Sailing to the most remote settlement in the World – Part I

I made the decision that my lengthy travels would take me, in priority, to distant and hard to reach places that I could not get to on a short vacation from work. The first ones were going to be Madagascar, Reunion and Mauritius (including Rodriguez Island). Since deciding to travel full-time, money became a little more valuable to me and time, a little less so. Therefore, I looked online to see if I could get ferries between the islands, as the flights were quite expensive. I found a site listing all ferry connections in Africa, and saw a Cape Town – Tristan da Cunha connection on it (a little ironic since technically speaking, there is no ferry to Tristan). I had never heard of such a place and I Googled it right away. Tristan da Cunha: the most remote inhabited settlement on the planet. Two and a half seconds of reflection later, I was going to Tristan, or at least trying, and if possible, it would be my first destination. My travels to far flung places would start with a bang!

Along with St-Helena (where Napoleon was exiled) and Ascension Island, Tristan is a British Overseas Territory. The Governor General resides in St-Helena, by far the largest Island in terms of population. Tristan itself is one of a group of Islands in the far Southern Atlantic Ocean. Nightingale and Inaccessible Islands are nearby but uninhabited. Gough Island is several hundred kilometres away, also uninhabited, although the South African Government maintains a manned weather station there, since it is on the path of the storms that hit the Cape Coast.

Basically, Tristan’s claim to fame is that it is located 2430 km (1519 mi) from the nearest inhabited settlement (the tiny island of St-Helena) and 2816 km (1760 mi) from the nearest continental based city (Cape Town), thus making it the most remote permanently inhabited settlement on the planet. It does not have an airport, nor any port facilities. It is obviously way out of reach of any helicopters and too far to the South to be along the sea routes between Africa and South America. Around 275 British citizens call it home, along with a few contractors who spend anywhere from a few months to a few years there.

Credit: Kelly Whybrow. I would have liked to take a similar shot, but I was short one helicopter on my equipment list.

This picture is all over the internet and was taken by a helicopter from HMS Endurance in 2007. When I first saw it, I just knew I had to go there. It is important to remember that Tristan is an active volcano. The last major eruption occurred in 1961 and all inhabitants had to be evacuated to the UK. As it turns out, they hated it there and, in 1963, all but 5 returned to the Island. This is a very important moment in the recent history of the island and books on Tristan generally speak of the pre and post evacuation periods.

So, how does one travel to Tristan? The first step is to ask, as permission from the Island Council is required to land there. I emailed the Secretary to the Administrator last summer and, following a meeting of the Council in August, I was given the thumbs-up. This was a very last minute affair; I got permission on the 28th of August for a sailing on the 20th of September. Some people have to plan more than a year ahead to go to Tristan. To be fair, the permission business sounds stranger than it really is. For a single traveller coming for short-term tourism, I do believe it is a formality. If you were to contact them on behalf of Carnival Cruiselines and propose landing 2000 passengers over Christmas, you might get a different answer. That being said, the Island Council also controls who gets a spot on the ships doing regular sailings to Tristan, and that is anything but a formality. There is a system of priority, with 8 levels. Number one is urgent medical evacuations and number 8 is tourism by a non-resident. The top priorities can also bump the bottom ones. So the day before your sailing from Cape Town, someone can fall ill on the Island and guess what? You’re not going. Someone can also fall ill while you are on the Island and guess what happens then? You’re not leaving! You would have to wait at least a month for another ship to arrive.

There are three ways to get to Tristan. The first is to get a berth on a fishing vessel or a cargo ship that Ovenstone sends up to 9 times a year. Ovenstone is a Cape Town based fishing business which holds the fishing rights for crawfish (rock lobster) in Tristan’s territorial waters. They also purchase the crawfish the islanders catch and process on site for export. Among the many complexities of this contract (which I was told provides 80% of the island’s income), is an obligation for Ovenstone to provide this passenger and cargo service. These ships can take a maximum of 12 paying passengers and they do the voyage around 9 times a year. A little note, this is apparently an international shipping rule; above 12 paying passengers, you need a doctor on board. You could fit more than 12 if it wasn’t for that.

The second way is to come on the SA Agulas II, a South African scientific vessel which does a resupply mission a year to the weather station at Gough. As part of the agreement to be allowed to install the weather station on Gough, the Agulas must go to Tristan on it’s way to, and from, Gough, thus allowing another cargo resupply mission and a further 40 passengers. You also get to spend about 3 weeks on Tristan while the ship proceeds to Gough (I understand touristic visits to Gough are not possible under any circumstance). The ship is very large, comfortable and fast, with internet at sea and all the bells and whistles, making this sailing very popular. I was told a few weeks ago that the Fall 2013 sailing is already fully booked. As it turned out, this year the Agulas went to Tristan nearly at the same time as one of the Ovenstone ships, the MV Baltic Trader (cargo ship). Since the price is the same, anyone wanting to go around that time would choose the Agulas. This was the maiden voyage of the Agulas II (replacing the Agulas), and it can carry a lot more passengers, which meant that for that one time in the year (probably in many years), there was more availability of transport to Tristan than there was demand. Not only did I get a spot on the Baltic Trader, but it was not even full, with only 10 of the 12 berths taken, a very rare situation (actually 11, but one passenger got sick the day before and did not board).

Finally, you can also go on a cruise ship or your own ship (or a Navy ship, I guess). You still need prior permission, and I read stories suggesting the few large ships which occasionally sail that way are often not allowed to land anyone.

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The MV Baltic Trader. 86 meters, but only a fraction of that for passengers to walk around.

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I don’t know if this seems large to you, but it’s not. I must have gone through that little wooden door a hundred times.

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And we are off, evening of the 20th of September. Behind us, the Grey Fox, a very large container ship. One day, I’ll cross the Pacific Ocean on one of those.

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I shared this tiny cabin, which has nothing more than what you see, except the bunk beds, a foot from the seat on the left. My cabin mate was a contractor who has been working as the fish factory engineer for three years, a very unusual long-term stay for a contractor. Great guy, but he understandably had a lot of luggage, returning to the island after 2 months of vacation in his native Bulgaria. Our “seating area” thus became the luggage storing area, as the closet was full of other luggage. He had been a ship’s chief engineer for decades before, so he was the number one source of information on naval matters, as most crew members were not very fluent in English.

The two galley (naval speak for kitchen) crew were South African, the captain was Polish, the first officer was Cuban and the rest of the crew, numbering around 8, were Russian. The funniest thing about them were their drastically different looks. The mechanics looked like they had walked off a recruiting poster for a technical school: short haircut, always clean shaven, clean coveralls, hearing protection around the neck, the whole nine yards. The deck hands looked the opposite: crazy messy hair, unshaved, wearing clothes stolen from a homeless shelter in 1983. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but the contrast was obvious. There was a culture of extreme cleanliness in the engine room; it was clean enough to have dinner in.

Most sailings to Tristan include zero, one, or sometimes two tourists. Because of the effect of the first sailing of the Agulas II, this cargo sailing was very exceptional. Experienced crew told me they had never seen this. Of the 10 passengers, 5 were tourists and 5 had some kind of business on the island, but there wasn’t a single Islander, as anyone who had to return from Cape Town would have sailed on the Agulas. At the risk of sounding like I am flattering myself, tourists and other travellers to Tristan are a very interesting bunch. Here’s the list of the passengers:

1 – The professor,

2 – The millionaire and his wife,

3 – … Wait, wrong list.

Again:

1, 2, 3 and 4: – The doctor, the other doctor, the German doctor and yet another doctor’s girlfriend (yes, really). The previous contracted doctor on the island had a serious health problem himself a few months ago, so an emergency contract was done for a Cape Town doctor to finish the shift. A Royal Navy frigate, which happened to be in the region, picked up the replacement doctor in Cape Town, sailed part-way to Tristan and, when in helicopter range, did the switch. The short-term doctor’s girlfriend, who was great company and provided me with all sorts of information on life in South Africa, was sailing to Tristan to visit for a few days, and then to return to the Cape on the Agulas, along with the doctor. He was being replaced by not one, but two doctors. Short term contractors usually don’t come with their families, but this was a recently retired married couple, and both were doctors. So essentially Tristan got two doctors for the price of one. One doctor per 188 people; decent medical coverage indeed. I don’t know anything about medicine, but I’m pretty sure they’re good doctors from the quality of the gin and tonic they mix! Finally the German tourist just happen to be a doctor. Not exactly your average tourist. When he was 39, there were 123 United Nations member countries. At that point, he had been to ALL of them.

5 – The Scottish mountaineer (and retired engineer). Older than the second oldest passenger by more than a decade (and this is not exactly a ship of teenaged Spring breakers, he nonetheless seemed quite fit, so we all had a good laugh when the first officer told him he didn’t have to attend the safety brief on the boat deck if he didn’t want to, due to his advanced age. Not only was he capable of standing on the deck, he climbed to the base of the volcano on Tristan with more ease than many – and clearly with more experience.

6 – The ham radio operator (and software engineer). I didn’t even know ham radio still existed, you know… with the internet and all. As it turns out, it’s still quite popular. I guess the point is the very technical challenge of establishing contact across the planet with your little antenna rig. They sometimes do really crazy things, like bounce a signal off the moon. The “goal” of the hobby seems to be establishing successful contact with as many places in the World as possible. If you’re a beginner, you can talk to people in 100 different locations in a short time, but then you start getting into the list of places that have few ham radio operators, which makes it much tougher. Then you get into the list of places that have none, like Tristan, or any uninhabited island, or places that are impossible to reach or where obtaining a radio licence would be impossible (like North Korea). So, he set-up his rig on Tristan and once the international hobbyists knew he was there and transmitting, the radio went wild. Real quick conversations: exchange of call-signs, report on the quality of the transmission some other technical thing and that’s it, done in a matter of seconds. No talking about the weather. During his 5 day stay on Tristan, he established contact with over 4,300 people around the World. Now personally, as a hobby of choice, I would rather watch paint dry. However, the fact that hard core enthusiasts do crazy things like go around the World to set-up an antenna on Tristan da Cunha makes it pretty awesome in my humble opinion.

7 – The Norwegian journalist, doing a piece that followed-up on some Norwegian expedition there in 1937. He did manage to talk to some old guy who remembered it. I got a lot of Tristan info from him. I regret not following him around a little bit, to see how a pro learns about a new place.

8 – A South African engineer, who was doing a preliminary study on possibly upgrading or replacing the electrical distribution system on the Island, as it is over 40 years old. Despite being a British territory, the Island does most of its business with South Africa, for obvious geographic reasons.

9, 10 – The fish plant’s engineer and myself.

Tristan is not the place you go on your first trip abroad and it was obvious talking to the other passengers. One day, in the tiny mess hall, I made a comment about how desolate some parts of the south of Iceland are. It’s where the ashes from the regular volcanic eruptions fall. Very few people live there and some areas look like the moon. Anyways, all four people agreed with me, and all four had been there.

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If you want to go outside and the weather is good, you go there.

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If you want to go outside and the weather is bad, you go there.

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The gym. There are handles on the bike, but you can’t use them, because you need to hold on to the side walls so the whole thing doesn’t fall over as the ship moves. Call me weak, but I tried it for about two minutes and realized it was ridiculous.

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The mess hall / lounge / coffee house / everything else but bathroom and sleep. This is where the best part of the sailing happened, the food! Most of us refused half of what was offered. At the first lunch, I was offered the soup of the day, mutton stew, chicken, with rice and vegetables. I asked for the soup and mutton stew and I got a puzzled answer: “You mean, no chicken?”. It wasn’t just plentiful, the cook was really good and it was impressive to see him work, especially during the storms, with all the riggings he had to set-up for the boiling pots and pans not to fall off the stove.

The Baltic Trader is slow in good weather. In bad weather, it is very slow. We were hoping to cross in 6 or 7 days, but it took ten. The South Atlantic Ocean is very treacherous and we encountered 6 to 9 meter waves for a while. It got dangerous at one point and the captain changed course north, which delayed us further. When the ship moves too much, the risk is that some of the cargo could break loose. Having trucks, concrete and other such things go loose in the cargo hold can have catastrophic results, even causing a ship to capsize.

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Probably since there is nothing much to do on a cargo ship (for the passengers, of course), some of the passengers started plotting the progress in the mess, using various GPS devices and a paper naval map. Given the number of engineers on board, this escalated out of proportion and on the return, the map and pencil became two laptops with charts, Excel tables and predictions of all kinds about the time of arrival, with different assumptions, calculation methods and units of measure. I didn’t really care. I joked that since return fare was a fixed cost (US$1000), the more days we were housed and fed on the ship, the better of a deal it became! I must admit though that the last two days of the sailing there were painfully long. The biggest disappointment was that we arrived in the middle of the night, which made it impossible to take that picture of “the first sight of Tristan”. By the time any light appeared in the sky, we had been anchored off Tristan for hours.

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The first picture I took, when there was just enough light (technical point: long exposure, low light shots are obviously impossible when you’re on a rocking cargo ship).

Wide angle shot showing the whole Island. Happy I had the lens. The journalist, who had two cameras and several much higher quality lenses than mine seemed a bit jealous of the wide-angle, so I let him use it on his camera for a while.

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The passengers, looking at the island from the bridge deck wing.

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I yelled: “Look, an albatross”. They all fell for it, except the journalist, who was too concentrated on taking pictures, I guess.

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Since there is no port or large dock on Tristan, the passengers and all the cargo have to be transferred in small boats. You could descend into the small boat by ladder, but since it would dangerous for inexperienced or less fit people, they use a transfer cage, which is hoisted by the ships’s smaller crane (the main 30 ton crane cannot be used anchored off Tristan; the ship needs to be docked to use it or it could capsize). They fit four or five in the cage, so after two loads, we – the passengers – were all on the small boat.

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The pontoon used to transfer all cargo from the ship. It cannot operate in rough weather, so sometimes the incoming cargo ship has to wait days anchored off the island before they can even begin offloading anything, including the passengers. This first pontoon ride was for the passenger’s luggage and priority things, like medical supplies and of course, the incoming mail.

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The “Maps” GPS application on my iPad. I’m at the little blue dot. It may look silly on this little picture, but it’s pretty impressive when you’re there.

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And the mandatory picture, next to the sign. To be honest, this was taken the day before I left. The sign is almost never up, because the strong South Atlantic winds keep ripping it off. The day the Agulas returned from the Gough relief mission, they put it up for a while and we took turn taking pictures like good little tourists.

In part II: the settlement of Edinburg of the Seven Seas…

#UK

18 thoughts on “Sailing to the most remote settlement in the World – Part I

  1. Pingback: Colin's Notes

  2. Hum… no. Having experienced a South Atlantic storm, I can pretty much guarantee you I will never go there on a pleasure craft! In fact, TdC is not near any shipping lane, so it would be highly unusual to see another ship on the way there, except close to Cape Town. What surprised me was that we always saw birds, even mid way to the Island, which means they would have been at least 1,200 km from shore!

  3. Pingback: Road Trip! (And the postponement of my round-the-world voyage…) | Colin's Notes

  4. Awesome write-up! Thanks for sharing this very interesting story. Just the sort of info I was looking for :-)

    I actually found this thread by Googling amateur radio + Tristan da Cunha as I was interested to see who might have gone there for this particularly adventurous niche of the hobby. Thanks for not only mentioning in passing that a fellow hobbyist was making the trip, but also expanding upon his activities and the results thereof.

    Yes, HF radio is pretty awesome for contacting points around the globe with ZERO infrastructure in between. This is in contrast with the Internet and telephones, which all rely heavily upon some very fallible back-end systems.

    You seemed to have been under the impression that the hobby might not exist anymore. Really? Has Ham Radio been killed off by the Internet? By no means!

    Let’s put it another way: Has recreational fishing been stamped out by fish shops? Has artistic painting and drawing been overtaken by photography? Has chemical film been trumped by digital cameras? Also: what is the point of games such as Golf and Lawn Bowles? Well, people do these things because they enjoy it and get high on the challenge of succeeding.

    And I think you have gathered that much through your conversations with young Robert, as you visited the island together. He even mentioned that he had met someone who, after being asked which countries he had visited, replied,”all of them”. That would have been you, I guess.

    If we Hams merely wished to chat to people about inane topics and keep an armchair warm at the same time, it is true that the Internet and/or a telephone would make this … some might say ‘easier’…. well, really it would make it a lot more boring. I mean; I never just chat on the phone/mobilephone/Skype, etc for a conversation. Hams are not in the hobby to ‘talk to somebody’ (although some might be that lonely). Most would possibly rather watch paint dry 😉

    It’s about the technology being used and constantly developed…some of which actually filters down to the commercial world… and using it recreationally. After all; how do people think stuff like cellphones and networking protocols actually came about? It wasn’t by giving someone a job description that said, “invent a wireless telephony system” 😉

    So, thanks for fitting in a few lines about this small but adventurous facet of a great hobby!

    • Sorry for the long delay approving your comment Roger. Despite my blog being targeted at a very small audience, I receive a large number of fake, computer generated comments which are in fact advertisements. Sometimes I neglect to sift through them regularly enough.

      I take your point about the process being what matters. I was very impressed with Robert’s efforts and dedication in monitoring the radio for countless hours, especially as this was initially supposed to be a two man endeavour (his associate fell ill just before the sailing). Not my thing personally, but the technical aspects of it were interesting.

      Unfortunately, I have not travelled to all the countries in the world, barely a third. But one day, perhaps… The man Robert was referring to was the German physician travelling with us.

      Cheers,

      Colin

      • 😀 Appreciate the reply, Colin!

        Keep up the good work. VERY interesting blog. I enjoy hopping on now and then and grabbing a new tid-bit of your story.
        Cheers,
        Roger

  5. My productivity level at work has plummeted since I discovered your blog. I first stumbled upon it by looking up information on Tristan and today I spent an hour reading up on your North Korea adventures. Did you ever discuss genetic stagnation on Tristan? Do the settlers ever go off to the mainland (assuming Cape Town…or England) and come back with a new resident? Would there be a meeting? So many questions!

    • Hi Florence,

      I’m very glad I was able to help you lower your productivity! So many questions you have. In order: TdC does not have such genetic problems, because the original colonists were from very different backgrounds: UK, America, Netherlands, Italy, and “creole” women from St-Helena (i.e. mix race European – African). The one problem they have is a very high prevalence of asthma, because several of the original colonists happen to suffer from it. In fact, recently a team of Canadian scientists identified a key gene related to asthma by studying the population of TdC. People do go to Cape Town, mainly for 2 reasons; specialized medical treatment and education. Going to university for years is highly uncommon, but a 3 months course on diesel engine maintenance, or something like that, is quite common. Some people also have lives torn between TdC and other places. I met a woman who lived in the UK for years with her daughter before coming back. One thing that is not allowed is immigration, so a UK citizen could not decide to move there, but I think it may be allowed if they married a local (not sure).

      Glad you enjoy the blog, making it certainly lowered my productivity at work A LOT 😉

      Colin

        • Unfortunately, Canada and Russia are having a little visa war at the moment, and because of this, it is impossible for me to obtain a Russian visa. So no Sochi for me. Plus, the winter olympics involves terrible things like snow and ice, so I am not sure would like it!

          • After giving it some thought, the Olympics is the worst time to experience a country. Droves of humans flocking to one medium-sized city, clogging the infrastructure. I’m more of a middle-of-nowhere type of girl rather than being bookended by people chanting USA! USA! USA!

          • “I’m more of a middle-of-nowhere type of girl…”. Not really surprised; you are commenting on a post about Tristan da Cunha 😉

    • Thanks for the compliment Anindya! As you know, the logistics of getting there are not the easiest, but I wish you the best luck. :-)

  6. Hi Colins,

    really thankful for you to share your experience. Looking forward to to got there.

    sincere regards,

    Nirmal

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