Ascension celebrates 26 years of the RMS St Helena
The arrival of the RMS St Helena last weekend should have signalled the final call of the ship at Ascension. However, as we all know, the ship is due to make a few more stops at the island before it is able to sail off into retirement. The reprieve did not stop the planned celebrations taking place and on Sunday evening the people of Ascension came together with the Captain and crew of the ship to thank them for the 26 years of dedicated service to the islands of Ascension and St Helena. The warehouse and passenger terminal at the Pier Head were given a nautical makeover, specially designed by Marie-Anne Dennis; appropriately making all who have sailed on the ship feel immediately at home. Over 500 people came along for a fantastic evening of food, drink and music.
The Administrator and Captain both welcomed everyone to the evening’s celebrations with speeches, which we have re-printed below. The Administrator said:
“Ladies, Gentlemen, Captain and Members of the RMS Crew
“Welcome aboard the RMS St Helena on Ascension! Haven’t the AIG team done a wonderful job decking out the warehouse in the style of the RMS? Let’s show them our appreciation.
“Of course, tonight was meant to be a retirement party – to celebrate the final call of the RMS St Helena in Ascension before she sails off into retirement. But windshear at St Helena’s airport has stirred things up a bit, and instead, we are now throwing a birthday party: to celebrate the RMS’s 26 years of dedicated service to Ascension and St Helena.
“Captain Rodney, Ascension wants to say thank you to you and the crew for everything you have done for the South Atlantic islands over the years. It’s fantastic that so many of the crew we all know well and love have been able to come ashore – a rare treat for Ascension these days. And our American cousins even closed the runway in your honour (!), meaning you need to stay an extra night to pick up your connecting passengers and everyone can have a lie in in the morning, which the Governor has declared a bank holiday!
“At my speech at the recent Queen’s Birthday Party, I likened the RMS to an ageing rock band on its final world tour, having just got back from the London gig. I saw the RMS come through Tower Bridge. Just as the bridge went up, the dark clouds lifted and the sun came out for a moment. The crew were waving from the deck. It was a very emotional occasion. I was standing on the south bank of the Thames just along from HMS Belfast and suddenly I heard the familiar lilt of Saint voices all around me, including from Rodney’s family who were shouting: ‘Look, there’s Uncle Rodney!’ Everyone was smiling and waving. There was a tremendous feeling of pride and community spirit. And, just like a Rolling Stones tour, the RMS has been sold out for months, so SHG have now released extra dates until September with more perhaps to follow!
“I know this is not the final time we will see the RMS sail off from Clarence Bay. But the reprieve we have been given will pass quickly. I would still like to pause a moment to consider what the RMS means to us all.
“I have been fortunate enough to have been on 3 voyages on the RMS. I’m glad I did. I only really understood what this splendid vessel meant to people on Ascension when I experienced it myself. It’s more than just a means of getting to your destination safely and the chance to enjoy some good food. The RMS is a gentle introduction to island life – the genteel pace, where people have time for conversations, to tell stories and to take afternoon tea. Where you join the ship as strangers and leave with new friends.
“For your time on board you join a well-functioning family unit. The crew look after you and keep you in check if you step out of line. My family and I had fabulous support from Rodney and the crew on the Christmas voyage to Cape Town when 3 of my children did not have the right type of birth certificate to clear South African immigration. Even though we enjoyed our RMS journey, we would not have been happy to miss our holiday in South Africa and be sent back to Ascension!
“For many Saints, wherever life takes you, all paths will converge on the RMS. The RMS is the bridge over which anyone wanting to get to or from St Helena must pass. For many Saints, it signifies going home and the start of a holiday. But it’s more than that – it has great emotional significance. It is entwined with life events. If you are leaving home in search of riches or love abroad; if you are getting married and are going on honeymoon; if you are taking a new baby to see its grand-mother or if you are accompanying a loved one to get urgent medical attention, you travel on the RMS. As I saw with the moving ceremony for Mycle ‘Dook’ Williams at the pier head 18 months ago, it’s also how some Saints make their final voyage.
“The RMS is a constant – whatever life throws at you. Just like for some Christmas might be a marker of the passage of time, the annual journey on the RMS is a time to take stock of what has happened in your and your family’s life.
“Of course for Ascension, the RMS has had a practical purpose. It’s been the lifeline for the civilian population. It’s how the employers get their work force to their place of work. It is how the shop gets its fresh food. It’s how people send their things, whether gifts for the family or their life’s possessions home. Thank goodness it will continue for a while yet!
“In a moment I will ask Captain Rodney Young to give some personal reflections about his time on board the RMS and perhaps tell us about the recent celebrations in the UK. I am delighted that Rodney has invited our school children aboard tomorrow to look around. And those who have tirelessly and safely worked ship over the years will be the RMS’s guests for afternoon tea tomorrow.
“And finally, I would like to say thank you to those who made this evening’s party possible. Thank you to Kitty for the idea, Catherine, Marie-Anne, Steve and his team for organising the party. Thanks to Two Boats School and our school children for the artwork. Isn’t it fantastic? Thanks too to SHG/AWS for allowing the ship to stay at Ascension overnight and above all to Rodney and the crew for wanting to join us. Enjoy the party!”
Captain Rodney Young then took the opportunity to address everyone. He began by saying: “I have just received a message to say that the RMS schedule will be extended until Lyn and Eileen Leo leaves Ascension.
“When I first visited Ascension Island it was a very different place to what it is today. You had a better chance in those days of getting into the White House than getting ashore here.The Island was ruled by King Ron Field and John Taylor, you had to be sponsored, and timings were strict, there was no overnight shore leave.
“I worked with Ralph Peters, and Peter Peters, with Scipio and of course the unforgettable Dave Caine. But times have moved on and here we are tonight being entertained by the Government and People of Ascension Island, on as you put it our final world tour, and I thank you most sincerely for this kind invitation.
“We have just completed a trip to the UK and to our home port of London, where we able entertain a large number of people, including yourself, the Administrator of Tristan and the Deputy Governor of St Helena, and of course Princess Anne, who left us in no doubt that she prefers sea travel to air travel.
“As ships’ staff we had a difficult task at these functions as we had to promote an Island which has an airport that doesn’t work, a ship that is about to be withdrawn and had to ask people to come and live in hotels that had not been built, but somehow we did it and got away with it.
“For the last 26 years we have been working on that wonderful passenger ship the RMS, but it now feels like its turning into a film set, and we are all starring in film called ‘Carry on Regardless’, because we don’t know when it is going to end, we have Tee shirts printed, the plaques engraved, but with all the wrong dates, a count down clock that should today be showing 12 days to go, which a few days back, some bright spark changed to 901 days to go. St Helena has its windshear problems, and last week there was severe turbulence in the Customs shed.
“The RMS is nearing the ends of its life here in the South Atlantic, and I know that the people here on Ascension will miss it, especially the bingo, the shop, the perfumes, British chocolate, and the BBQs, but most of all you will miss the 4-cube, how are the people of Ascension going to live without the 4-cube allowance? I cannot wait to see you all turning up at the airport with these boxes. If ever I write a book about the RMS, I will have to have few chapters on baggage; Saints will never understand that a 3 piece suite or a washing machine is not cabin baggage.
“So ladies and gentlemen on behalf of the all the crew thank you once again for this kind invitation tonight, and to say how impressed we are with this wonderfully decorated hall. And that I understand that only the older children are visiting tomorrow, and not the younger ones, but I will arrange with Kitty to have the young children to come to the RMS in the months ahead.”
A selection of photographs taken from the buffet lunch hosted by Captain Young on board the ship on Monday, 4 July. A very big thank you to Captain Young and the crew of the RMS St Helena for their hospitality while in port as they also hosted pupils from Two Boats School as well as laying on afternoon tea for AIG ship workers.