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St Helena’s economic future hanging on fate of its faithful maritime namesake
29 April 2009
Cape Times

Dockland has been very quiet. Empty berths, a handful of container ships queuing in the anchorage, and a limited number of bunker stems are perhaps signs of the economic times, or perhaps reflect the fact that shipping folks were advised of the holiday mode of the port that has seen some idle hours over the past week.

The airport didn’t scale down its operations at all over these public holidays; rather it became a hive of even greater frenetic activity, and I wondered why the port had been singled out to reduce its activities that are linked into as many international networks as those of the airport.

Almost solitary in the port was St Helena, the only Royal Mail ship on a blue water service, ferrying islanders to and from the island whose name she bears. On each trip, she also carries tourists who will experience both a most pleasant voyage, wonderful cuisine, and a leisurely few days on that unique island. In her holds are the islanders’ daily needs, ranging from potatoes and canned beans to clothes and cars, while refrigerated containers on deck carry ice cream and frozen chickens for the island’s shops, as well as dozens of meat parcels belonging to returning islanders.

While the island is well-served with electronic links to the outside world, the ship is the only means of transporting cargo and passengers, and a dwindling population is evidence of the erosion of the island’s economy.

Many islanders had pinned their hopes for economic revival on boosting tourism via the construction of an airport, an on-off project that the cash-strapped British government has now turned off.

This has been a devastating blow to the island, and has brought to the fore discussion relating to shipping links with the outside world.

Antagonists of the airport scheme – part of me falls into this category because I have such an affinity with that delightful little ship and the service offered – point to the huge expense and practical difficulties of building an airport on the very rugged island terrain where even road construction is a major undertaking. And several new roads would need to be built simply to haul machinery and materials to the airport site.

It’s nearly 19 years since the current ship was commissioned, and, with the shelving of the airport scheme, two choices remain: to build a new ship, or to refit St Helena, especially as her main engines have been problematic over the years.

Although the former choice might appear the most obvious, it is not as straightforward as some might think.

Because of the nature of her trade, she is a part-passenger ship, part-cargo ship, and she is required periodically to carry fuel to the island; thus she has to conform to the strict specifications for each of those roles.

For my money, I would containerise the entire shipping process to the island to reduce the turn-around time so that a new vessel would be a small container ship with passenger accommodation.

Such a specialised ship cannot be built or bought “off-the-shelf” and the design phase alone may be expensive. Some are advocating that a wharf be constructed to replace the current practice of working cargo overside in James Bay, off the island’s main town.

This would also facilitate landing arrangements for passengers from both St Helena and visiting cruise liners, some of which cancel calls at the island as landing conditions can be tricky at certain times of the year.

A proper wharf would also assist in landing heavy machinery should the airport eventually get the green light.

As British government money will be involved in any programme to replace the ship, they will probably give the tender to a British yard. Yet how many British yards would be able to build such a specialised vessel, and get the delivery date right?

Building her elsewhere will be cheaper and quicker, and indeed, given the serious downturn in shipbuilding, a more favourable price might be secured from yards that are hard-pressed to retain their workforce.

As reported in this column last week, superintendents and classification society surveyors will need to keep a wary eye on workmanship which, in certain oriental yards, is well below standard.

Some folks do not want a new ship, arguing that it will bring down the final curtain on any airport programme which they say is fundamental to the economic survival of the island.

Their preference is to refit the current ship for a further 10 years’ trading, during which time the airport might be back on the British government’s front burner.

A refit will be a formidable project that will see the ship being gutted, totally modified, and that will include re-engining.

The lead-time for suitable engines might be quite lengthy.

During her refit, the island authorities could charter SA Agulhas, the polar supply ship that is of a similar size and cargo capacity, and that is idle in Cape Town between voyages to the islands or Antarctica. In her busy season, SAS Drakensberg might be an admirable replacement.

A third option should also be considered. For urgent medical evacuations and to handle the normal movement of passengers, a fast ferry could operate between St Helena and its neighbouring Ascension Island which boasts a modern airport. Vessels operating from South Africa to European or US ports, or chartered ships, could bring the cargo as required.

Selfishly, I am hoping for a new ship because the voyage to the island is such a refreshing experience!
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