Exploring the Island, Jan 29-Feb 1

Date: Jan. 29, 2017, noon Position: 15 55.00 S, 5 43.50 W

Nep and I took a driving tour of the island with a local guide. It was 12 Pounds well spent! We walked around the grounds where Napoleon was exhiled, and Nep found an old Chinese mural of a dragon in one of the garden buildings. We drove all around the island, to the governor’s mansion at “Plantation House” and saw Jonathan the giant tortoise on the lawn, said to be over 200 years old. Behind the plantation down in the woods among giant bamboo and cypress trees were the “Butcher’s Graves”, real tombstones straight out of a Hollywood pirate movie, of a slave (who was the butcher) and his wife, whom he supposedly murdered. We visited another graveyard that would be the classic Munster Family creep-out yard–tilted headstones, old wooden crosses, mounds of earth and cracking-apart mausoleums. The inscriptions are fascinating, dating back to the 1600s, and one of the graves was marked with the names of the children of the Zulu Chief’s son, who was also exiled to St. Helena back in the day.

Driving over to the other side of the island, our guide took us out to look at the new airport. The airport is a divisive issue for the islanders. Built “in order to keep with the times,” and “to make the island economically viable,” the airport will eventually be the death of the ship RMS St. Helena, and a way of life for the islanders. St. Helena is currently a sailor’s island–it is one of the few inhabited islands left in the world only accessible by ship. Many islanders and sailors alike are heartbroken that this unique place will become just a bit more common once the planes start flying.

The airport was scheduled to open in 2016, but when they tried landing their maiden voyage, the plane encountered severe “wind sheer” and bounced all over the runway, terrifying the passengers and pilot. The future of the airport is unknown, and currently no aviation company will sign on to land their planes on St. Helena. They can land smaller planes for medevacs–formerly you just had to take the ship back to Cape Town & hope you could survive the week before getting to a hospital. But to charter a small plane to the island is in the order of $4,500 round-trip to London, much more expensive than taking the ship. So, the politicians and engineers spent 4-5 years carving an airstrip into a volcanic valley known for its violent williwaws (look at any gnarled tree there), set at a right angle to the valley winds and in the face of the SE trades, spending untold millions of dollars to make the island “economically viable”, and now they have an empty airstrip. Most of the contractors have gone home and everyone’s just shrugging their shoulders in an “oops…” Perhaps if they’d read Charles Darwin’s account of the wind sheer in this particular area when he visited the island, they’d have taken this into account…

I say it’s the island gods getting their revenge! There’s talk of blowing the top off of King and Queen peak to reduce the wind sheer–that would be another pretty bad omen if you ask me. It will be interesting to follow the fiasco over the coming years. For now, St. Helena is still in its pristine, pre-touristed state, and the plans for filling the fields with 5-star hotels and 50-unit condo complexes are all on hold. Hopefully forever! St. Helena belongs to those who have crossed great waters, as every single person has done since the island was first discovered by seafarers.

We twisted back across the island on the narrow roads, up to another high fort built in the 1700s, way up on a pinnacle, looking like something right out of the Lord of the Rings. The center of the fort is hollow and could hold 5,000 people–the whole island population–in the event of an attack. Inside one of the inner chambers we found a 5-sided flagstone with a pentagram inscribed on it, with eerie candles and skeleton masks set in the stone walls. I’m sure many a doobie and plenty of virginity has been lost up here over the years. The view from the fort commands the whole island, and you can see the curve of the earth across the broad sweep of the South Atlantic. We are standing on a tiny little speck of history in the middle of the vast ocean.

Back in Jamestown, we did our best to provision for the next leg of the voyage. What fresh food there might have been was snapped up by the islanders the minute the RMS St. Helena arrived from Cape Town. The only veggies were a crate of sprouting and rotted garlic, and fruit was non-existent. St. Helena is also currently in a drought, so there was no local produce to be had. Good thing Kelsey isn’t here for this shopping! I was having flashbacks to Christmas Island and Cocos Keeling. We’ll just have to make do with the last of our limes and lemons on board Privateer, to fight back the scurvy.

The most important task we accomplished on St. Helena was fixing our cracked Monitor hinge. We easily found a good welder and within an hour, we had a solid weld and a thick plate added to the back of the hinge, and two new tubes crafted from the broken spares. I can rest a bit easier now, knowing we have an emergency backup for the rudder tubes after using our second and last full spare. Fingers crossed she’ll hold for the next 5,000 NM!

Nep and I huffed up the stairs of Jacob’s Ladder one last time before leaving St. Helena. We are about to make sail for the Caribbean, over 4,040 NM distant. This will be the longest-proposed sea voyage in my career, and for Privateer too! St. Helena has been an awesome stepping-stone in the South Atlantic, the perfect place to rest up in between passages. On our way back to the boat, we passed by a plaque, reading “Joshua Slocum lectured in this building on his circumnavigation…” We are truly sailing in the wake of our heroes. Thank you Saints for sharing your amazing island!

Leave a Reply