Tech on the hospital ship

What inspires an IT professional to volunteer for 6 months onboard a hospital ship in West Africa? Simon de Vries explains how the experience invested into his career, some of the unique problem and the unusual environments he worked in. 

‘I have a background in Software Development, I studied Computer Science at the University of Auckland and spent three years working at Intergen, a software vendor in Auckland.

While Software Development has a lot of overlap with IT support, there are still many new things to learn. My experiences onboard taught me to troubleshoot various aspects of computing which are just outside of Software Development but valuable as it provides more depth.

My team and I faced a wide variety of issues, which is expected when you consider that we maintain an IT system for over 400 crew, who work on the other side of the world, where the nearest hardware supplier is thousands of kilometres away. This is made more complicated when you add the fact we are on a ship which goes between countries. Every time we sail, all the equipment needs to be put into storage or securely fastened in position, and once we arrive it all needs to be unpacked and set up again. During my time onboard I helped pack up equipment from Guinea, West Africa for the sail to the Canary Islands. There I assisted with system maintenance, then we sailed to Senegal and I helped set up for the next field service.

Simon de Vries, IS Support Specialist

Our IS department exists to empower hope and healing through technology. In a world where technology plays an ever-increasing role, we ensure that Mercy Ships can reap all the benefits to help achieve the greater goal of providing healthcare. We make it possible for various departments across the ships to operate efficiently and effectively with software such as; patient information management systems, navigational systems, communication, financial software and security tools.

I hardly had two days the same. Probably the most frequent tasks on a day to day basis are repairing or setting up a PC, assisting people with software issues and queries, managing our IT inventory and packing up for sail.

The most obvious skills I  picked up from my work onboard would be technical and problem-solving skills as this is central to my job. However, I also picked up a great deal of teamwork as we have a number of larger projects. Working on the IT help desk has also taught me plenty of communication skills. It is my job to come into a situation and understand what the problem is, and then effectively communicate the cause and a solution to the client (crewmember). I learned time management skills as there is a lot to get done in a day, and issues have different levels of importance. I have also learnt a great deal how to strap a monitor to a desk to stop it falling over – unfortunately I don’t think that will be very useful anywhere else!

I’ve had the chance to do some maintenance and testing on the ships internet satellite, which is a pretty cool piece of tech! It is pretty cool technology as there is a gyroscope on to stabilize it while the ship rocks back and forth.

Aside from my experiences at work, working onboard has given me the change to develop a more global perspective. People on the ship come from all over the world and have all sorts of opinions and ideas, and off the ship I discovered the amazing hospitality and sincerity of the Guinean people. These experiences are so valuable in an increasingly smaller world!

Volunteering onboard was an easy choice for me. The work that Mercy Ships does is very real. I am privileged to have been part of the effort that makes that possible, especially since I could use my technical skills in such a direct way. It was an opportunity to expand my professional skills and try something new, as well as explore new places and go have endless adventures. There are many perks with life on board; the amazing community, the chance to sail, pancakes Thursdays, the swimming pool, Starbucks, the chance to see dolphins during the sail, etc… and what so great is there are so many departments on board that almost anyone could come on board and volunteer.

maritime, medical and general volunteer roles with Mercy Ships

Some of the stimulating and unique technical challenges Simon faced onboard include:

  • Supporting applications for many different businesses but at the same location; hospital, hotel, engineering, shipping, conference center, church, etc.
  • All the walls are metal so it presents a challenge delivering WiFi and Cellular service around the work and living environment
  • Internet bandwidth is very limited and VERY expensive, and crew work 24 /7 shifts IS has to support business and personal usage at all times
  • Providing good internet access is a priority as our crew raise their own support, and communicate with their families
  • Most IS business applications are typically “web based”, something that is very difficult to support on the ship, both because of limited bandwidth and because the satellite connection has such long delay/response times. This often forces us to use older applications or to find solutions with database replication.
  • Users (crew) and our support staff come from many different nationalities so we have to
    • decide on a common date/time and decimal format
    • work in a common language (English) on our computers
    • work with a standard keyboard layout
  • Our office (ship) moves to different time zones multiple times a year which plays havoc with Meeting Calendars.
  • Solar flares in the spring and autumn block out our satellite communications for up to 30 mins per day for a week or more.
  • Adding new cables for new equipment is a whole new experience since each deck is divided into fire zones, everything your penetrate has to be fireproofed and all cable has to meet marine specifications, even down to speaker wires, if it goes in a wall or above the ceiling (deck heads).










Read the story by Owen McCarthy in bizEDGE






The toughest tech you’ll ever love – find out more about volunteering in information services with Mercy Ships