Column One: Panic as St Helena's boat doesn't come in

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The Independent Online
PANIC BUYING has set in here on St Helena, such is the uncertainty of our situation. Margarine is unobtainable, cooking oil is scarce and other commodities are beginning to run out at the three small supermarkets in Jamestown, the capital, where most of the island's 5,000 population live.

The reason? As a remote island community in the South Atlantic Ocean, we depend totally on one ship, the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) for everything, be it a new car, clothes, food, drink, vital medical supplies, books, or even a simple needle with which to mend clothes or a match to light a fire. It takes two weeks to get here from Britain.

The term Overseas Dependent Territory has become a stark truth for the people of St Helena. Now the RMS has broken down, casting our physical isolation into sharp relief.

This is the second time in three weeks that the fragility of our position has been brought home to us. Last month Danni Clifford, a six-year-old girl, needed urgent medical evacuation after she was diagnosed as having acute leukaemia. But the RMS was already heading north to the UK, and an emergency distress call had to be sent out through centres in Falmouth and Maryland, USA. A ship was located 360 miles south and made an 18- hour detour through appalling sea conditions to get here. The child, her brother and a nurse were taken to Cape Town, 1,500 miles away, where she is now receiving treatment.

In our long history we have had some significant historical figures visit us. Napoleon and Wellington, Halle and Maskelyne, Captain Bligh and Joshua Slocum, not to mention royalty from several countries including Britain. All of these people came to the island by ship or boat because there was no other way of getting here.

St Helena gradually lost its strategic importance as the empire was dismantled and the Suez Canal was built. The island became an all but forgotten outpost, a curiosity to those with an awareness of history and a venturesome spirit.

And totally dependent on the valiant little RMS which now has an irreparably damaged starboard engine crankshaft. Latest estimates are that it will take nine or ten weeks for a new one to be fitted.

The problem hasn't just affected our lives but those of the passengers and crew, most of whom are Saints (the nickname for natives of the island) desperate to get home for Christmas and the millennium celebrations.

The 93 passengers on board the RMS were initially taken on

a series of tours ashore. Since then 30 have returned to the UK with the rest staying on board. St Helena Line, the ship's owner, is working with the operator and the St Helena government to find other ways of getting the passengers andcargo to the island.

The breakdown has affected the very core of our society. The most basic necessities in our lives arrive via the RMS. The businesses, merchants and organisations that are the spine of our community are affected and consequently so is every man, woman and child.

There has been talk of an airport for 30 years, but to no avail. We were expecting a visit from the British Department for International Development in December to discuss future ideas, but now we don't know how they will get here.

The whole incident has emphasised once again our need for some other means of physical communication. How much longer can we continue to rely on one single vessel as our lifeline? The RMS does sterling work in serving the island and is frequently hard pressed to keep up its punishing schedule. But engines are not indestructible, and neither are we.

n Johnny Drummond is editor of the St Helena News