"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

My Mercy Ship Story

The Short Version

God gave me a gift – I am good at and enjoy Marine Engineering.
I ignored Him for a long time.
He sent me lots of signs and people to guide me back so I could serve Him.
I finally got the message.
God solved all the obstacles I saw to me serving.
We have served with Mercy Ships on board the AFRICA MERCY in Congo (2013-14), Madagascar (2014-15) and Madagascar again (2015-16). We are scheduled to serve in Benin (2016-17) and then Cameroon (2017-18).

The Long Version

I served for 23 years in the Royal Australian Navy as a Marine Engineer Officer rising to the rank of Commander and serving as the Marine Engineer Officer (Chief Engineer) in three ships. So how did we end up serving with Mercy Ships?

For a long time I had had a desire to “give back” having always been inspired by Fred Hollows and other medical professionals who volunteered and served the poor and less fortunate around the world. However having chosen engineering rather than medicine I was never really sure how I might contribute. Then sometime in the early 90’s I became aware of Mercy Ships. I know I googled them and contacted Mercy Ships Australia for some information. However I remember reading in the FAQ section about Navy experience and the requirement for Merchant Marine Certification. I already knew that the Australian Maritime Safety Authority provided no recognition of my Naval engineering qualifications and did not offer a pathway to Merchant Navy certification. So I parked the idea in the “not achievable” basket.

Anyway in 1995 I met Tammy and in 1996 we were married. Now I grew up a Catholic attending Catholic boarding school but was not a practicing Christian. Tammy by contrast was a committed and practicing Christian. In fact, my lack of faith and her strong faith was one of her parents’ concerns when I asked to marry their daughter. At this time we had both been serving in HMAS MORESBY and I remember being impressed by the faith and dedication of the small group of Christians onboard – Mike Hanlon, Ash Macdonald and Tam. I knew Ash was leaving the Navy to work as a merchant mariner with a Christian organization. More of this later.

We spent the next few years moving fairly frequently and serving at sea so really never found a regular church. Then in 2000 we moved to Singapore where we began attending the Anglican/Baptist service held in the military chapel at Sembawang. Now to be honest I attended because it made Tammy happy and I looked after our first son Jack in the “crying room” for most of the service. And I enjoyed the kid’s message/story delivered each week far more than the sermons mainly because I understood them! My favourite was Chuck Smith’s where he brought in his American Football helmet and told all the kids that Jesus was like his helmet – he protected you. Anyway looking back this was the re-awakening of my faith.

In 2004 we returned to Sydney to find out a few weeks before we arrived that some good friends from Singapore – Sheldon and Jo Kidd – were also living in Newington. Jo asked if we had a church and said they were attending a great one in Newington – Bayside Community Church. So we went along and found some old shipmates from my time as MEO in HMAS DARWIN – Mike Van Balen (XO) and his wife Miriam – were also attending Bayside. We were made to feel incredibly welcome here and the ready acceptance of children and families was so different to my early experience of church. I found church was not just something we did on Sundays. It built a sense of community and support that lasted all week. I started to attend a men’s bible study group and to actually read and try to understand the Bible.

The other thing about Bayside is that they were supporting one family already serving in Mozambique – the Cranes – and commissioned a couple we knew – Naomi and Adam Clegg – to serve in Madagascar. Now Johno and Heather Crane have 5 kids and are home schooling them. Naomi and Adam now have one child. So this got me thinking that if they could do it with kids then we could too. But there was still the certification issue so serving with Mercy Ships got “parked” again.

The other thing that happened in about 2004, is I attended a technical talk at the Institute of Marine Engineering Science and Technology (IMarEST) delivered by Alan Budd on the conversion of the AFRICA MERCY from a rail ferry to a hospital ship. This piqued my interest again especially due to the similarities between my ship, HMAS MANOORA, which had been converted from a Landing Ship Tank (LST) designed to carry Marine Corps tanks to a multirole amphibious ship with an operating theatre, 6 high dependency beds and 40 low dependency beds. But there was the certification issue so any idea of serving remained unachievable, or so I thought.

Fast forward to Dec 2006 and we moved to London for two years where I worked at the Australian High Commission. We tried a couple of local churches but did not “feel the love”. Then shortly after arriving we attended our neighbour’s son’s first birthday where we met an Australian – Felicity – who out of the blue asks “Have you found a church? I know this great one.” She described it as really “relevant”. We went, enjoyed it, felt welcome and continued to travel to Putney to attend for our two years in London. “Relevant” is such a great description and one I use for Bayside too now. Although we enjoyed going to St Stephens I always still felt a very strong connection to Bayside as our church.

Whilst in the UK I made some good contacts in Lloyds (Bob Simpson), the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (Cdre Dave Preston), IMarEST (Graham Hockley) and the Royal Navy (Paul Casson and Jonathon Fry). I asked their advice on whom to approach about merchant navy certification through the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. They all pointed me in the direction of Burnie Powell who advised me to submit an application and they would look at it.

The second thing that happened is that in mid 2008 I saw that Mercy Ships ran an Introduction to Mercy Ships (IMS) Course in Holland and that there was a course in October 2008. Now Holland is a lot closer to London than either Holland or Texas (the other IMS venue) is to Sydney. So having got Tam’s blessing I booked to attend IMS in Holland. Mercy Ships was still an itch that wouldn’t go away and although the barriers seemed to be reducing we now had three children.

Finally in April 2008 I attended an ANZAC Day Mess Dinner hosted by the Royal Navy Reserve and met and RNR Commander – Jamie Shaw – who was the Chief Engineer on the Trinity House Vessel PATRICIA. Jamie invited me to spend a week at sea with him which I did in September. This week convinced me that I could fulfill the role of a merchant navy engineer with my Navy experience. I had discussed my thoughts on Mercy Ships with Jamie and lo and behold he shows me a full page story on Chief Engineer of the AFRICA MERCY, Andy Cole, serving onboard with his wife and five children.

So I attended IMS in October still not sure if serving with Mercy Ships was either possible or what I was seeking. Looking back I can see it was a turning point. We did an exercise on Saturday where we looked at the names for Our Lord and two of them - JEHOVAH JIREH, the Lord our Provider, and JEHOVAH RAPHA, the Lord our Healer - just clicked with me. I have always liked to lead by example, especially by my actions, not my words and I saw that the best way for me to demonstrate my faith was to follow the example of Jesus and serve the poor as Jesus did - a healer and provider. Now, how to tell Tam?

Well, when I got home I was pretty quiet until Tam pushed me a little on how the course went. Then it all came out – very fast. After that we talked about it a fair bit and discussed when we might volunteer and me working towards the certification. I put together my application for MCA but had not received a response when we left for Australia.

Remember Ash Macdonald? Well in late 2008 Tam was reading the Bayside newsletter online and it was calling for volunteers to host members of the DOULOS’ crew during their upcoming visit to Sydney. And I was checking out SBS news online and it had a story on the DOULOS’ visit to Australia and guess who is the Master – Ash Macdonald. So we got in touch with Ash and his wife and asked a few questions about serving as volunteers on a ship with kids.

Well in February 2009 I got the response from MCA and it was pretty reasonable. I was required to do three one week mariner safety courses, a seafarer’s medical, a three month approved workshops skills course and I could sit my third engineers’ oral. Then I would be required to serve only three months as a third engineer prior to sitting my second engineers written and oral exams. More discussions followed and we worked out that window for us to serve for two years would be 2012 – 2013. We looked at our savings and started to calculate how much two years service without income and paying crew fees would cost and if we could self fund ourselves.

Well turns out that I really didn’t enjoy my next job with the Navy back in Australia and started to look at other options. I completed training with the Register for Engineers for Disaster Relief (RedR) to give myself the option of deploying as a Water and Sanitation Engineer with a UN agency and this helped me understand my motivations for serving with Mercy Ships, particularly one session on needs:
For love and connectedness
For contribution
For certainty
For uncertainty
For growth
I realized that whilst for many years I had thought certainty of employment and pay was important it wasn’t satisfying me. The love and connectedness of my family satisfied me and this itch that would not go away was obviously this need for contribution.

Tam knew I wasn’t happy at work and offered to take up an operational posting with the Navy in 2010 which we agreed to with the plan that I would work towards certification in 2011 and possible Mercy Ships service in 2012. But she missed out on the four Navy positions she applied for so we reviewed options and came up with the plan for me to leave the Navy in 2010 and complete my merchant navy training whilst on Long Service Leave prior to discharge. We also agreed that she should attend IMS in Texas in Jun 2010 so that she could find out more about this journey I was planning to take the family on. I also thought it was so important for Tam to have “buy in” to the plan, that it not just be my calling. Tam also hoped to find out more about what her role onboard might be.

So Tam attended IMS in June 2010 enduring a hell trip over where she missed a connection and slept in Dallas Fort Worth airport for the night. And although she didn’t find out what her role onboard might be she did find out that one of the precious family cabins had been assigned to us from January 2011. She answers the question about what her role might be onboard with “God has a plan but he hasn’t shared it with me yet!”

I finished work with the Navy on 30 June and on 1 July we received our acceptance letter from Mercy Ships and 3 July confirmation of the acceptance of the boys by the onboard Academy (school). Now I believe that is God working.

Now by this point we look like we are home and hosed. I flew to London in September 2010 and commenced my Workshops Skills course at South Tyneside College in South Shields. However in mid 2010 our eldest son, Jack, had been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome - a mild form of autism - and we had sent this information to Mercy Ships. After much praying the school principal and administator advised us that they could not accept Jack into the onboard school so soon after his diagnosis but would reconsider in the future. We were "gutted" but looking back it was the right decision. I did however finish my course and passed my EOOW exam.

Fast forward to 2012 and I was working for an old friend managing the disposal of two ex-RAN amphibious ships I had served in when Mercy Ships asked us to re-apply having re-assessed Jack for acceptance into the onboard school based on his school reports over the last few years. This then precipitated a flurry of planning, praying and papework leading to our second acceptance in April 2013 to start On Boarding training in Texas in Jun 2013.

Looking back I can see so many pointers, critical conversations, chance meetings etc that were not just chance. I think I’m a slow learner and “the Big Fella” had to keep signposting the way for me and moving the obstacles I saw that were stopping me taking the great leap. This has now given me a new sense of faith. I do not need to concern myself with the future. Worry about what I can change, trust God has a plan for what I cannot influence.

There are also a bunch of people who have influenced me reaching this point whether they realize it or not. Some of them are already mentioned. Some others are Matt Winner, Andre Sannazzaro, Lance Davis, Lonny Mitchell, Gunna Rourke, Sophie and Paul Dunkin, Trevor Ruting, Chris Wagner, Noel Grummitt, Bill and Ev Van Boheemen, Bryan Stapley, Dave Miers, Mike and Jill Oborn, Matt and Deb Tevelen, Jeff Saville, Mike and Donna Hanlon, Glen and Jen Spencer, Steve and Louise Bartlett, Dave Coyle, Mark Falson and Dave Meldrum.

Tam once said to me that ever since she had met me that she had always prayed that I would find my faith. I don’t think she ever thought that once I did find my faith I would then want to take the whole family off to West Africa as unpaid missionaries!! My reply is she must have prayed too hard.

So that’s how we got to where we are - serving onboard the AFRICA MERCY from July 2013, first in the Republic of Congo, then Madagascar and then Benin. As perhaps you can see, my rediscovery of my faith has been a long slow steady build up. No “Hallelujah moment” for me. I am not a vocal Christian. I am not good at verbalizing my faith and far prefer to demonstrate my faith by my actions. Serving the poorest of the poor in Africa by doing what I am good at, Marine Engineering – the gift God gave me – is how I intend to demonstrate my faith, especially to my own children