I had been looking forward to stopping at Saint Helena for a long time. Measuring only 10 miles by about 5 miles and with a population of 4,500 it is one of the most remote islands in the world. It’s position in the South Atlantic make it a popular stop over for cruising yachts sailing between South Africa and Brazil/The Caribbean. I was not disappointed and my ten day stay was hugely memorable and has become one of the many highlights of my whole voyage. With the new airport barely functional due to wind sheer issues the island is still one of very few destinations left on earth where as a visitor you get a certain respect from the locals for simply getting there. They know the distances involved to arrive by sea and enjoy welcoming us salty seadogs to their special island.
After arriving on the morning of the 2nd March, and once secure on the huge mooring buoy, I hailed the little ferry boat taxi which took me ashore along with the three crew of a 46ft Leopard Catamaran which had arrived an hour before me. The check in was simple and friendly and the customs lady even drove us up the hill in her official car to save us walking to the immigration building. A bit lazy really after sitting on a boat for 15 days but seemed rude to turn down such a nice offer. After the formalities were complete I was pleased and not unsuprised to discover the South African crew were in as much need of a cold beer and a burger as me so an enjoyable afternoon was had in company at Ann’s Place adjusting to land life again. It was quite strange to be paying for things in ‘pounds’ for the first time since 2016, Saint Helena pounds that is. The island has it’s own currency which is fixed to the British pound and both are accepted on the island but only the local pounds can be withdrawn from the bank. Important not to withdraw too much local currency as trying to pay for anything in the UK with a Saint Helena pound would not prove successful and likely raise some strange looks. After checking my emails on probably the most expensive internet connection anywhere, £6.60 for one hour, the last water taxi back to the moorings was at 17.30. Probably a good thing and after the long passage and with the near sinking episode now a fading memory, I slept well that night.
Saint Helena can suffer from large swells from time to time throughout the year and it just so happened that my stay coincided with some of the biggest of the year. On the second day of my visit Fathom began rolling beam to beam on the mooring and it became quite uncomfortable onboard. Each day from 07:30 to 18:00 the little water taxi would run back and forth taking us cruisers to shore. It was just too dangerous to take in our own tenders which would likely be smashed to bits. To make disembarkation easier ropes hang down from an A frame at the quay and the idea is you swing out of the water taxi like Tarzan when it’s on the top of a wave. It was a bit of an eye opener for me and trying to get on and off while also passing across several 20 litre water cans called for some good co-ordination skills. It proved too much for the elderly lady crew on one of the yachts who let go of the rope too early and promptly fell into the water between the ferry and the quay. Luckily only a scraped leg and she was fine. For us sailors hoping for some flat calm after rolling around at sea for a couple of weeks we were in for some disappointment.
It was a little frustrating that due to some politics between two companies bidding for the water taxi contract the last ferry was 18:00 each day. But the South Africans and an American catamaran that pulled in were super friendly and for several evenings invited me over for beers and food and even provided a taxi service for me with their dinghy. As the weekend approached the swell was due to pick up even more and we were informed that it was unlikely that the taxi would be able to run the next day. Thankfully Hazel from the Consulate Hotel in town came to the rescue. When she has room she offers a heavily discounted rate of £50 per night inc full breakfast to yachties wanting a night off their boat. The thought of being trapped on a rolling Fathom for the weekend was too much so I said yes please to Hazel and enjoyed a night ashore. Before heading in I jumped over the side to attach a stronger mooring line to the buoy and in the process got stung by what I thought was a Portuguese man of war jelly fish. An agonising stinging rash appeared on my belly and once ashore my first words to Hazel were ‘hello, do you have any vinegar please’. By wiping this on the burns it soon subsided and in hindsight may have been instead a reaction to some poisonous seaweed that was growing on the mooring buoy. Anyway, Friday night turned out to be great fun. I enjoyed meeting some locals and a group of Brits who have been posted to the island for work. When they invited me to join them at the night club I thought they were pulling my leg. I still can’t believe there is a night club on Saint Helena.
Once my friends Kathi and Wolfi had arrived on their boat ‘Plastik Plankton’ we all took an island tour by an older local Robert who has been showing tourists around for over 30 years. He certainly kept us entertained with his stories and described how his father and grandfather used to make their living cultivating and processing flax for rope and string, something which is is no longer done here. He drove us all over including stops at the ex-quarters of Napoleon Bonaparte who was imprisoned on the island between 1815 until his death in 1821 and we looked down at his now empty tomb. At the Governer’s house we caught a glimpse of Jonathan the tortoise, aged 185 the oldest known living terrestrial animal in the world. We enjoyed great views over the capital Jamestown and from high in the lush green hills down over the barren rocks to the endless blue sea. The town of Jamestown itself is quite quaint with a number of small independent shops, the bank, a couple of hotels and the market building. One of the shops called Thorpe’s sells goods from Tesco and I can’t tell you how happy I was to find a Frey Bentos Steak and Kidney pie! The locals, or saints as they are known, talk English with a strange accent that sounds like a mix of Irish and Cornish and they never fail to smile and say hello while passing by. A real test for the legs was climbing the 699 steps of Jacobs ladder which rises from the town to Ladder Hill Fort, 180m above. The ladder is all that remains of an old railway and my time of 12 minutes to get to the top didn’t get close to the world record time of 5 minutes and 17 seconds set by a Scot in 2013. With that speed the fella clearly hadn’t arrived by sailing boat.
The most amazing experience on Saint Helena was swimming alongside Whale Sharks. I had enjoyed a very brief encounter with one in Madagascar but this was on another level. It is now believed that Saint Helena is one of the main breeding grounds for Whale Sharks in the world because equal numbers of males and females are found here for a few months every year. A couple of licensed companies do tours and every effort is made to protect these creatures. What amazed me was how inquisitive they were, changing course and swimming towards us to check us out as we snorkelled close by. The sight of one of these 10m beasts swimming right at you with its huge metre wide mouth open does get the heart rate going but we were reminded that their throats are the size of a golf ball and they have tiny teeth so nothing to worry about! For me it was right up there with swimming alongside humpback whales in Tonga. How lucky have I been to have had these experiences.
After ten fantastic days on the island I was keen to get going and to get another long passage out of the way. With the water and diesel tanks full and with a few Tesco goods filling the cupboards I let go the mooring on the 11th March and pointed the bow NW towards Brazil – 1,700 nautical miles away.