Life on the RMS St Helena

Until the opening of the airport on St Helena, this was the only way of reaching the remote island. 

Written by Tricia Hayne


Staffed largely by Saints, the RMS St Helena is relaxed and informal in atmosphere, with comfortable accommodation, a big sheltered sundeck, and enough space for you to chat or to while away the hours in peace.

The day starts with an early-morning cup of tea or coffee, brought to your cabin by the steward at around 07.00, along with the day’s copy of the Ocean Mail. The ship’s newsletter contains a list of the day’s planned activities, any practical information, and the suggested dress code for dinner (though not one that’s rigorously enforced). Then every day, at 12.30 prompt, the officer of the watch announces the latest news from the bridge, from the ship’s latest position and distance from land, to the state of the sea and the ocean depth, to the current speed in nautical miles and the estimated time of arrival. From a small vessel surrounded by endless miles of water, news of progress is somehow both interesting and surprisingly comforting.

Aside from films and videos shown through the day, there are organised games of bridge and Scrabble, as well as shuttleboard, quoits, cricket and darts. The main lounge has a surprisingly good library of novels and non-fiction books, and you’ll also find board games, crossword puzzles, jigsaws and sudokus on board. In the evening, you can expect plenty of light-hearted brain games, including a highly competitive quiz. And on the Cape Town leg of the journey, the captain’s cocktail party is considered a highlight, an opportunity to dress up for those who wish. 

Like many a cruise ship, the RMS takes food seriously; be warned! You can take breakfast and lunch in the dining room, where the menu is extensive, or in the sun lounge, which offers a lighter alternative and the option to eat on deck. Afternoon tea, with sandwiches and cake, fills any gap before dinner, a more formal meal served exclusively in the dining room. There are usually two sittings – which you select at the time of booking – and seating is often at designated tables. The service is excellent, and the menu – which changes daily and has plenty of vegetarian options – includes starters, soups, main courses, desserts and cheese or a savoury, so you’re unlikely to go hungry.

To counteract all that food, opportunities for exercise are limited. Those working out in the small gym are rewarded by what must be one of the best sea views to be had from a cycle machine. There’s a refreshing saltwater pool on deck, though you’d struggle to swim anywhere. And you could always run up and down the stairs…

Retail therapy is confined to a small shop, which combines souvenirs and presents with practical items such as sunscreen and toothpaste. There are a couple of bars on board, for which you can open a tab at the beginning of the voyage, and where you can buy duty-free goods before disembarking. There’s on-board internet access, with Wi-Fi in the two lounges, but prices are high, and blogging, for example, can clock up the pounds terrifyingly fast.

Out at sea, seals and whales may pass alongside, especially near Cape Town, while schools of dolphins are relatively common close to St Helena. Once out of sight of land, however, the most likely sighting is that of flying fish speeding away from the ship’s wake. Occasionally you’ll be accompanied by an ocean-going bird, and an unexpected splash towards the horizon may be all that alerts you to the presence of a whale, but these are a bonus. Otherwise it’s just you, the ship and up to 4,000m of water down to the sea bed.

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