A voyage to Tristan Da Cunha

A Voyage to Tristan Da Cunha.
23-01-93 – 05-02-93. Cape Town to Tristan Da Cunha.

**Update**
On 7 June 2016 I went to London to see the RMS while she was berthed alongside HMS Belfast. It was quite a reunion with two of my favourite ships berthed next to each other. Sadly though, the RMS has very little time left, and this was to have been her 2nd last sailing. However, the new airport has proved to be prone to wind sheer and as such not as safe for passenger aircraft as was hoped, so the RMS has had a short reprieve while they sort out the wind. My blogpost about the ship lives at Musings and I will not flood this post with images from that visit. However, it was great to see the ship once again, and interestingly enough a lot of the people watching her arrive were previous passengers. There is no doubt that she was a very popular ship, and she will be sorely missed.
 
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I heard about the voyage to Tristan Da Cunha quite by accident, having written to St Helena Line in Cape Town while researching an article. I was informed that a cruise on this last remaining mailship, the RMS St Helena would take place in January 1993 to Tristan Da Cunha and that places were very limited. I wasted no time getting on the list which was supposed to be sold out three times in advance.
Curnow Shipping publicity image of the RMS St Helena

Curnow Shipping publicity image of the RMS St Helena

St Helena in Cape Town

St Helena in Cape Town

By October I knew that I had a berth and I duly went ahead preparing for my forthcoming voyage. I had always wanted to sail on the ship since she was launched and seeing her from the Canberra  had only strengthened my resolve, however she is very difficult to get a voyage on and now the chance had come at last. By the end of December payment was made and I started to count off the days on the calendar.  On January 21, I flew out of Johannesburg and on Tuesday 22nd I went down to E berth to have my first close up of the ship that would carry me over 1500 miles to the island of Tristan Da Cunha in the South Atlantic. My first impression was of a hybrid cargo ship. The vessel has a large accommodation block on a short hull and actually looks quite strange. However her Oxford blue paintwork was clean and she look very neat and tidy. Embarkation was at 14H00 and so I walked back into town for a bit of sight seeing. By 10h00, the weather had deteriorated and it had started to drizzle. I made my way to the Castle and spent an hour looking it over before winding my way back to collect my luggage and head for the harbour where I would board the St Helena for her 12th voyage and her second call at Tristan.

My cabin

My cabin was an inside “budget” on C deck, these small cabins are used when the ship does the shuttle service between St Helena and Ascension Island. They have no facilities, these being down the passage. The cabin was tiny, having two bunks, a wardrobe, basin and chest of drawers. Naturally all of these “budget” cabins were full and C deck was the most heavily populated.

By 14H00, the passengers had gathered on the quayside next to the St Helena and we slowly started to go on board. The gangway opens into the bureau square which is on B deck. The shop and pursers office was located in this area, as was a beautiful display case with models of ships that had called at St Helena.
 
There are two sets of companionways that lead to the various decks, however only the for’ard connected to the dining room on C deck and also led to the officers accommodation and bridge higher in the ship.I then headed up to the deck to look around, the aft companionway goes through B deck (bureau, shop and gangway), A deck (forward lounge) and finally comes out behind the sun lounge. This lounge faces out onto the sun deck where the pool is situated. A children’s playroom is also situated by the lounge entrance. Outside, there are two small promenade decks under the lifeboats and a large open area behind the funnel for deck games. By now all the passengers were on board and our luggage had finally been delivered. The ship was getting ready to sail. The voyage had a few purposes, one being the delivery of cement for the completion of the breakwater that was being erected to protect the harbour of Tristan.
Sailing from Cape Town

Sailing from Cape Town

At 16H00 we singled up and under a now sunny sky slowly started our voyage out from E berth, leaving Table Mountain behind, heading down the coast almost to Cape Point before turning our bows west towards Tristan. I had been allocated a seat in the first sitting dinner at 18H45 and after changing went for another look around the ship. Everywhere I turned was a new surprise, I found the famous 5 ship Union-Castle poster, prints of Union Castle liners, Falklands plaques, more models and lots of pride wherever I looked. The vessel has British officers (a fair amount being ex Union-Castle) while the rest of the crew comes from St Helena. The dinner gong sounded and I entered the dining saloon, it was reasonably large and very nicely laid out, on all the walls were enlarged reproductions of famous shipping postcards, It really was a beautiful room. I was very surprised however to find out that there were only about 30 people at the first sitting and it made this lovely room look very empty. After dinner I went to the forward lounge which stretches the width of the ship and has a very good view of the number 2 hatch and the forecastle with our bows plunging into the waves. Second sitting takes place at 20H00 and the first event or happening at night usually takes place at 21H15.

Looking towards the bridge

The ship does not have a cinema, however there is a TV and video machine in each lounge and a pull down screen in the sun lounge for showing movies on. A continental breakfast and buffet lunch are served in the sun lounge and there is coffee and tea available most of the time. By now I had discovered that there were only 81 passengers on board and I was very upset because all along we were under the impression that the voyage had been overbooked and that the ship was full. One man had even left his wife behind because he didn’t think he would be able to get a berth for her! (a likely story!) The passengers were a mixed batch, there were the Governor and his wife, a Tristan administrator, two priests, Americans, Irish, British, South Africans, Canadians, Tristanians, and people from St Helena on board. Most were elderly and at least 50% had sailed on the ship or the previous St Helena and most wanted to see Tristan. It was all too much for me and I had an early night!

Sun deck (aft)

The next day was bright and breezy, with breakfast at 08H00 with a taste of black pudding (not recommended) and the rest of the day to park off and catch up on my reading. There was a very well stocked library aboard, two bars, 3 slot machines and lots of tournaments to enter as we were only due to arrive at Tristan on the 25th, a Monday. In the days before we arrived we were treated to a series of talks and video’s about the island. From the start it was stressed that we could have problems at the island. The landing could be very tricky and the weather was very unpredictable.

The settlement at Tristan Da Cunha

Unpredictable weather

However it did not scare us off altogether as we were all on deck at 05H00 to see Tristan emerge out of the gloom. We anchored off Calshot harbour at about 07H00 and watched as the islanders came walking down to the harbour. It was evident that the landing was going to be a problem as we were going to go ashore in “barges” along with the cargo. However the passengers were more interested in watching a bull (whom was dubbed Ferdinand) being landed. He had made the whole trip in the livestock pen in the forecastle from Cardiff and was very placid. Once he was off we all grabbed our packed lunches and waited by the gangway for the first boat.

Ashore at last.

Ashore at last.

The boat came bouncing alongside, rising about 6 feet in the swell before dropping away and astern. Fortunately the ship was not rolling too much and with much patience and scrambling we got on board. A quick 300 metre sail, and we surfed into the harbour, being drenched by a passing wave as we did so. Then it was up a very precarious ladder onto shore. A short walk took us to a sign that read “Welcome to the Loneliest Island” with lots of arrows pointing in different directions giving distances. Behind us the ship lay discharging her long awaited cargo. There was mail for the islanders, office supplies, beer, cement, re-reinforcing rods, beer, parcels, beer and lots of basic essentials (like beer) as Tristan can only be supplied by sea. They had a lot of unloading to do in the next few days, or until the weather deteriorated, whichever came first.

The harbour

The main island is roughly circular in shape and a mere 8 miles in diameter with a coastline of approximately 24 miles. There are steep basalt cliffs rising up to a plateau upon which the volcano sits, mostly shrouded in cloud. It was first discovered by the Portuguese navigator Tristao Da Cunha in 1506 but the first inhabitant only arrived in 1910, He was Captain Jonathan Lambert of Salem Massachusetts. In 1816 the island was annexed by the British who set up a garrison there. One of the garrison, Corporal William Glass settled on the island and he is regarded as the founder of the present community. There are only 7 surnames on the island: Glass, Green, Hagan, Lavarello, Repetto, Rogers and Swain, and these are as a result of 7 families of British, American and Italian settlers. The main language is English with a decidedly Georgian dialect and Biblical flavour. Nearly 300 people make up the population, most of whom exist oblivious to the outside world and its problems. The settlement of Edinburgh lies in a hollow formed by huge cliffs that rise up to the plateau and boasts a post office, a small museum, supermarket, running water, sewers, electricity and a school.

Main Street

The hills are green and tranquil, sort of like a small village. Quaint names abound like “Down Where The Minister Landed His Things” and “The Place Where The Goat Fell Off The Cliff,” there are even “gulches” ala cowboy movie style. The weather on Tristan can be extreme as it lies on the edge of the “Roaring Forties.” Summer sunshine only averages 2,5 hours a day and about 60 inches of rain fall a year.
The central peak of Tristan rises 6760 feet and in winter is covered in snow. In the 4 days that our vessel lay at anchor we only saw the sun on 2 of these and the rest of the time it rained or was misty. In 1961 the island was evacuated when the volcano erupted forcing the evacuation of the people to Cape Town and later to the UK, it was the first time many had left the island and most would return to it, foresaking the comforts of our modern world for the solitude and crime free existence of the island. The other 4 islands in the group, Inaccessible, Nightingale. Stoltenhoff and Middle island are an Ornothologists dream, providing home to a variety of sea birds and penguins.

Anchored off Tristan Da Cunha

I chose to make a trip to the penguin rookery and set out across an incredible moonscape of hardened lava before returning later for a quick bite to eat at the cafe. (The crawfish pie is recommended!). The prices there were cheaper than on the ship and the beer came from South Africa. I then popped up to the post office before making my way back to the harbour and the tranquility of the ship.

Looking ashore

Going ashore

Getting back on board was equally hairy and I was glad to be “home”. That afternoon I watched some of my fellow South Africans catching fish off the stern of the ship – it was evident from the pile of snoek on the deck that they were having much success. Little did I know that I would end up joining them over the next few days. Our second day was cold and I went ashore again for a trip to the “potato patches” which is a longish walk. Unfortunately the Tristan weather started to play up and I had to turn back before I got totally soaked in the rain. After a quick trip to the cafe I returned to the ship to change and join our intrepid fishermen. By now the swell was getting worse and when the one boat returned they were unable to land the passengers from it, cargo unloading was getting increasingly more difficult and would have to be abandoned. The captain decided to recall everybody to the ship in case we had to up our hook and move out to sea. On the other hand I was too busy trying to land my first snoek to really notice the coming and goings! Our last passengers on board we waited and watched the island disappear in the gloom. That night the wind rose to a force 9 and a very close watch was kept by the officers on watch.

Something fishy

The third day was still dangerous and there was no unloading or going ashore. The conditions were too dangerous. Time to catch up on my fishing! The fishing had become so popular that at any given time there were 8 lines over the side, people having even bought fishing tackle ashore! It helped pass the time.

 
On our last day the Captain decided that in view of the weather we would make a trip out to the islands of Inaccessible and Nightingale which are about 20 miles away. It was a rough passage with the St Helena shipping it green over the bows. When we reached Inaccessible we turned around and headed back to pick up the Governor and embark passengers before heading for home again. This was duly done and at 16H00 we sailed for home, the sun was shining and for a few moments the peak of the volcano was visible before it was shrouded in clouds again. We were a day behind in schedule and were taking most of our cargo back home to Cape Town.
 

at sea

By this time most of us had visited the bridge which featured all the latest electronic gadgetry, including a “servo-watch” which monitored over 600 transponders in the vessel, setting off alarms whenever they found anything wrong.
 
The bridge of the RMS

The bridge of the RMS

We also got a chance to visit the galley and the storerooms which were situated on C deck. An engine room visit was promised and we reminded the chief engineer every time we saw him. The 4 days home were spent in typical Indian Ocean weather. We entered more tournaments, ate ourselves into a frenzy, watched the albatross following the ship and generally lounged about like typical passengers. Our engine room visit came through eventually, with us going from funnel to shaft and rudder.
With that concluded it was soon our last day and we spent this packing and doing those 1000 things which should have been done long ago. By 04H30 on Tuesday 2nd of February we were in sight of the Cape Coast and by 07H00 we were alongside. It was over. The Yugoslavian passenger liner, Adriana was sitting in the corner of the harbour while the German research vessel, Meteor was in the process of swapping scientific staff around, it made a nice change from the empty harbour that we had left behind so long ago.
 

Alongside in Cape Town

I spent the rest of the day visiting the book shops in Cape Town and the V&A waterfront where the very immaculate schooner Aquarius was moored. The Maritime Museum had also added a General Botha exhibition to its collection and that is really worth seeing. After all that, it was time to come home. 
The new RMS and the stern of the old RMS

The new RMS and the stern of the old RMS

I know many people were sad to get off, many were already inquiring about the next Tristan cruise. Personally I would like to do the voyage again, It is a nice length with an interesting destination in the middle. The ship is lovely, the crew exceptional and the experience is one not to be forgotten. A word of warning though, the weather in that part of the world is very changeable, take raingear and warm clothing, the conditions for landing are hazardous and should not be attempted unless you are reasonably sure footed and fit.
 

The original St Helena (postcard image)

As for the previous RMS St Helena. Once the new RMS entered service, she was “surplus to requirements” and an attempt was made to take her cruising under the name Avalon. This was a disaster and the vessel probably only completed one cruise before entering a long period or layup. 
The Avalon in Durban

The Avalon in Durban

We were fortunate to a short trip across the harbour on  her in March 1992, and at that point we already knew she was in trouble.  
She was eventually sold for service in Mauritius under the name Indianoceanique, and was broken up a few years after that.
 
The RMS St Helena is still in service in 2014, although how much longer that will last as the airport at St Helena nears completion (2015?). She is operated by Andrew Weir. With the completion of the airport at St Helena its likely that the RMS has come to the end of the road. (The RMS will be in service till at least 2018)
 
© DRW. 1992-2017.  Updated pics 09 September 2010. Moved to blog 16/12/2013, updated 12/06/2013
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