St. Helena for Cruisers
This is a compilation of 2 blog reports on St. Helena by family boat SV Totem. They have contributed extensively to noonsite during their circumnavigation and are now on their last ocean passage on the way back to the USA. Put ‘Totem’ into the noonsite search facility to read their other contributions.
Published 7 years ago, updated 4 years ago
On one hand, St Helena is an obvious choice for boats heading NW from Cape Town: it’s along the path of a logical route, whether you are pointing to Brazil or to the Caribbean. So it’s surprising that quite a few of the boats passing through during our two-week stay were doing just that: a night or two, then casting off again, as if they just wanted a notch for their binnacle. The island has so much to offer, and it’s worth a longer stay!
St Helena is unique in many ways. I’ve confessed to falling in love a little with every destination, but this is different: I’m sure that in the future when people ask us about our favorite stops, St Helena will be on the shortlist.
OK, so nothing hugely unique about a small island with a small population, except in this case that island has the mix of being extremely remote and relatively independent (it’s a British Overseas Territory, which provides some important public benefits and services). To put St Helena in perspective for size, though, the population rank is #235 out of 244 countries / dependent territories – the only “independent” that’s smaller is Vatican City! And yes, Saints have their own passport. As visitors, the scale of the island means we’ve been able to get a feel for the physical place even during our relatively short stay: knowing where Man and Horse Cliffs are, or The Needles, or the road out to The Plantation.
On St Helena, you walk in the footsteps of ghosts, and not just Napoleon’s. In the garden of “The Castle,” (what’s the castle?), a plaque commemorates an 1898 speech in the location given by none other than Joshua Slocum…my inspiration for cruising.
At one time, 1,000 ships per year called into St Helena, as an important watering and provisioning spot between Europe and the “far east”. Sailors suffering from scurvy were unloaded to recover or die. Slaves and indentured servants by the tens of thousands were here: as captives, as emancipated (but not truly liberated) subjects, and finally as freed people. More than 8,000 passed through encampments that sound little better than concentration camps. The lichen-covered rocks alongside nearly every road and mossy path recalled their labor. It’s not uplifting, but it’s important to remember and respect.
St Helena reminds me of my hometown of San Francisco in a way: around every corner, at the top of every hill, there is another view that takes your breath away. The rich reds weaved through the dry rocky coastline, verdant green fields, and the cloud forest upland. You go in minutes from an apocalyptic moonscape to the garden of Eden.
St Helena has an exceptionally diverse mix of terrain and micro-climates, made even more impressive by the size of the island they’re all crammed into lush and arid zones in close proximity. The differences aren’t due to windward/leeward sides, like many other tropical islands, but are mainly caused by elevation. A cloud forest covers the peaks; green pastureland rolls towards the sea. Below the cloud level, land rapidly dries to the barren rocky cliffs of the shoreline. There’s just not a lot of areas to go from sea level to 823m / 2700’ with!
As avid hikers, that gives us a fantasyland of endlessly interesting paths to explore.
St Helena is a hiker’s paradise, with dozens of marked trails and more for the adventurous overland rambler. The biggest problem is just getting to them (infrequent public buses with difficult to interpret routes; prohibitively expensive taxis).
An annual festival of walking was on during our visit, so we lucked into a series of guided hikes. They were led by islanders well informed on the history of the land, biologists eager to share information about endemic species and the threats or challenges they face. The day before we left was the Coast to Coast hike: a walk from Sandy Bay, on the east side, to Jamestown, on the west. Can’t think of a better way to stretch our legs before doing a whole lot of sitting on the passages ahead!
The official language is English, but the local dialect is so strong we have generally struggled to understand people sometimes. I don’t know if there’s a study on linguistic individuality to measure the differences but Saints take pride in how the way they speak sets them apart. January 2016 article in the digital magazine Breeze (free with email registration from WhatTheSaintsDidNext.com) is a great article where thirty Saints share about culture and identity: a remarkable number call out their unique dialect.
Royal Mail Ship Service
The RMS ‘St Helena’ is one of only a handful of actively operating Royal Mail Ships in the world, and unless you come in on a private boat (feeling lucky!) it’s the only way on/off the island for now. The ship stops in about every 17 days on a loop from Cape Town, including four days run from St Helena to Ascension and back. It came into James Bay during our first days here, and caused a mad flurry of activity in the port and in town as visitors arrived and goods were disgorged. Cruisers walk right through the wharf where containers are being unloaded and moved. Not something that would happen in any other port in the world I can think of – civilian activities normally kept very much apart!
Surprisingly considering the size of the population (approx. 4,200), they mint their own currency! There’s a long history here (first notes issued in the 1700s). It’s held at 1:1 with the British pound, and apparently, can be used on Ascension Island (Tristan de Cunha, too, but we’re not going there…yet). There’s only one bank, the government-owned Bank of St Helena, and not a single ATM. Possibly that will change when the airport increases tourist volume…until then, we can use a Visa card at the bank for cash advances, for which the bank charges a 5% fee. That’s the most expensive “ATM” ever! Still can’t resist tucking a couple of coins and notes away as souvenirs.
Thanks to philatelic friends we knew that local stamps are desirable among collectors. I put a call out on our Facebook page, offering to send postcards or stamps, and later sent a couple of dozen with the Royal Mail Ship when it departed—to destinations as far-flung as San Francisco and St Petersburg.
Perhaps it’s the result of sharing a small space, perhaps it’s the centuries of being a crossroads in the middle of an ocean, but St Helena is one of the most welcoming and sociable places we’ve experienced. Pass someone on the street, and they’ll treat you with a smile. Two cars passing on the roadside wave to each other. Every time! It’s the kind of place where people probably don’t bother to lock their doors; I’ve seen keys in the ignition in parked cars.
We’ve experienced it in a dozen small ways: looking for general reception at the hospital I could have been given very simple directions by the first person I asked, but I was personally escorted by a visitor in the waiting room instead. Ty needed a document notarized, but the person who would normally process payment at the court offices wasn’t in. No problem! Notary job complete, he was told he could “just come back sometime before you leave” to pay for the service.
We’ve been the beneficiaries in bigger ways, too. A couple we met our first day on the island has taken us under their wing: answering all our questions, making sure we have had a chance to truly explore the range of experiences in their island home: leading us to some great hiking, taking us to a fort that’s a little far to walk, and hard to reach by bus. We had a Sunday lunch at their house, after a brutal hike… they provided showers, laundry, and an incredible meal! Fellow travelers, reminding us to pay it forward in our lives too.
What’s not so great?
Formalities aren’t cheap considering most cruisers stop in for only a week or two. Visas are free for 3 days; £17 (about $25) per person for longer stays. Port fees run £40 ($60) for Totem. Moorings are £2 or £3 ($3-4.50) per day, depending on the size. Water taxi, £2/person round trip (younger kids half price); sometimes a convenience, sometimes the ONLY way to get ashore (especially if your dinghy is too heavy to pick up onto the wharf).
So for a couple of weeks, the basics are setting us back about $300! But although it’s a lot, it’s not so much we’d pass St Helena by: chalked up as the price of admission for a special place. Topping up our diesel, on the other hand, was truly painful. Oil prices down worldwide? No sign of that here…we had to pay $7.20 per gallon. OUCH.
It’s not surprising that things cost a little more here – most imports are from the UK (via cargo to Cape Town, then the RMS) or South Africa. In the shops, prices actually weren’t as bad as I expected, given the journey that goods must take.
There are some bargains. Gorgeous fresh yellowfin tuna, a few bucks per pound and burgers at Anne’s for only $4.50.
The bigger problem is availability. It was great after the RMS ‘St Helena’ called in and cargo found its way onto store shelves. But most cruisers are accustomed to the guideline of buying something they want as soon as they see it, since it may be gone tomorrow.
If there’s a swell running, the anchorage can get a little uncomfortable. On the other hand, there are very stout, relatively new moorings now, although we’ve heard first hand from boats that had problems with them – a dive on ours made Jamie comfortable. But the surgeon some days can make a landing on the wharf in your own dinghy truly treacherous, and I’m grateful for the water taxi drivers who skillfully take us safely ashore.
Getting online is also a costly proposition, at £6.60 (about $10) an hour for ssslllooowwww internet that sometimes just stops working (while you continue to tick away $1 every 6 minutes). But hey, we’re in the middle of the South Atlantic on a satellite connection! Flashbacks to our arrival in the Marquesas, six years ago…of course, it’s slow and expensive.
Here are a handful of resources to read before coming to St Helena:
Books to read:
Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire. Simon Winchester visits more than a dozen British dependencies, including St Helena (and Ascension, and Chagos, and other places on our route), in an oddly nostalgic but interesting series of reflections.
Black Rock. Author Louise Hoole first came to St Helena as a child when her family moved there from the UK, and it dug into her heart. This work of fiction is in the voice of St Helena’s most famous former resident—Napoleon—and spins a vivid angle on some of the controversy surrounding his death on the island: natural causes or not? Her well-researched storytelling brings St Helenian history to life.
Websites and feeds to check out:
What The Saints Did Next. While looking for information and ideas to inform our stay on St Helena we met with the couple who are behind this site. As travelers AND locals, they have distilled information that’s great to prep visitors, like top sights to fit into a week-long stay. I especially loved their online magazine, Breeze, and the more detailed look it offers into Saints and their island home.
St Helena Tourism (government). The tourism website isn’t just a lightweight rah-rah visitors site: it’s packed with information on everything from Saint’s slang to endemic species. The tourism office in Jamestown was a huge help after we arrived, too: arranging our day tour, helping us with a whale shark trip, and generally being incredibly helpful (thank you, Shelley, Helena, Juliette, Z…. !).
Saint Helena Trust[Broken Link] (nonprofit). On the Trust website are a series of downloadable PDFs on a range of historical topics of interest. They are geared for middle schoolers, but great reading for just about anyone.
SAMS / The Sentinel and The Independent / Saint radio. These are the two local media outlets, each with a newspaper, affiliated radio stations, and some social media channels. Want to know what’s happening? See what people on the island car about? These are a great peek into what matters to Saint Helenians, and also a good way to find out what’s on (like the Marine festival that took place the day before our departure).
Where’s_Domino? What’s not to love about a live-tweeting whale shark? In a project by the Georgia Aquarium, a few of the massive fish have been tagged and broadcast their position when they surface.
See Totem’s blog for the full reports and great photos!