St Helena in the south Atlantic is so isolated that it was chosen for the exile of Napoleon following the Battle of Waterloo. Even today, the island’s inhabitants are dependent on a very long supply chain. Frank Worsford reports on how the island is confronting new challenges for the future.
In an age where air travel is taken for granted the remote British Dependency volcanic island of St Helena is exceptional, as it can only be reached by ship. Indeed, there is only a single vessel that regularly calls to the island, a few times a year, to supply all its essential needs.
That vessel is the last working Royal Mail ship, the combined passenger/cargo 6,767 grt British flagged RMS St Helena. The vessel, operating on a government subsidy, is dedicated to St Helena and for passengers and cargo the vessel is the island’s only lifeline with the outside world.
The RMS St Helena, measuring 105 metres in length and having a 19.5 metre beam and a service speed of 14.5 knots, is designed to carry 1,500 tonnes of cargo with a container capacity of 62 teus, some of which can be refrigerated. The cargo is loaded via two hatches, both forward of the bridge structure and served by two cranes with a lifting capacity of 12.5 tonnes each. The vessel also has accommodation for over 100 passengers.
St Helena is truly an isolated place, far away from the rat race of the modern world, having no mobiles, fresh milk, newspapers, banks, fast food chains, motorways, traffic lights and being almost crime free. The island’s population of less than 4,000 are an extremely warm and inviting people. The island is 2,000 miles from Cape Town and 5,000 from Britain. Jamestown, the capital, consisting of tinned roofed houses, is at the bottom of a deep ravine and is the only location allowing safe access from the sea onto the island.
St Helena is also one of Britain’s oldest colonies dating back to the 17th century, is volcanic and small, measuring 6 by 10 miles, consisting of a rugged landscape marked by deep ravines and rather uninviting and intimidating coastal cliffs. For these reasons the island is also famous as being a place of exile for France’s most famous son, none other than Napoleon Bonaparte.
Cargo for the island is loaded at either Poole in England or Cape Town in South Africa. Indeed, virtually everything required for islander’s survival, including mail, dried, canned and frozen foodstuffs in addition to cars and household goods has to be transported by the RMS St Helena. The vessel is even equipped with a small hospital to carry patients from and to Cape Town (the nearest major hospital) and also has the capability to transport fire engines, ambulances, police vehicles and even livestock. Not surprisingly, for people living on a remote island, a fair amount of the cargo consists of alcohol, mainly South African beer, and cigarettes.
There is no airport (though this is now in the pipeline) and the forces of nature, primarily its volcanic mountainous terrain, prohibit the construction of a harbour. Instead, the island is dependent upon a rather primitive landing quay; complete with an ancient winch crane, precariously located adjacent a high cliff face on the edge of Jamestown overlooking the bay. If this is not enough, the landing quay faces the addition hazard of periodically being subject to rock falls.
At the end of its voyage from Poole or Cape Town the RMS St Helena anchors some distance off shore, as there are no harbour facilities for ships, to begin the process of discharging her cargo by methods perhaps more familiar to 19th century sailors. A well rehearsed procedure begins when a motor launch arrives along side the vessel to ferry passengers ashore. This is followed by the arrival of a floating pontoon of doubtful vintage and powered by an outboard motor. Once manoeuvred into location along side the RMS St Helena the serious work of unloading containers and other cargo can begin.
These are unloaded by RMS St Helena‘s cranes onto the pontoon, which transports single containers to the landing quay, where they are winched ashore by crane. In modern ports the movement of each container tends to be measured in minutes, with ports boasting of their sophisticated computer technology control systems, multi-million pound cranes, competing league tables and how many thousand containers can be moved in the space of 24 hours. None of this is relevant on St Helena, where it can take hours to unload and transport each container ashore.
Indeed, for days after the arrival of the RMS St Helena there is a flurry of activity as the pontoon shunts back and forth between the vessel and landing quay discharging cargo. Also, as this is the South Atlantic there can be heavy swells running in Jamestown Bay making transits ashore a tricky business for passengers and cargo. It is not unknown for the odd container to slip into the water although this is, apparently, a rare occurrence. The subject of passengers slipping over the side was never mentioned.
Needless to say any containers or cargo destined for St Helena and arriving late at Poole, thereby not meeting the (very few) scheduled departures of RMS St Helena will be delayed onshore by anything from six months to a year before it is picked up. That is a risk any shipper will want to avoid. In short, there is a major incentive to ensure that St Helenian cargo is on the dockside at Poole on time, well before the ship sails. Everything delivered by the RMS St Helena is stacked ashore at the landing stage awaiting inspection and clearance by HM Customs. This can take a few days, by which time the vessel will have departed for Cape Town or on its once-yearly trip to the even remoter island of Tristan Da Cunha.
St Helena is a British island, having Royal Mail vans, British Bobbies and British rules and regulations. As such, there is zero tolerance of drugs on the island, which partially explains the time consuming delay for cargo inspection and clearance.
Once cargo is cleared by Customs a logistics ritual begins, which though it may appear outdated or quaint, is nonetheless efficient and practical giving the island’s very limited infrastructure. For days on end a motley fleet of antique vehicles descend on the quay to collect their goods. Depending upon your perspective these old Bedford trucks, Land Rovers, Ford Anglias, Austins and Morrises are valuable logistics equipment, museum pieces or junk.
Indeed, anything with four wheels, an engine and goes is pulled into service as freight carriers. From the quay, convoys of vehicles will delicately negotiate their way through a small fort entrance, over a moat, to Jamestown and to all destinations throughout the island, carrying everything from cases of telegraph poles, beer, three piece furniture suites to car engines. The fort entrance severely limits the size of vehicles entering Jamestown, so do not expect to see any articulated trucks on St Helena.
No notice is taken that the vehicles are often over loaded, lop-sided, bare tyres, and engines overworked and belching smoke as they grind their way through St Helena’s meandering and hair raising road system. Normal British road freight rules and regulations, such as seat belts, MOTs or Operators Licences, have not reached these shores.
What of the future? There is some uncertainty. The RMS St Helena comes to the end of her working life within the next five years. However, by that time there are high expectations that the island will have an airport, linking it to South Africa. It is hoped that an airport will bring demand for modern infrastructure and logistics skills, opening up new opportunities and challenges, in its wake perhaps creating a more certain future for this remote island.
l The author would like to thank the people of St Helena, Andrew Weir Shipping, the captain and crew of the RMS St Helena for their help in the preparation of this article.