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Ready Set Sail in St. Helena

1._Al_and_Max_discuss_sailing_enroute_to_St._Helena'An island stuck in time'

Kippy Gilders

A looming presence on the horizon, its heights hidden in dark clouds, after eleven days at sea, St. Helena was in sight. It is said that St. Helena is one of the most remote inhabited places in the world. But for some, its strategic position, roughly in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, makes it an ideal stopover during the passage from the Cape en route to the Caribbean.

Arriving at James Bay around midnight, the only signs of life were from the bright lights of a large container ship, and the occasional flash of headlights. Cautiously, we launched our tender so that Max and Al could seek out the mooring buoys, while Dani and I stood guard on Corina. After about an hour of careful movements, we were tied to a large buoy, surrounded by other seemingly abandoned boats tied in the same fashion. The following morning, we awoke to our first sight of James Bay; tall, sheer rock face with the only visible life in a small valley between the jagged rocks.

Saint Helena is an island of volcanic origin jutting out of the South Atlantic Ocean. The relative isolation of this small island has resulted in a rich history. Discovered in 1504, her strategic importance was only realized when the trade route to the East was established around Cape of Good Hope. St. Helena became a vital stopover for fresh supplies, and the British East India Company soon claimed her British territory.

Today, St. Helena remains one of the most remote places on Earth. Other than by cruising yacht, the only access is possible by ship and is a five-day voyage from Cape Town on the RMS St. Helena. This is the only connection to the rest of the world, and brings everything from mail to visitors to fresh produce. This isolation has left the island 'stuck in time'. This is evident as there are no mobile networks on the island, only pay phones and land lines. If you can't reach someone on his or her landline, then your next best option is to walk around the small capital of Jamestown and ask the shop owners if they've seen the person you're looking for. With an area of 47 square miles, and just over 4,000 inhabitants, it's quite likely you'll find who you're looking for!

The capital of Jamestown consists of little more than a single street, running up a narrow, deep-sided valley for a mile. In town, you'll find a few snack bars, some shops, one hotel, an information office, and a bank. The roads leading inland are winding, extremely steep and so narrow that cars can only pass each other in specific bays where the road widens for this purpose. Cars going up have the right of way and constantly honk to warn oncoming cars of their arrival. The steep valleys mean you don't need to use any gear higher than third. As the roads climb out of town, the landscape changes dramatically. The bare, dry, and rocky coastal region gives way to green, lush rolling hillsides covered in a cool mist. The interior of the island feels more like the English countryside than a jagged rock in the middle of the ocean.

Despite its complete isolation, we were pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of the island. Our feline crew member, Sambal, had fallen ill on the second day out of Cape Town and his health was declining quickly. By satellite phone we'd been in contact with the local veterinarian on St. Helena, Joe Hollins, who guided us through treatment. When we woke up the first morning after our midnight arrival, Joe and the senior immigration officer were alongside, ready to take Sambal for immediate treatment and to expedite our clearing of immigration. British territories don't normally allow foreign animals ashore without extensive quarantine, but Joe had recently changed this rule to exempt critically-ill animals arriving by boat.

The Saints (the people of St. Helena) are the descendants of European settlers, African slaves and Chinese labourers, and they speak an English that can be extremely hard to understand. But their kindness knows no limit. We were also pleasantly surprised by the number of cruising boats that pass through St. Helena. Perhaps because it's one of the only places to stop in the Atlantic, but at least three boats would arrive each day to stay for a week of rest before continuing onward to South America or the Caribbean.

With Al's love of history and subsequent fascination of St. Helena, we rented a car and climbed our way to the interior of the island. Our first mission was to visit Longwood House, the sight of Napoleon Bonaparte's second exile. He was exiled here in 1815, when he had finally been captured by the British. They'd originally captured and exiled him to the island of Elba (off the shores of Italy) in 1812, but he had escaped. The British, furious, defeated him again and exiled him to St. Helena, a rock in the middle of the South Atlantic. An island so remote, it took 10 weeks for Napoleon to arrive by ship!

Napoleon spent the last six years of his life in confinement on St. Helena, writing his memoirs until his death in 1821 at the age of 51. Many believed that he'd been slowly poisoned with arsenic by his captors, but this is no longer considered true. As Emperor, he undoubtedly enjoyed lavish lifestyles, and some think that his exile at Longwood was no exception. He was permitted to bring an entourage of officers with him, rode horses throughout the day, and enjoyed a ration of 40 kilos of meat, nine chickens and seventeen bottles of wine per day. However, what we saw at Longwood House was rather dismal. The house, now in a better state than ever, was damp and wretched. He also hadn't seen his wife and son since his first exile in Elba.

Unfortunately, we didn't get the chance to visit Jonathan the tortoise, who, at 180 years, is the world's oldest living animal. He lives at the Plantation House, the Governor's residence, where he enjoys an active life with three younger female tortoises. It is believed that Jonathan was brought to St. Helena from Seychelles in 1882, and is the same species of tortoise that we came across in Seychelles Islands months before. Max met Jonathan some 23 years ago, while sailing from Cape Town to Brazil. While enjoying some food at the infamous Ann's Place, and rummaging through the old log books, we found the entry of Max's family in 1991... and the entry of my family just a few pages further!

Running almost vertically up from the floor of the valley of Jamestown is Jacob's Ladder. This staircase consists of 699 very steep steps and serves as a direct link to Half Tree Hollow, the largest settlement on the island. While we huffed and puffed our way up the narrow stairs, we marvelled at the locals carrying groceries up the ladder without even breaking a sweat. Built in the 1800s, it was originally a horse-powered machine for hauling goods to the top of the hill.

The island environment has been reshaped by centuries of human activity to such an extent that it's almost impossible to know what it actually looked like. There are no endemic land mammals, but goats, rabbits, pheasant and other animals were brought to the island to supply passing ships. Forests were felled, and flax was introduced to support an industry that flourished in the first half of the 20th century. The only surviving endemic bird species is the Wirebirdç which is critically endangered with around 350 individuals left in the wild.

Watching RMS St. Helena steam into James Bay, one is acutely aware that there is no other way to and from this island. This is all about to change as the island's first airport is currently under construction. This ambitious project is costing the English government roughly 400 million pounds and involves filling in a whole valley! It is due to become operational in 2016, and the ship service will be discontinued. This will undoubtedly change life on St. Helena, and is the most heated topic of discussion amongst the locals.

With heavy hearts, we bid farewell to Al, who decided that one week on this special island wasn't enough. He'd made up his mind to stay for a few more weeks and return home on one of the last voyages of RMS St. Helena. Once news arrived that Sambal had made a full recovery, we cleared immigration, said our farewells to Al and our new friends, combed the town for whatever meagre fresh produce we could find, and set off on the last leg of our final oceanic crossing. Next stop, Brazil!

We want to thank Budget Marine, the Caribbean's leading chandlery, for its support along the way. Although we are far from home, we know we can count on them to help us out! Follow our trip and see more pictures, videos and information at www.readysetsailnow. com or www.facebook.com/readysetsail.