"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Jeremiah 29: 11

Monday, September 30, 2013

Am I Doing Any Engineering?

After checking out our blog one of my friends asked if I was actually doing any engineering. So here is a selection of tasks I have undertaken over the first two months onboard.

When we first sailed I was watchkeeping as a doubled up Engineering Officer of the Watch. After about a week I was left to watchkeep solo, albeit with a very senior Motorman – Ebenezer. During the sail we were losing a fair bit of oil from the steering system. The seals are quite worn in the rotary actuators and the previous owners (Danish State Railway company) had fitted an oil recovery system to capture and re-use the leaking oil. However we were still losing 20 litres per day. Whilst looking for possible leaks I discovered the top rudder stock garter seal had torn and extruded out of the packing box. The Chief Engineer asked me to further investigate and produce a report on this. Challenging as the limited drawings we have are all in Danish.

As Third Engineer – General Engineering my primary responsibility at this stage is grey water, black water and the Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) plus whatever other non generator (other Third Engineer), non A/C or Fridge (Hotel Engineer) and non electrical (Electricians) work comes up. The STPs are in Engine Room 1 and the Forward Black and Grey Water tanks and pumps are in Engine Room Number 2 so I refer to this area generally as “My Kingdom”.

The mechanical seal failed in Number 1 Black Water (sewage) transfer pump. The pump is designed to bayonet out but I had to remove the complete pump, motor and volute as it would not bayonet apart in-situ. Then the retaining bolt was seized and finally the impeller did not want to come off the shaft. Anyway, with some help from Oebele de Haan and Chris MacCaffrey I got it apart and rebuilt with a new seal. In the course of rebuilding both the black and grey water pumps, I found that the stores for each were mixed up and incorrectly identified.

The transition piece supplying sea water cooling to the generator plate cooler failed and I and the Fourth Engineer – Steve Henderson – were tasked with replacing it. The plate cooler end had studs that were seized in solid and took us three hours to remove – an hour each for the last two, half a flat at a time due to the very restricted access. Although we had a new transition piece that had been manufactured before the holes were slightly out of alignment and at 5 pm after three hours of trying to get it bolted up without crossthreading we pulled it out, drilled the holes oversize and re-fitted it in less than 30 minutes.


I have conducted annual services on both Number 1 and 2 Life Boats. These are an open lifeboat with a 2 cylinder SABB diesel. In addition to the service, I identified one of the exhaust hoses was cooked and ordered a replacement, both throttle cables were in poor condition and ordered new ones and the stern tube grease nipples needed replacing.  Also reviewed the stores holdings to ensure we hold spares for the consumables and the parts liable to perish due to age, sun, fuel, oil or moisture.


This week I am back working on the STPs. In the process of desludging them – a monthly routine – I found that many of the studs securing the access and inspection ports have snapped off and that the tank has wasted (corroded) so much around the access holes that drilling and tapping is not an option. Resolved to make new access covers and drill and tap new holes and fit new studs.

The tank top around the chlorinator is even worse with the chlorine having accelerated the corrosion. It looks like metal putty (Belzona or Devcon) has been used to build it back up but this is all crumbling now so I plan to manufacture a new doubler plate for the chlorinator.

I also need to get back inside the Port STP to replace one of the air lines that has broken off. Hopefully the parts will arrive for this soon but unfortunately I can’t change it working through the access ports and will need to get inside. Nasty work but someone has to do it. The boys now call me the “turd” engineer rather than the third engineer.

Next job I have to do is work out how to safely clean the grease traps. I found that both forward and aft grease traps were bypassed and not in service. Anyway I cracked the lid of the first one and got 25 ppm Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) so resecured it and aligned it to flush. Anyway tried again three days later and got 44 ppm H2S when I cracked it so I know I have some nasty anerobic bugs in there. Just have to work out how to safely get the top off and the contents cleaned out. I think I will be doing it in breathing apparatus.

Meanwhile, I hear that one of the aft sewage vacuum pumps is not running correctly so I am off to clear out the ejector which is no doubt blocked with non human waste…

Monday, September 9, 2013

A visit to the Babies home

Last Friday, 6 September, I went with a group of people from the ship to the Nou Nou babies home in Pointe Noire. The home caters for babies and children from birth to about 5 years old who have been abandoned. There were three lovely ladies on staff looking after about 16 children, the majority of which were under 18 months old. Sadly, there were three really little ones, less than a month old.
I wasn't really sure why I went. If I'm honest, part of the reason was because I had to participate in three different sites as part of the course requirements from Texas. And this particular Ministry site fitted in with my schedule.
However, I did kind of wonder what I was doing as we drove there.  I had to psych up to prepare actually and there was a fair amount of silent prayer in the car. What would I find? How would I react? What was I supposed to do? Notice all the i's. Of course, it wasn't about me at all. All I needed to do was be obedient, go and be present. So that's what I did.
Well, the babies and carers were mainly in two rooms within a complex.  The little ones held up their arms straight away ready to be picked up and cuddled.  The little guy who jumped into my arms was called Owen. He spent the first few minutes snuggled in like a baby koala.  My doubts melted away as I cuddled him back. I discovered he was seriously ticklish and had a huge smile. He also loved to play with the foam blocks and balls we brought with us.  I had a little bit of playtime with the other children as Owen stayed steadfastly on my lap or snuggled into my shoulder. I wondered what I had to offer him for these few hours? I'm not sure how he ended up at Nou Nou as I didn't ask. Somehow it didn't seem important or as important as just loving him for the time that we were there. Interestingly, when we went outside to play on the slide, Owen detached himself and started playing with the other kids and visitors on the slide. Perhaps that was all he needed - a cuddle and a few games on the floor. Is that why I was brought here?
Little Owen and I

I think it is easy anywhere to get caught up in worrying about the future all the time. We are always looking ahead - trying to plan our lives down to the last detail, making the most of our time. What if, making the most of my time that day was holding that little guy and showing him that he is loved? Was that good use of my time? Absolutely.  It reminds me of the story of the starfish by Loren Eiseley:

"While wandering a deserted beach at dawn, stagnant in my work, I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. there were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, "It makes a difference for this one." I abandoned my writing and spent the morning throwing starfish.” 

I think it made a difference to Owen.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Jack Bennett's Questions - Patient Selection Day

The son of one of our supporters asked a few questions last week so rather than just sending him back an email I thought I’d add the answers into a blog. So Jack Bennett, son of Paul Bennett, here are the answers to some of your questions.

Do we carry a team of doctors?

We have several long-term crew who are doctors. One of these is designated the crew doctor and his primary role is catering for the health and medical needs of the crew. He does however assist in such events as patient selection, which happened last week. Also amongst the long-term crew is the Chief Medical Officer – Dr Gary Parker (pictured below on the left during patient selection) – who came to Mercy Ships 26 years ago for three months and never left. He is a maxillofacial surgeon.

The head dentist is also a long-term crewmember and leads the Dental team during Outreach. We also have a couple of long term Optometrists and lots of nurses. The majority of the Doctors (Surgeons, Anaesthetists, Ophthalmologists) and Dentists serve as short term crew and come for anywhere from a couple of weeks to many months. Patients are selected during patient selection to match the availability and skills of the surgeons onboard at various times during the Outreach.

Does the whole ships company get involved in the medical effort?

Yes they do. The biggest day of the Outreach is Patient Selection or Patient Screening Day (called different things in different countries to cater for cultural sensitivities). This happened last week and involved all crew who could be spared, including students from the Academy from Grades 6 and above.

Screening days can attract many thousands of people some who are desperate to be seen for what might be their only chance ever of life saving or life changing surgery. So there is a requirement for security, drivers, patient escorts, food and water providers, people to run kids programs, medical screeners, data collectors and the hardest job of all, people to pray with those we cannot help. The ship specializes in certain surgeries and there are some patients who we just cannot treat due to the nature of their conditions or diseases. This is a heart breaking task and in my opinion the team who sit with these people and pray with and for them have the hardest job of the day. Some of the surgeries that the ship does specialise in are maxillofacial surgeries, burn contractures, cleft lips, vesicovaginal fistulas, clubbed hands and clubbed feet, cataracts and correction of cross eyedness. Some potential candidates for surgery are pictured below.

The dental and eye clinics will have regular screening days through the Outreach and there may be secondary general medical screening days in outlying regions. Our son Jack (aged 12) attended Patient Selection and handed out water all day. In 12 hours 4236 potential patients were selected for either further testing or surgery from an estimated 7354 that lined up.

As an engineer I got to help set up the pneumatic air distribution for the dental clinic where up to nine dentists can work at once. The Chief Electrician also set up a back up generator to the town supply for the dental clinic. And of course now the surgeries have started this week everyone onboard has a role in keeping the hospital running, whether it is the engineers keeping all the services running or the teachers educating the children of long-term crew so their parents can carry out critical roles onboard. The ship is like a body with many parts all of which are important to it functioning correctly.

Did we have to have special training?

We do have some special training but not much. All merchant navy deck and engineer officers have to do a one-week Proficiency in First Aid Course and the Chief Officer (XO in Navy lingo) and Master (Captain) do an additional Advanced First Aid course. However on this ship we are the least likely mariners ever to have to use these skills. There would be at least 50 more experienced and competent people than me to stitch up a wound on this ship before I was asked to have a go! Mercy Ships does teach a half day Crowd Management course to all long term crew which helps in managing screening/selection day. And all long term crew (those staying longer than 24 months) undertake a five week training course in Texas at the Mercy Ships International Operations Center to prepare them for serving onboard.