Saint Helena: An Unexpected Gem

The long days of the same view finally broke near lunchtime on Christmas day. I was on watch when this little rock in the distance appeared and grew ever larger. As the Christmas celebrations continued late into the afternoon, it became evident that we would be able to make entry to St Helena by sundown. We put on the engines, raised our full mainsail, unfurled the screecher and made a straight line for the edge of the island. Sure enough, we made it around to the entry right after sundown. We were greeted by an entire hillside covered in Christmas lights combined with the single line of lights from Jacobs Ladder, a major landmark in St Helena. The decision was made to hold off making a night entry, due to it being an unfamiliar destination and instead go adrift right off the island. I spent the midnight to 3am shift staring at this inhabited rock in the middle of the ocean thinking what on earth will we do here!! At 6am I was woken from my sleep by Dantelle sticking her head out of our hatch saying we are about too pick up our mooring. I was called up to the cockpit. I threw on a shirt and some shorts and as I got to the cockpit was instructed to hop off the stern of the boat right onto the massive floating mooring ball. Half asleep, I took the step off the boat onto this bobbing yellow platform. After stabilising myself, we put two mooring lines through rings securing Catching Up to her first international destination. After cleaning Catching Up, we collected all our documents and radioed the St Helena Ferry Service for a pickup to the harbour. After collecting the crew from SV Elcie, this small funny looking boat came alongside us to take us to shore. Landing at St Helena is slightly difficult and is known to have insane swells crashing straight onto the rocky shore. It is famous for its rope swing-landing zone where we stepped off the ferry and had to swing onto the shore. We all made the short walk down from the harbour towards the harbour masters office. Once cleared with the paperwork we were instructed to make our way up to the police station for immigration formalities.

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St Helena is like a time capsule to bygone colonial days. The buildings are all ancient colonial British buildings with a slightly modern feel to them. It felt like I was walking onto the set of some BBC drama. As we made our way up a hill towards the police station, the local population smiled and greeted. The island has a very kind people who are happy to have visitors. Once up at the police station we met one of the local police constables who informed us that immigration was closed and we would need to return a few days later in order to get our passports stamped. We were still welcome to see the island. After filling out the immigration paperwork and the constable inspecting our passports, we were free to walk the island. St Helena has been privy to one member of Catching Up before … when Dantelle was a year old, her mother and father took her on the RMS St Helena to visit the island and the local Benjamin family. The island is small and the Benjamin’s were expecting the crew and Dantelle. Walking back down the hill towards the town, an elderly gentleman asked us if we came in on a yacht and whether Dantelle was perhaps on board, she stepped forward and said hello to the couple, they hugged each other and introductions were made. Eric Benjamin was a former Prime Minister of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan De Cunha Islands. We were given permission by the skipper to spend some time on the island. Dantelle and I immediately returned to Eric’s house to have tea with him and his wife, after a few phone calls the entire Benjamin family arrived and filled their tiny colonial style kitchen! There were numerous discussions on how to show us their “country” as they called it. A few moments later, we were in a vehicle and on our own personal guided driving tour of the island.

The view of St Helena from the ocean is very rocky and barren, yet as you go further inland the vegetation becomes dense and lush. The landscape is incredible and somewhat resembles Wales or Scotland with lovely green rolling hills. I was absolutely amazed at how lush this rocky island was in comparison to the barren and dry coastal area of Jamestown. After our tour, we were taken up to the neighbourhood of Half Tree Hollow that overlooks Jamestown and the water where Catching Up was moored. We went to one of the younger family member’s home for a delicious cooked Christmas lunch. We enjoyed our meal then driven back to the harbour so we could catch the last ferry back to Catching Up. The following day Dantelle and I explored the island, we walked around and decided to climb up the 699 steps of Jacobs Ladder. Once at the top I decided to run down and climb it again getting a time of 10 minutes 30 seconds. The locals are apparently very competitive about seeing who can climb up and down the stairs the fastest, the current record is held by a 14-year-old Saint youngster at 5 minutes 17 seconds. Our climb was steep and tiring as the steps are uneven pieces of rock stuck together making a step. At the top of the steps we were met by another member of the Benjamin family who saw us and offered to take us on yet another driving tour up to the Fort before taking us back to Jacobs ladder so we could descend.

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The next few days included boat work, finding a reliable Internet connection and spending more time with the Benjamin’s. We also made good use of the medical facilities on the island as Mum unfortunately had a bridge with 3 teeth dislodge and fall out and Dantelle had come down with a throat infection. St Helena was also where we would be seeing Andre off, he is our instructor skipper, he’s confident that we are capable of continuing the crossing without him.

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The day arrived and we brought Andre ashore. We all met outside Eric’s house with some of their close family to take Andre and the rest of our crew to the airport. Once Andre was airborne the family were giving us all a tour of the island, then we were all meeting together for a farewell meal. St Helena has recently built an airport and it is still one of the islands tourist attractions. We sent Andre off and watched as his plane took off before leaving on a second driving tour of the island. Sadly, low cloud meant there was poor visibility near the mountains of Dianna’s peak with heavy rain falling on the home and resting place of Napoleon. The lovely rain continued and Eric decided to take the crew to Half Tree Hollow to enjoy a home cooked St Helena meal at yet another Benjamin household. As the convoy of cars pulled up, we were brought inside and allowed to make use of their Wi-Fi. Everyone caught up on emails and social media while Dantelle video called her family back in Cape Town. We were then offered this traditional St Helena curry called “pillao” (pronounced Plo). The rest of the Benjamin family arrived to join us at the meal and long discussions were had with many laughs shared.

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We were all escorted back down to the harbour where the Benjamin’s had graciously found and purchased fresh produce … a huge branch of bananas and other fresh vegetables that we struggled to find on the island. They had also made us traditional St Helena fishcakes and a whole tub of Christmas Mince Pies. Dantelle and I stayed back to square up the final payment for her doctor’s visit, then popped into Eric’s house for a last cup of tea and to say our final goodbye before being picked up by the dinghy and brought back to Catching Up.Thinking back to when I first saw the barren rock of St Helena, it held a sense of wonder and amazement. I never ever thought I’d find a family that would accept us with open arms like the Benjamin’s did. We can’t thank them enough for their hospitality. St Helena is a gem in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and the Benjamin’s make it shine! You are what makes St Helena so special!!

The Benjamin family with the crew of Catching Up!

Crossing the Atlantic: South Africa to St Helena

Dantelle and I had just finished up our camping trip near Worcester in the Western Cape when we realised that we needed to prepare and sort out her things for her move onto Catching Up. We spent many days in supermarkets and shopping centres buying various things. Then it was the difficult time of saying goodbye to her beautiful family and her precious dogs, we loaded up her Dads ute (bakkie) and drove back to Saldanha where. Catching Up was moored for few weeks, as there being no available space for us in the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town..

The next stage was hectic, provisioning Catching up for an ocean crossing requires a load of food and essential items to make life bearable. We provisioned for the duration of the trip with an extra 30% as spare. This meant we raided every store in the Langebaan area for longlife milk, meat, flour, fruit and vegetables and other non-food related items. Every free spot in the boat was loaded with cans and other goods while our outdoor freezer was packed full of beef, chicken and lamb. The yacht was all stored, packed and prepared the last thing required was to clear immigration. We had a few issues clearing originally due to some documentation that was not provided, however the South African Customs officers in Saldanha were exceptional in their assistance with the clearing process once we had the correct documents. After clearing customs, we all loaded up into the two rental vehicles to drive down to Cape Town to clear immigration.

Clearing immigration is difficult in Cape Town when your vessel is not there. To clear immigration they require signed letters from the various marinas to say that they are full nor have the capacity to accommodate our vessel. We did the long drive down and were all prepared to clear when they required further forms. These forms meant we would need to sail all the way down to Cape Town to clear out, only to turn around and sail north towards Namibia and onto St Helena!! Everything worked out fortunately and we managed to source the forms later that day. In the mean time, we all descended back on the V&A shopping mall. Dantelle and I separated from Monica and Mum as we split into two groups to finish off the last of the provisioning. The highlight of our provision run was retrieving 12kgs of biltong from the supermarket and waiting to pick up spare hatches delivered to us in a shopping cart while we waited for them at a café. The day was super long with Dad running around collecting last minute items in and around Cape Town and picking up a single vehicle to take us all back up to Saldanha. We all finally reconvened at the same café with our 4 shopping carts full of provisions. What followed was a miracle as we managed to load 6 people and 4 shopping carts full of food into a Volkswagen Tiguan. It was then back to the immigration office to get our passports stamped, pick up Andre (another miracle to fit him into the car) and commence the 1.5-hour drive back to Saldanha.

Everything was packed, stored and the boat was clean, lines were dropped and we were off. Catching UP departed Saldanha on the 12th of December 2018 at 12pm bound for St Helena. The small marina waved us all off wishing us fair winds as we did a ceremonious blast of the air horn to say goodbye to the new friends we made in Yachtport. Leaving Saldanha the swell was about 2 metres. The sea became more choppy with the wind gusting up to 20kn. We began to beat into the wind as we motored further out past the Traffic Separation Scheme, heading northwest along the South African coastline. Dantelle soon began to feel the effects seasickness, followed by Werner. Mum and Monica had pre-empted this and had already organised a cooked meal for the evening. With two crewmates out of action, it was upon the rest of us to raise the mainsail and screecher to get our good 6kn. As the sun began to set on day one of the passage, Neptune blessed us with a pod of over 100 dolphins that came to play alongside and in front of our bow, this lasted for an hour.

The days soon began to blend together, wake up, eat, stand your watch, sleep, repeat. With the number of people on board, we stood a 3hr-on-9hr-off watch schedule, allowing for a large amount of free time to watch movies and relax. I would have to say though, with all the free time, many of us opted to sit and stare at the ocean or the horizon. Dantelle’s seasickness ended about 5 days into the trip. We had a few days of no wind, allowing us the amazing experience of swimming in the Atlantic Ocean in about 5km of water. There is something eerily uncomfortable knowing that there is such a large distance between you and the bottom of the sea with who knows what in between. Days included cleaning, polishing stainless steel, BBQ’s and socialising on this 50ft box with nothing but sea around us.

We spent Christmas on-board with presents being exchanged earlier that morning. The satellite phone was buzzing with the family and friends around the world being contacted to share our Christmas wishes. Lunch was very festive with a delicious roast lamb, vegetables and salads, not to forget the Christmas crackers, hats and champagne. Dantelle made her family famous trifle, delicious! Just as we were finishing lunch, land was spotted on the horizon … St Helena finally came into sight. Whew! It had been 13 days since leaving Cape Town and we pulled into St Helena’s tiny harbour. We tied Catching Up to the mooring and spent a few days enjoying the island. The trip was a challenge, but incredible, we had only used our engines for 8 hours, meaning that we used our sails over 90% of the entire trip. Our family, friends and delicious food made this trip something that I will remember forever. The ocean and wind made our passage from Suldanha to St. Helena the best introduction to blue water sailing.

We had finally found the milk run that other sailors had told us about!