TdC Shipping

We have seen at first hand how difficult things can be on Tristan da Cunha.

I am referring to shipping, and the flow of essential goods arriving and leaving the island.

Like all islands, Tristan is entirely dependent on shipping.  Most inhabited islands have the benefit of a sheltered bay, a natural harbour, or otherwise some shelter for its man-made harbour.   Here, a new small-boat harbour was built on an exposed storm-prone coastline in or around 1965.

The entrance to the Harbour on a non-loading day

The unloading process into this tiny harbour is intrinsically difficult.  Ships anchor off, about ½ mile outside the harbour, and one, two or occasionally three motorised rafts ferry the cargo from ship to harbour.  Each raft needs a crew of four, and takes up to 20 tonnes of freight.   Once the raft is inside the harbour and tied up, the freight is unloaded by a large crane, generally onto an awaiting tractor and trailer which shuttles the item up to where it is needed.

One of the rafts that shuttle 20-tonne loads from ship to harbour

The main revenue-earning product that leaves the island is crayfish, known in some markets as Tristan Island Lobster.  This provides the main revenue stream for the island, and paid employment for a large proportion of the islanders.   But  –  and it is a big ‘but’  –  this economic and monetary life-line is only as good as the harbour and the shipping links to the outside world via our nearest port of Cape Town (some 1,600 miles to the east)

In the same way, everything coming onto the island does so via this link of long shipping journeys and a harbour that is accessible only in very good weather.   Machinery, building materials and other capital resources come in via this route.  But also it is the only route for essential items like fruit, vegetables, flour, sugar, gas for cooking, diesel for the cars, and so on.

So – I have outlined how important the harbour is for the survival of the community here.  Now let me describe the reality of how difficult it can be.  We arrived on the Baltic Trader.  When we arrived there were two other ships involved.  The Edinburgh was elsewhere in the islands, fishing for crayfish when weather permitted and due to come back to upload stocks of crayfish from the factory here to take to Cape Town, and the Glory which was sheltering in the lee of the island.  The Glory carried a ‘kit’ of construction materials for the new hospital that is being built here.  She arrived here on 4th November, and started unloading before the harbour was closed due to bad weather and heavy swells.  A 12-man construction team were on the island, and they only had components for the hospital to last until about December 27, after which they would be twiddling their thumbs.

Craning off wall panels for the new hospital

We arrived on the Baltic Trader on November 30th.  After we were unloaded into the harbour, with just the hand luggage that we had in the tiny cabin on the boat, the harbour was again closed and it was seven days before conditions allowed it to open again, to resume unloading.  That is when we received our suitcases, and the shop received tons and tons of food items.  This little window in the weather was insufficient to finish the job, and the harbour was once again closed.

‘Unloading Day’ is a big day here.  It is an ‘all hands’ day, in which all Government departments pool their resources, and all staff concentrate on the task of unloading.  When there is a ship to unload, an assessment is made very early in the morning to ascertain whether unloading will be possible, looking at actual weather, up-to-date weather forecast, height and direction of swell, and so on.  If an unloading day is deemed to be possible, the community is notified by the ringing of the gong at 5.30 in the morning.  The gong is a suspended gas bottle, sited centrally just at the back of the pub, and twelve strikes on the gong lets everyone know what their priority is for the day  –  an unloading day has been declared!

An unloading day is declared

The next time that there was an unloading day, on 12th December, it was the Edinburgh that was given priority.  The team were able to complete the backloading of the crawfish in the day, and the ship was able to set course for Cape Town  –  one less vessel in the queue!

It was not until December 22nd  that the gong was again heard, and the Baltic Trader opened her hatches for unloading to continue.  Two hundred tonnes of building stone for the harbour were unloaded, then there was backloading of empty 3 tonne petrol tanks, empty gas bottles, one sole passenger and 35 tonnes of frozen crawfish went on board, and the Baltic Trader left for Cape Town before weather conditions once again closed in.

Two down, one to go!  On the 24th work started once again on the Glory, Christmas Day was foul and no unloading took place, but finally on Boxing Day the remaining materials for the hospital were unloaded and as darkness approached the ship was able to set course for Cape Town.

The Glory was in total 51 days at Tristan da Cunha, for a total of 11 days unloading.  She was here for so long she even transferred 4 tonnes of fuel from the Baltic Trader – the only alternative of which would have been to go all the way to Cape Town simply for fuel, which in itself would have taken the best part of three weeks.

These are just some of the logistical problems of getting things done on the Remotest Inhabited Island in the World.

MV Glory on her last day at the island

Cape Town to Tristan da Cunha

Our departure from Cape Town was scheduled to be on Thursday 17th, but it was (initially) delayed a day.  Unfortunately, our hotel had no availability on the night of the 17th, and we had to move to another place. The delay was caused largely by the decision to load stone which was needed for some urgent repairs to the harbour wall on Tristan.

We were to travel on the ship called the Baltic Trader; eventually we had the call to be ready for our transport to the ship on the Sunday morning (20th) at 7.30, which was later extended to 9.00 for a ship departure of 11.00 – ish.   With us in the hotel was a geography teacher heading to the island on a 6-month contract.  When we arrived at the ship, we saw our baggage loaded, and then we were joined by the new Administrator and his wife and we were all taken off to Immigration.

Here there were some anxious moments when the Immigration officer refused to accept the passenger list that he was given – he was right, the list that was offered was for a previous sailing!  Anyway, the matter was resolved quickly and with good humour, and we felt that we were a step closer to our departure to Tristan da Cunha.

Once the main engine was started up, we had feelings of “all is well” which lasted quite briefly, in fact until the engine was shut down again!  There was a flurry of activity among the ship’s crew, and we learned that the cooling water intake was obstructed.  The diving company arrived promptly, and before long they had the obstruction cleared – large pieces of plastic 1 tonne bags, oddments of rope, and bizarrely a crisp packet.  This collection of plastic debris was almost inevitable, given the huge amount of plastic that was drifting around inside the harbour.

A diver goes in search of our cooling water blockage

Two small tugs arrived, and we were given a ‘dead pull’ straight away from the harbour wall, to distance us from the worst of the floating plastic before the main engine was re-started.  Finally, at around 4.30 in the afternoon, we left the harbour, leaving an angry tug-boat crewman contemplating his hawser which had had to be cut as a result of a jam on board our ship.

Someone cut my rope!
Somebody cut my rope
Leaving Cape Town – Table Mountain on the skyline

The weather and hence the sea state when we left was challenging, particularly for the first day out, with a quartering sea causing an uncomfortable motion, but day by day it moderated and by Wednesday it could be described as perfect, with a gentle following breeze, an almost cloudless sky, and a sharp horizon.

On the Tuesday we went past a group of whales – perhaps six or eight of them heading in an easterly direction.  I think that altogether there were five days when whales were sighted, but none of them were very close.  The further west we cruised, the more we were accompanied by birdlife, including yellow-nosed albatross and wandering albatross to remind us that we were  deep into the Southern Atlantic.

Yellow-nosed Albatross

Although for some dizzy hours we managed 8 knots, we spent most of the time with head winds and our speed was reduced even as slow as 3.1 knots at times  –  it is an awful long way to go at that speed!

Coming into Tristan da Cunha – early morning arrival

Early in the morning of the 30th we finally made it to the island.  We had read about the unloading arrangements, and expected the manoeuvre to be exciting.  It was!  In groups of six the passengers were ushered into a metal box about the size of a confessional (not that I would know!)   A hook from the ship’s derrick was attached, and we were hoisted way up into the air and over the side of the rolling ship.  We were then landed on a motorised pontoon that was waiting alongside.  The object of the exercise was for the crane operator to judge the touch-down of the confessional with the pontoon going down in the swell, to give us a soft landing.  In our case he mis-judged the landing and we arrived on the pontoon with a spine-jarring crunch.

The Confessional

The unloading and getting ashore gave us our first experience of Tristanian boat handling and stevedoring skills, which were impressive to say the least.  Details to follow in later blogs.

I will outline some details of our arrival on shore later, but there is a quick foot-note here.  We were so lucky to get off the ship when we did – that morning the wind rose once again and unloading had to be called off.  It was a week before unloading was able to restart and before we saw our luggage.

Cape Town Characters

The last week in Cape Town has been a time for reflection on the months to come, and a time for meeting people and developing all sorts of contacts (as well as a time for exploring and sight-seeing)

V+A Harbourside Area
V+A Harbourside Area

We have met some amazing people.  Has the country created these characters, or have the characters created the country?

For example:-

  • The man (who has experience of living and working on Tristan) who was returning on a dirt road from a dive trip in Natal when he was ambushed and shot, and left for dead, by a robber – all for the £150 that he carried.
  • The man from Scotland who rents a property not far from Stellenbosch, who helps in a soup kitchen and who pays for the education of some promising youngsters in his township. He discovered that none of his money was going into the school, being used instead for drink and gambling.  Now he pays his money direct to the school, and puts checks on its proper use.
  • The tiny slip of a girl from Cape Town who has just completed a degree at Imperial College London in bridge design, and who plans to take up the offer of a bridge design job in a London office.
  • The woman in her late 50’s who thinks nothing of cycling 100 km a day on her own – equipped of course with her own tasar.
  • The refugee from Zimbabwe who now presents wines at a top-end tasting winery, who displayed a sense of humour and a knowledge of current affairs second to none.
Atlantic Fur Seals on their own bit of the Harbour
Atlantic Fur Seals on their own bit of the Harbour

No doubt it is a hard country, and one that has seen all manner of social changes over the years.  However, we have found a warmth, politeness and a get-up-and-go attitude from all sectors of this beautiful country.  There are those at both ends of the social chain (and at both ends of the power divide) who do not properly pull their weight within the community, but certainly there is hope for the future once the main problems are properly addressed.

Our hotel in the centre of the picture
Our hotel in the centre of the picture


Reflections from Cape Town

We have been in Cape Town now for four days, having arrived via Glasgow and Heathrow on Monday.  It has been a wonderful experience – details to follow.  Our ship is due to leave next Thursday – the reality of what we are doing will catch up with us after that time.

I hope to put all manner of stories on this site – including our experiences with the islanders and the expats on the island, historical details that we come across, details of the various human activities, details on the bird life on the island, and of course information on the farming.

I have been pondering a comparison between farming in mainland Scotland and farming on a remote island.

No doubt, there are some advantages in a remote farming situation.   For example, there is a huge oceanic barrier against the possible entry of pests and diseases.  On the mainland, diseases of livestock and of crops can be brought in to a farm by many vectors, including wind, vehicle wheels, animals and birds.  Farmers have to be on the alert for problems on a continuous basis.  In addition, there is a well-developed infrastructure of vets, advisers, laboratories and suppliers, to help the farmer with any incident that may arise.  Clearly, in Tristan such a support infrastructure is out of the question and in the event of problems the farmers have to rely on support organisations that can take many weeks to access, and remedies can take many weeks to arrive.  The other consideration is that many livestock problems fall into the categories of conditions that are induced by feed or environmental conditions, and these problems can occur whether you are farming in a remote island or in a mainland situation – I am thinking of conditions such as milk fever, acetonaemia, bloat and of course calving difficulties.


In terms of all pests and diseases, and of introduced species such as invasive plant weeds, the oceanic barrier that serves to protect the island is only good until it is penetrated.  Great care has to be taken not to introduce problems, particularly with imported livestock and plants.  But also we need to have a clear picture as to what has come in through the actions of Man in the last 200 years.  There seems to be little point going to extreme lengths to prevent the introduction of a disease if that disease is already widespread on the island.

Within the farming structure of Scotland, farmers have a great inter-dependency largely so that specialist livestock production can be concentrated on the conditions for which it is most suitable.  Hill farmers will sell ewe lambs to upland farmers, who then cross them and then sell the resulting lambs to lowland farmers to be further crossed to produce the lamb for the butcher.  Equally, hardy beef cattle from upland areas are sold on to lowland farmers to be finished on quality grass, or to be used to produce a further generation of crossbreeds.  In the recent annual Bull Sales in Stirling, no fewer than 856 pedigree bulls were sold by specialist producers to farmers in other areas, including England, Wales and the Continent.  Clearly, these mutually beneficial trading relationships are not available to farmers on the Island.

There are other ways in which farmers in mainland Scotland can help each other.  This extends from the formal buyer groups and machinery rings, to farm contractors, to informal chats and the sharing of ideas.   It is only the last ‘informal chat’ category that is available to farmers on the Island.

It may be imagined that as I wait in Cape Town for the ship to take me to my new challenge, I find the conditions I am going to quite daunting. In the months since my appointment I have tried to carry out research and to develop contacts as much as possible, but I cannot prepare for everything.  I am also strongly aware of the necessary timescale for the implementation of measures of improvement – the sequence of advocacy – debate – decision making – funding – shipping could easily take 12 months – and we are only 24 months on Tristan!

The Baltic Trader, waiting for us in Cape Town Harbour
The Baltic Trader, waiting for us in Cape Town Harbour

Tristan da Cunha

I feel as if I have known about Tristan da Cunha all my life, at least since the islanders were evacuated to the UK in 1961, when I was 15.  That was the time of the most recent serious volcano eruption, when the entire settlement was threatened by a lava flow.  The people of Tristan were housed at the Air Force camp of Calshot in Hampshire and I remember clearly the two-way feelings of curiosity that were reflected in the British press on a regular basis.  The islanders came from a community which had seen few changes since it was formed in 1816, and they had built up a resilience, a resourcefulness and a community spirit that was strange to most Brits in the 1960’s.  Their strangeness was exaggerated by the Press, and I remember discussions at school that focussed on the way in which the Tristanians were treated as curiosity items.  The islanders were provided for in terms of essential daily needs, but little effort was made to integrate them into British society. Indeed any attempts made at integration were unlikely to succeed given the huge differences in cultural background, for the islanders had little understanding of shopping, money, employment, travel, and all the myriad of things that were part of everyday existence for the people of Britain.  A year after the evacuation, an advance party re-visited the island and it was found that the lava flow had not, as was feared, destroyed the houses in the settlement and that there was no reason why the people of Tristan da Cunha should not return to their island home, if they really wanted to.  The vast majority of islanders decided to return to Tristan, and the press in Britain continued to demonstrate that they had little understanding of the nature of the islanders with comments like “Ungrateful blighters”  –  the press viewed that the so-called generosity of Britain towards the Tristanians should have resulted in the people of Tristan unanimously deciding that the British lifestyle was so much more rewarding than life on the island.  They took the view that the islanders were making a big mistake in turning down all the advantages of living in a developed, civilised country.  And they failed to understand how these people could choose to return to their wet and windswept island,  that is distinctive for being the most remote inhabited island in the world.


Fifty three years later, early in 2016, the worldwide press latched on to an advertisement that had just been placed;  many articles were written about the fact that a two year job was being offered to a British farmer on an “island paradise”.   I liked the idea of an island paradise, and of course I read on.  The main responsibilities were to concentrate on food security, self-sufficiency and sustainability.  Existing farming enterprises such as cattle, sheep and potatoes were to be modernised and streamlined.  New enterprises such as apples and polytunnel production were to be introduced.  They were looking for a person with a wide range of farming knowledge and with experience of living in remote situations.  I read the advertisement through four times, it seemed that they were describing me.  I decided that the job had my name on it, and by the end of March I had accepted the job offer that had by then been made to me.


The following pages describe the challenges, frustrations and rewards that face my wife and me as the months go by on our ‘island paradise’.  The plan is that we travel out in November 2016,  and our sea-freight of personal effects is already on its way.