A snapshot of St. Helena

To the editor: Few islands can boast a maritime heritage to compare with St. Helena: discovered in 1502 by Portuguese sailors returning from the lucrative trade of the East Indies, colonized by the British 350 years ago, home to the exiled Napoleon until his death in 1821, visited by the likes of Cook, Bligh, and Darwin, and now home of the last Royal Mail Ship (RMS) run.
In spite of its near-perfect location along the southern trade routes, for 86 years after its discovery the location of St. Helena was a secret closely guarded by Portuguese navigators. Today that location –– 16° S, 5° 45’ W –– is well known and highly prized by cruisers leaving the coast of southern Africa bound for the west side of the Atlantic. For us, leaving Lüderitz in Namibia and heading to Antigua, it was a logical and welcome first stop along a 5,400-mile passage.
We first saw St. Helena from about 45 miles out as a couple of small bumps and lots of clouds. Through the late afternoon and evening we slowly closed on the island, finally anchoring around 2:30 in the morning in the open roadstead of James Bay with the benefit of light from a moon only a few days past full.
The morning revealed a rugged, cliff-ringed island, its volcanic base being undercut by incessant, unimpeded waves; every promontory capped with a fort or a gun emplacement. Later when we poked around the ruins of High Knoll Fort we found it even had a moated central castle, reminiscent of Bermuda’s home to Harbor Radio. That the island is volcanic is unmistakable — narrow valleys climb from the sea towards the island’s central peak.
The morning also revealed our neighbors in James Bay — several other cruising yachts, a fishing boat, and RMS St. Helena. Far from an historic curiosity, RMS St. Helena still provides the only scheduled transportation of cargo, passengers, and mail to the island. Today, the island of St. Helena remains without an airport — a fact which makes the philatelic issuance of stamps commemorating “75 years of flight” by the St. Helena Postal Service a tad ironic.
With no breakwater or other natural protection, the shore landing technique has remained virtually unchanged from the days of sail. A small boat is brought alongside “the steps” where ropes hanging from a series of gallows-like structures lend an ominous air. As the boat rises and falls, surging with each passing swell, the would be visitor simply grasps a waiting fall at the precise crest of a wave and steps lightly onto dry land as the boat drops from beneath dangling feet. Where a well-executed landing can be visual poetry, one less propitiously timed borders on the frightening.
A short walk along the wharf leads to the foot of Jamestown’s Main Street. Here, behind a wall and moat lies the territorial capital — a village, really, of one long, narrow street lined with 19th century buildings, each standing against its neighbor, begrudging the last square inch of land. We come to realize that, like a Potemkin village or a Hollywood set, many of the buildings have no back wall. Instead, they’re built straight into the shear face of the valley.
Saints — the people of St. Helena — are as distinctive as their island: an ethnological mélange that has, over time, incorporated colonists from Portugal and England, slaves from Africa, Madagascar, and the Middle East, and indentured servants from India, Asia, and the Maldives, along with the occasional Boer prisoner of war. The result is a unique mix made even more apparent from their soft-spoken, lilting speech and a language interwoven with traces of old English. Everyone we met was welcoming.
One of the landmarks in Jamestown is Jacob’s Ladder –– a flight of 699 steps that ascends from town to a knoll towering 400 feet above. I admit I stayed at the bottom while Raine and friends made the vertical assault. Although the ascent was physically demanding, they later said the real challenge lay in standing at the top and starting the walk down, tottering as if on a cliff’s edge. I’m told that local kids have a way of bracing feet and hands against opposing rails and sliding down, something akin to sledding Dead Man’s Hill.
The museum offers a fascinating walk through centuries of nautical lore. Anne’s Place, a local restaurant, offers a contemporary history more intimate to voyagers. Since opening the restaurant in the early 1970s, Anne has kept log books with comments and mementos from all the boats that have sailed through. Opening the musty trunk, one can choose from 35 years of voyagers’ stories, photos, and sketches.
Jamestown may be the only town of any note, but the rest of the island is equally wondrous to see. We climbed into a lovingly maintained, antique Ford and were conducted around the island by Leslie — a Saint in his 60’s who had never been off the island.
The road climbs steeply from Jamestown, and from the ridge the view of the town and harbor are stunning, to say the least. Traveling the interior roads, one immediately notices that it is significantly cooler here. Small, lush vales and meadows lie around each corner, dotted with traditional cottages creating what Darwin recognized as a typical Welsh landscape. Villages have colorful names, like “Half Tree Hollow” or “Alarm Forest.” Sisal is cultivated and cattle graze in fields of grasses; the Madagascar Fody flits from tree to shrub to tree, its wings painting splashes of bright colors on the green.
What Wales lacks, however, is the surreal moonscape of barren, sharp-featured volcanic rocks and ridges where life cannot yet take root. Names like “Gates of Chaos” and “Devil’s Garden” help paint the mental picture.
The island of St. Helena is so marvelously inaccessible with its seaward volcanic barrier and its utter geographic isolation that the English government decided it would be just the place for Napoleon to live out his days. We tour his exile home at Longwood –– a sprawling farmhouse surrounded by colorful gardens –– all beautifully restored to a condition that probably far exceeds anything its resident emperor may have enjoyed. The island served as a prison –– much more effective than Elba –– for the last six years of his life.
Our visit being of a more voluntary nature, it was also necessarily shorter. On a trade wind forecast, we decided to leave for Ascension Island, the next leg of this long journey home.

As St. Helena slowly dropped below the horizon, I can’t help but think of the thousands of other mariners who watched the same scene unfold; I think of the isolation of this small dot of dirt in a broad expanse of ocean and of the solitude it offers. And I wonder, when and how we might return. n

-Jeff and Raine Williams can be found sailing their J/40 Gryphon around the BVI. You can read about their circumnavigation at www.j40.org.

By Ocean Navigator