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RMS St Helena (1978-1990)

The First RMS St Helena

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.{f}

Our first dedicated ship, the RMS St Helena (1978-1990)

The primary passenger route to St Helena is now the scheduled commercial air service. Heavy freight is transported by the Sea Freight service and lighter goods are transported by air. Before this the island was served only by sea - lastly by the RMS St Helena (1990-2018) and before that there was the RMS St Helena (1978-1990), the subject of this page. Before that there were the Union Castle Line ships, and even earlier there were the many vessels that passed between Europe and West Africa, India, the Far East and Australasia.

SEE ALSO: Ships ⋅ RMS St Helena (1990-2018) ⋅ Earlier ships bearing the name ‘St Helena’ are listed on this page.

Why and how

From the 19th Century St Helena was served by regular Union Castle Line services between the UK and South Africa, which also called at St Helena. In the 1960s, as sea-travel steadily gave way to air-travel, Union Castle began reducing the frequency of its services and in 1977 it announced that the entire route would close later that year{2}. The British government therefore had to find an alternative means of supplying the island and providing travel to and from, there being at that time no Airport.

They found in Vancouver the part-passenger, part-cargo 3,150 ton ship Northland Prince, launched on 11th June 1963, previously used between Vancouver and Alaska, and purchased her for a price of £940,000 to fulfil the role.

After being refitted with room to carry 76 passengers and supplies at a cost of £1,500,000, she was renamed the RMS St Helena{3} and re-launched by Princess Margaret. She arrived at St Helena for the first time on 5th October 1978, on her maiden voyage. Her radio callsign was GXUY.

About the RMS St Helena (1978-1990)

The happiest ship afloat{g}

You can hear the horn of the RMS, signalling departure from St Helena, and also the mealtime ’gong’ (right).

The RMS was fitted out to be as comfortable as possible, though some said she did not handle well in the often heavy seas of the Bay of Biscay, on her way to and from the UK. While there were few luxuries on board, there was, at least, a rudimentary swimming pool (photo, below).

What undoubtably made her special to Saints was the fact that she was the island’s ship. The Union Castle Line ships served St Helena in passing, on their way between the UK and South Africa. They primarily responded to the needs of their main passengers - St Helena was largely an afterthought. The RMS was dedicated to servicing the needs of St Helena{4}, and what Saints needed they - as far as was practicable and economic - got.

Many Saints always believed the green-colour of the RMS would make her an unlucky ship… Five years into her service a serious fire in the ship’s engine room while in mid-Atlantic was, fortunately, brought under control by the crew with only one minor injury (The 4th Engineer on duty was affected by smoke, and sustained a superficial hand burn) and no serious ones.

Remarkably, on the RMS it was possible to book a cheaper passage by sleeping on the deck instead of occupying a cabin, this practice having been carried over from the Union Castle ships. Many older Saints remember doing this to save money. There is a photograph of the sleeping arrangements in the gallery below.

There’s a story that the RMS had an accident while manoeuvring in Cape Town. This is what we have seen on Facebook™:

There was a big ding in RMS version 1s stern when we joind the ship in 82 in Capetown. We never did get to hear what had happened there, but there was something about the way [the First Officer] said he didn’t want to talk about it.

If you can, please tell us more.

War Service

The RMS was used by the Royal Navy during the 1982 Falklands Conflict as a minesweeper support ship{5}. She arrived at Avonmouth in the UK on the 22nd May, where the passengers and cargo were off-loaded. She then sailed that evening for Portsmouth where she arrived the following day. It was here that she was to be extensively modified for her new role as a support ship. A flight deck was built aft for the Wasp helicopter (which carried AS12 missiles). Four 20 millimetre Oerlikon guns were fitted, extra fuel tanks were installed and the derricks were replaced with raising gear. The RMS sailed south on 13th June 1982. She saw action supporting minesweepers, off Stanley from 9th June, and from 15th July off San Carlos. She supported HMS Brecon and HMS Ledbury in mine-hunting/sweeping, and other ordnance clearance, including diving on the wrecks of sunken warships. She completed her duties on 14th August and set sail for the UK, calling at St Helena on 25th August to drop off Saint crew. Inexplicably, there was no welcome. But her return was short-lived because she was recalled immediately for further military service, not returning finally to St Helena until 8th October 1983. While she was away, Curnow Shipping chartered the RMS Centaur and MV Argonite as replacement vessels to serve St Helena.



By the mid-1980s it was becoming apparent that the ship was too small and too old for the island’s future needs and that her limitations could be constraining the island’s economic development. On 21st May 1986 Governor Baker came on Radio St Helena, interrupting the evening programme, to announce that the UK Government would build a new ship for St Helena (right).

She made her last voyage from the UK to St Helena in mid-1990, arriving on 15th August; a journey beset initially by bad weather with storm force 11 winds around the UK, calming down once she reached Tenerife.

The RMS St Helena (1990-2018) was built and the RMS St Helena (1978-1990) was sold to South African based interests. She was renamed the Avalon and was originally intended to serve as a cruise ship, taking passengers on voyages around the islands of the Indian Ocean. This venture failed, partly because of economic issues but also because she was too old and tired to compete with modern cruise liners. She was sold on to interests in Mauritius and again renamed (lndianoceanique), again with limited success. In 1996 she was taken to Alang in Singapore and broken up for scrap.

Fire, November 1984

Fire onboard a ship at sea is widely considered to be one of the most serious incidents that can occur. It is serious because, unless it can be controlled, it is necessary to abandon ship in the lifeboats, which in mid-ocean has many dangers.


The announcement (below) was issued in the St Helena News Review on 2nd November 1984. On 13th February 1985 Tony Leo interviewed Captain Mike Underwood on Radio St Helena about the fire (right).

Yesterday, telegraphic news was received from Andrew Bell of Curnow Shipping, to the effect that the RMS en route from Ascension to Tenerife had hovered 270 mls South West of Freetown after a fire in her engine room. The fire was centred on a generator and was fought by the prompt and courageous action of the ship’s staff. ‘A’ Deck, that is the crew’s accommodation and ‘B’ Deck, the passenger accommodation, were affected by smoke with the fire having spread up the engine room casing. Fortunately there were NO casualties amongst crew and passengers. The ship was put on power from an emergency generator located in another part of the ship. A passing tanker was seen standing by during hours of darkness. Radio St Helena, in its Local News Bulletin, will keep you up-dated with further information.

Earlier ‘St Helena’ ships

Below: Schooner ‘Saint Helena’HMS St Helena

The Schooner Saint Helena
The Schooner Saint Helena

The Schooner ‘Saint Helena’

In the early 19th century a ship called the Saint Helena was used by The East India Company as a packet ship, sailing between St Helena and the Cape of Good Hope. She did two tours of duty at St Helena, from 1814 to 1821, and again from 1822 to 1830 carrying, cattle, grain and stores to St Helena.

In April 1830 she was captured by pirates off the African Coast, en route to Sierra Leone. Most of the crew were massacred and the ship destroyed.

More on the Wikipedia and you might be able to obtain a book about her by Barbara George.

The HMS St Helena

HMS St Helena
HMS St Helena

In 1944, during World War 2, the American Navy lent the Royal Navy a frigate which was named HMS St Helena. She served under that name until she was returned to the US Navy in 1946.

Why ‘RMS’

Crowds greet the RMS
Crowds greet the RMS

So why were our ships the ‘RMS St Helena’? Why not just the ‘MV St Helena’?

‘RMS’ stands for Royal Mail Ship, and shows that she is a seagoing vessel that carries mail under contract by Royal Mail. The designation dates back to 1840 - also the year in which the Penny Black stamp was introduced{6}. Famous ships carrying the designation ‘RMS’ have included:

Having the designation ‘RMS’ was valued by ship owners because it was seen as a mark of quality by customers - the mail had to be delivered securely, and on time.

The RMS St Helena (1990-2018) was the last ocean-going Royal Mail Ship, and one of only four ships at that time with the right to the prefix or its variations{7}. It was also one of only three that actually carried mail (the RMS Queen Mary II has the honorary designation; it is a cruise ship and does not provide a scheduled mail delivery service).

For more about the history of Royal Mail Ships see the Royal Mail Ship page on Wikipedia.

Read More

Below: Letter to the EditorLetter to the EditorNew Passenger and Supply Ship for the South Atlantic Island of St Helena

Letter to the Editor

Published in the St Helena News Review 16th April 1982{8}


I would like to refer to News Review dated 2 April about the concern of the RMS running at a loss, I was pleased to see in the following week’s News Review that the locomotive reported about in the Cape Argus of 1 February 1982 will be at the normal freight rates if carried on the RMS.

If we are looking for an improved service rather than looking elsewhere or trying to please a group of railway enthusiasts, I feel one of the first things to be done is to improve the accommodation for deck passengers to and from Ascension Island. St Helenians have to pay for deck accommodation and deserve greatly improved facilities.

Yours faithfully,
Basil George

Letter to the Editor

Published in the St Helena News Review 15th June 1984{8}

Dear Madam,

On the 11th of June the RMS St Helena will be 21 years of age. She was built by the Burrard Drydock Company in Vancouver, Canada, for the Northland Shipping Company and was named ‘Northland Prince’. She was built to serve the Lumber Camps and ports on the West Coat of British Columbia as far north as Prince Rupert in Alaska. She operated a 2-week round trip based on Vancouver carrying 120 passengers on an overnight basis and her longest passage was 11 hours. She plied this route for 14 years before being laid-up and subsequently put up for sale. Curnow Shipping found her in 1977 and the St Helena Shipping Company was set up to operate the shipping service to St Helena and Ascension. During the 7 years of operation the little RMS will have sailed almost half a million miles in the service of St Helena which is truly a worthy credit to her builders and crews.

MLM Smith (Master)
RMS St Helena

A New Passenger and Supply Ship for the South Atlantic Island of St Helena

Press Release issued by the UK Government, 27th November 1987, reproduced in the St Helena News Review 4th December 1987{8}

Aberdeen shipbuilders Hall Russell Ltd have won, subject to contract negotiations, an order to build a new passenger and supply ship for the South Atlantic island of St Helena. Final contract negotiations with the firm will begin next week.

Mr Christopher Patten MP, Minister for Overseas Development, said on Friday:

St Helena is one of the World’s most isolated inhabited islands. A British dependency, it is some 1,200 miles from the African mainland. It has no airport and the population of some 5500 ‘Saints’ depend almost entirely on having their own ship for physical links with the outside world.

The ship is expected to enter service early in 1990, replacing the existing RMS St Helena which is now 24 years old. The cost, over 19 million, will be met from the British Aid Programme.

The new ship will be able to carry up to 125 passengers and 1,500 tonnes of cargo including diesel fuel for the island. It will maintain the existing service linking St Helena with Britain, Tenerife, Ascension Island and Cape Town with an annual visit to Tristan Da Cunha. Design consultants for the new vessel are Three Quays Marine Services of London and, like the present ship, it will be operated on behalf of the St Helena Government by Cornwall based Curnow Shipping Ltd.


{a} Daniel Stroud{b} Robert Wilson{c} Lynette Stuart (nee Joshua){d} Andrew / Peter Neaum{e} Bob Wilson{f} William Shakespeare, Brutus to Cassius, Julius Caesar, Act 4 Scene iii{g} Results of a public survey, early 1980s{h} Radio St Helena/Museum of St Helena, digitised by Burgh House Media Productions


{1} We didn’t know who made this model and appealed for the creator to contact us so we could attribute it. We got the following message: I have just been looking at the Saint Helena site http://sainthelenaisland.info/rms.htm where, amongst other things, it asks who built the model of the RMS (I) shown during the Falklands Campaign in 1982/83. I did! I built a series of models that were displayed on the new ship for a number of years. These were the RMS St Helena, Kenya Castle, Good Hope Castle, Guildford Castle, Bosun Bird, plus the sailing ships Saint Helena, Torrens and Blenheim, all of which had St Helena connections. I believe they are now all in the Museum in Jamestown. My own island connections were as radio officer in the Good Hope Castle and both RMS St Helenas between the years of 1974 and 1992. My Facebook group is Merchant Ships in Miniature. - Bob Wilson So, mystery resolved!{2} The last Union Castle Line ship to make a scheduled call at St Helena was the Southampton Castle, which sailed on 16th September 1977.{3} Though sometimes referred to as the RMS St Helena Island.{4} And Ascension Island, then a dependency of St Helena.{5} The book ‘Falklands War - Get Stuft’ by I H Milburn tells the story. A sailor’s diary from the Falklands War 1982, telling the truth with tongue-in-cheek humour. The book charts the voyage taken by the RMS (a Ship Taken Up From Trade - STUFT).{6} In the UK. The first St Helena stamp wasn’t issued until 1st January 1856.{7} See en.wikipedia.org/‌wiki/‌Royal‌_‌Mail‌_‌Ship to learn about the others.{8} @@RepDis@@


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