Thursday 25 January 2018

Goodbye RMS

The saddest episode of the St Helena Airport affair (so far) has dawned. I have been covering this subject for several years now, see the background links below, and explained how before the airport was built, the island's only regular link to the outside world was provided by a ship, the RMS St Helena. Named after the island she serves, the RMS was built in Aberdeen in 1989 and entered service in 1990. She is one of only four ships in the world that carries the title "Royal Mail Ship" because one of her roles is to deliver the mail to St Helena. The RMS was a purpose-built vessel which very unusually doubles up as a cargo carrier and passenger liner. She has a vast hold into which virtually all the supplies the people of St Helena ever use are crammed; food, machinery, fuel, medical equipment and drugs, and almost anything else you can think of. Along with this are facilities to carry up to 156 passengers in perfect comfort. There are plush cabins, well-furnished lounges, a restaurant, swimming pool, gym and a sick bay with a fully-qualified doctor always on board. In this way she is similar to a cruise liner and the voyages can last up to a week so such creature comforts are necessary. Up until now the only practical way to reach St Helena was by travelling on the RMS and the ship also was the only way the Saints could leave their homeland and see the rest of the world. The importance of the RMS as St Helena's sole lifeblood was made obvious a few years ago when the ship broke down and her voyage was delayed until she could be repaired. There was widespread fear on the island as supplies ran low. The trip to St Helena from the RMS' passenger terminal in Cape Town, South Africa is five to six days. This is almost a uniquely extreme level of remoteness in the modern world. When she arrives at the island there is no dock and she drops anchor off the coast to transfer her load of people and goods to shore by a smaller boat.

Voyage number 268, the final departure of the RMS, began this afternoon in Cape Town. There have been several "final voyages" before, but the ship had to remain in service afterwards because of delays in the construction of the airport. This did make me happy I must admit. However, the airport is now open and so the stay of execution for the RMS has been lifted. This really is the final voyage. When the ship put to sea it was a grand ceremonial moment. A large crowd gathered to watch, including local dignitaries who presented mementoes to the crew and passengers. A Scottish band played bagpipes and marched back and forth. A fireboat saluted the RMS with its hoses. The ship's whistle sounded multiple times as the vessel eased herself away from the wharf, aided by a tugboat. The passengers threw confetti down from the decks and the well-wishers on the dockside waved banners and flags. Source: I have been following the RMS' progress on, see: On Monday she will arrive at St Helena. From there she will head for Ascension Island on the first of February, arriving on the third. (Her last visit to Tristan da Cunha was on the fourth of January). After an overnight stay she will return to the island that bears her name for the last time. I expect there will be a major celebration and an outpouring of emotion on the sixth of February when she puts in. The Saints will want to pay tribute to their faithful guardian of the seas, but also lament the loss of a central part of their world that they loved so much. It will be symbolic of the changes made by the airport and that awareness may well hit home very suddenly and painfully as a result. I wonder if any of them will rethink some of the points I have made in this series. The RMS' final call at St Helena will last four days; then she will set sail for the last time for the five day journey south to Cape Town where her final mission will terminate. Her future after that is uncertain. The RMS has been listed by the London shipbrokers Eggar Forrester and their subsidiary CW Kellock and Co for sale, see: Will anybody buy her? If not then she will sadly be passed on to breakers for scrap. Then the proud and loyal RMS St Helena will be no more. A film maker has produced a documentary about the RMS called The Last Farewell, see: Another ship, a conventional freighter called MV Helena, will supply the island in the future; but, of course, all passenger access will be by air, landing at St Helena Airport after a few hours flight in a plane seat.
Some HPANWO readers generously suggested a crowdfunding campaign to send me to St Helena where I can report directly from the island I have talked so much about but never visited. I'm grateful for the offer, but in truth I really don't want to go there if I have to fly. I want to travel to St Helena by sea and no amount of crowdfunding could stretch to chartering a seagoing ship for me. Despite all the obvious answers to the question, I can't help asking it: Why? The building of the airport is, of course, "progress!"; the RMS is no longer needed because of that progress. However the very word implies that progress can only be a good thing and it can have no down sides. I am the kind of person who would keep something that contradicted all sound economic sense and practical reason simply because of the qualities the RMS has; beauty, dignity, loyalty, identity, pride, and a sense of adventure in a world that is becoming ever more uniform, prosaic and finite. Can these things really not be balanced with technological advancement? If not then should technological advancement always win by default? Why can't the emotional and ideological ever outweigh cold and ruthless pragmatism? These are the questions I have tried to address in this series. I shall continue to do so because the passing of the RMS does not mean the end of this series. St Helena will have many more changes to enjoy... and endure... in the months and years ahead and I will be covering these as and when they happen. However, for now, this very modern tragedy is all I can think about, and I doubt if I am alone there.


Wealthy Tony said...

I could easily afford to pay for a chartered liner to take you to Jamestown, so name the date and we can go. One caveat though, we don't like people with alien implants in them so can we get that removed first please, if need be I could pay for that, too.
About your books, mainly the Roswell ones, who influenced you, past or present writers, or do you consider your works entirely original and intrinsic?


Wealthy Tony

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Hi Tony.
Well thank you very much. I'll see what I can do with having my implant removed, if it's still there.
My Roswell books are entirely my own work, although there are many authors I've been influenced by, but they are mostly non-fictional. I'm writing a third book so it will eventually be a trilogy.

Wealthy Tony said...

Ben, I didn't realise you did speaking at events. I wonder, might not be your thing but I might have some work for you if you are interested. I am a third party member, all above board but anyway it is complicated but I run a subsidiary of the De Beers company no doubt you know of them. Well, every year the main men and women come over from South Africa to London and we always give them a good evening out at the Dorchester. Would you be able to talk about the history of St Helena because I know the company has a lot of history going back to colonial times and they might like your take on it. We try to make these evenings social and small knit, funny, but interesting. You would get two nights in the hotel and you would be well compensated for giving a 20 minute talk. Up to you. I know it seems odd doing business this way but you seem quite active on here. Plus, others may adopt my idea and do the same thing seeing as you;ll get glowing reviews.

Mull it over

Wealthy Tony.

PS I would need to see some footage of your previous speeches if you can provide links, please. This is just a formality really to show the bean counters we have been thorough in our search for talkers.

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Hi Tony. That sounds lovely; thank you for the offer. However I am not an historian but an independent journalist. I am certainly not an expert on the history of St Helena, although of course I have an interest in that. My study of the island is to analyze the impact on its culture and society caused by its uniquely abrupt transformation from a small isolated and remote community into a part of the global network; following the building of an international airport on the island. Your conference sounds more like one which will need a specialized historian. Good luck with it. If you want to see any of my live presentations anyway, simply search using my name and several recordings will appear in the results. Best wishes. Ben.