LOYAL & UNSHAKEABLE TO THE VERY END | Sharon Henry
A flotilla of 19 boats circles the hull of the RMS St Helena like a group of excited schoolkids frolicking at the heels of their favourite teacher. It’s a highly emotional and bittersweet occasion, a finale to a set of farewell celebrations for the island’s ship, the countdown to the final departure in its concluding moments. Today, Saturday 10 February, 2018 we’ve gathered to say goodbye to the RMS St Helena.
Pulling The Gangway Up For The Last Time
The stevedores and Fire Department on board a Solomon’s pontoon have fashioned two water cannons spraying gallons of seawater into the air, much to the delight of ship’s passengers photographing and soaking up this milestone piece of history. Under glorious sunshine the flotilla flits about, filled to the bows with well-wishers glad for a front row seat to see the RMS up close and personal before she goes, including us in my dad’s boat, the ‘Blue Fin.’ Everyone committing to memory these iconic sights of our time: the yellow funnel, the ‘pregnant prawn’, the fluttering bunting, blue and white paintwork, the portholes, the lifeboats…
All too soon it’s 4pm the gangway is stowed away, the anchor lifted and the ship’s horn sounds signalling the release of 1,500 red, white and blue balloons, each making a speedy escape skyward from their holding bay of the RMS swimming pool. It’s a painfully beautiful moment that makes me sigh.
On board for this final sailing are 122 passengers and 55 crew/officers. A total of 177.
Please Don’t Leave Us
The plan is for the RMS to head toward Buttermilk Point, turn back and do a steam past of James Bay one last time before heading off to Cape Town. It’s easy to get caught in the excitement until you realise what’s actually happening then it’s quite sobering. I’m sure this parting is going to be too emotional for many people, tears will spill and hearts will break – probably most especially the stevedores’ who have close ties with the old vessel.
The RMS steams out of her anchorage towards Banks’ Battery, the flotilla follows like kids hanging onto her apron strings. It’s quite poignant, like we’re pleading ‘don’t leave us.’
As the RMS squares off we take position north of Jamestown to get a central view when she does her steam past.
We sit and wait. She’s building up speed. Captain Adam Williams told us earlier he might go at 15 knots. She’s coming closer. This. Is. It. Full steam past honours by the RMS St Helena, her final salute to the island. The ship’s horn blows, resonating high and low in valleys across the island to signal her final departure. The horn sounds haunting, forlorn, like a lost animal calling up through the valley. Did it always sound like this?
Then all too soon it’s over. She’s gone. The cold reality is chokingly sad; our ‘loyal and unshakeable’ RMS is out of our lives forever. Who’d have thought we’d have such an attachment to a ship?
The Farewell Programme
To commemorate the RMS’ final departure the island held a programme of events over the last few days which included a Thanksgiving Service, a public holiday and a fun day.
Hundreds turned out to pay their last respects to this revered lady who’s been our sole physical link to the outside world for nearly three decades. She’s brought eggs, onions, potatoes, rice, livestock, family, friends, visitors, a stowaway, the flu, mail, peaches, plums, clothes, shoes, printer inks, sofas… you name it! Each and every thing – all the island’s needs over the last 27 years has come here stowed beneath and on top of her hatch covers.
Of course with that comes a lot of history and first-hand stories about how she’s affected people’s lives. We’ve been out with the camera trying to capture these last fleeting moments of the RMS era.
Hanging Upside Down To Send A Message
Last Tuesday the Fire Department abseiled from the top of the Black House on Munden’s Battery and repainted a ‘ghost sign’ with the letters ‘Good Bye RMS St Helena 2018.’
It was originally painted in 1989 by 20 year olds Michael Stevens and Dale Bowers (now Father Dale Bowers) and had read, ‘Good Bye RMS St Helena Island,’ as a farewell to the old RMS. “Councillor Tommy George asked us to do it,” laughed Father Dale. “Michael held me by the legs and hung me upside down so I could paint on the wall, we didn’t have ropes. We didn’t mark the letters first, I painted it all freehand. I could only paint at arm’s length and I painted the letters upside down. I was working at the printing office at the time so was used to doing typesets where you work back to front in a mirror image so it was not a problem to me. When the new RMS came in 1990, we also painted the ‘Welcome RMS St Helena’ sign up on the Black House.” Their handiwork remains today.
The RMS St Helena’s maiden voyage was in 1990. She’s seen many souls work on board. One of them is a tearful Mia Henry, who did 17 years’ service finishing as 2nd Officer in 2016. She’s now travelling as a passenger on this last voyage 268. “I think it was just fitting that I see the ship through to the end,” she told us. “I’m feeling really, really emotional. Last night I took part in the cabaret for the last time and it was a really poignant moment when we were all on the stage together. Today is just bittersweet. I’m going on holiday; I’m really excited about it but I’m feeling emotional that we won’t get to experience all of this again.”
Saying Goodbye To The RMS St Helena In My Own Way
Lyn Buckley, Purser Accounts, is one of the crew who hopes to stay with the vessel until the last. “I am lost for words to describe how I’m feeling,” she smiled just hours before setting sail. Leaning against the doorway to her office, watching the final group of passengers come on board she told me, “I’m staying with the ship until the very end, I’ve always wanted to. It’s special being here because the ship has served me so well. I’ve grown so much on board; I’ve learned a lot. I feel like when I came out I was this naïve little girl now I’m going away with a lot of life experience that has made me stronger. I’m grateful for that and I feel like I need to stay here to say goodbye to her properly. I’m not sure what the plans are for the ship but if I am to leave when it’s still berthed alongside the harbour in Cape Town then I’ll just have to kiss her steel hull. But my way of saying goodbye will be on my own, having a quiet, thankful moment, without all the balloons and confetti.”
At the time of writing the future of the vessel is yet unknown. “As far as my orders are,” Captain Adam Williams told us as he readied the RMS for sailing, “I’m to put the ship into Cape Town on the 15 February and about 15-16 of the St Helenian crew will fly back to St Helena on the 17th. The final orders will come in as we sail into Cape Town. We’re all employed until the 28 February in any case but when they’ll release us from the vessel we don’t really know at the moment. But whatever happens I’m prepared to stay around for a while.”
“All We Ask Is You Honour Us”
Last Tuesday morning when the RMS was 20 miles NW on her very final approach to St Helena from Ascension Island, Captain Williams did a live interview via Satellite on SAMS Radio 1. He spoke of the atmosphere on board, paid tribute to the crew past and present and of the dedicated service the RMS has given over the last 27 years. He finished off by saying, “And as we hand this baton over, to the future, to the airport and the future access to St Helena, we hand it over willingly, and with pride, we’ve got well over 150 years of history behind us on mail ships particularly with this dedicated service, 39 years. So it’s a proud history. We hand that baton over to the island and all we ask is you honour us by taking that baton and holding it high taking it forward for us.”
Darrin and I welled with emotion, as I’m sure everyone else did listening at that moment to those strong, powerful words.
The RMS and her crew leaves some mighty big shoes to fill.
Well, we knew this day would come; the end of the RMS St Helena era. The melancholic celebrations are over and although we’re familiar with goodbyes it’s never easy – especially this one.
And as Darrin and I slowly make our way back up the seafront, kicking through spent confetti, I notice a man nearby, quietly crying. Crying for the RMS. Tears were spilt and more than one heart broke, the day the RMS left.
Bon voyage, RMS St Helena. God speed.
At the time of posting we have learned the RMS is to make an unexpected return to the island on Monday morning, 12 February at 6am. St Helena Government have announced that, ‘due to an emergency on board. Following the necessary operations, the RMS will depart again on her final voyage to Cape Town.’