Landfall at St. Helena

Date: Jan. 28, 2017, noon Position: 15 55.00 S, 5 43.50 W

We made our final approach to St. Helena in the dark of night. In order to slow down as much as possible for a daylight arrival to the mooring field, we struck the Mainsail and Yankee, and flew under Staysail only making about 3.5 knots. The dark loom of the island rose up out of the depths of the Atlantic. It’s very strange to suddenly have something on the horizon after so many days at sea. Various peaks were lit up with red lights, making the island appear to be a vast fortress. The red lights looked modern-day torches, which is the effect they had in the night. We were to find out later that the island is indeed one vast fortress.

As we rounded the NE side of the island a pod of dolphins joined the boat, creating phosphorescent tubes in DNA helix-patterns off the bow. Inside each tube could be seen the dark outline of each dolphin. Many offshore sailors know of this phenomenon–it must be seen to be believed!

Daybreak revealed the craggy cliffs of St. Helena, fading in and out of the mists and rains of the morning. We called St. Helena Radio for our instructions and made our way carefully to the mooring field. A huge triple-masted tall ship from Norway was anchored in the road, the crew unfurling the sails 3,4,5,&6 yards up! I had to laugh–our St. Helena flag shows a picture of a tall ship in front of a brown cliff, and this is exactly the scene we arrived to. Amazing.

We tied on to one of the fantastic mooring buoys in crystal clear water and could see the bottom 65 feet down. Privateer arrived in fine shape and after an hour or two we had a relaxing breakfast, disassembled the Monitor rudder, and were ready to explore the island! St. Helena has a fantastic ferry service, where the launch comes to your boat and takes you to shore. This worked out great for us, as our dinghy outboard motor stopped working in South Africa.

The launch picked us up and we wove through the maze of local boats and floating lines that litter the main anchorage. It’s always quite surprising taking that first boat-ride away from the boat after a sea voyage. After being on Privateer for so long, suddenly we were looking at her from afar, with the towering cliffs of St. Helena behind her. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a giant fin as it splashed above the water. A Whale Shark! Our ferry driver drove right up to the massive animal (the world’s largest fish) which was bigger than the boat we were in. It was swimming right along the surface and we got a crystal clear view of the behemoth from our vantage in the boat. How lucky is that? Within our first hour in St. Helena we’d already seen a Whale Shark, one for the bucket list for sure.

The launch dropped us off at “The Steps”, a concrete landing affixed with rails and vertical ropes to assist disembarkment onto the island when the swell is running high. Suddenly, it was as if we went back in time 250 years… A line of ancient concrete bunkers and shacks was strung out along the cliff, leading to a moat and the castle wall. That’s right, St. Helena has a real moat, a real castle wall, real everything left over from the 1600s. It’s a living museum, stuck in time.

The RMS St Helena arrived right after Privateer, and the port offices were busy. Luckily we were able to clear in very easily amid the chaos, as it was Sunday and normally the offices in town would all be closed. Instead, all the officials were down on the wharf and we were quickly done with formalities and welcomed onto the island. We passed through the giant wooden castle door and into the town of St. James.

Nep and I got a good stretch of the legs walking all through town and up the valley on the lazy Sunday afternoon. The buildings are right out of Charles Dickens and you can sense the weight of history that settles on the place. Fortress walls and bunkers from the 1600s perch high on the cliffs in every direction. 17th & 18th century cannons from various ships & wrecks are scattered all over town. It felt as if Napoleon himself could have stepped out of one of the doorways, and it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising. “This is a top-stop” I said to Nep. Definitely one of the most fascinating places we’ve ever seen.

The “Saints” as the St. Helenians call themselves are very friendly, and knowledgeable in the way of ships and sailing. In fact, every single person on the island has arrived there by way of a long voyage at sea. It’s currently the only way on and off the island. They are a fascinating mix of European, African, Indian, and just about everything in between. They know exactly how you got there (by sea), because you are the only person they’ve never seen before–there are no tourists coming to the island in hordes (yet…) and they will go out of their way to help you with anything pertaining to the boat. It’s a perfect place for a sailor.

Nep and I rounded out our first day on St. Helena by climbing the 700 steep stairs of the Jacob’s Ladder, a massive “inclined plane” that was carved straight up the lava-cliffs above town in the 1800s to transport “soils” up (Jamestown’s first attempt at sanitation) and vegetables down. The stairs are so steep that you have the effect of being at the top of a roller coaster, and you hold on tight to the rails as the wind vibrates the iron and tries to blow your hat away. At the top of the stairs, sweating, we entered into another fortress built in god only knows when–OLD!–and had a commanding view of Jamestown, a narrow strip of a town, the stark and severe landscape, and the anchorage and Privateer below. Several gigantic shipwrecks litter the bottom of the bay just below the crystal clear waters of the anchorage. It’s an awesome scene. What a day, what a place! We are sailing in the wake of history, where so many of the great circumnavigators have sailed before. It is a privilege to be here on this St. Helena, one of the world’s most unique remote islands.

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