Royal Mail Ship (RMS) St. Helena was commissioned for the government of the island of St. Helena in 1988 as a successor to a long line of ships that had serviced the island in the South Atlantic stretching back to the first dedicated ship to serve the island commissioned by the East India company and built in 1814 at Wigram and Greens Shipyard, Blackwell, London.
The keel of RMS St Helena was laid on 15 June 1988 by Mrs Gay Benbow the St Helena government representative in London at the Hall Russell shipyard in Aberdeen.
On 31 October 1989 HRH prince Andrew, Duke of York, performed the naming and launching of the ship into the River Dee. On 30 October 1990 the ship was officially accepted and the final contract price for the vessel as completed came to £32.3 million.
During sea trials in the North Sea the ship attained 18 knots quite comfortably and the hull design proved to be very sea kindly with effective stabilisation and little vibration.
Cabin accommodation was for 120 passengers (later raised to 156 passengers) with berths for 57 crew members.
The ship had a cargo capacity of 1800 tonnes and could carry 92 standard 20 foot containers including 17 refrigerated containers.
As with the long line of vessels named St. Helena that preceded her the ship was to perform the role of exclusive supply vessel to the island carrying mail, supplies and passengers from the UK and various Atlantic ports. As the island of St Helena sits over 1100 miles from the nearest continent (Africa) and had no airfield the island was, until 2017, only accessible via its historic port or the RMS St Helena - the island’s only regular supply vessel.
For 28 years the ship ploughed the South Atlantic in all weathers keeping the island supplied with vital provisions, carrying the islands exports and transporting passengers and islanders to and from the island. Her regular routes included visits to Cardiff and Portland in the UK, Tenerife, Ascension Island, Cape Town and Tristan Da Cunha.
As the ship served as the sole supply line and access route to the island she became highly important to the small island community and played a significant role in the lives of everyone on the island.
When an airport was finally commissioned for the island of St Helena the islanders had to finally bid farewell to their lifeline of 28 years, their beloved Royal Mail Ship and the last of its kind being the last operational Royal Mail Ship in the world. A ceremonial departure was organised on the island to celebrate the ships role as sole regular supply vessel and the memories of the many passengers she carried in this capacity.
The ship’s final farewell to the island was an emotional occasion. Every resident had a personal connection to the vessel and people came in the hundreds to say their goodbyes to the crew and their loyal Royal Mail Ship. Ceremonies, blessings, parades, and festivities centred around the vessel and her crew who made passages on her all the more memorable.
The ship finally sailed through London Bridge on the Thames into the heart of the capital for her official decommissioning.
The island of St Helena she leaves behind her, although resilient, is an island that is now emerging from its remoteness. The secret of the South Atlantic is no more. Air access has opened a new era of travel possibilities for St Helena and its residents. Nestled in a sub-tropical ocean wilderness, the island offers an escape to peace and tranquillity.
Nature lovers are drawn to the rustic charm and promise of rugged adventure and a safe retreat. A place of fascinating heritage with a significant legacy of converging and emerging culture is now paving its future to building a tourism-based economy and becoming a globally connected green and blue destination.