Our next stop across the Atlantic was Ascension Island. Ascension sits just about in the middle of the Atlantic. It’s a very dry, volcanic island with very little plant life. As is somewhat common with these kinds of islands many of the place name reference the Devil – Devil’s Ashpit, Devil’s Riding School, Devil’s Cauldron, you get the drift. Nonetheless it is quite a pleasant stop along the sailing route. It took us a bit over 4 days from St. Helena and we arrived to anchor in a pretty little bay in front of a big sand beach.
Ashore there are are 800 people, but no inhabitants. Ascension is a working island. The largest contingent of folks belongs to the US Air Force base on the island (leased from the British), and then to the British military installation at the other end of the island. The rest of the folk are government officials who keep things running (what things? you might ask). You can’t own land here, you can’t stay here if you lose your job, your job ends, or you retire. You can only be here if you have a job (kids up to 18 can stay with their parents and go to school, but on their 18th birthday they either have to get a job or get out – sounds like the parents here don’t even have to make the threat). Visitors, too, get a little bit of a run around and a security check. The cynic in me suspects that the satellite tracking and communications intercepts that occur here are supposed to stay behind the curtain.
As with St. Helena, both the anchorage and the dinghy landing are marginal. There’s not a lot of protection and swells are generally rolling in from some direction. Unlike St. Helena, you usually have to use your own dinghy and brave the surge at the wharf. It seemed there was always a couple of sets of willing hands on shore to help.
Before the British claimed the island it was empty, and since it was claimed it has always been a military outpost. Thus it is a strange mix of current military facilities, rotting and decaying old military installations, and wildly untouched nature preserve. We anchored in front of Long Beach, a major sea turtle nesting place. We were early in the season and every day we saw a dozen or so pairs of turtles mating in the surf. Every morning we’d wake up and see the tracks made by the females as they dragged themselves up the beach to lay their eggs.
A little later in the season and the turtle tracks turn from a dozen per day to a hundred or more (one of those government functions I mentioned is counting and keeping track of the turtle nesting season).
Our tour of Ascension starts at Georgetown (ah, those British, so original), the only ‘port’ on the island and the place where all cargo come ashore. It’s an interesting agglomeration of colonial buildings and up-to-date architecture. And full of very friendly people. While no one can ‘live’ here there are many people (most who come from St. Helena) who spend their entire working lives on the island and then retire back at ‘home’. They don’t get many visitors and when we (and the other cruisers we met at St. Helena) arrived they made each of us feel welcome.
There’s a market in Georgetown with an odd assortment of supplies – they cater to the local Saints (folks from St. Helena), Brits from the base, and Yanks from the other base. Since it was close to Christmas they had frozen turkeys because that’s what the Yanks eat along with Christmas pudding for the Brits. What you can’t get there, well, if you befriend someone at the base you can usually find a way to get a few things from the commissary or PX.
Looking out over the town are the remains of several gun emplacements. It’s a bit odd to me, for a speck of land in the middle of the ocean, with nothing really nearby I’d think that if I didn’t want to get blown out of the water I’d just sail by a few miles out and wave with my private parts. Nevertheless, there were guns here.
Right at the center of the island is Green Mountain. It didn’t used to be that way, before the militaries landed here it was as dry and dusty as the rest of the island. But some botanist had the idea to transform the top of the mountain into a botanical garden. Not only would it help capture water (which was in short supply), and help feed the troops, but it could also be quite pretty. And so thousands of different plants were imported and planted on the hill. As water collected more plants were introduced and today the top of the mountain is a green beacon in an arid landscape.
Once you get away from Green Mountain you run into the more typical landscape on the island – lava. The only thing that seems at home here are the land crabs.
Not to worry though, Mr. Trump could come for a visit, the landscape still supports the world’s driest golf course.
I suspect a divot here would hurt the club (and the person swinging it) more than the fairway.
Being in the middle of the Atlantic the island has always been a key communications hub. Today it does satellite tracking and uplinks, but originally it was an amplification station for several undersea telegraph cables. You can still see the original cables coming ashore (although they probably don’t work any more).
Despite having almost zero tourism and not a lot of people, Ascension has had problems recently with shark attacks. So there are (officially) only two swimming beaches on the island, one near the old telegraph station (below) and one out on the north shore. Other than those two places swimming is frowned upon. Still, not a bad place for a picnic and a dip.
The south end of the island is home, during the nesting season, to over a million terns. To get there you have drive across the air base runway and through the base dump but they’re pretty friendly about letting you through. They do ask when you’ll be back, and if you’re late they will come looking for you. If you can stand the smell of a million birds that have been nesting in the same place for a long time it is quite an interesting walk.
Sadly, we have a schedule (well, a budget really) and so we had to depart Ascension after less than a week. There were four of us cruising boats in the anchorage and we’d all be departing before Christmas so we got together on Wasco the day before we left and had a communal Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.
This would be the last we would see of the folks we met at St. Helena, as always we’re marching to a different drummer.