THE LAST MAIL SHIP / Travel & Place
Travel author and biographer Sara Wheeler boards one of the last working mail ships in the world…
The westering sun dipped with equatorial haste and around our tiny ship the big blue rolled away into the unknown forever. People milled on deck as the light failed, and a south-easterly freighted with chill blew in. An albatross had been following us since we left Cape Town, aspirin white against the gunmetal sky. I hoped it would be there in the morning.
The 7000-tonne Royal Mail Ship St Helena is the last working post vessel in the world. For decades it has ploughed between Cape Town and St Helena, the tropical lump of volcanic rock 1800 miles east of Brazil and 1200 miles west of Angola. The journey from Cape Town takes five days.
The three-week ship’s cycle has determined the rhythm of life on the remotest inhabited island in the world for generations. At the start of my return journey, when many Saints, as the residents of St Helena are known, were leaving to work abroad, tears fell on the wharf. A boy clenched his mother’s hand as his father made his way up the gangplank.
Captain Andrew Greentree began his career as a deck cadet on the predecessor of the current RMS St Helena 24 years ago. I spoke to him in his modest suite aboard, where a pixelated portrait of the Queen hangs in the living area. Like the rest of the crew, the skipper works two-and-a-half months on and the same period off. ‘The unusual thing’, he said, ‘about this ship – besides the fact that she is half-freight and half-passenger – is that the crew have grown up with one another on that tiny island.’ St Helena is 47 miles square, a third the size of the Isle of Wight. ‘There aren’t many ships in the world on which close family work together. We’ve had three brothers on the same roster. On this voyage we have a mother and daughter. We’ve had it all.’
The hardest and best parts of the job? ‘One of the trickiest is disciplinary issues. I’ve known the crew all my life! The best without a doubt is serving St Helena, my home.’
Like many Saints, the ship has served. During the Falkland’s conflict she was seconded to the Ministry of Defence for two years, sailing south as mother ship to a pair of minesweepers.
Something curiously and delightfully old-fashioned clings to the vessel as she proceeds at a stately 15 knots. On my outbound voyage, 135 passengers enjoyed beef tea and deck quoits, and the purser presided over the South Atlantic Ashes – a cricket match in which nets were erected on the sun deck and a wodge of string deployed as a ball. Runs were awarded according to the height of the shot.
As for St Helena, its first ever airport opens this month [MAY], and the jets arriving from Johannesburg mark the end of an era. Portuguese mariners only discovered the island in the sixteenth century – it was too remote for an indigenous population. For centuries it served as a watering station for sailors on the crucial trade route from India. (For most of that time, the island was in British hands, where it remains.) RMS St Helena ploughs her familiar course for the last time in August, and after that, the scrapyard beckons.
On Sunday, the captain held divine service in the A Deck lounge. Taped organ music accompanied us few as we belted out tunes from a special RMS St Helena hymn pamphlet (Immortal! Invisible!). Captain Greentree wore all white: crisply pressed shorts, knee-high socks and lace-ups. The ship was rolling a little, so there was no genuflecting, and we steadied ourselves on the back of the chair in front while standing to sing. As the Prayer for Seafarers reached its haunting conclusion, we looked out at the Atlantic, imagining the many thousands of sailors who had heard that prayer on a windy deck since the first man sighted St Helena in 1502, not knowing what the future held (but who does?). The captain was not a priest, so could not bless us; but peace came down like a benediction in that stuffy lounge.
Words by travel writer Sara Wheeler
Main photograph by Merrill Joshua
Inset photograph by St Helena Tourism