who are still loyal to her, she is a huge part of their lives. I’m every so proud to say you and Sharon are reminding so many people world wide of the most valuable piece of St Helena’s history St Helena should be preserving, I wonder what plans has been organize when it will be her last call and departure from her home town St Helena. Congratulations and thanks for reminding us of our Birth and ending life-line for the RMS St Helena coming very soon.

  • susan homolka

    November 8, 2017

    WOW! You really captured the nostalgia, even for us who are not saints, but fell in love with the rms experience the minute we stepped aboard the first time. I especially loved being out on the sun deck around 6 or 7 am, just as the day was beginning. I met and developed a lasting relationship with so many saints during my voyages. all those hours gathering in the sun lounge or on the sun deck, learning about st helena from folks who had been born there as well as those who adopted your sweet island as their home. How will new comers gain such a warm connection with the friendliest and most welcoming people i have ever known, once this experience is no longer available? many could very well will arrive as strangers and leave as strangers, quite different than our experiences have been. I too look forward to my last journey on the rms in February with mixed feelings. Thanks once again Darrin and Sharron for this excellent blog.

      • susan homolka

        November 10, 2017

        Hey Darrin and Sharon:
        yes We will be on the last leg of the RMS from St Helena to Cape Town. We were on the ship’s last voyage from london when we learned about the issues with wind shear.It seems like something I personally need to do in order to “complete” that last trip and see those whom I have come to treasure once more. Part of that journey will be a more extended stay on st Helena starting in Jan. I’m Staying at one of Peter and jean’s townhouses.If you do any post walks or Photo shoots during that time i would love to join you. As i have said before, i am a great fan of your photography as well as your blog. Please feel free to email me off blog.

  • Ray M-M

    November 8, 2017

    Bittersweet, eh? Thanks for sharing – and lovely to see what you guys are up to at the mo. Maddie sends wags and snuffles!

  • ARTHUR BRADSHAW

    November 8, 2017

    Indeed the end of a splendid era. So glad I had the privilege of a trip on the RMS. Will be missed for sure.

  • Karel van der Molen

    November 8, 2017

    This piece brought back so many memories of my 2001 trip – thanks again!

  • Veronica sim

    November 8, 2017

    Thanks Darrin & sharon for a trip down memory lane for me. travelling ‘home’ to St helena in 2005 and again in 2012 was an amazing experience – meeting my ‘in laws’ for the first time after marrying a saint 15 years before – the rms holds many wonderful memories for me….its great to see the flights finally arriving on the island, but sad to see RMS retired. How amazing that you could manage that final trip!!

  • John Lowrie

    November 8, 2017

    I JOIN THE OTHERS IN COMPLIMENTING YOU ON THE GREAT WRITE-UP THAT CAPTURES THE WARM MEMORIES OF EVERYONE WHO HAS HAD THE PLEASURE OF TRAVELLING ON THE rms’S. tHE VIEW FROM THE AIR WILL BE SPECTACULAR BUT FLEETING WHEREAS THE ONE WE ALL SHARED FOR OUR OWN FINAL TIME ALWAYS LINGERS, AS DID THE ARRIVAL FORMALITIES. USUALLY IT ALL SEEMED FRUSTRATINGLY SLOW BUT THAT WAS SOON FORGOTTEN ONCE ASHORE. NOW YOU’LL BE FRUSTRATED BY DELAYS OF MINUTES IN BAGGAGE OFFLOADED INSTEAD OF THE HOURS AND DAYS OF OLD AS THE JET aGE FINALLY ECLIPSES THE MARITIME TRADITION. I AM SURE YOUR CHRONICLE WILL BE LOOKED UP AND ENJOYED FOR YEARS TO COME.

  • lEONI

    November 8, 2017

    Thank you So much .. i am printing this with MY memory file …. you made me cry now ….. iF I EVER HAVE TO “try” TO EXPLAIN THE TRIP, I WILL GIVE THEM THIS TO READ ….

  • Young's

    November 8, 2017

    Another awesome write up guys :). Someone only ask me this morning what I thought about being able to fly home now and these are all the things I thought about that we will miss (besides the seasickness lol). But could never have written or explained it like this 🙂 The matching hairstyles have changed but not the lovely smiles heheee

  • Claude P Amann

    November 8, 2017

    A great read darrin!I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for your articles over the years to come.

  • Lally brown

    November 8, 2017

    Wonderfu,thank you both so much for this terrific goodbye to the RMS … a great tribute!

  • pENNY YON

    November 8, 2017

    THank you!! What a beautiful account. Wish i could have been there – but i’ve sadly missed that beautiful vessel…! thanks for sharing the whole experience with us, such a vivid picture for history. well done.

  • Lawsonhenry

    November 8, 2017

    Great story telling and beautiful pictures as we come to expect from you guys and guess what darrin did have hair at one time it seem. thanks for sharing

  • bill fulgham

    November 8, 2017

    greetings again darrin and sharon.it’s great to see you lucky two saints are back home again and stand ready to greet and welcome the world travelers to your beautiful island.you have experienced travel in a way that the rest of us in the big world can only dream about.and will never be able to experience.we now look to the skies as about the only practical way to get us there in a timely Manner.I would imagine that the flights going on now allow expatriate Saints to travel back home and those of us who long to get there for the first time, will probably have to wait a little longer.take care and cheers.bill fulgham, radio engineer, k5eys.
    jackson, ms.,usa,www.team1240.com, fultec@yahoo.com

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