Kiwis doing the remarkable, overcoming COVID complexities, and an amazing travel plan for new volunteers.

Rhema announcer Andrew Urquart talks to Sharon Walls from Mercy Ships about the fabulous assistance in place to help Kiwis volunteers get to the Africa Mercy, returning to Senegal for service in a few months – AND they discuss the new Mercy Ship now on sea trials and getting ready for the first voyage.

Listen to the interview podcast HERE 

Learn more about the volunteer opportunities that fit your skillset, and find the travel assistance details 
maritime, medical and general volunteer roles with Mercy Ships




Kea Kids TV hears from Mia, Campbell, Oliver and Lucas about moving from the green grass of the Waikato, to living on a ship heading for Africa. This is a refreshing look at their mercy mission on the water, from the children’s perspective.

Jeremy Pollard is the new principal for the Mercy Ships school for crew children onboard. He and Ruth tell the Waikato Times what inspired them to sign their family up for two years on board a hospital ship.


Sinclair Carter, Second Engineer on the 16,000 tonne Africa Mercy, says his days were busy and never boring. They wouldn’t be. After a career at sea, Carter has recently returned from volunteering his maritime skills with Mercy Ships, the hospital ship charity dedicated to providing desperately needed surgical services and medical capacity building to the under-served in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Sinclair and Kathy Carter from Whangamata arrived onboard the Africa Mercy in Senegal, West Africa just before COVID-19 made a global impact

Published by Professional Skipper Magazine (Jan/Feb 2021 edition) 

‘The scale of the ship’s operations is massive,’ explains Carter. ‘The Africa Mercy is self-sufficient, with its own generators, firefighting, fuel and oil systems, sewage treatment plants and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems – all of which must function to support a crew of over 400. The ship also needs to power hospital facilities such as X-ray machines, CT scanners, and for the five operating theatres, five wards and axillary hospital services onboard. The free operations provided onboard for the poor include burns reconstructive surgery, cleft lip and palate reconstruction, benign tumour removal, paediatric orthopaedic corrections, womens’ health and cataract surgeries.
The technical crew makes up roughly 30 % of the volunteer crew onboard the Africa Mercy, which includes a large contingent of medics as well as operational crew. The engineering team plays a vital part in maintaining the operating platform so that surgical treatment can be carried out for people in the region without access to essential surgery.

‘It’s the best environment I’ve ever worked in,’ says engineer Carter, after a career at sea

‘With four main B & W engines along with the 4 MAN 21/31 generators, each of 3120kW, the engineering team maintains the constant power supply necessary to supply the operating theatres, air conditioning units are needed to keep the ambient temperature and electrical systems have to be maintained to all other areas of the Mercy Ship. There is an interdependency within the Africa Mercy, and the engineering team ensures the power to run the medical and other facilities onboard is always available.

‘As an engineer used to working in a commercial environment, one of the big differences on the Africa Mercy was the higher number of passengers – which includes medical and operational crew, and the 25 families of long term crew members who live onboard. This necessitates additional resources to manage the electrical, HVACR and sewage requirements. This means the engineering team includes electricians, plumbers and HVACR technicians. The hospital ship has its own medical waste incinerator and medical waste convertor which also require regular maintenance.’

Acquired by Mercy Ships in 1999, the Africa Mercy is almost 40 years old. The vessel was retrofitted from a Danish inter-island rail ferry to hospital ships. As a result, there are a few idiosyncrasies to contend with. Now carrying up to 400 passengers who live onboard, the need for air conditioning, sewage and water increased exponentially. Additional air conditioning units were placed throughout the ship which makes the maintenance of these units challenging due to their decentralised location.

‘Because a rail ferry doesn’t have large fuel requirements, when the ship was refitted, ballast tanks and dry tanks were used to hold the additional fuel required to operate a hospital ship. As fuel in Africa is not always readily available, the Africa Mercy tends to carry more fuel in the event of needing to sail urgently, explains Carter. ‘Using ballast and dry tanks, there would be a higher risk of contaminants and water ingress from wear and tear of pipes so extra maintenance was necessary to keep everything in good working order.

‘Direct access to the engine room was cut off when the operating theatres and hospital wards were built the same level as the rail ferry entrance and exits, creating a challenge to move materials and goods in and out of the engine room, now needing to be moved through the hospital area.’

Typically, Carter checked in with his team first thing in the morning and allocated work accordingly, knowing that generally within the first hour all planning would go out the window as more urgent work was needed first.

Training and mentoring is a primary goal for Mercy Ships in each host nation to help increase professional capacity in West Africa

One aspect of the role he says loved most was training the team and watching them learn. For many of the African volunteers this was the first opportunity to gain their certificates and to progress up through the ranks to the next stage of their career. Carter would often run evening training sessions for his ‘guys’ and there was always a roomful of attendees.

When doing his last round in the evening, he would often find one of the team studying, sometimes with one of their team mates who wasn’t even on duty. ‘Togetherness reigns; if one succeeds, they all succeed! No tall poppy syndrome there!’ he affirms.

Carter’s wife Kathy also volunteered onboard; as Deck and Engineering administrator. Originally their service was to be for three months, but they extended it – twice. Her role was to keep both technical teams running smoothly. She found it interesting and varied.

‘There were monthly rosters and changes to rosters as crews changed, and engineering reports which had to be provided on a weekly and monthly basis,’ Kathy explains. ‘Mercy Ships is registered under the Malta flag so any officer that starts has to have their credentials submitted to Malta for approval. It is also important that any information relayed at the meetings was passed on to the teams so I would attend the morning catch-ups with each team and pass on any information deemed necessary.’ Kathy says her work was very crew-orientated, with a lot of data entry and report writing – but also there was a bit of ‘camp Mother’ in looking out for the team. ‘The crew were all special and would come to ask for help for a variety of reasons. Of course, the Captain and Chief Engineer also had occasional requests that needed to be looked after,’ she adds.

In February 2020, several weeks shy of the Africa Mercy 10-month surgical schedule duration, the Carters arrived to the field service in Senegal, West Africa. ‘Patients were arriving daily for their surgeries, the hospital was full of patients and families and the sound of laughter and singing permeated the ship’s wards,’ recalls Carter.  Then suddenly in March, the unprecedented global spread of COVID19 required immediate contingency, and the NGO paused the field service for the health and wellbeing of crew and patients. Shore leave was cancelled and surgery wound up. The vessel relocated to the Canary Islands, where it remains in an extended period of maintenance, until their return to Senegal in April 2021. The charity quickly refocused their healthcare work for this period into eLearning and online training for their healthcare colleagues in West Africa.

‘Onboard, community life was very important, particularly whilst we were in lockdown,’ explains Carter.  ‘Everyone was very supportive to one another. There were regular activities organised to keep the morale up as many crew returned home. Life onboard was quite different to when we were in field service. Sad to leave, we finally departed the Africa Mercy in August after serving a total of six months.’

Deployment of the world’s largest civilian hospital ship – Global Mercy

The Carters are joining the newest Mercy Ship in February 2021 as the Global Mercy heads to sea trials

In February 2021 Carter steps into the volunteer role of Second Engineer aboard the new Mercy Ship; 37,000 ton Global Mercy™, soon to undergo sea trials. Once again Kathy will also join the vessel’s crew as Technical Administrator.

The Global Mercy™ is scheduled to begin the journey to Africa in 2021 and will also operate in the sub-Saharan region, complementing the work of the Africa Mercy. The ships will operate on a staggered cycle of six months, ensuring there is always one vessel in service. The first field service location will be in West Africa, providing desperately needed operations for people who have no other access to the healthcare they need.

The global backlog of surgery means there has never been a more urgent time for Mercy Ships to increase healthcare services. The deployment of the Global Mercy ™ will more than double the surgical care and medical training Mercy Ships can provide for people who live in low-income countries in Africa.

The Global Mercy ™  will be crewed by 600 international volunteers in medical, maritime and operational roles. The 174-metre vessel has two hospital decks and includes six operating theatres, six wards, isolation, auxiliary services – and an ICU suite sponsored by private donations from New Zealand.

In addition to providing six surgical specialties onboard, the medical capacity build teams will serve alongside their local colleagues, multiplying the impact of mentoring programmes. To enhance this capability the Global Mercy ™ will be outfitted with state-of-the-art training spaces featuring a simulation lab with virtual and augmented reality, mannequins and other surgical training tools. Significantly, a simulated post-op care space will allow trainers to reproduce local operating conditions and limitations in order to teach best practices in low-resource environments.

Mercy Ships has volunteer opportunities for maritime, medical and operational crew in 2021 and beyond to help the charity double their impact for the under-served poor in Africa. For further information visit

Download the print article Professional Skipper Jan-Feb 2021

Take a tour of the Global Mercy™ as the vessel is prepared for sea trials











Making free essential surgical care accessible to people in low-income countries is a bold undertaking which has just been made even more complex by the surgical backlog created by COVID-19.

Emmanuel Essah, Biomed Project Manager, teaches biomed trainees in Guinea, West Africa

Committed to doing more to meet the escalating need, not-for-profit Mercy Ships prepares to launch a second hospital ship in 2021, doubling the capacity to partner with low-income countries. Biomedical technicians play an important role in the charity’s strategy to help develop more robust healthcare infrastructures, to see increased healthcare services provided and to strengthen existing medical capacity in sub-Saharan Africa.

With 40 per cent of the world’s population living within 100 km of the coast, it makes sense for Mercy Ships to use ocean-going vessels as transportable heath care platforms for their work. Volunteer crew members provide free surgical services to a country for 10 months at a time, simultaneously offering mentoring and training programs for local healthcare professionals. Though demographically and vocationally diverse, the professionals who join Mercy Ships have a single determination to make a lasting, sustainable impact in the populations they serve.




Building medical capacity is a key strategy

When the existing flagship Africa Mercy docked in Emmanuel Essah’s home country of Benin, West Africa in 2009, he joined the crew as a translator. In due course he met one of the Mercy Ships health engineers, and asked ‘What does a biomedical engineer do?’  The crew member explained his responsibilities; the repair, calibration, maintenance and installation of the medical equipment onboard. Essah says, ‘By the time he finished explaining, I knew that biomedical engineering was something I wanted to pursue.’

Several years later, Essah still volunteers with Mercy Ships. As the vessel’s biomedical manager, he is also involved with training and upskilling other African health care engineers each nation Mercy Ships serves.

Essah is about to undertake an inspiring new project; managing the 2021 biomeds outfitting in the hospital of the new Mercy Ship Global Mercy ™. He keenly anticipates working alongside healthcare engineers from New Zealand and around the globe, colleagues who are passionate to make a real difference with their skills and training in a short term project. ‘It is a unique and exciting opportunity to be part of the team that will set up the medical equipment on the new ship. Being a biomedical engineer with Mercy Ships will challenge you,’ he states.


There has never been a more urgent time for Mercy Ships to double their services. Next year’s deployment of the newest hospital ship Global Mercy ™ will more than double the surgical care and medical training Mercy Ships can provide for people who live in low-income countries in Africa.

The Global Mercy ™  will be crewed by 600 international volunteers in medical, maritime and operational roles. The 174-metre, 37,000-tonne vessel has two hospital decks and includes six operating theatres, six wards, isolation, auxiliary services – and an ICU suite sponsored by private donations from New Zealand.

In addition to providing six surgical specialties onboard, the medical capacity build teams will serve alongside their local colleagues, multiplying the impact of mentoring programmes. To enhance this capability the Global Mercy ™ will be outfitted with state-of-the-art training spaces featuring a simulation lab with virtual and augmented reality, mannequins and other surgical training tools. Significantly, a simulated post-op care space will allow trainers to reproduce local operating conditions and limitations in order to teach best practices in low-resource environments.

maritime, medical and general volunteer roles with Mercy Ships


Healthcare engineers from New Zealand and around the world are applying now to volunteer aboard the Global Mercy ™  to spend from two weeks to a couple of months outfitting the ship’s hospital. Biomedical projects on location in port in Antwep* in 2021 include commissioning the range of patient-connected equipment used in a typical New Zealand hospital; high and low acuity wards, the ICU and ICU simulation/training suite, the laboratory, operating theatres, decontamination and sterilisation (CSSD/CPD), dental clinic, ophthalmic examination areas and more.

With the installation complete, commissioning and acceptance testing of the CT, digital X-ray, and ultrasound imaging systems will be undertaken. They will be tag-teamed by engineers specialising in respiratory maintenance engineering or with a solid general electronics background.

We know that’s a big ask especially in times like these, when uncertainties abound, health and economic challenges are constant and the thought of overseas travel seems impossible – but we know you! Your hearts are big so we know you’ll give it some thought.

The journey to serve with Mercy Ships takes time and serious consideration which is why, if you are interested in exploring what’s involved, you can find more information about volunteer opportunities on the Global Mercy ™

maritime, medical and general volunteer roles with Mercy Ships

*Updated location since the article was published in December, 2020

Published  with thanks to Institute of Healthcare Engineering magazine, posted October 2020

 NOTE: The Africa Mercy is preparing to return to Senegal in 2021 after the field service was paused in March, 2020 due to COVID-19. The vessel is currently undergoing maintaience and systems upgrades in the Canary Islands.

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Nursing children on the Africa Mercy is the highlight of Wellington nurse Robyn Ferguson’s volunteer experience

It was time for a new professional challenge and a different kind of experience. As Robyn Ferguson searched for a volunteer nursing opportunity to ‘give back’ using the skills gained over her extensive nursing career, she found Mercy Ships – the hospital ship charity providing surgical care in Africa for patients who would otherwise have little access to essential services.

The Wellingtonian was inspired by her three-month tour-of-duty in 2010; now she is a familiar face among the 450-strong international crew. The most recent field service in Senegal, West Africa – paused due to COVID-19 – was Robyn’s ninth time volunteering on board the Africa Mercy.

The hospital ship has five operating theatres, 80 ward beds, intensive care, and all the required auxiliary services to treat patients in the specialities provided; ophthalmic, maxillofacial, paediatric orthopaedic, women’s health, burns and plastic reconstruction, and paediatric general surgery. Other services include mental health, oral health, palliative care, and Ponseti treatment for babies born with clubfoot.

For ten months at a time, the self-contained floating hospital provides free care in low-income countries where healthcare resources are usually inaccessible and unaffordable. ‘The long queues of people at the Mercy Ships screenings show how desperate people are for treatment; many have walked for days to get there,’ explains Robyn.

One of the unique aspects of the Mercy Ships wards is the level of interaction between the patients; people who were strangers before admission.  Robyn clarifies, ‘Patients support each other and follow cues from others who have been in the ward longer. It is very community-based. In western countries, people want privacy from others and would not think of asking another patient what to do, or they would not want to be seen to interfere.

‘As patients don’t speak English we have ward translators, but they are not medically trained. I have be known to resort to making up my own sign language to show patients what needs to be done. When caring for obstetric fistula patients who needed perineal/catheter care, I had the habit of indicating time for this treatment by saying and acting ‘Wash.’ One day a patient asked for Mama WashWash, which apparently was me!’

The Mercy Ships hospital processes were familiar to Robyn from the beginning. ‘There are nurses from across the globe with different nursing backgrounds and styles, so on board care pathways guide our day-to-day care for different specialities, similar to pathways used at home. There are policies and procedures to follow such as hand hygiene, infection control, IV therapy, all in line with my nursing experience.’

‘The equipment is similar. I was surprised to see more BP machines on the ward of 20 patients than that on the ward of 30 that I had left in New Zealand.

Robyn mentors Elyse, a ward assistant from Madagascar

When asked about what was most surprising aspect of nursing on board, Robyn was quick to reply, ‘How easily the patients accept us. They come into an unfamiliar environment, not speaking or understanding the language, and not knowing what the outcome of their surgery will be. After seeing other patients’ reactions, they are encouraged. They relax and settle in, letting us hold their hands and accepting hugs. They sing and dance and laugh. One day I gave a hug to a lady who was crying. When she settled, the patient in the next bed put her arms out for a hug too. Then I had to give a hug to all the ladies in the ward. This became a part of my working day.’

Mentoring and teaching

With an emphasis on mentoring and teaching, Mercy Ships leans on the experience of professionals like Robyn to strengthen the healthcare capacity of the host nation. She explains, ‘If we were doing surgery without mentoring, teaching and training, then change won’t occur. We help nurses, doctors and technicians learn new skills. We provide protocols like the WHO Safe Surgery Checklist, the importance of hand hygiene and specific surgical techniques. Local colleagues teach this to others, improving on what they are already doing.’

While patients experience physical healing through the surgeries they receive, they often find much more. For many, access to surgery means finding hope again. Patients frequently report that the level of personal and unconditional care provided by the Mercy Ships nurses is a deeply meaningful boost to their holistic recovery. Mothers and fathers are able to return work and provide for their families. Children can go to school. Community relationships are restored.

‘I love Africa,’ Robyn declares, ‘… the people, community spirit, the sights and sounds, the chaos and the acceptance. I make friends in each of these countries, and they stay with me always.’

Global Mercy to be launched

As the global backlog of surgical care has escalated during COVID-19, there has never been a more urgent time for Mercy Ships to double its services for people who live in low-income countries in Africa. The deployment of a new Mercy Ship Global Mercy ™  next year will more than double the surgical care the not-for-profit can provide to people with little other access to the essential services they require.

The new Mercy Ship is close to completion and will be on the water in 2021. The Global Mercy ™  will have state-of-the-art technology and instrumentation, six operating theatres and 199 hospital beds.

Healthcare mentoring and developing capacity in host nations is a critical part of all Mercy Ships programmes and to facilitate this, Global Mercy ™  will have a training centre that includes a simulation lab, virtual reality stations, and the latest teaching equipment.

It is a very big ship and, for the volunteers, an experience potentially quite like no other. 600 crew members from across the globe will power the new ship, which has ample accommodation to make nurses, surgeons, maritime crew, cooks, teachers, electricians, technicians and all our other essential people feel at home.

Over the next 50 years, it is estimated that more than 150,000 people’s lives will be changed onboard the Global Mercy ™  through surgery alone, with countless more lives helped by the ship’s medical training and infrastructure programmes. In close collaboration with host nations in Africa, the Global Mercy ™ , together with the Africa Mercy, will more than double the charity’s work.

Published with permission of Kai Tiaki, NZNO, December 2020

Find out more  about volunteer opportunities for paediatric, theatre, wound care and other nurse specialists with Mercy Ships for 2021 and beyond.

Related Posts


Link to listen now.




Has volunteering with Mercy Ships been something you’ve been thinking and dreaming about? Do you want to hear more about what it’s like before you apply? Kiwis, here’s your chance to catch the inside scoop. You can watch the recent webinar discussion, and meet past and present volunteers in a range of roles including a Kiwi onboard right now!  You’ll get answers to some of those volunteering questions, and you can connect to our NZ volunteer coordinator to find out more.

View the webinar here 






Posted with permission from The Dissector, the official journal of the Perioperative Nurses College of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation, produced quarterly (March, June, September & December) by Advantage Publishing Limited.

Kiwi operating theatre nurses discuss their professional experiences onboard the Mercy Ship in Senegal, West Africa.

Read the article here Dissector, NZNO June 2020




Leaving a sustainable dental care footprint

– a unique perspective on providing sustainable dental care in Guinea, West Africa

                                                                                                                                      Published with thanks to NZ Dental Association news, Dec 2019 

Since 1978 the international hospital ship charity Mercy Ships has ‘hope and healing’ to the world’s forgotten poor by offering specialised surgeries, medical and dental training. Using the transportable platform of the 16,000 tonne Africa Mercy, the faith-based NGO spends 10 months at a time providing essential surgical and healthcare services to developing nations. The port city of Conakry was the hub of the NGO’s work for a fourth time, from August 2019 to June 2020.

“Mercy Ship runs on the goodwill of volunteers who give their time and skills to serve,” explains Dr Loo. “People from many nations, different cultures and languages all work together. It is a diverse community made up of incredible individuals. Many of these inspiring volunteers have dedicated years of their life away from home, foregoing a stable income and society’s mainstream definition of success.

“There were a number of factors that made practising dentistry vastly different than back home in New Zealand. The level of poverty, lack of education/awareness, lack of access to healthcare and medicine are a lot more significant in this part of the world. As a result we saw patients come in with enormous facial swellings that would have never been allowed to progress that far in New Zealand or another developed country.

“Due to the lack of access to antibiotics, dental abscess from an infected tooth could very well be a death sentence; a sad truth which is unheard of back home.

“Many of the patients with large untreated yet benign facial tumours had conditions which to developed large size, causing stigmatisation among their own community. They were inflicted with shame and some were outcast as a result.  These patients received free surgery on board the ship.

“Guinea is predominantly Muslim, with French widely spoken alongside a myriad of local languages. So during my days working at the dental clinic I would greet patients coming in or treatment in their local language of Fula, Onjarama (how are you?). I’ll never forget the delight on their faces when they heard the greeting in their own language.”

During the tour of duty in Guinea, parallel to patient care the Mercy Ships dental programme focused on empowering and enabling the local dental colleagues, a key way forward for the nation’s dental care system.

A CASE STUDY IN DENTAL SUSTAINABILITY – Dental Partner Unit Mentoring Programme

In addition to the Mercy Ships dental clinic which typically sees around 50 patients a day, a large dental project took place in partnership with Gamal Abdel Nasser University of Conakry.

Mentoring was provided over 10 months for thirteen dentists, dental school staff and a total of seventy-one dental students (45 men and 26 women).  The project included extensive renovations of the entire first floor of the dental school and the donation of the necessary dental equipment for the school to fully integrate clinical training into their curriculum for students.  The renovations and equipping allow the school to have an 8-chair student dental clinic, a 3-chair faculty dental clinic, a dental simulation lab, administrative offices for the dental school, and a dental laboratory.  To ensure that the equipment receives proper maintenance and repairs, our Biomedical Facilitator conducted an eight-day training course specifically for the donated equipment.

The medical capacity building courses sought to improve the sterile processing practices used by technicians in Guinea’s hospitals and clinics.  Twenty-two participants attended the Sterile Processing Course in Conakry.  Following the course, fifteen were selected for additional training-of-trainers in order to be better equipped to train others.

A nutritional agriculture course was conducted with 32 participants (26 men and 6 women) from five non-government organizations from seven regions of Guinea, who received train-the-trainer instruction in nutritionally based, biologically and ecologically sustainable agriculture.  The course included both classroom and hands-on instruction; training in food transformation and measures to respond effectively to climate change impacts on agricultural practice and output. After the 22 weeks of training, the new trainers returned home to set up their own agriculture training project.

The impact made in Guinea during that 10-month period included the training of 1,099 local participants in healthcare courses, the provision of more than 41,000 free dental procedures,  and 2,442 free essential surgeries in orthopaedic, maxilla-facial, burns and plastics, obstetric fistula, paediatric general and ophthalmic specialities.

Dr Loo’s most meaningful Mercy Ships experiences included some non-dental interactions outside the clinic. “During the weekends I had the opportunity to help at an orphanage; Hope Village. We spent the day making crafts, singing, dancing and sharing a meal with the children. I had opportunity to learn from the lady in charge of the orphanage who shared her experiences going through the recent Ebola crisis. It was heartbreaking to hear her account of the tragedy, and the loss of so many people. Their joy was inspiring despite the little they had and all they had endured in recent years. I was deeply impacted by her strength in overwhelming circumstances and her transparency in sharing her journey.’

Published with thanks to NZ Dental Association news, Dec 2019 

maritime, medical and general volunteer roles with Mercy Ships


A passion for ships and a love for a good cause pointed former Commander Larry Robbins towards Mercy Ships, a charity dedicated to medical treatment in the world’s poorest countries. He talks to Navy Today about his work.

The Africa Mercy is the world's largest civilian hospital ship, and the maritime crew play a vital role in the delivery of healthcare services to Africa's poor
Larry Robbins served as navigation officer for the voyage from Tenerife to Brazziville, Republic of Congo

Published with thanks to Navy Today

In 2009, when Larry Robbins was asked if he’d like to be on the board of Mercy Ships NZ, he didn’t have to think about it for long.

The retired naval officer and former Commanding Officer of HMNZS MONOWAI had been a long-time “modest” supporter of Mercy Ships, both during his 26-year naval career and after, as Chief Executive Officer of the New Zealand Maritime Museum.

Mercy Ships is a 40-year-old international charity that deploys hospital ships to countries where medical treatment is scarce. They deliver free healthcare services – including surgical treatment.

In 2005 Mr Robbins met Lord Ian McColl, a Vice-Chairman with Mercy Ships International, at the museum. His lordship, also a surgeon volunteer on hospital ships at the time, made a strong impression on him. Later, after retiring from the museum, Mr Robbins was invited to a MSNZ  function and met the Director of Mercy Ships New Zealand. They realised they had met before, in 1997 when MONOWAI was about to be decommissioned and Mercy Ships were eyeing up whether to bid to take her over. A short while after the function he was approached to join the board.


Each Mercy Ships volunteer crew member has a passion to serve the poor and uses their skills to help the hospital ship achieve that end
Larry Robbins greets Ebenezer, a maxillofacial patient

“I didn’t have to think about it very much,” says Mr Robbins. “My wife and I had been supporters, and I had met Lord McColl. He was such a lovely man. I

thought, if he’s the mark of the organisation, it’s worth belonging to.”

But three years in, he realised he was the only board member who hadn’t done a crew stint on MV Africa Mercy, the largest and newest ship in the Mercy Ships fleet, and the largest non-governmental floating hospital in the world. The ship spends 10 months a year in Africa, performing up to 2,000 surgeries. It is currently in Guinea; next year it will be in Senegal.

Mr Robbins had a Second Mate’s qualification, albeit 40 years out of date, courtesy of his time in the British Merchant Navy in the seventies. Fed up with unions, he had emigrated to New Zealand in 1974 to join the Royal New Zealand Navy, full of “the optimism of youth”, he says. “So I spoke to Maritime New Zealand and did some courses to get my second mate’s ticket revalidated.”

He ended up doing five tours of duty in Africa Mercy, with tours lasting for up to three months. In total, he’s done 13 months at sea over five years. He’s been Third Officer, Second Officer and – for five glorious weeks in the Canary Islands – second officer, acting Chief Officer, and acting Master. “It was great fun being a second officer, and using my navigation skills. It was a lot more fun than being in command would have been, to be honest.”


Mercy Ships operates the world's largest civilian hospital shipOfficers have single cabins or family quarters on board, and there’s even a fully accredited school for children. But Mr Robbins’ wife says: “Ships are your thing.”

It meant Mr Robbins got to see, first hand, how Mercy Ships changed lives in Africa.

“It’s amazing seeing the work they do,” he says. “With Africa Mercy, the hospital and ship are very much intertwined. So as a deck officer, you walk through the hospital on rounds, you see the patients, and you see the horrendous conditions they come from.”

In the Congo, he remembers a woman called Grace, who had a massive facial tumour. “We were in the Congo for four months, and she was our first patient on board. She was reasonably philosophical about her tumour, but came to have it treated. She had an operation, and they rebuilt her jaw. She just blossomed afterwards. It was just wonderful to see.

“It’s the difference they make in the lives of people, who have very little in the way of health care. There’s a flow-on effect to families. For instance, if a child can’t walk, the parents put a lot of time and effort into looking after that child. They can’t go out and earn a living. One family we met, the father had cataracts, and the child couldn’t go school because he had to look after his father. His father got his sight back, and the kid could go to school.”

Mr Robbins observes that in New Zealand hospitals, nursing staff come and go. “On Africa Mercy, nurses have got the time to get to know the patients, because the nurses are living on the ship. Everybody on the ship can adopt a patient. I would talk to them as I was doing my rounds.”

On one trip there were 34 nationalities among the crew, with 12 New Zealanders on board. “There’s a tremendous sense of community and equality. The captain and officers mix and mingle with everybody, and it’s communal dining.”

The hardest volunteers to recruit are those in the technical trades, he says. “And officers need to have a merchant qualification.”

Mr Robbins has just retired as board chair of Mercy Ships NZ, a role he had for three years. His Second Mate’s ticket expired last year, and he doesn’t intend to renew. But his involvement with the charity continues, with speaking tours. He’s qualified as a ship’s security officer and hopes to return to Africa Mercy in that capacity. “I just like ships,” he says.


As of last month, Mercy Ships has provided 100,000 free surgical procedures in 40 years of service. These include cleft lip and palate repairs, cataract removal, orthopaedic procedures, facial reconstruction and obstetric fistula repairs.

Each year, around 1,000 people from up to 40 nations, including New Zealand, volunteer their skills and expertise with Mercy Ships. Professionals like officers, seamen, engineers, surgeons, dentists, nurses, healthcare trainers, cooks, and teachers donate their time and skills to the effort.

Mercy Ships are always in need of maritime crew. Opportunities are both short term (a couple of months) through to long term for the senior and management roles.


Maritime and naval-trained volunteers help mercy Ships provide free essential surgery for Africa's poor



‘It has hands down been the best thing I have ever done,’ Lauren concludes as she reflects on her three months onboard the world’s largest civilian hospital ship, Africa Mercy, currently docked in Senegal, West Africa. The Morrinsville the occupational therapist’s professional skills were stretched to the limit as she worked in the Mercy Ships rehabilitation team.

Fellow Kiwi nurse Bec with Mohammed and Lauren

Published by OT Insight magazine, April 2020

‘I went to the Mercy Ship to assist with hand therapy, but I have left with so much more than I could ever imagine,’ Lauren enthusiastically explains. ‘I was challenged professionally with conditions I had never seen. My entire caseload consisted of children, which was incredible, but also extremely difficult as I don’t generally work with children at home.’

Lauren’s years of work at Thames and Waikato hospitals in the hand therapy, and burns and scar management department prepared her for the extreme cases she would encounter in West Africa. Her skill set is vital to the successful outcome for the hospital ship’s patients who undergo operations onboard after their third-degree burns were untreated. In the developing nations Mercy Ships serves, there is little access to medical services; when accidents happen people often suffer life-long consequences. If a severe burn heals without medical care, scar tissue will form and immobilise the joint, permanently disabling the sufferer.

Free surgery to release the scars provides half the answer. Lauren and the rehabilitation team then work with the patients post-surgery to help them regain basic function; to walk normally, to hold a spoon, and even lift their arms above their heads – often for the first time in many years. Only then is complete healing within reach.

Lauren explains the life-long impact of the injuries and scaring for her plastic surgery patients. ‘Most of our patients had burn contractures to their hands, elbows or arm pits from a very young age, as young as two days old. They have had contracting scars for 3-20 years and had adapted to this way of life. They altered their motor patterns so they could function in everyday life.’

Lauren made enduring friendships during her volunteer service on the hospital ship

The 24-year-old was so impacted by her tour-of-duty that she has signed up to return in February for another four-month volunteer service. Lauren feels she grew personally as well as professionally as part of the international crew, ‘I was able to build relationships with patients, crew members and day crew that are so rich. I made new friends, was immersed in African culture, and learned a new language (very little, but enough to get by and have my patients excited that I would try). I was challenged spiritually in my beliefs, my reason. I was shown that love and people are more important than anything else. I went to Senegal for work, but I left with a richness to life that I will cherish forever.’

Mercy Ships spends 10 months each year in a West African nation providing free essential surgery for people living in in extreme hardship, and is crewed by medical, maritime and general volunteers from around the world.

‘Mohammed loves a hand hold and his favourite English word is Loz. He hates smiling at the camera. He loves his exercises the most of all of my patients, and will me and join everyone else’s treatment sessions as well as his own. He reminds his mum when it’s exercise time.

Video: Watch Gamai’s story