It’s the end, as they say, of an era. Or at least it was meant to be. On Saturday last week, the RMS St Helena departed the South Atlantic island that gives it its name for what was supposed to be the final time. But it was forced to turn back due to a medical emergency and returned to the island—almost 1800km from the African coast and another 3200km from South America—early Monday morning. One of only four Royal Mail Ships still in service, the RMS, as it is affectionately known, will be decommissioned upon its arrival in Cape Town at the end of its valedictory voyage.
It’s almost as though the universe has been trying to keep that from happening. Indeed, between medical emergencies and the forces of nature, the end has been a long time coming.
In 2014, I visited Ascension Island and Saint Helena—two of the most remote inhabited islands in the world—and the ship’s crew were already wondering aloud about where they’d go and what they’d do next. Saint Helena’s airport was nearing completion, they’d been told, and their services would no longer be required.
But opening an airport on volcanic outcrop in the middle of one of the world’s great oceans was to prove—who’d have thunk it?—more difficult than anticipated. Visiting the island in 1836 (fifteen years after Napoleon died in exile there), Charles Darwin identified the most pressing issue the engineers of our own time would face.
‘Approaching close to the brink,’ he wrote in his Journal and Remarks (more commonly known as The Voyage of the Beagle), ‘where the current seemed to be deflected upwards from the face of the cliff, I stretched out my arm, and immediately felt the full force of the wind: an invisible barrier, two yards in width, separated perfectly calm air from a strong blast.’
Darwin was describing wind shear, a sudden change in wind speed or direction, and it has been wind shear, more than anything else, that has plagued the airport over the past two years. When the first passenger jet arrived on a trial run in April 2016—two months after the airport had been scheduled to open—it only managed to land on its third attempt. The opening was pushed back again, this time indefinitely.
While charter flights and medical evacuations began in earnest a few months later, it wasn’t until October last year—long after the British newspapers had taken to describing the £285 million airport as the most useless in the world—that commercial flights finally got underway in ninety-nine-seater Embraer jets operated by the South African carrier Airlink. (In order to keep the weight of the planes down, allowing them to better attack the island’s shorter runways, no more than seventy-six of those seats are ever occupied.)
Nearly thirty years old and in desperate need of refurbishment, the RMS picked up the slack in the meantime, the airport’s various trials and tribulations leading to one stay of execution after another. It has done so many premature farewell tours by now—including a visit to the UK in 2016, the year it was meant to be decommissioned, and another to the island of Tristan da Cunha last month—that it’s come to resemble some aging rockers.
But there’s no doubt that this trip, even with its unscheduled encore, really does mark the end. On Saturday, the ship’s crew paraded down the main street of Jamestown, the island’s capital, to the dock, a flotilla of nineteen boats went out to hug the vessel goodbye, whiskey was consumed, water and confetti cannons were fired, fifteen hundred balloons were released, and the ship steamed out of James Bay in full dress, so as to make one last and lasting impression. (Earlier in the week, the words ‘Good Bye RMS St Helena 2018’ were painted on the wall of the Black House on Munden’s Battery, looking out to sea.)
All a bit romantic, really, and more than a little sentimental. But then my own lasting impressions of the RMS are essentially romantic in nature—taking sundowners in the library before dressing for dinner, a three-course meal with the ship’s wine-loving purser, after a day spent reading Alan Moorehead on deck—and one could hardly fault Saint Helena’s residents, the Saints, for feeling a certain pang of something as the ship literally went sailing off into the sunset. The RMS isn’t a luxury cruiser or anything, but rather a working cargo ship (boarding it is an adventure in itself, involving dinghies, pontoons, and a staircase that rises and falls with the swell). But romanticism is hardly contingent on luxury—in my case, the opposite tends to be true—and the experience remains so charmingly archaic, and so completely unique, that it’s hard not to wax nostalgic about it now, even as the ship is still technically in service.
At the same time, as the world continues to learn the hard way, nostalgia has its toxic side. Travellers can be among the most open-minded people in the world, but also, paradoxically, among the most backward-looking, possessive and resistant to change. When Barack Obama kick-started what has come to be known as the Cuban thaw in 2014, countless travel writers decried the effect it would have on the country’s vibe while somehow managing to overlook the benefits that would (it was hoped) accrue to the country’s people. ‘Get in now,’ the message seemed to be, ‘before all the old cars have gone to the wreckers and the place is overrun with tourists.’ When I was in Ho Chi Minh City recently, and remarked upon the manner in which the Bùi Viện backpacker strip was increasingly being targeted at young, middle-class locals—an encouraging sign, it seemed to me, that poverty was on the wane and growth on the up and up—I was disappointed, though not surprised, when a nearby expat grumbled in response: ‘It’s not what it used to be.’
When I read the news about the RMS’s final voyage, I tried not to react similarly. Instead, I recalled a conversation I had on its deck some two-and-a-half years ago. As the ship weighed anchor and pulled away from the island, I met a Saint who was on her way to the UK in order to visit family. She was in her fifties, had never left the island before, and was frankly terrified. ‘It’s such a long way,’ she said.
Saint Helena’s airport will give the island’s residents—some of the most isolated people on the planet, with all the social issues, from alcoholism to child abuse, that isolation engenders—a necessary connection to the wider world. It will make family and medical travel easier. It will also help to boost tourism, though probably not to the point of economic self-sufficiency that was always at least partly the goal. If flying to the island seems less romantic, and somehow inimical to my experience of it, so be it: I don’t live there. It isn’t mine. It’s important that we remember that, occasionally, on the road.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that the RMS was given a little more time and that others were given an opportunity to experience it. But while I’ll remember it fondly, it would be churlish to mourn it. As the emergency that forced it back only proves, the opening of the airport is a change for the better. Eras end, and it was such a long way.
Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent, critic and screenwriter.