At the helm

Captain John Borrow taking a navigational fix during the sail.

John Borrow never planned on being a full-time volunteer, but when he first heard about Mercy Ships in the 1990’s he knew it was an opportunity he couldn’t ignore.His long journey with the not-for-profit that operates the world’s largest civilian hospital ship, Africa Mercy, has taken Mr Borrow and his family from Sydney around the world. From 2016 to 2018 he served as the flagship’s Captain.

More than 400 volunteers from over 40 nations live and work on board the Mercy Ship, providing free surgical essential services and health care education to those without access in the developing world.

Borrow learnt of Mercy Ships through a friend. After setting foot on board during a visit while a ship was in port in New South Wales, he knew he wanted to be part of its crew.

‘I was kind of disillusioned with my sea career,’ Captain Borrow recalls. ‘I went up to check out the ship and I was pretty excited. I kept thinking that I had found my thing; I found my calling.’

Joining the Mercy Ship as Third Officer, Borrow travelled to Papua New Guinea on a three-month assignment and was enthralled by the experience. After hearing about the trip, his partner Lee-Anne, who was a dietitian and had just finished her master’s degree in nutrition, was also eager to join.

Borrow Family in front of the funnel

After the couple married in 2001, they boarded the now-retired Caribbean Mercy, where Borrow volunteered as Chief Officer before moving on to the original Mercy Ship, Anastasis, in 2005, where the couple raised their first son for the first 18 months of his life.

Eventually ,they returned to Australia to have their second son. After 8 years of being at home and working ashore Borrow knew it was time to return to Mercy Ships. 

The Borrow family joined the current flagship, Africa Mercy, in Madagascar in 2015, allowing John to claim that he’s been the Chief Officer on every Mercy Ship except for one.

He took over as Captain in August 2016 and three years’ service took the family to Benin, Cameroon and Guinea. Lee-Anne used her professional skills in the Mercy Ships Infant Feeding Programme while their boys attended the onboard school for crew children. In each port Lee-Anne worked with the Mums of severely underweight babies. These infants with cleft palates require additional nutrition so they would be strong enough to undergo plastic surgery to reconstruct their clefts.

Captain Borrow and his family have now returned home, leaving a vacancy in his role.

‘We are struggling right now to find long term Deck Officers, especially Chief Officers and Captains. These roles are not only critical for the safe operation of the ship, but also to lead our deck crew, which are mostly Africans and the nicest, most gentle, respectful bunch of people you’re ever likely to meet.’

‘Our three years on board the Africa Mercy has been an amazing experience and we’ve met some truly inspiring people here, all with the same goal to help those not as lucky as we are. Once you see this level of pain and suffering you cannot be unaffected. You cannot ignore it, something changes, and you have to help.’

Captain John Borrow and Dietitian Lee-Anne Borrow

Thanks to Professional Skipper magazine for publishing this story