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.
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.
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.
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.
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. (listen here)
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Update – February 2018
The RMS St Helena completed her service to St Helena on voyage 268, departing St Helena for the final time on 10 February 2018.