RMS St. Helena

Last of the Royal Mail Ships

The port was all a-bustle today. The wharf was swarming with busy workers. Forklifts and cranes moved pallets and containers. The RMS St. Helena was arriving soon and all was being made ready for her arrival. The RMS St. Helena is “one of only two ocean-going vessels in the world still to carry the venerable title of Royal Mail Ship, held in the past by so many famous British passenger liners.”

rms st. helena on approach

Since the island does not have an airport (yet … a new one opens in Feburary 2016), the Saints have long depended upon passing ships to provide all their supplies and passenger service, as well as deliver the mail. According to Wiki, the island was “occasionally served by ships of the Union Castle Line, which ran between the UK and South Africa. By the 1970s, the number of ships taking this route had declined significantly and Union-Castle withdrew from the route completely at the end of 1977.” The British government purchased the Northland Prince, refitted her as part-passenger/part-cargo ship to service this remote South Atlantic island dependency and appropriately renamed her the RMS St. Helena.

rms st. helena at jamestown

“Originally built in 1963, this converted 3,150 ton ship had room to carry 76 passengers and supplies. The ship was used by the British Royal Navy during the Falklands Wars as a minesweeper support ship. By the 1980s, however, it became apparent that the ship was too small for the island's needs, resulting in the new St Helena, being built in 1989 ... and launched in 1990.” The new St. Helena is modern, has berths for a maximum of 156 passengers plus 56 officers and crew, including a doctor. She also sports a gym, a swimming pool and all sorts of creature comforts. Her normal route is Cape Town-St. Helena-Ascension Island-St. Helena-Cape Town.

welcome rms st. helena

We spotted her on the horizon while we were still ashore, waiting for the water taxi. A half hour later, from Nine of Cups' deck, we watched as the St. Helena made her way slowly to the anchorage. We heard the rumble and clang of the anchor as it dropped and then her deep, resonant whistle sounded that she was safe and settled in. Within minutes, officials and passenger transport vessels hovered around her like bees on a flower. Once the passengers were offloaded, the lighters (small transport vessels) began sidling up to her, waiting for her to offload cargo for transport to the wharf.

vessels surround rms st. helena

The next morning, the lighters were still working hard offloading cargo as we headed back into town on the water taxi. We watched a passenger cage offload an older lady, obviously unable to come ashore via the regular passenger vessel. It reminded us of the old gam chairs used by ships in days of old. The cage wobbled and swayed, but the passenger alighted unharmed and seemingly undisturbed by the ride.

passenger cage on rms st. helena

As we watched, cars were unloaded and machinery and lots of crates of foodstuffs and fresh produce (we should go to the supermarket soon) and furniture and specialty items ordered from catalogs and maybe even from Amazon. Our friend, Joan, works at R L James, an international company with a one-room branch here in St. Helena that orders items on-line, consolidates them, and arranges for shipment to St. Helena from Cape Town. Obviously, access to internet on the island has been a boon for the Saints. Can you imagine the ordering process via infrequent ship mail in the past?

heading ashore with hms st. helena cargo

The St. Helena, operating since the 1970s, has become part of St. Helena's heritage now. The new airport is scheduled to open in February 2016 and the RMS St. Helena? She's to make her final voyage in July 2016 … a part of St. Helena's heritage that will fade in memories of the younger Saints and finally disappear, only mentioned in the history books.

Want to book passage before she's extinct? Check it out at rms-st-helena.com.