All aboard the St Helena

The Ocean X Prix of Extreme E’s inaugural season puts the state of our oceans at the forefront of the fight against climate change. How fitting that Extreme E’s own floating centrepiece is a ship.

To anyone who knows their history, Saint Helena is the South Atlantic Island upon which Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled during the final years of his life, having been defeated at Waterloo in 1815. The name has been a poignant one in British history, persisting down the centuries, until it was used to christen a Royal Mail Ship ultimately used to service the island of Saint Helena (a British Overseas Territory) from 1990 onwards, the RMS St Helena.

In another life, the ship was used to convey cargo and passengers to and from Saint Helena, but the construction of an airport on the island eventually led to the ship’s retirement from service in 2018, ending a 28-year story. However, that was certainly not the end of the road for the St Helena. In fact, it has found new life as the floating centrepiece of Extreme E’s operations, conveying equipment and crew from location to location during the inaugural season of this electric SUV racing event.

Just before racers were poised to hit the beach for the Ocean X Prix, we were fortunate to be invited aboard the St Helena to learn more about this floating base of operations and learn what makes it tick.

Extreme E on the high seas

After a dramatic opening event, the Desert X Prix, in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, the Extreme E team set its sights on the next leg of the inaugural racing reason: the Ocean X Prix in Lac Rose, Senegal. The journey was a long one – the St Helena took four weeks to arrive in Dakar, travelling up through the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean, before stopping off in Valencia, Spain for a much-needed pick-up of cargo. After this, the St Helena was back on its way, passing through the Strait of Gibraltar and then southwards towards West Africa and ultimately Dakar itself.
From a distance, the St Helena instantly grabs your attention. Its bow is painted black with a green and black X, representing a version of the Extreme E logo. The mid-section of the ship is painted white, with a larger Extreme E X clearly visible closer to the stern.

An assortment of journalists including ourselves have been travelling for over an hour by bus from Lac Rose to Dakar in order to enter the Port Autonome de Dakar (the Autonomous Port of Dakar) and come aboard the ship, but a brief hold-up with security at the gates to the port requires us to move from gate to gate before we find the right point of entry. On a jetty nearby, a small film crew of half a dozen people are filming a scene from an action film with a man speeding around the port on a motorbike. Clearly, the Port Autonome de Dakar is the place to be at this moment.

You really do just take all the necessary items…if you can take whatever you want, then you just overpack, and it leads to more waste. You have to be planned here, there’s no, because the ship does take a few days or even weeks to get from one destination to the next

– Izy Rekiel, Impact Correspondent, Extreme E

The St Helena stands apart from the other ships in the port with a distinctive livery across its side: “NOT ELECTRIC…YET!”, suggesting that plans could be afoot to electrify the waves someday. A small gangway resembling a metal staircase is the only way to climb aboard, and arrivals are greeted by crew with a special lanyard. The deck of the ship contains a crane for heavy lifting of cargo which can be placed directly within the bowels of the ship. The cargo includes the Odyssey 21 SUVs themselves, as well as some special additions specific to this visit, among other essentials for the ship’s lengthy voyages.

The pick-up in Valencia was for a model of the CUPRA Formentor e-hybrid, which was specially shipped all the way to Lac Rose to be used as a mode of transport for Extreme E personnel working onsite. The interior of the ship has been clearly renovated and refitted since it was bought up by Extreme E in 2018, as it has a glossy appearance like a floating hotel. The designer who made all of this possible is called Neptun Ozis.

Paintings and flowers decorate parts of the ship, while one of the main rooms contains specially-commissioned pictures of popular Belgian cartoon character Tintin in the different environments that Extreme E is expecting to visit during its inaugural season: a desert, a beach with a depiction of the St Helena moored close to shore, as well as Tintin and friends standing in a frosty arctic environment, a sweltering jungle and a glacial vista.

If you look carefully, another picture of Tintin is clearly visible, showing the character standing on the deck of the St Helena with one of the Odyssey 21 SUV models, which is depicted as having a green camouflage paint job on it. There’s something striking, seeing a familiar 20th century cartoon character standing alongside something as sophisticated and sleek as the Odyssey 21. A final portrait depicts Tintin standing at the bar aboard the St Helena himself, enjoying a drink with a character who bears an uncanny resemblance to Alejandro Agag himself.

Izy aboard the St Helena

Shortly upon arrival, we are welcomed by Izabella ‘Izy’ Rekiel, Extreme E’s Impact Correspondent, who has been tasked with living aboard the St Helena for the next year or so, recording her experiences as she does so, during the inaugural season of Extreme E. In her own words, Izy is a passionate planeteer, as well as a DJ and event curator. She has over 4,900 followers on Instagram and regularly updates the world with images and videos about her voyage aboard the St Helena.

Izy is free to grant us a guided tour of the ship itself during our visit in the afternoon during a particularly hot day, just under 24 hours before time trials for the Ocean X Prix begin by Lac Rose. Early on during our tour as part of a wider press party, Izy makes an important distinction: the St Helena is a ship, not a boat, and the best way to distinguish between the two is simple. A ship can always carry a boat aboard it, such as a lifeboat, but a boat could never carry a ship.

Spending a year aboard a ship during a global pandemic might sound like an unconventional way to spend your time, but for Izy, there were plenty of reasons to jump onboard. She explains: “There’s no way that entertainment is coming back anytime soon, at least at the scale it was. I just thought, this is the perfect time: I have no boyfriend, no family, nothing. I’m free, so I thought, why not?”. Taking to the high seas wasn’t without its challenges, as Izy soon learnt, however.

“I definitely didn’t pack correctly, but it’s fine…I guess what surprised me actually was, I didn’t realise the crew would be so tight. You really are like a family and it happens so quickly. Everybody is here for two to four months.”

Surrounded by nothing but water for much of the time, Izy claims there is much that can go wrong very quickly on the high seas, so trust is crucial among crew members aboard the St Helena. Izy has been spending her time aboard the St Helena with a crew of roughly 50 people, but they come and go after a few months, giving the ship’s crew a changing dynamic as time progresses. Izy explains the benefits of using a floating centrepiece such as the St Helena rather than relying on conventional ways of doing things during a motorsports racing event.

Our vision is to one day have her electric and we are keeping an eye on how the marine industry moves forward and what new technologies could be implemented

– Izy Rekiel, Impact Correspondent, Extreme E

“We’re transporting everything: we’re transporting cars, the whole race, everything from decorations in the Explorer lounge to the Media Centre, the TV centre. Imagine if all of this was going by plane or by another cargo ship. Everything here is centralised and we can host people, so we’re lessening the climate impact from people staying at hotels.”

Izy claims there is some militancy about what can and what can’t be taken aboard the St Helena, which acts as a sustainability factor. “You really do just take all the necessary items…if you can take whatever you want, then you just overpack, and it leads to more waste. You have to be planned here, there’s no, because the ship does take a few days or even weeks to get from one destination to the next.”

A ship for the future

In later conversations with Izy, we learn a little bit more about what really makes the St Helena stand out from other ships on the high seas in 2021. Unfortunately, as the livery on the ship suggested, the St Helena isn’t electric…yet! However, much work has been done behind the scenes to make the ship much more efficient than it used to be, when it was a Royal Mail Ship.

“Her engine has been stripped and all components have been renewed or replaced”, Izy reveals. “In addition, the propellers have also been refurbished to reduce friction and improve efficiency.”

A swimming pool which used to be fed directly by a pipe carrying sea water was renovated aboard the ship and transformed into a laboratory for use by scientists during its travels, but unfortunately due to the pandemic, the lab is silent during the time of our visit. Even so, it looks state-of-the-art and ready to play host to some intriguing experiments when scientists are able to come aboard once more.

The way the St Helena is powered is a major point of conversation for us. Many ships use special marine diesel to power themselves, but this obviously results in damage to the environment, especially due to many marine diesels being considered as having high sulphur content. Fortunately, the St Helena is able to procure a special kind of diesel called Marine Gas Oil.

As Izy explains, “Sulphur oxide emissions which come from the burning of heavy fuels cause major health and environmental damage”. According to Izy, the Marine Gas Oil the St Helena is powered by ensures a “significant reduction of sulphur content in the fuel compared to traditional Heavy Fuel Oil used in most ships.”

During our tour up on the deck of the ship, Izy shows us a hatch built into the ship’s structure where a pipe is attached that feeds the St Helena with the essential Marine Gas Oil it needs to move from location to location. For understandable reasons, our curiosity leads us to ponder whether electrification of such vessels could be possible one day, so that the St Helena no longer needs to rely on hydrocarbons to move around.

“Our vision is to one day have her electric”, Izy admits, “and we are keeping an eye on how the marine industry moves forward and what new technologies could be implemented”.

All at sea

Before our special tour of the St Helena is complete, we ask Izy about how the experience of living aboard the St Helena has changed her. The first thing she admits is that she is very humbled, being able to see how vast the oceans are and how insignificant any single person can be in comparison. Despite our apparent size and insignificance, Izy adds: “I think a lot about the environment, and I think, how have we managed to create so much devastation and tragedy when we are really just nothing?”.

Spending time at sea implies a sense of isolation and something of a reduced sense of freedom, but despite this, Izy actually feels an even greater sense of freedom, especially from seeing the natural world without interference from light pollution and human influences. “We see so many dolphins, we see so many whales, and the stars are insane. Sometimes, it looks like someone has taken a white brush and just flicked a black canvas, there’s just so many stars. Once, we even saw the Southern Cross…so I think that meant we saw all the constellations.”

The crew use an app to monitor the stars, not just to do a spot of stargazing, but to navigate their way across the seas as mariners have always done since the earliest days of seafaring. When you need to find your way in the seas, there are no signposts pointing you to your destination, just the water all around you, the Sun rising and falling during the day and the stars at night, which act as a natural compass.

Some of the things which aren’t clear at first glance aboard the St Helena stand out when you look deeper. The ship boasts a hydroponics system on board which is connected to the kitchens. Hydroponics pertains to a form of horticulture which allows people to grow plants without the need for soil, by using special nutrient solutions instead. The St Helena hydroponics system is specially used to grow their own herbs and garnishes, so that the ship can be self-sufficient when it comes to some of the foodstuffs the kitchens produce.

In addition, the ship is in a position to use low-energy LED lights rather than traditional lamps, keeping energy consumption low. Bathrooms are fitted out in a way that keeps water consumption no higher than it needs to be. Just because it floats on water doesn’t mean that every drop running through the pipes can be wasted. Some of the chairs that decorate the ship are also very special – many are sourced from recycled plastic bottles which were scooped out of the Mediterranean, one of the world’s worst affected seas when it comes to plastic pollution.

While the St Helena can’t jump on the electrification train alongside the Odyssey 21 SUVs which make up much of its highly-prized cargo, it can certainly claim to be much greener than many ships currently navigating their way across the world. In an age where motorsports events have become sizable affairs, requiring a significant number of air miles to be racked up, the St Helena offers a different approach entirely. By packing only what you really need aboard one vessel, organisers at Extreme E are learning to strip away the unnecessary resources and use what matters.

Not only is the St Helena making waves by showing how important it is to protect the health of our oceans. The ship presents a workable solution to ensuring that events such as the Ocean X Prix can be conducted with a lower carbon footprint, while offering an example of how even old Royal Mail Ships can be repurposed for something ground-breaking and innovative.

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