Gavin Bell wrote the following for Telegraph Travel in 2011
The purser’s trousers fell down and the first mate’s stuffed brassiere went a bit wonky, but the chief engineer saved the day with an enthusiastic rendition of Oh, Is There Not One Maiden Breast?
Life aboard the Royal Mail Ship St Helena tends to be out of the ordinary. The officers’ performance of The Pirates of Penzance was unlikely to reach the West End, but in the middle of the South Atlantic it merited a rousing ovation from a captive audience.
For more than 20 years this mixed cargo/passenger vessel has been a lifeline for the tiny British island territory whose name she carries, with regular services from the UK to Cape Town stopping there. Next week she begins her final voyage from Britain. It will be a sad occasion when she casts off her lines at Portland for the last time, but passengers will still be able to sail on her from Cape Town, or from Ascension via RAF flights from Brize Norton. While St Helena, with its historic buildings and friendly population of about 6,000, is well worth a visit, a voyage on the RMS is an experience in itself.
Designed to carry cargo and 128 passengers in comfort and style, she is a rare vessel. The only other like her sails from Tahiti to remote French Polynesian islands. The Queen Mary 2 is the only other ship bearing the Royal Mail title.
The two RMS ships could not be less alike. There are no dancing girls on the St Helena (unless you count deckhands in pantomime drag), no big bands and no late-night casino. Entertainment is of the homegrown variety, from pub quizzes to deck quoits and cricket matches on the sun deck.
But there is a sense of adventure that no big cruise liner can match, as she ploughs her way towards the lonely isle that was Napoleon’s last place of exile.
When I sailed on her, the passengers included the widow of an island bishop returning to see a church built in her husband’s honour, and a South African eye surgeon with a ponytail who had been called to perform operations. There was also a retired pilot from Sussex keen to trace his ancestors, notably the fourth governor of the island, who was expelled by a Dutch invasion in 1672.
As far as I can recall there were no crocodiles on board, although there had been a couple on a previous voyage. Her cargoes have included a fire engine for St Helena, donated by Dorset Fire and Rescue Service, and the usual array of car parts, washing machines and goats.
Disregard the cranes on her foredeck and she is a small cruise ship with comfortable lounges, a well-stocked library, guest speakers, and a heated pool. The crew is British, every senior officer hosts a table at dinner, and passengers are welcome to visit the bridge. A calm, starry night is a good time to stand by the officer there and muse on sailing in the wake of Napoleon, Captain Cook and Charles Darwin.
A project to build an airport on St Helena is under consideration, but for now the RMS sails on with her cargoes of mail and adventurous spirits. Long may she continue.