Goodbye

St Helena disappeared from view a few hours ago and with it goes my Atlantic Adventure, those words in themselves are very difficult to write. I flit from holding it together when in company to tears of sadness when alone, a strange emptiness fills me that is hard to describe. I hope that writing will, as it has done before, prove therapeutic, but at present it is hard.


For several weeks I’ve thought about travelling on the RMS without the boys, sad to be leaving but looking forward to the freedom. But as I sit here now I just wish I didn’t have time to write because Charlie is bored, or Oliver wants to show me a passing tropic bird.
It feels so very wrong and incomplete to be leaving without my boys and of course Bev. We have lived, loved, cried and shared every second of this journey and leaving them behind is the hardest thing I have ever had to do

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My last Panorama of St Helena

The day started in usual RMS fashion, a wake of departing at the coffee shop, only this time the wake was in my honour. So many times before I have hugged and kissed goodbye to people from those wooden benches, now, it was my turn.
So many friends turned out and I forgot to take any photos of people. As we reached 8.50 I couldn’t take any more and I had to leave, I couldn’t sit chatting any longer. Running round saying goodbyes to a host of people it was so difficult but I kept my composure to the last.
Ian Johnson and Lisa Rhodes tested me. Two very good friends who’m I have shared so many laughs and memories with. Susie Nixon then broke me. Susie, a kiwi, was with us on day one of our journey, booked into the Commodore hotel in Cape Town a life time ago. Saying goodbye was hard, very hard.
As I turned to say goodbye to Paul and Jenna Bridgewater I couldn’t speak. I had nothing I could say that would do justice to how I felt saying goodbye to them. Paul and Jen and at the time baby Myles, were also with us from the start, sat on our dinning table on the RMS as we set sail for St Helena and a new life nearly three years ago. I will never forget how nervous and insecure they appeared as they started a journey into the unknown, and how incredibly brave I thought they were to be doing it with a young toddler, just finding his feet.
As we sat for dinner that first night Jenna asked “so do you believe in the Loch Ness monster?” and with that wonderful opening line began a lifelong friendship.
I’m sure, as my last journey across the Atlantic progresses I will come to reflect and take positive stock, looking forward to the next adventure. But as I sit here now, just woken from my mid afternoon sleep (my RMS tradition) I’m heartbroken and empty. I genuinely cant believe that I’m writing the last pages of my blog. I had always continued to write well past our departure but as I hear the familiar dinner time jangle of the RMS I wonder whether to continue writing will just be too difficult.

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Soon we are far enough away that the whole Island fits into a single frame shot

Day 2

Day two on the RMS has felt long. Although I’ve always though Id enjoy a journey without the boys, it turns out that without them the ship feels empty and quiet. The passage feels long and I don’t want to be here.
In reality the ship is very quiet. Two friends are with me and a handful if familiar faces, but the majority are strangers to me, and I have no wish nor need to change that. My usual need to make new friends, or pass on knowledge or advice to tourists has gone. I am heading away from St Helena, not to it, tourists don’t need my travel tips and the rest I will never see again.
My previous journeys have felt homely and comforting, this is neither. I don’t need nor want time to think and contemplate. I need to be in Plymouth starting work, to distract me and take me from my dark mood. Far from comforting the RMS feels like a slow prolonged wake, five days to say goodbye, I dearly wish that airport had opened.

Friends

Im often faced with trying to put a finger on just why I love it on St Helena so much. Is it the weather in this sub-tropical climate? Or perhaps the stunning beauty of its diverse landscapes, is it diving, swimming with whale sharks or Devil Rays, or is it just the friendly approach of the locals who welcome me by name as I walk into our local shops? Or is it the unique combination of all of the above.

 After well over 100 dives on St Helena I finally had chance to spend some time with the amazing Mobula Rays (locally known as Devil Rays) and had my camera with me!

Certainly the weeks that have gone by have proven to be quite extraordinary in terms of diving and snorkeling as I have enjoyed rubbing noses with giants of the sea. In that time I have also passed my PADI Dive Master a huge achievement and one which has direct relevance and importance for the rest of my life.

These things of course add into a whole package, that makes St Helena, for me, just a wonderful place to be, but what has elevated it to be one of the best times in my life, right up there with my fabulous University years? It’s been a hard one to work out until a conversation in our Friday night watering hole, the Mule yard enlightened me, what makes St Helena amazing, friends, fun, funny, fantastic, fabulous friends. Everything we do, is done with friends.

 A walk to the shop see’s friends serving us our food. Patrick, the taxi driver who takes me to Thursday night cards, or snooker, is a friend. Johnny Hearne who operates the Enchanted Isle and take us to Lemon Valley, or snorkeling trips is a friend as is Anthony, who operates Sub-Tropic adventures and has tutored me from Open water to Dive master. The list goes on and it is totally unique that your days, times and experiences from swimming with whale sharks to buying bread is shared with friends.

Friend relationships on St Helena are complicated. Ex pats band together, as a natural shared experience/something in common thing, but also as a result of the transitional nature of contracted people on the Island. When we first arrived here a Saint expressed to me her feelings on ex-pats and their relationship with Saints. “I have no problem with people coming here”, she said, “I will be friendly and supportive and help where I can, but don’t expect us to be great friends, I have been hurt too many times when good friends leave the Island that I simply can’t make that emotional investment and commitment any more”. At the time I was slightly offended by this, but having now experienced the other side of this it becomes clear. Like a holiday romance, and in the absence of family, friendship bonds become very strong, they are re-enforced by sharing experiences and you become part of a family of people whom are relied upon for everything from childcare to barbecues, a shoulder to cry on and the greatest of laughs. And then, before you now it, they, or you, are gone. Friends are simultaneously the greatest and hardest thing about life on St Helena. I understand the Saint now, I understand that, when she has other friends and family, who will stay by her side throughout, she does not need, nor want to have friends leave so regularly.

Like those I made in University, the friendships I have made on St Helena will last forever, and we will no doubt see each other regularly, but back in the real world they won’t be by my side as I go shopping, there won’t be two parties every weekend to go to, and when I go for a drink on a Friday night I’ll be lucky to know five people, certainly not fifty.

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Its taken two years and eight months but we have finally seen some water falling from the heart shaped water fall. From drought and desperately low water levels it has not stopped raining for weeks now!

Today I waved goodbye to two close friends, Dave and Wendy Tinkler as they head back to the UK on leave. Of course I have witnessed good friends go many times before, but this one was hard. I couldn’t hang around the coffee shop to watch and wave, I had to say my goodbye’s and leave as quickly as I good for fear of not holding it together. Why the drama, they are returning in two months? But by that point I will be gone,, my daily thoughts are filled with sadness right now as I contemplate my imminent departure from this place I love. All good things must come to an end they say, and my time has nearly drawn to a close. I have secured a wonderful new job back in the UK, and on the 27th of April I will board the RMS for one last, and very final time. I will do so on my own leaving Bev and the kids here to follow me a month later.  I start work as Senior Biologist at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth on the 15th May.

Of course people will tell me that I should think about the future, that I have a wonderful job to look forward to and I have genuinely missed working in an aquarium. We are moving to a lovely part of the UK and as a family will have wonderful days and times. But those days won’t be shared with, all of the time, friends. I can’t bring with me my nobbers, the affectionate term we have coined for our little band of weird and wonderful friends.

16425875_369098053449510_8511501877451201894_n “Nobbers” Camping weekend at Blue Hill, I havent laughed so much in a long time.

Oliver too is worried about leaving St Helena, fearful of making new friends back in the UK and of leaving friends behind here. His behavior has been affected and he flies from tears to tantrums, in protest at this change over which he has no control or say. He was just five when we moved here and I think had little concept of the change he was about to undertake, moving home he is much more aware and much more worried about the enormity of the upheaval in his life. Charlie does not seem phased, but I think he has no concept of the changes ahead.  At five years old, St Helena is Charlie’s overriding memory, he first went to school here and within his short memory has known little else, I wonder how he will react the first day we take him to his new school.

I should be able to tell you that we can always come back, and of course we can, but the place and its people will be different. That is the fundamental of the Island, constant change. If we were to stay longer then our friends would leave us behind, so staying is not an answer, and longevity would only make it harder.

In July 2001 I was sat in my lounge, in 23 College Road, Bangor. I sat alone as the last day of University had arrived. My flat mates had left the building and I waited for Dad to come and pick me up and take me home from Bangor one last time. As I sat on my own then I sat with sadness and fear. I couldn’t contemplate a life without having my friends with me all the time, sharing experiences with them all day, every day from shopping to parties, from walking to days out, how they could not just be there. Leaving St Helena holds those same feelings, the same fears about how life will be in the next step.

Of course I have wonderful friends in the UK, and family who love us and miss us dearly, as we do them. We have lots to look forward to and much to be grateful for. I should be telling you how grateful I am for the experience and be mature and sensible about treasuring the memories and looking forward to the next adventure, and I’m sure with time I will see that just as I did when I left university.

When leaving the UK over two and a half years ago we contemplated what it would be like leaving our family and friends in the UK but we always knew we would be back, we knew if we were unhappy we could go home. We foolishly didn’t even consider the fact that we would set up a life here and that one day we would have to leave it behind for good. There is no coming back in twelve months if we don’t like it in the UK. When we will leave friends on St Helena we know full well that some, we may never see again.  With each passing day “my last” moments increase. My last trip to Lemon Valley, my last dive, my last walk, my last party and as I sit and picture myself on the RMS, looking back to the Island as she disappears out of view for the last time I simply want to cry.

    My last trip to Lemon Valley?

The Leaving of St Helena

In just four short months our time on St Helena will come to a close as we board the RMS one last time, and look behind us to see our wonderful home disappear into the distance. Coming out here was difficult, but we always knew it would be temporary and we would soon see the faces of the people we love again. Leaving St Helena is far far harder, and will seem very permanent.

At least, it would be if we were actually leaving, but Im thrilled to say, Bev has been offered an extension to her contract, and we have an additional year here. And a bloody good job too, whilst I know this news is difficult to hear for our loved ones back at home (don’t worry, this isn’t the way they have found out, we did tell our family first) the prospect of leaving now is just plain wrong, in so many ways it feels as though we have only just arrived. St Helena is strange, you very quickly feel at home and get settled, and yet 18months on it feels as though we just took our first steps onto the wharf. Its been 6 months since we returned from our mid-term break in the UK, 6 months, how can that be, Im still trying to lose the wait I put on drinking all that real ale!!

Despite the fact we are not leaving, it has brought the prospect firmly into our heads. Coming to St Helena, it turns out, was very strait forward. The government found us a house, enrolled our children in school, put the first months wages into our St Helena Bank account, which took the filling of one form to set up. We were met at the Wharf and driven to our new home. Our belongings were collected at the wharf and brought to our house, and unloaded for us. Although it seemed like a gigantic momentous thing to be doing, it was largely stress free and uneventful, everything was done for us and we just had to turn up at Heathrow Airport on time.

Leaving on the other hand is a much bigger job. We have to find work, and get that work without being able to interview, we don’t know where will be living and no-one is going to find a house for us. We need to enrol the boys in school, and do so months in advance without actually knowing what part of the country we will be living in. We will not be met at the airport and taken to a nice new house, and our belongings will not empty themselves from storage and magically find themselves at our new home. Quite frankly the logistics of going home are too big to contemplate so for now, Ill concentrate on Whale sharks and diving and leave my feable mind alone.

The past few weeks have been some of my most difficult on the Island. From day one I have had ups and downs, the ups due to St Helena, the downs due to me, and my role here. The last few weeks have been particularly difficult. Those who read the post a few weeks back will recall I was applying for a position on the Air Traffic Control training course, a long lengthy process that would result in a job for life when we get home. I fell at the second hurdle, despite having put everything I could into it (most of which it turns out was irrelavent). I failed, and not even a long way into the process, but at the second step, a relatively simple online test stage. I was devastated, in my head I was already on the course, and I had pinned so much of our future on it, and so much of my thoughts, efforts and time had gone into preparation it left me feeling empty and worthless. I have always done well academically, getting more out that the effort I had put in, but this was different. I had worked as hard at this as anything I have ever been tested in, and failed. It felt like a hammer blow, and has left me wondering what I will do in the UK, and more importantly what I actually can do. The combination of my qualifications and experience only leave me good for work in aquariums, and good ones are few and far between with vacancies a rarity and wages poor.

For the first time in my life I feel pretty useless, at pretty much everything. I had been working so hard on test preparation that I hadn’t noticed the photography work dropping off. There was suddenly a big gap and I went from being over worked to having nothing to do. Day after day felt like a pile of washing and endless cleaning, broken by scrolling through pages and pages of facebook trash and status updates. So much of my time was spent cleaning that when Bev and the boys got home I resented them being here, brining messy shoes and dropping bags on the floor of my nice clean floor. One day I spent a full 8 hours cleaning, the house was spotless, you could of licked the floor behind the washing machine, and dishwasher, and fridge, and freezer and, well you get the idea, it was clean. Within minutes of the boys getting home a trail of mud ran from the door the lounge and I wanted to cry. Mum, Im sorry for all those times I didn’t understand, I truly am.

It has all been affecting me much more than it should, hours have been spent worrying about what it is Im actually capable of doing when we get home. I always knew coming to St Helena would change something, and I knew being house husband would be a challenge, but I didn’t expect it to fundamentally change how I view myself. Once full of ego and my own ability I feel lost in a pit of self-doubt right now. I always promised that my blog would reflect how I feel and live this adventure, people tell me it’s what makes my blog different,  so although this is uncomfortable to write, I shouldn’t now shy away from it.

This journey was meant, more than anything, to bring me closer to the boys, to make me a better Dad, and I feel farther from that goal now than at any point. When I reflect honestly, and without a heavy heart I recognise that I do spent more time with them, I do play with them more, but the past few weeks have been so hard. I have failed in every sense to be the Dad I want to be. I have failed to see any good in my own children, hating their presence in my clean house, and their noise disturbing me from my facebook stories. It has been quite unhealthy.

Excuse after excuse has been given as to why I have not resumed my swimming and my days have been a mix of chocolate and tinned ham sandwiches, whilst my evenings have been about beer. Two nights ago as I write, Bev and I watched Love Actually, now this is perhaps the hardest thing to admit of all, but Im a sucker for a romantic comedy. This probably does not come as a great surprise to my Mum who has seen me grow up as an awkward teenager hopelessly moving from one unrequited love to the next. As we watched I thought to myself, why can’t my boys be as lovely as that one, why can’t they bond with me like that, and respond to me like that? Only that morning the magic wands that I ordered months ago had arrived, and I left them on the floor so that Oliver and Charlie got home they would find them. Their reaction was to thank Mum, not me. Why can’t my children like me and look at me the way he does on Love actually.

It was then that it dawned on me, it was not the boy in the film that was any better than my own, it was the way his Dad looked upon him that was better, instead of wanting my boys to be different, I need to look at them through different eyes. Again when I reflect honestly, I know there have been good portions of time here that I have done, that this has been a low time, and I need to remember that, but the cloud hanging over me has made it very difficult to see past the fog.

I hear you all screaming at me and I have now built myself a ladder upon which I am going to climb out of my hole. This morning I went swimming, exercise they tell me is good for the soul. I spent some spare hours with my camera, taking photos, just for the pleasure of taking photos. It has been so long since my camera was used for its own joy and not work, that I had forgotten how I used to spend my time, studying and documenting this beautiful place I call home. I sat for two hours, in the rain photographing waves crashing into Jamestown wharf (more photos to follow). It was liberating and reminded me that I don’t have to spend hours cleaning. In fact, I haven’t cleaned for two days, and you know what, the house is still hygienic, and the trail of mud from the door to the lounge did not bother me today. Ill clean it tomorrow. I took the boys to play football before collecting Bev. I haven’t done that for several weeks, it was more important to see the next status on facebook whilst pushing away the children for disturbing me. I don’t believe Facebook to be bad, I think it’s a wonderful tool for sharing across the world, and I have many friends that I would simply not be in touch with were it not for facebook. But like anything when not used correctly it can become unhealthy. Next month our internet allowance is being cut (by us), facebook will be a ten minute in the evening thing, not a ten hour a day thing. So we played football in the rain, we laughed as Oliver fell on his bum, more than once and we got wet through to our socks. Charlie came home, changed his socks, went back outside and got them wet again. It didn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, it won’t matter again.

If our adventure to St Helena was going to change things maybe it is the negatives, the down times, that will change me the most. I don’t know what I will do when I get home, I don’t know what I am able to do, and worry about whether I am able to make our families dreams come true in the way that I always just assumed I would be capable of doing. But I do know I have to change, I have to evaluate myself, and look at how well I do my most important job, being a Dad. For now I don’t have to think about what I might do back in the UK, it is the here and now that counts. We now leave in the (UK) summer of 2017 and up until that point I need to remember the privilege I have, to be able to be a real Dad, and how many fathers would die for the chance I have been given.

Am I out of my hole? no. Am I a brilliant Dad? no. But I have a ladder now, I have a foot on it, and I want to climb it. This is not the first time I have promised myself to be a better Dad, I hope it will be my last.

As a little side note, I have to give a mention to someone at home. Those of you with me from the beginning will know the Bridgewaters; Jenna, Paul and their son Myles. They came, they went, and they came back again. Only this time there is more of them as Scousers take over St Helena and Pauls Brother, Jamie and his family arrive on Island. Its my understanding that Jamie’s  wife, Hayley has a father, and that he has been reading my blog with interest. Well hello Mr Haley’s Dad, I hope reading my blog allows you to feel closer to Hayley and the family, and I promise to feature photos and stories as they settle into their own new adventure.

RMS St Helena Part Two!

So we are back where it all began, on board the RMS St Helena, only this time we travel South East, across the Atlantic Ocean for five nights heading to Cape Town. The RMS has not changed, but the journey has. We sit not full of excitement and trepidation, but instead contentment and a little sadness at leaving our Island home, albeit for just a few weeks. The ship does not chatter with talk of St Helena and what lies ahead, there is no advice to be given from experienced hands, but instead there are good friends, comfortable in each other’s company having built strong relationships for the past 10 months.

Passing through customs at the Wharf we had to board a bus to travel 100yrds which are now very familiar to us. It seems ridiculous that we cant walk down the wharf considering the number of hours we have spent down there swimming off it. We stand on deck looking back at Jamestown for a significant delay in departure. This gave those people leaving the Island for good the opportunity for one last look at their soon to be former home. We were also treated to our first Humpback Whale sighting of the year, jumping and leaping and breaching over and over. A really special moment before we leave.

On board with us are twenty eight children, making life easier for parents given company and play friends, but I suspect distinctly less comfortable for the other adults on board. Our Captain is once again Rodney Young, an affable Saint who has been crossing the Atlantic for many years. His manor makes one feel assured and taken care of, and he has a knack of remembering faces and people. Captain Cocktails in the lounge provided me the rare opportunity to don my suit and tie, although it didn’t last long. Rodney tells me he has been reading my blog, and recommending it to passengers, high praise indeed.

The RMS remains a wonderful experience, a throwback to bye gone days, only this time round it is even more appreciated, the exuberance of food and drink being particularly welcome given the relative lack of variety on St Helena. I have drank my first pint of beer in ten months, and although not top of my list of beers a refreshing Heineken has been very welcome, as has the selection of cheeses!! As I write I look forward to the final night aboard, to include an afternoon nap, (making up for my 3am poker game last night) and the final round of the on board quiz, where our team, “What do points make” sit in a comfortable position just off the leaders.

Will I be sad to leave the ship? Less so than before would be the answer although once more I feel as though an extended family has been created on board, and I have enjoyed the company of old and new friends and learnt once more that people should be given a chance, and that quick judgement should never be made. It is wonderful also to see the children playing together and forming their own friendships. Saint, South African, Brit and Swedes, there is no thought to colour or creed, just to fun and friendship. Oliver and Charlie have grown enormously over the past ten months, able to make friends and socially comfortable. During our last journey, Oliver had to be pressed to take part in anything, and most of the activities found him watching from the sidelines. This past week however has seen him first in line to sign up for anything, competing against his peers in everything from deck quoites to tug o war

The crossing has, in the main, been reasonably smooth at the time of writing, although our first afternoon was pretty rough leading to a que of people outside of the ships doctor all looking for a bum numbing injection to calm the sea sickness. I was one of the lucky ones, seemingly not suffering. Although since that afternoon the crossing has been easy going, the predicted change in sea conditions has now arrived and as I write the ship is being buffeted by large waves and has entered into a washing machine movement rotating left and right, up and down like a corkscrew. Having been largely lucky to avoid any sea sickness until now, I can feel my stomach churning, the combination of movement and four days of over indulgence of rich food and beer now taking its toll.

Our last day aboard also turns my attention to island friends who are travelling on the RMS for the last time. Having waved god bye to several lovely people and families already, the departing of the Days from St Helena is difficult for us, we will miss them greatly, as will Oliver and Charlie. But at the same time we look forward to our return in a few weeks, meeting the next wave of people who will come to St Helena to start their own adventures.

The RMS is important; of course it provides the vital life line, supplying the Island with everything from water to food. But it also provides a transition period, five days to leave St Helena and prepare oneself for the change of Worlds, which ever direction you are travelling. To leave or arrive on St Helena on a plane, whilst undoubtedly convenient, almost seems daunting, leaving the peace and comfort of the Island to arrive in London in less than eleven hours. The countdown has begun for the RMS, a clock shows the number of days until her decommission, which currently shows 361, just under a year from now the last remaining Royal Mail Ship will be no more. What will become of here? No one yet knows, a floating hotel has been one suggestion although this seems to present more challenges than solutions. The RMS serves a unique function, carrying both passengers and cargo and it is difficult to see where else this exacting requirement lies. She does not carry enough passengers to become a passenger cruise ship, and nor is her cargo capacity able to match a dedicated cargo ship, making her an expensive option to transport goods.

There is a strong will to find this wonderful ship a permanent home, but whether that will can be married with a practical and cost effective solution is, in my view, unlikely and sadly I can see here being consigned to a considerable scrap value. It is with great pride that I am able to say I travelled on board the RMS St Helena, the last of her kind.