By Sharon Henry
RMS St Helena last voyage leaving Jamestown is about to happen.
A flotilla of 19 boats circles the hull of the ship 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 St Helena’s ship, 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.
…All Too Soon It’s Over.
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?
RMS St Helena Video
Our short video capturing a flavour of the day the RMS St Helena said goodbye:
RMS St Helena Last Voyage Events
To commemorate the ship’s final departure the island held a, RMS St Helena Last Voyage programme of events a 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.
“I’m Feeling Really, Really Emotional”
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.”
Final Orders For The RMS St Helena
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.
Update 11 February, 2018 – 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.’
the st helena – then mng tahiti and then back to st helena – is now in london and being refitted as a extreme e racing paddock ship – she survives to sail on – !
Yes love that the RMS has being given a new lease of life – and part of such a great venture. Her absence is still felt here on St Helena.
So here we are a year on! Will never forget that day and so fortunate to be on the Final Voyage . Met Sharon and Derrin on board and your words and photos are a fantastic memoir. Watched her come through Tower Bridge last week on the live webcam. Going to miss you all at the reunion tonight. If you come to London we must meet up for a coffee. If you want coffee from St Helena we will have to go to Harrods! Take care Keith.
You’re on for that coffee in London, Keith! Thanks. Not quite sure when yet, but it will happen.
We’re both surprised how much we miss the RMS. Just seeing her in the harbour was always a comforting sight.
That final departure day is forever burned in our memories, helped by all those pictures and of course, the one we have with you.
We were the only boat bobbing around out on the far side of the bay as she did her steam-past as everyone else had followed her up toward Sugar Loaf.
A lot of people here still believe the ship will one day make an appearance again in James Bay. It would be a lovely reunion, even if just briefly.
Thanks for the comment, great to hear from you.
It was Indeed an emotional day. The flotilla, balloons and confetti cannonS. The parades and the pennant. The blowing of the horn as we set sailed. There were tears.The RMS will be missed, a lifeline For the island fOr so many years. She served the island well and will be missed. We were Priviledged to have sailed on her 3 times in the last 3 years.
Dear Sharon and Darrin. Thanks to your picture. I can see what happened whilst aboard the RMS (Yes, I am one of the lucky passengers, Yes you can see me on the photos !).
The RMS Had something special (A “right AT HOME” feeling).
I guess everything comes to an end.
Maybe one day we will see a Saint crew on a blue belly, white cabin and yellow tail plane…
HI Christophe – great to hear from you! Trust you had a memorable journey on the Last RMS Voyage. It must have been magical and bittersweet to be on board doing the steam pass of James Bay. Can still feel chills remembering the sight now. 🙂
With the rms retired the only connection to the island now are the flights with airlink: keep a close look on ticket prices!
Thanks for sharing Martin. The article makes quite worrying reading – not what we want to see at this time.
brilliant post you both did the rms and crew proud…….
bon voyage rms I always have good memories of her visits to Tristan.
to the captain officers and crew I wish you well for the future.
Thanks Ian – it was such an occasion where we didn’t want to miss a thing, but savour it all the same. Best wishes to all on Tristan. 🙂
I was fortunate enough to sail on her first voyage to Tristan Da Cunha and I said my goodbyes to her in London in 2016. Your post almost brought me to tears because she was not only your ship, she was ours too. All of her ex-passengers will be sad to see her leave us, she will never be forgotten and will live on in our memories and our photographs. However, there will never be another like her again. Thanks for the pics and the tears. farewell RMS, we will miss you. Fair weather for your final voyage.
Oh wow DRW you have almost brought me to tears! Yes let’s not forget she was Tristan’s and Ascension’s ship too. it sounds like you have quite a history with the RMS, seeing her in London must have been particularly special. Thanks so much for sharing. 🙂
Thank you both for this moving tribute. It was my life’sambition to sail on herand did soin2010 wonderful memories
Thank you for your comment Brenda – glad you have a trip on the RMS as a check off your list. 🙂
Thanks for sharing, sure wish i could have been there got some wonderful memories from the very first sailing out of Cardiff, right up to the day i left.
You must have so many stories about being on board stedson – fond memories. 🙂
Beautiful and so poignant. I so wish i had sailed on the “RMS’ – I came to the island on the first flight in november, which was pretty special, but I bet not nearly as special as sailing on this sweet, old ship. Farewell, RMS.
Thank you Paul – well you are a part of the next era in St Helena history – pretty special in it’s own right. 🙂
Many thanks for a great article the RMS is a great ship and one I will never forget. Just wished i could hsve been with you all.
Derek Kaye – Cargo manager with AW now retired
Hi Derek thanks for your comment. I’m sure the RMS and those in the St Helena maritime circles remembers you too – happy retirement. 🙂
Hi Darrin and Sharon, brilliant write-up and photos. thank you.
Thank you! 🙂
It makes the Pocock print I have on my wall even more special (won in a raffle on ascension island 1994 “general view of st helena”).
Special indeed – a picture of St Helena in her heyday when she was popular with the sailors. 🙂
Had a tear in the eye when I read this – very happy memories from back in 1997. Well done Sharon & darrin AND eVERy good wish to the RMS from jersey for the next stage of its career!
Lovely to hear your reaction Rod – the RMS has given a lot of happy memories, something for us all to treasure for years to come. 🙂
Thanks for sharing,a day to remember!
Thanks Shirley – What a day it was! 🙂
Great Article Judy and Colin Nicholson
Thanks guys! 🙂
Been WAITIng all day on your blog 😊. Awesome as always, even though i’m not the best sailor will definitely miss this way of travel.
Hee hee thanks for waiting. As you can see had a load of photos to edit and upload. Yes and let’s not forget the one not nice thing about the RMS – seasickness! 🙂
Beautiful tribute to the RMS and IT’s crew. Thanks SHARON and DARRIN. x
Thank you so much Sandra – was great to be a part of it. 🙂
Beautiful Post, Beautiful tribute
Thanks Diane – You can imagine us Saints rushing around trying to get all the shots and at different angles. 🙂
Sorry Sharon, I commented previously after a quick scroll through the post. Now that I have had time to read the commentary, I realize that I need to compliment your heartfelt and illuminating words as profusely as Darrin’s great photos.
Best to all.
ah thanks so much for the compliment – still feel a little tender. 🙂
wow, so many memories and so many great photos you guys. Sally has been following the RMS festivities almost 24/7 this week, and we can only imagine how emotional the Saints must be, for our eyes aren’t exactly dry either. We can only reflect that we are incredibly blessed to have sailed the RMS, not once, but twice and have made so many great friends on the island. We hope that the next chapter for Saint Helena will unfold in wonderful ways.
Thanks Rick & Sally. What a privilege to now be able to say you sailed on the rms. It was such an amazing introduction to the island for visitors before they even stepped ashore. 🙂
Thank you Darrin and Sharon for such a moving account of the ship’s final departure (or as it turns out not quite the Final one). This will be A ‘you had to be there’ Day to remember. A new era really has begun!
Totally Chris – we’re sure the RMS will be talked about fondly for many years to come. 🙂
Clearly the grand old lady doesn’t want to say goodbye.
Congratulations on your blog that did full justice to the wonderful service that the RMS has provided.
Thanks a lot Roger & Lindsey what an experience the RMS was. And what a shame for her unscheduled return.