One of the most remote places on earth has just become even more remote.
Since 2002, St. Helena Island, South Atlantic Ocean has been moving to end its isolation.
But Sunday, citizens of the British Overseas Territory found themselves stranded on their 47-square-mile island, with no idea how or when passengers or cargo could next depart or arrive.
The island’s lifeline, the RMS St. Helena, reached dry dock in Simon’s Town Wednesday - for the second time in two months. Passengers (including two of the island’s doctors) and cargo (which the island relies on heavily) have been stuck in Cape Town since Friday.
Additionally, the island’s only airport still can’t facilitate commercial passenger flights - and the emergency diversion airstrip on Ascension Island, the nearest landmass at 703 miles away, on Friday announced closure for repairs. The sole fuel intake point for the airport - and for the whole island - may also be in question.
To make things yet more complicated, the island relies almost entirely on funding from the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) receiving approximately 25-28 million a year. After Brexit and the calling of the general election Tuesday, UK aid is uncertain: The island has so far received only 5 million for the financial year, and is unsure how to fund alternate transport, such as another vessel, in this “crisis.”
St. Helena, and its 4,500 British citizens, or 'Saints,' are stranded.
But the island wasn’t stranded by accident; rather it was stranded by a series of bureaucratic mistakes.
St. Helena lies 1,200 miles off the coast of Africa and 1,800 miles off the coast of South America. Governed remotely by DfID, and locally by a UK-appointed governor, it is one of the last colonial outposts on earth.
The St. Helena Government - which includes 12 elected council members - controls some of the island’s funding decisions, while DfID controls the rest.
Councillor Gavin Ellick said the complicated governmental system hinders decision-making, and is a reason the island is currently stranded: The inaccessibility of the airport, the breakdowns of the RMS St. Helena, the lack of a contingency plan - and the consequential need for more UK aid - could all have been prevented.
The Airport Project was given the go ahead in the February 2002 referendum - a vote which for some sparked distrust in the project.
Ex-patriate and long term resident of the island, Barbara George, said the vote was not democratic.
For the referendum, the voting age was lowered to sixteen, off-island voters were included, less than half the eligible voters turned up and the only options were “yes” or “no” - disregarding whether flights would go to neighboring Ascension Island, which has a working population made up mostly of Saints.
“The majority of votes for an airport[…] came from workers on Ascension and the Falklands, who obviously voted because they were led to believe that they could then get home quickly for holidays or family emergencies,” George said in The Sentinel Feb. 16.
“Had it not been for the off-island workers who were assured of a link with Ascension, the referendum results could have been a lot different.”
But the Airport Project went ahead, with an original completion date of 2012. As time went on, a link with Ascension Island, and with the UK, looked increasingly less certain; a strong link with South Africa looked increasingly more certain.
DfID’s consultants on the Airport Project predicted a booming tourism industry, which would be vital to St. Helena’s economy and decrease its need for UK subsidy, from year one.
But the first commercial test flight did not happen until April 2016; the shaky landing showed windshear would prevent the airport opening the following month.
Air access tenders were set to be finalized in February 2017, but the process has been delayed until "early UK summer." Windshear issues, and other safety regulations which may have been foreseen and not dealt with, have so far prevented commercial passenger flights. St. Helena’s tourism industry remains stagnant in 2017.
St. Helenian Robin Benjamin, currently living in the UK, feels islanders have little-to-no control over the decisions of DfID and the island’s still-colonial government, but that they are still shouldering blame for the Airport Project.
“The media here make it out like it's the Saint’s fault for the airport messing up and that we cost the ‘UK taxpayer’ so many millions a year,” he said. “I've seen horrible comments about how we're a big waste of money and how we should just be left, given away to another country, or ‘take everyone off the island and make them live in the UK.’”
But the airport is vital to St. Helena and its British citizens. Luckily, emergency aero-medical evacuation flights have been able to land and fly patients out to Cape Town. Without medevac, patients would still reach Cape Town via a five-day RMS voyage, which in the past has resulted in onboard deaths.
As small medevac planes have been operating on the runway, the St. Helena Government said they are now looking into whether a small plane with good fuel capacity could make an emergency trip to the island, despite the closure of Ascension’s Wideawake Airfield. However, SHG said they didn’t want to affect longer-term tenders by allowing the wrong airline to make an emergency run to the island for the passengers and cargo currently in Cape Town.
So with no stable air service materializing, the island has remained reliant on the world’s last working Royal Mail Ship, the RMS St. Helena.
The ship was set to be decommissioned in 2016, but is now scheduled to run until February 2018. The current RMS has served the island since 1990, and is old for a ship her size. The two unexpected dry docks this year, perhaps, should not have been so unexpected: But the island had no contingency plan in place.
The passengers and cargo waiting in Cape Town since Friday - and those booked on subsequent voyages - are in a lottery as to when and how they may reach the island: Passengers and cargo on the island are in the same situation.
The St. Helena Government is looking into diverting other ships to St. Helena (the Ocean Observer will leave Cape Town Wednesday with 10 passengers), chartering another vessel, using the MV Helena (a cargo ship chartered for the island after the 2018 RMS decommissioning) or finding a plane which could meet the tight requirements for landing on the island’s runway.
For one bed and breakfast owner on the island, the loss of both people and cargo means great financial stress.
“If the RMS had been on time for the 19th of April, I would have had four [guests] for two nights, and one for the week,” the owner said. “I would have had somebody from Ascension on the 26th, which would have stayed three weeks. Now, the overhead still needs to be paid, and because we live in the house we need to fork it out ourselves, but business-wise, there’s no profit.”
But the owner said the disrepair of the RMS wasn’t the only shipping issue worrying them.
Rupert’s - the island’s only fuel intake and output area - includes a wharf, breakwater, slipway, fuel facility and sea rescue facility.
Halcrow Construction Design Management Coordinator Paul Welbourne said everything in the area was running smoothly.
“There’s no real issues to any of it,” he said. “We have to take on fuel every 6-8 weeks, depending, anyway.”
But, Welbourne also said the Rupert’s sea rescue building was not operational.
“We have to have the sea rescue facilities working,” he said. “They don’t necessarily have to be working out of their new building, they just need to be able to be in operation.”
The wharf was also not operational, said Welbourne, because of pending mitigation.
“The only thing stopping the wharf itself working is a planning condition that required rockfall protection,” he said. “So there aren’t any other safety regulations stopping things occurring down there.”
However, questions have been raised about the breakwaters not being up to standard, whether the wharf sustained damage in a recent overtopping and whether the wharf was planned properly (swells from the south, in rough sea season, may not have been accounted for), according to four sources who wish to remain nameless for job security.
While Welbourne didn’t say rough seas were an issue for the wharf, he did say they were an issue for the slipway.
“There was a sea issue, the rough tides, about launching the sea rescue boats from the designated slipway,” Welbourne said. “But we do have an alternative whereby they can be craned into the water, same as it would be in Jamestown [where things were done before].”
The island takes all fuel, including for the airport, in through Rupert’s. Without fuel intake, the island would come to a standstill.