Since 1840 more than 200 British ships and packets have borne the initials RMS — Royal Mail Ship — before their names. It was considered a mark of distinction and reliability because the mail needed to be delivered on time. But now only four Royal Mail Ships remain.
Before air mail was born, all overseas mail traveled by ship, and continued to do so even after the advent of air travel because it was far more economical to haul large sacks by sea than in a few small planes. However in the 21st century, far fewer letters are mailed, and 93,000 flights take off every day. Snail mail rarely travels by water any more.
So, which four Commonwealth vessels still sail under the RMS (or derivative) designation?
RMS St Helena: carries passengers, cargo and mail to the British territory of St Helena and Ascension Island. The ship used to sail all the way to England, but 2011 saw her final voyage from the British Isles. Now she travels to and from Cape Town, South Africa. Because isolated St Helena currently has no airport, the ship is the only way for islanders to receive supplies and mail (bet that cuts down on junk circulars!). However, the British government is currently building an airport that should be completed by 2016.
RMV Scillonian III: a passenger ferry to the Isles of Scilly off the tip of the Cornish peninsula. The RMV preface means Royal Mail Vessel. The Scilly Archipelago is a cluster of five inhabited islands and more than 100 rocky islets. Historical and archaeological evidence suggest that as recently as a couple of thousand years ago, there may have been a single large island called Ennor, which was inundated by rising sea levels. During exceptionally low spring tides, one can still walk between islands, but I doubt many people post letters by that method.
RMS Segwun: this steamboat offers sightseeing cruises on the Muskoka Lakes in Ontario, Canada. The ship’s history stretches back more than 125 years and includes being launched under a different name, retrofitted, mothballed and refurbished. She still carries the RMS label from the Canadian Post, but I don’t know if the boat actually carries letters.
RMS Queen Mary 2: the largest of the four vessels, the Queen Mary 2 doesn’t actually transport mail. Cunard’s flagship ocean liner was launched with the RMS designation only as a nod to tradition. However, I wouldn’t mind personally carrying a few post cards between New York and Southampton on one of her transatlantic voyages.