Africa Mercy set to embark on its mission

This is a massive undertaking,” Tim Tretheway said. Tretheway, 50, is the chief officer on Africa Mercy, the newest hospital ship of the Texas-based Christian-charity organization Mercy Ships. He has spent the past two years working on, in and around the 499-by-69-foot former rail ferry as it underwent a $62 million refit in Newcastle, England.

It took Mercy Ships six years to get Africa Mercy ready, in part because of delays caused by the bankruptcy of the shipyard doing the refit. The ship is scheduled to arrive in Ghana in May for its first mission. Africa Mercy will provide medical and dental services there for 10 months.
   Image Credit: Walter Garschagen

“It’s going to be amazing when it’s done,” Tretheway said.

Decks were added, engines and systems rebuilt, and new crew quarters and galleys installed. “Now 10,000 things need to be switched on and tested,” Tretheway said. After six years at the dock, Africa Mercy is set to sail on its first mission to Ghana in May 2006.

Since 1978, Mercy Ships has visited more than 500 ports in more than 50 developing countries. The group has provided millions of dollars of free medical and dental services, trained thousands of health care workers in developing countries, delivered medical equipment to these countries, built schools and clinics, and drilled water wells.

Mercy Ships depends on the volunteer efforts of doctors, dentists, nurses, professional mariners and engineers to bring medical help to poor nations around the world.

According to Mercy Ships, the group has performed approximately 2 million services worth more than $250 million and has reached 5.5 million people. Mercy Ships’ volunteers have treated more than 300,000 people in village medical clinics, performed approximately 18,000 surgeries, 110,000 dental treatments, and completed nearly 350 construction and agricultural projects.

Now that Africa Mercy is ready, Mercy Ships plans to retire its other two ships. The 265-foot Caribbean Mercy is currently docked in Mobile, Ala. Built in 1952, the ship is to be sold. Anastasis, a 522-foot former passenger ship built in 1953, is on assignment in Liberia. Mercy Ships has not yet announced its plans for Anastasis when it is retired as a hospital ship.

Mercy Ships bought Africa Mercy (ex-Dronning Ingrid) in Denmark in 1999 for 4 million British pounds (about $6.5 million) and brought her to the Cammell Laird Shipyard in Newcastle for an extensive refit. Many structural changes were made initially: The aft bridge was removed and crew quarters were added in its place. The forward and aft railcar doors were sealed, and a new deck was built.

Unfortunately, in March 2001 Africa Mercy got caught up in the bankruptcy proceedings of the Cammell Laird Shipyard, causing extensive delays in construction. Fortunately for Mercy Ships, Africa Mercy did not have to be moved during all of this. Work resumed in July 2003 by the shipyard’s new owner, A&P Tyne.

There was still plenty of work to be done. The 16,572-gross-ton former rail ferry was built in 1980 by Helsingør Skibsværft A/S. It was used by the Danish railroad for ferrying as many as 2,000 passengers between Denmark and Sweden on a four-hour crossing. Designed for the short ferry run, the ship’s layout and systems were very different from the requirements of a hospital ship operating for 10 months at a time in the tropics. That fact did not deter the engineers and planners of Mercy Ships.

“The open rail deck allowed us to create our own accommodations,” said Jim Paterson, vice president of international operations. “Passenger ferries and cruise ships have too small a cabin to work with. Car ferries had a problem with a car deck being too low to allow an additional deck.”

Building an additional deck is exactly what the rail ferry allowed them to do. The rail deck was converted into two decks with eight-foot ceilings and a custom-designed floor plan of six operating rooms, 80 hospital beds, outpatient exam rooms, an X-ray and CAT scan room, and pharmacy and supply rooms.

Above the hospital level, an additional deck was built for crew quarters, including galleys and living quarters for the crew and their families (volunteers can often bring their families along). The crew quarters are actually substantially larger than the hospital area. The ship has a bank, library, coffee shop, post office and elementary school staffed by other volunteers.

“The ship is like a city,” said Alberta Wray, public relations director for Africa Mercy.

The two areas have separate air-conditioning systems, galleys and entrances. Many new systems have been installed, from sprinkler systems to hospital oxygen lines. Old ballast tanks used for stabilizing the ship during loading and unloading of up to four trains were converted to fuel and water tanks. New sewage treatment plants, refrigeration and air-conditioning systems were added.

Down in the engine room, where six Burmeister & Wain Alpha 16-cylinder diesels (3,120 kw each) drove two main shafts, substantial changes were made as well. The forward port and starboard engines were retooled to drive air-conditioning generators for use in port. Africa Mercy needs electricity to run its hospital equipment, air-conditioning systems, administration offices, crew quarters and galleys. Redundant systems are a requirement when people’s lives might be at stake.

“You don’t want the lights to go out while the doctor is in the middle of an eye operation,” said Terry Barrett, 57, project engineer for the hospital area on Africa Mercy.

Barrett and his wife Pat are both working on getting Africa Mercy ready to sail. She works in the human resources department, while he oversees the installation of new equipment. Over the past 15 years, the Barretts, and at times their children, have sailed Mercy ships to Central America and Africa. Barrett ran a heating and air-conditioning business in El Paso, Texas, and has used his skills on the ships to help design and install air-conditioning or repair refrigeration units. Like all other Mercy Ships volunteers, the Barretts raise money back home to pay for their room and board aboard the ship. Their family, church and friends contribute money, which allows the Barretts to work full time for Mercy Ships.

“It’s humbling to see that they are willing to support us,” Barrett said. “Some of them have said, ‘I can’t go, but you are going for me.’ We are kind of representing the people that are supporting us.”

The Barretts sold their business in March 2004 and have made a commitment to stay with Africa Mercy for the next two years. “It’s kind of open ended,” Barrett said. “The outreach in Ghana is for 10 months, and we would like to be on her for those 10 months.”

It has taken Mercy Ships six years to get the ship ready to sail for Ghana. The long lay-up was, in large part, the result of unforeseen circumstances like shipyard woes and funding issues, but the extent of Africa Mercy’s refit should help the organization avoid lengthy delays in the future.

“With our other ships, every shipyard period, every docking survey becomes a refit time,” Tretheway said. “They are older ships, and with the Africa Mercy we will get on a regular cycle of normal surveys. She is not new, but almost. I can’t wait to get out there and try her out.”

Africa Mercy will sail in early April 2006 with a crew of 300. After making stops in London and Rotterdam, the ship is scheduled to reach Tema, Ghana, in May for a five-month visit. Here it will be fully staffed with a medical staff of 144, and then it will move to Takoradi, Ghana, for an additional five-month stint.

The crew will include mariners and non-mariners alike from all over the world.

“I get a guy from Maersk that puts in a few weeks, or mariners that will be with us for several months,” Tretheway said. “We have an opportunity to do some more unusual things with this ship. We have high-angle rudders and thrusters, which is good in ports where there are often no tugs available.”

For many mariners this experience will be very different from their normal ship routines with much more time in port than at sea. They will be part of an international crew with different backgrounds and training. “Different ship, different long splice,” Tretheway said. “I enjoy the diversity we have. We have a culture of safety, and we stay plenty busy in port. We will still be spinning up the radar, doing compass checks and keeping our charts updated. It’s an adjustment for some, but why not savor that a little?” Tretheway said.

Capt. Taylor Perez, 53, of Cimarron, Colo., is a mariner who donates his vacation time to Mercy Ships. Perez, the master of CS Global Sentinel, owned by Transoceanic Cable Ship Co., has been a volunteer with Mercy Ships since 1984. “I go where there is a need,” Perez said. He has used his four-month-rotation schedule to relieve officers on any of the Mercy ships. “I will go if the captain or the chief mate needs a break,” Perez said. “I was on the Africa Mercy in September to help with some SMS (Short Message Service) documentation and writing procedures.”

Another U.S. mariner volunteering his time is Richard Carmichael, 62, an electronics officer on APL Thailand. He has been spending time on Mercy ships since 1984. “I’ve worked on the various ships to either install new electronic equipment or repair that which is onboard,” Carmichael said. His time spent with Mercy Ships has allowed him and his crewmates “to give to those who are the poorest of the poor and letting them know that what they received was simply because God loved them.”

Tretheway has been a full-time volunteer with Mercy Ships for 18 years. His work is made possible by several professional mariners in the United States who support him financially. “They understand the vision and the spiritual motivation that I have to be involved in this,” Tretheway said. “When it has been needed, the money has been there to do what I need to do.”

This same vision brought Jean Campbell to Mercy Ships in 1994. Campbell, 41, of Salem, N.H., is an emergency nurse by training, but has been the health care services manager on Africa Mercy since 2004. “The work is very tangible,” Campbell said. She oversees the medical work, staffing needs, health and dental clinics, and the health-education programs. Campbell was part of the team that designed the hospital layout on Africa Mercy.

“Some people have never seen stairs before,” Campbell said. “They will sit down and go down them on their bottoms.”

Minimizing the need for stairs and maximizing the floor space for beds and operating rooms was a big priority for Mercy Ships. “We have been offered hospital beds galore, but with full-sized hospital beds, we couldn’t have as many patients,” Campbell said. “It is not about the numbers, but if I can help more people, then that is valuable to me.”

The operating rooms on Anastasis were on a different floor from the recovery room, making it necessary for patients to be carried down a flight of stairs on a stretcher after surgery. On Africa Mercy, the entire hospital area is on one deck with the starboard side dedicated to the six operating rooms, X-ray and CAT scan room and the pharmacy, and the port side is dedicated to the exam room, recovery room and two wards with a total of 80 beds.

“We are a specialized surgical center,” Campbell said. “There are certain things we do and we do well, but we can’t be all things to all people.”

The specialties, Campbell said, are reconstructive surgeries like cleft lip, removal of tumors on the upper body and eye surgeries like cataract and cross-eyed correction. The need for medical care in developing countries is often so acute that thousands of people come to the port when a Mercy Ship arrives. Screenings have already been held in the preceding months, and appointments have often been made, but people still show up with many ailments.

Others stay away because of old fears. “We are a ship, and most of our crew – not all – are white, and there is a history of slavery in these countries,” Campbell said. “There is a fear of what’s going to happen. Are they going to take me away?”

Africa Mercy is being outfitted not just as a hospital ship, but also as the base for a range of shore-side projects. An aft cargo bay with room for twenty 20-foot containers and a fleet of 24 white Land Rovers on the upper deck will allow the ship’s staff to start construction, and educational and agricultural projects deep in the interior of Ghana. Many of the volunteers will cooperate with governmental and non-governmental organizations. Dental clinics will provide basic care, health care professionals will train locals to become health teachers, and water and sanitation teams will drill wells and build latrines.

Even the professional mariners can participate in these shore-side projects. Tretheway used to go out with the dental team to help run their air compressor and clean the dental equipment. “I would spend all day sterilizing dental equipment,” Tretheway said. “You would get to interact with quite a few people this way, and it’s a way to see the culture. This work has made me realize that I don’t have to be a surgeon to have an effect on the world.”


By Professional Mariner Staff