Thursday, March 8, 2018

Looking Back: Ascension Island

We thought St. Helena was an island of contrasts...well, we hadn't been to Ascension yet!  We arrived here on Monday, January 29th, after a pleasant 5 day sail from St. Helena.  We arrived at night, carefully making our way into Clarence Bay and dropping anchor.  We had to be careful to avoid the floating pipeline, which floats on the water, waiting for a tanker to arrive, and then brings fuel to the island.

My previous post on Ascension (click here to read it), described most of our time there, so I'll try not to repeat too much, but as for St. Helena, it really is nice to have pictures to illustrate what I was describing.

Tuesday morning revealed the island to us...beautiful, blue water, a white, sandy beach, and stark, arid mountains!  The exception to this, was the mountain in the middle, "Green Mountain", aptly named since it is completely covered in dense vegetation (more on that later)!

Our first view of Ascension Island from the anchorage in Clarence Bay

The floating pipeline: a lifeline for the island.. a navigational hazard for yachties!!
The first day, Tuesday, we were confined to the boat.  The swell in the anchorage was so big, that we were unable to get ashore!  There is no "dinghy dock" in Ascension, much like in St. Helena.  You have to come up to a concrete pier and use big ropes to pull yourself onto the concrete stairs, and then anchor your dinghy off a little to allow it to ride the swells and not get bashed against the pier.  It was always interesting getting on and off!  When there is a swell, it is harder, or, in our case on the first day, impossible!

Ben and Gaby went to explore the dinghy dock on day 1 and decided it was not a good idea to go ashore.  Even port control radioed us and told us not to come!

Negotiating the dinghy dock on a good day!

Having spent the day aboard on Tuesday, we were happy to get ashore on Wednesday!  We cleared in together with "Tangled Up", who had arrived that morning, and whom we had met in St. Helena.  Check in was easy and Kitty at Port Control was very friendly.  The immigration officer came down to the port and checked us into the country.  An FYI for any cruisers interested in going to Ascension:  they do require that you carry health insurance, similar to what was required in Chagos.  They are looking for general medical coverage, and in particular for medical evacuation coverage up to $500,000 per person.  Our insurance did have this, so we were OK.  Apparently, you can purchase health insurance if you don't have any or the appropriate coverage.

We then explored the tiny settlement of Georgetown.  There are no permanent residents here, only contract workers or military personnell.  It is a mix of ex-pats and Saints (St. Helena natives).  Even if they are born here, they do not have citizenship, and if they finish school and can't get a job here, they need to leave.  Georgetown was eerily deserted, there are no tourists here, and the small hotel that used to operate is closed.  There are no restaurants like in St. Helena, just the grocery store where we managed to get the last 2 meat pies, and a drink, and then we walked the streets, baking in the heat thanks to the black, volcanic stones that make up the streets and sidewalks.

Georgetown, with St. Mary's church in the background

2015 marked Ascension Island's 200 year anniversary.  Organised settlement of Ascension Island began in 1815, when the British garrisoned it as a precaution against rescue attempts to free Napoleon after he was imprisoned on Saint Helena.  

I always love the contrast of color against stark, barren hills!

Donkeys in the streets!  The donkeys here are ferel, as are the sheep.  They used to use the donkeys to transport goods, but eventually they just left them to roam around when they were no longer needed.

They were very sweet and friendly
 We walked over to the fort, Fort Hayes, which was built on Goat Hill and constructed in the 1860's.
Fort Hayes

The inside of the fort:  very different to what we had been used to seeing when visiting old forts!

A view of Georgetown from the fort

Looking towards the docks from the fort.  

And one more...
The following day, Thursday, we were lucky enough to meet up with Andy Hobson, who lives on Ascension, his wife Janet teaches at the school at a small settlement called "Two Boats".  Hazel from the Consulate Hotel in St. Helena had put us in touch with Andy, and we brought some plant cuttings over from St. Helena for Andy and Janet.  Andy was extremely kind and spent the entire day giving us a fantastic and fascinating tour of the island, even opening the small museum for us!

Gaby in the museum:  History lesson!

Ascension was a fairly important communications hub, with huge cables being laid on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.  This is a submarine cable test desk displayed in the museum
A display on turtle capture in the museum.  

Turtle capture was a big industry in Ascension, until the 1930's when it was banned.  Prior to that, however, as many as 50 turtles could be caught in one night.  "Turtle Turners" would wait for the turtles to come ashore at night, usually to lay their eggs, then they would simply catch them and turn them on the backs.  The turtles were then totally immobile.  They were then transferred to turtle pens, where they were kept until they were either killed for local consumption, or, more likely, loaded onto ships for transport to England.  Unfortunately, many of the turtles didn't survive the trip to England, making it a bit of a futile exercise.  The turtle pens are still visible in Ascension today.  More on the turtles later...the good news is that there is a big conservation effort to save and protect the green turtles of Ascension, and we saw many of them happily swimming around our boat!  😊💓🐢
A turtle swimming around Cool Runnings, poking its little head up for a look and a gulp of air!

With Andy, we also had access to the inside of the fort, where we saw many interesting and old artifacts on display. 

Hundreds, upon thousands of old bottles!!  There were displays of old bottles everywhere!  Because there was a shortage of water on the island, soldiers drank lots of beer and rum!!

Beautiful old stained glass windows from St. Mary's church
Walking around the fort, this time with Andy as a guide

This pictures shows the height and thickness of the fort walls in relation to Gaby and Ben

Leaving the dry, arid landscape of Georgetown behind us, Andy drove us up to Green Mountain.   Early visitors to Ascension at the beginning of the 19th century described the island as exceptionally barren.  Only a handful of plant species (most of them endemic to Ascension), were found on Green Mountain.  So we wondered how it became the lush, green landscape that we see today?!

Driving up Green Mountain
 In fact, it was really a big ecological experiment!  (Some people will argue that it is a man-made biological invasion that has degraded a previously pristine environment). Charles Darwin visited the island in 1836 and commented on the lack of trees.  Darwin's close friend, Sir Joseph Hooker, who was later Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens (Kew Gardens) proposed a plan to increase vegetation on the mountain, by planting trees to increase rainfall, and vegetation on the slopes of the mountain to prevent soil erosion.  Over 220 species were introduced to the island in a mass planting, and as you'll see from the pictures, it was an overwhelming success!  Ultimately the fittest of the introduced species survived, leaving a mix of plants from all over the world on this one mountain on an otherwise barren island.  The only negative is that some of the endemic species are now in danger of becoming extinct, so work is being done to protect them.

A view from Green Mountain down towards the ocean

We came across a land crab.  Once a year, from March to May, these crabs make the long journey down the mountain, across lava fields to the coast to lay their eggs.  

Another view of the island from Green Mountain

Army barracks were built on Green Mountain. These old buildings are now deserted

Ben hiking one of the Green Mountain trails

This was a lava tunnel that we came across!

These hillsides were covered in concrete to provide run-off of rainwater into a collection system below.  This was done in the 1800's!

A view of the runway on Wideawake airfield in the distance.  This is the US Military base on the island.  There is also a British Military base.   
In 1982 the British task force used Ascension Island as a staging post during the Falklands War. The Royal Air Force deployed a fleet of Vulcan bombers and Victor tankers at the airfield. The RAF also used the base to supply the task force.

Because of the increase in air traffic during the Falklands War, Wideawake airfield, the US military base, with up to 400 movements of all types each day, was one of the busiest airfields in the world for a short period! The Royal Navy's fleet stopped at Ascension for refuelling on the way. Following the war, the British retained an increased presence on the island, establishing RAF Ascension Island, and providing a refuelling stop for the regular airlink between RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, and RAF Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands.  (info from Wikipedia)
One last view from Green Mountain. One would think, looking at this scene, that there are multiple volcanoes on Ascension, however, it is one volcano, with 47 vents! 
 Descending the mountain, Andy took us over to the other side of the island, where we were able to see Boatswain Bird Island, breeding ground of the Ascension Frigate bird, and many other sea birds.  The island used to have many ferel cats that attacked the birds and for a while the bird population was seriously endangered, but the cat problem was taken care of, and now the birds have come back to breed.

Boatswain Bird Island.  a lava flow is clearly visible
  We also visited the site where NASA had a tracking station for the early space expeditions and moon landings.  As I mentioned in my other blog post on Ascension, the island is full of the most weird and wonderful antennae and radar domes we have ever seen, with all sorts of tracking of all sorts of things going on here!  Another great contrast...super advanced technical equipment amongst a very unique, natural environment!
Maybe a little difficult to see, but there are many antennae on the left of the picture

One of the "golf ball" radar domes contrasted against black, volcanic rock

Walking down to English Bay

Beautiful water of Comfortless Cove.  Sadly all swimming was banned when we were there, due to 2 relatively recent shark attacks

The cemetary behind Comfortless Cove, so named because is is where they brought the poor souls that were dying of Yellow Fever (and left them to die).  There is a small cemetary with some very old graves. 

With Andy Hobson, our most excellent tour guide!  Thank you, Andy for taking the day to take us around your beautiful island!

For us the day was not yet over as we had booked to go on a turtle tour that evening at 9pm. A huge conservation effort is going on and scientists studying the green turtles, seabirds, land crabs and working on saving endemic plant species exists on the island today. So at 8.30pm we launched the dingy again and made a night landing at this tough pier. We walked up to the conservation center to wait for our tour. We could not believe our eyes when in walks one of the guides for the night, no other than Simon, who was the official that checked us in on Chagos Island last year July! It turned out that Simon's wife works on Ascension Island and he was visiting and volunteering with the turtle conservation efforts! 

So after a brief catch up with Simon, watching a video on the turtles, we headed down to the beach in the dark to see if we could spot some laying eggs. These particular green turtles are pretty big and actually live and feed off Brazil, but come just to Ascension Island to lay eggs.... Quite a distance just to nest! We could see at least 6 turtles at various stages of making their way up the beach to laying eggs and making their way back to the water. The whole cycle takes a few hours. We found a turtle in the midst of laying her eggs. With the guide's direction we positioned ourselves behind the turtle and with a red light (they can't see) watched as ping-pong sized egg after egg fell from her into a carefully dug nest. Apparently in this stage of laying eggs they go into a trance and are not even aware we were watching. It was truly spectacular to witness this miracle of nature and one we will always remember. We watched as she finished laying her eggs and then covered them up at a painfully slow speed, obviously exhausted from the nights efforts. She rested for a while and then began the long journey of about 100 meters back to the ocean. 

One of the few pictures we got on our cell phone of the turtle laying her eggs

After saying our goodbyes to Simon we headed back to the boat in awe of what a day we had just experienced. 

The following day we decided to just chill, and the day after on Saturday marked the final voyage of the resupply ship RMS St Helena, that has brought supplies and passengers from Cape Town to St Helena and Ascension Island for many years. I believe it was built in the 1980's and has become obsolete now that an airport has opened on St. Helena and is also too costly to continue running. Ascension has a military airport and receives some items through that as it is primarily a military island and population. With this being a historic day for the RMS St Helena a big celebration was planned on the island which included guided tours of the ship on Saturday before its departure on Sunday. We were lucky enough to secure a tour, and along with the two other sailboats moored with us, Tangled Up and Alma, we enjoyed a trip out to the ship and a guided tour around.... Very cool to see and quite a historic event we were able to be part of. 

The RMS St. Helena

Ben, Dave and Gaby in the dining room of the RMS St. Helena

The pool on the deck 

Gaby enjoying the deck

Ben relaxing in the lounge

After the tour we headed into the grocery store for one last stock up on some limited fresh produce, as well as topping up with diesel, before heading back to our boat for one last goodnight sleep. 

A kind soul delivers our jerry cans of diesel to the stairs for easier loading onto the dinghy

The following Sunday morning we upped anchor at around 9am, waved goodbye to the island and RMS St Helena, and headed off into the deep blue South Atlantic Ocean. Ahead of us lay a huge distance of over 3,000 miles, which now, thankfully, is behind us!

Cool Runnings at anchor in Ascension Island


  1. Wow! I had no idea there is a US and British base on Ascension Isalnd? Actually, it’s hard to imagine that there would be anything out there, but clearly, there is a LOT!

  2. Amazing, isn't it? Literally in the middle of nowhere...

  3. Totally fascinating. Learning so much from your blog!

  4. It is a shame how much the island has changed since I left there in 1979. My mother and I were the first American dependents to live on Ascension. We took a 13 day cruise Nov 22 - Dec 3, aboard Ferrell Lines SS African Sun, Voyage 48, to get there as the US government would not let us fly on the C-141s that flew there from Patrick Air Force Base, FL. Ferrell Lines News, Spring 1975, pages 16 and 17 has a great article about some of our trip. Eventually they would allow us on those flights from Ascension to Antigua, then to Patrick AFB.. My mother and I arrived in 1974 (I was 14) and had 5 great years there. We first lived in the vicarage in Georgetown and later moved up onto Green Mountain. The only buildings higher than we were were the milking buildings for the cows. My parents even allowed me to take a trip to St Helena when I was 16. Lot so history on those two islands. There are WWII aircraft in the ocean off the end of the runway which was used as a refueling stop for planes in WWII and an old English galleon in about 125 feet of water of the Georgetown pier head.