Sitting in the Mission to Seafarers in Cape Town, being served a beer by an Anglican reverend before departing on the RMS St Helena, seemed strangely right. Reverend Charles is a pleasant guy, happy to chat, and explain that passengers passing through the mission are often surprised by a dog collar wearing barman. His mixology skills weren’t put to the test however, so I’m not sure how well he muddles a mojito.
The hundred plus voyagers were soon standing on the deck of the ship, waiting to start an adventure; one which taken by many of history’s great explorers. Navigator João da Nova, is credited with discovering St Helena for the Portuguese in 1502, naming it after Helena of Constantinople. Since then, Sir Francis Drake, Captain James Cook stopped there during their circumnavigation voyages, and Charles Darwin, and Edmond Halley are just two great scholars which have visited the island.
“anticipating our shared adventure”
The ship is the only direct contact that St Helena has with the outside world, although this will end when the island finally receives an airport in 2016. It transports fresh produce, and other cargo which the island’s inhabitants have been eagerly waiting for since the time the ship visited. It also is able to carry 150 passengers in basic, but clean, and comfortable cabins.
As we sailed slowly away from Cape Town, negotiating between towering oil rigs, with a dolphin escort, Table Mountain gradually receded from view. We chatted excitedly, anticipating our shared adventure, and beginning to get to know each other.
We’d be spending the next few days reading, eating, watching films, eating, playing games, eating, doing quizzes, eating, zumba classes, and eating some more in each other’s company. Even on the island we’d be bumping into one another all the time, and the number of passengers aboard is relatively small, making friends is easy. Especially with the help of some free drinks at the Captain’s cocktail party, still no mixology; a cocktail free cocktail party!
Along with returning “Saints”, there is a mixed bag of voyagers, most are experienced travellers, used to keeping themselves occupied. However, the crew laid on plenty of entertainment, such as shuffle board, bingo, skittles, as well as afternoon feature films, and fascinating documentaries of St Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha.
The bridge tour with the second officer Mia was especially popular, providing an interesting insight into the running of the ship. She also announces the greatly anticipated daily bulletin, which includes the vessel’s position each day, the weather, and the expected time of arrival. We met the news, that we were on course, conditions are favourable, and we would arrive early on the island with excited approval each day.
“I sneaked in some lame excuses for the humiliating defeat”
The ships officers, and the passengers played a keenly contested game of cricket for the “South Atlantic Ashes”. The officers, used to playing the adapted rules, on a rolling ship, with an improvised rope ball, made their experience pay off, giving the passengers a thrashing. Notice, that I sneaked in some lame excuses for the humiliating defeat?
Eating plays a large part of ship life; the routine quickly becomes established, revolving around breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. Most meals are informal, passengers settle down in the sun lounge or deck, enjoying the excellent food, and good company. Dinner is more formal, served in two sittings, and diners remain on the same table, with a nominated officer throughout the journey.
The ship is crewed by Saints, enhancing the experience, they are able to offer insights to the island, and further fuel arrival anticipation. I was fortunate to dine on The Captain’s table for the outward journey, Andrew Greentree seems a quiet, private man, but still provided some entertaining conversation. I also have him to thank for the heads up about whale sharks roaming the waters around the island, which incidentally was a great tip.
When the weather is good, which was most of the time, unsurprisingly the sun deck is popular. This is most passengers favourite spot, catching the rays while reading their kindles, or shock, horror an actual book. Perhaps just getting lost in their own thoughts, while staring out at an ever-present horizon, a stranger to most city dwellers.
It requires liberal use of sunscreen however, as I discovered to my cost. Becoming slightly too distracted by a couple of petrels riding thermals in the wake of the ship. Providing a hypnotic performance, a graceful balletic display over the rolling, swell of the South Atlantic. Above the thousands of feet of deep blue ocean, and beneath the vast, equally blue sky, with an inconceivably huge dance floor, they offered us a private performance. It was worth a small dose of sunburn, which hopefully I regret anytime soon.
Despite the imaginative entertainment provided by the crew, it is moments like this, and the interactions with the other passengers which make this voyage special. There’s plenty of friendly banter, and the quiz fosters some intense, but light-hearted rivalry, I’m not sure a large cruise liner can emulate.
“an ancient voyage in a modern world”
During our voyage there wasn’t any on-board Wi-Fi available, so apart from the limited email account provided it was easy to disconnect from our daily lives. However, routers were already in place, and apparently Wi-Fi has now been installed, it’s debatable whether this enhances the experience. Although being able to share images of the journey on social media will be useful, it’s also liberating to just be able to sit back, relax and enjoy the trip.
Waking up with St Helena gradually looming closer, until we finally anchored in the bay of Jamestown, seemed bittersweet. While we were all undoubtedly looking forward to exploring the island, there was a tinge of regret that we were disembarking. Even being shuttled ashore, I couldn’t help looking forward to the return trip to Cape Town, a last chance to enjoy an ancient voyage in a modern world.