This post by Matthew Little was originally published at Diary of a Deckie: My experience volunteering on a hospital ship.
A Different kind of ship-life, reflection and two decades of life.
Hello. It’s me, Matthew Little. The author of this blog I just want to start by recognising that yes, I haven’t updated this blog in a few months. My reasons are that I just didn’t know what to write. I had honestly felt like that I had written everything that I possibly could have about life on the M/V Africa Mercy (This is the name of the vessel I have been serving as a deck hand for about a year and a half . There is a United States Navy Ship Mercy, which is also a hospital ship, and has been in the news recently for an unfortunate reason but we are two completely different vessels. I just felt I should clear this up.)
Without repeating myself by recalling doing the same tasks over and over again, but in a slightly different part of the ship, in a slightly different circumstance, neither, did I want to flood the blog with other information about what I did in my free time. Whilst I have heard that some of my readers like that, and it allows them to have a virtual way into Senegal and West Africa, but I also didn’t do too much exploring, asides from the occasional night out with friends getting food or something. There just wasn’t much that I thought was interesting. But now times have changed. I think we all know that.
Be warned, this may also be a long one. Stick around, if I ever publish my blog posts as volumes, this post may just be it’s own book. And if it is adapted into a film, Peter Jackson managed to adapt one book into a trilogy of movies, so why not this one. Just add characters who don’t even appear in the book, it’s fine.
For those curious about what has happened in Senegal, please read this official statement issued by Mercy Ships:
And now, we are no longer in Senegal, and we have sailed to Tenerife, where I write now. Over a course of a few weeks, I will add. I can’t sit down to write one post in one day. When we received this news on board, that was when I realised the world had just been turned upside down. And everything on the ship changed. Well, not literally, but for a few days after this…. It was hard to process the news, but on the ship, I noticed a very stark change of atmosphere.
Already, the world seems a bit less bright. – Joshamee Gibbs, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
It was really strange, that us on board, looking in, reading the news from back home about how COVID-19 is spreading rapidly around our home countries. We were worried for Family and friends back home. I had decided that I would give up Facebook and Instagram for lent, but then, not knowing exactly who to talk to, not knowing exactly what to ask, who to ask if they were ok, I just wanted to read a message saying a “Yeah, I’m ok”, I just decided to break my social media fast, just to see updates, to see that they were doing ok. Starting these conversations scared me. But social media updates were just a huge a relief. I didn’t like deciding to break that fast, but it was worth it, to see that people were ok.
It was also very strange, to read updates and statistics, to think that being so far away from home, where there were no cases in Senegal or Africa yet, and to think, we were safe where we were. But then that all changed, hearing about the first confirmed case of Senegal, reading that the World Health Organisation declaring Covid-19 as a Pandemic, and suddenly, shore leave has been stopped, and we will prepare to sail away to safety as soon as possible. But where was safety? Covid-19 was everywhere. It was the most unexpected thing in the world, and it was scary. For all we knew, we could be sailing out of Senegal, with no clear destination, stuck, out at sea for who knows how long. Out of all of the fictional universes that I know, The Last Ship was not the one I wanted to live out. Bearing in mind, the only episodes of The Last Ship I have watched are the last three episodes of the final season, so apart from that a Navy Vessel goes on a research mission in the Arctic, only to return to a world where a pandemic is running rampant, I mostly have no idea what it is about, only how it ends.
Books I have read, and how they strangely apply to my life now.
On the ship, I joined a book club, headed by a chaplain with such members as the Captain, an IT Specialist, an Academy student, a Hospital Supply Assistant, a Medical Capacity Building team member, and a few from Human Resources. We have read two books so far. Looking back, I didn’t think that I could have possibly put myself in the shoes of the two main characters of the books we read. Until now. Well, one of them was a biography, but still. This book was The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel. This book tells the story of the so-called last true hermit in North America amongst other names such as North Pond Hermit. This guy lived as a hermit in Maine for nearly 30 years. Reading and discussing the story of this guy, trying to make sense of a guy who decided that in his prime, finished school a few years prior, supposedly had a few good friends, and a good family, just decided to run away from home and live in a well hidden campsite close to a few holiday cabin, for no reason. It was a good book, and I would recommend it. Whilst reading, I did think “What if I did that?” and I will admit that growing up, I did think about “What if i just ran away and ceased communication and contact with humanity one day” I could do that, I could survive (probably, I’ve read The Hunger Games) I could identify with the hermit, I’m an introvert, face to face conversation sometimes overwhelms me. But he also taught me that even when we don’t want to talk to people and we just want to run away, we still crave some form of connection with people, even if it is by listening to music, podcasts, or by watching people on YouTube whether they are vloggers or a gaming channel, just sharing their passion with the world. I would never actually run away. But when you are quarantined to a ship with many other people for an unpredictable period of time, it is near impossible to be a hermit, and alone time is a rare moment, and perhaps a gift. I have found the only time at the few moments of solitude you can get on the ship at the moment are in your cabin. There is a lot cabin movement, just to push for seperation, to prevent the potential spread of Covid-19, or just illness in general. Also being a Deck Hand, doing Night Patrol, is also one of these rare moments of solitude.
The other book, however, is one that right now, I want to be in that world. The book is Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. It’s about this man, Jason, A physics professor at a university, who is one day abducted, and wakes up in another universe. It’s a book about travel in the multiverse, and how with every decision you make, an infinite number of parallel universes are created. There is no wrong or right decision, but there are a never ending number of outcomes. It was a crazy book, but these days, I wish I could be in that world, where you can essentially become a god, creating a new world with thoughts and emotion, just to escape this world we live in, with a pandemic. It’s an incredible power. How insane must it be, to explore different outcomes, and to live in a world where you can go to a world where you can live in a world as if you corrected your own mistakes, or just imagine a new paradise, and to not look back.
Looking back on working in the Deck Department, and the opportunities i had.
After pack up was completed, the cables were stored and the anchors on board, we were ready to begin our earlier than expected journey to wherever next. And boy, was I given new opportunities and responsibilities than I never expected to get – ever, let alone not long before my 20th birthday. I was given the responsibility of steering the ship during a man overboard drill, where we had to do a fancy manoeuvre, which was pretty much a 180 degree turn. Although, it wasn’t a straight up turn around, we had to go a certain degree off course, then sort of back again by about half. All so that if there ever was a man overboard, we don’t hit the man overboard, or they got chopped up into little bits, and also to give the rescue boats space to rescue the victim. If you ever find yourself being asked to take the helm of a ship during a man overboard rescue, I’ll tell you this: Don’t get your hopes up for excitement at the wheel, it’s pretty uneventful.
The expectation: Many wheel turns in quick succession and a bunch of momentum and fluidity.
Reality: “Starboard a certain amount of degrees” says the Captain, calmly. The helmsman dutifully repeats the command just given, conveying calm and confidence, as a show of understanding, then begins to carry out the order. When the order is carried out, the helmsman yells “Starboard a certain amount of degrees, sir.” With the same degree of calmness. The Captain then acknowledges the completed order, and the helmsman stands-by for the next, calm collected command.
No matter, to be given that amount of responsibility was an incredible honour, and I am very glad to have been able to do that. During my time with Mercy Ships thus far, I have had the opportunity to do many cool and different tasks working in the Deck department. To look back on my time, months after finishing school, doing things such as operating a crane, operating a forklift, being a team member on mooring operations, to get the ship tied up and freed (I Guess? How else do I call unmooring operation? de-mooring? un-porting?), hauling heavy mooring lines and operating capstan winches to make sure the lines tight and loose, Night Patrol duties (Even though they are very boring, mostly uneventful, and long) keeping lookout for the safety of the crew and the patients we care for, when they all rest. (But a benefit is that it is one of the only times on board where you get to be alone), assisting with container operations, and as I have already mentioned, steering the ship. If you look at Mercy Ships and wonder “How does this help to bring hope and healing and life-saving surgeries?” I sometimes ask myself the same question, but watch your favourite film, watch the credits, MARVEL has been rewarding audiences for patience since time began. You find that a film is more than just the actors/actresses, directors, producers and writers. A whole, sometimes global team work to bring entertainment together. It’s the same way with Mercy Ships. We need staff to cook and serve the food for the crew and patients, to give them sustenance, strength and to keep us healthy, housekeepers to keep the ship clean, and the crew healthy. The plumbers to work on the vacuum system and make sure the toilets are working. Engineers and electricians to keep the lights on and power running. Information Services to give us internet. The team in the only Starbucks in Africa to give us our caffeine and waffles. Transportation and maintenance to keep the vehicles and off-ship facilities running. The deck department to make sure that the ship is strong enough and in the right conditions, to keep the ship sailing, and to continue bringing hope and healing. I am sure I have already written about how the jobs we do on deck help, such as emptying the containers of the medical instruments and equipment, moving into another container, lifting that container on board, emptying the container, for medical supply to provide for the operating rooms. It may not be on the front line, but the fact that I can say that I have supported bringing hope and healing with the work I do on board, all before I was twenty years old, is a very cool thing.
What has happened? Why is the world so new?
Right now, the ship is docked in Tenerife. In quarantine. For about two weeks. But when that two weeks is over, we still have to follow the Spanish regime of lockdown. So we don’t actually know the next time when we are free to leave the ship and explore. It is a stark contrast to ship life a little over a month ago. It already feels like months ago when shore leave was restricted, and the priorities of the ship changed. It all happened so fast. over a weekend. Going from “We are going to continue bringing hope and healing in Senegal until we are due to leave” to “We are going to get ready to leave as soon as possible” in under two days was a surreal thing. I maybe repeating myself, but for a few days after we received this news, I sensed a very different vibe on the ship. It was a vibe of sadness and confusion. The next few weeks were like looking through a dirty window, and no-one knew what was going on anymore. Then began a slow, mass exodus of crew, desperate to get on the last flights home before borders closed and charter flights became available. They were bittersweet farewells. On one hand, they may have been final goodbyes, depending on plans, then might have been the last time we would see them again, with repeat offenders or just good friends saying goodbye unexpectedly. I can personally put faces and names to some of these people. I am due to leave to ship (Hopefully, in August), saying goodbye to crew who I know would be returning to the ship once this whole COVID thing blows over, I may never see them again if they return unexpectedly later than I leave. But on the other hand, they left to go back home to help in the fight COVID in their own countries, using their skills and gifts when they can’t use them now. Or they left because they recognised that we needed a certain number of crew onboard to sail, and they wanted to reduce numbers. They made sacrifices, and we are truly thankful for the sacrifice and hard decisions they made to return back home. whilst this was going on, It was just a fast push to get the ship ready to sail, breaking the dock down, bringing everything on deck, tying it all down, cleaning and securing. I don’t remember leaving Guinea in the same way last year. Leaving Senegal just felt like a huge rush, we were evacuating, leaving for uncertain safety. Whereas when we left Guinea, we knew we were leaving, and we knew where we were going. And we had done all we had done, in Guinea, we had finished. But we left Senegal with unfinished business. We also couldn’t say goodbye to our deck day crew. Only about 50 essential day crew were allowed to live in our tents on the dock, the ward day crew, housekeeping, the engine control watch keepers assistant and galley staff. We didn’t want to break our quarantine bubble. But, the men who I had spent about 8 months working alongside, whilst teaching each other about our respective cultures, growing in friendship and respect, working together, even with big cultural and personal differences. I am truly glad to have worked with them. And also sad that there wasn’t any closure. We celebrated with the day crew from Guinea, having food together. We couldn’t do that this time. I wish we could have. I may not see them again. Going from working in safety and out of reach from the disease to “We are unable to continue, we don’t feel safe here anymore” was a strange thing, all around.
Things haven’t been so bad, though. Reasons to celebrate. Living in a rare thing today.
The next birthday celebrated was Kate’s. Kate wanted to go snorkelling, but as plans had shifted, we improvised. By transforming the Queen’s Lounge into the ‘ultimate underwater experience’. complete with Gabriel, a fish caught earlier in the day (R.I.P Gabriel). My contribution to the whole thing was being asked to watch and guard the snacks and juice for the punch. Until Anna and Rachel forgot about the task they gave me for over an hour. But hey, none of it was stolen, so I think I did a good job. It was a very cool sight. The room had a blue tint, there were paper jelly fish, streamers, fish, and to top it off, there was a marine life themed MEME WALL! We said Happy Birthday like we were whales, and I have never seen someone walk into a birthday party for themselves get so excited wearing flippers and a snorkel mask, and it is that much joy radiating from one person that makes life worth living. And lock down not so bad. We also managed to get in touch with some previous members of the Adventure Crew (Although, once part of the Adventure Crew, always part of the Adventure Crew. Unless you accidentally make someone leave voluntarily). We spoke to Simon (EAGLES, WOW) and Meg (his girlfriend, who I haven’t met in person), In New Zealand, and Philip, who now works at the Mercy Ships headquarters. (At least, we tried, with the Internet being SO BAD at the moment, because no one can leave) It was very nice to catch up with ‘The outside’.
And then there was a break for a few weeks without Adventure Crew birthdays, but in between, there were other activities on board for the rest of the crew to get involved in and enjoy together. (which is a rare thing these days, and it is a privilege to be one of the only people in the world right now, who can celebrate Easter and birthdays, or just being together) These have included, pub quizzes, (I joined a team with my parents and Stuart and Frances, the parents of a British family here onboard. We won the last quiz. I am convinced that me knowing thee difference between the Rolex and Hallmark crown) Mandalorian marathons (This is the Way.), A few Deck-department lead Irish/ sea-shanty evenings. My father on acoustic guitar, Riku playing the violin, Adam (Deck Cadet, Hungary) on guitar, and me playing (or at least, trying to play) the ukulele, Kim on the Cajon, Cherif (Guinea) on the keyboard, and Femi. Oh yeah, Femi came back with his wife Jennifer, and their daughter, Meghan, just after Christmas! I was super excited for them to return to the ship. As I type this now, a ping pong tournament is going on. There was a bake-off, Prince of Egypt, amongst other activities.
And then there were two Adventure Crew birthdays within one week. The first was my own. Yeah, I didn’t think I would be spending my 20th under quarantine, but these things happen. But I had people to celebrate my birthday with, which was just nice. What was even better, is that because I was on Night Patrol the week before, I had my birthday (on a Monday) off! But the celebrations really happened the day before. And how did my amazing ship friends surprise me? With escapism; from reality, and the Death Star. They made a Star Wars themed escape room, and transformed the Queen’s Lounge pantry into a Death Star data centre. My team of Rebels (Kate, Kees-Ake from the Netherlands. He also returned to the ship, Rachel, Luke and Patrick) were stuck on the Death Star, during the finale of A New Hope, and the Rebel Starfighter pilots were beginning the attack. We had to translate Aurebesh like all nerds do, do maths Ugh. Maths, answer Star Wars trivia, identify a character who said ‘I have a bad feeling about this.’ All to discover the find the location of Rebel Allies, before the Death Star explodes. We were told that the Death Star blew up 5 minutes before we escaped, but whatever, we said we won. Also, Josh, fellow Star Wars nerd, created back story for my character: a force-sensitive Ewok, trained in the Dark Side of the Force as a Sith. My Sith ability: The ability to discern the ways of the Universe, but at the cost of taking a life. Putting it simply, I could kill a team mate for a clue. It was a hard decision, but for time, I had to kill two teammates. (Rest in Peace, Luke and Patrick) but that wasn’t all. Rachel and Anna baked a BB-8 cake for me haha, BB-Cake got BB-8, and we spent the evening after the Sunday service in friendship, all because I was alive, and almost lived for 2 decades. And the gifts I was blessed with…. An african Fabric Hat, an African model of some description, a novel about being an IT Leader and a fake Handle Bar Mustache. The Hat and Mustache I gladly wore for my actual birthday. At least, when the tape actually did it’s job and actually stuck. My actual birthday was fairly chilled out. I was called out by John, our Operations Director during the Monday morning briefing. I wasn’t very camouflaged. But, what was the first thing I saw when I walked out the cabin door? A MEME WALL! There was the Queen, Star Wars, British memes, inside jokes, MARVEL and references to birthdays during the time of COVID-19. If the Great Wall of China was built to keep the Mongols out of China, then a Great Birthday Meme Wall of Deck 3 can keep out COVID19 and quarantine depression. In the evening, my Parents and I watched Master and Commander: Far side of the World for the first time. It’s a good film, I would recommend, and gave me presents. A Mercy Ships t-shirt, A book on the history and Archaeology of Petra, the once capital of the Nabateans, the city carved into a rock, and the location for the hiding place of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones, Toffifee and the most important and crucial item to have today…. a bottle of hand sanitizer. The Adventure Crew also made a card, with I guess… their favourite photos of me. I don’t take many photos of myself, or have many photos taken. Or take many photos generally. Anyway, It was a great few days, I felt so appreciated and loved, and I couldn’t have asked for better friends to celebrate my life with under quarantine. To Laurianna, Luke, Kees, Patrick, Kate, Anna, Rachel, Josh, Moise, and anyone else who contributed, or were just there, I love you all so much, thank you for what you did for me that day. or days. Also, to my parents, who brought me into the world, and with whom I was around to celebrate with, thank you. Who knows if this will be the last of my birthdays we will celebrate together, but I am glad you are here, with me, on this ship.
OK, Self-indulgence over.
The last birthday we celebrated, in the form of a Garden Party Brunch on Deck 7, was for Laurianna. Because, if we can transform a room into an underwater scene or a room on the Death Star, then Deck 7 can definitely be turned into a garden. And so we did. Kinda. But what other garden has a sea and mountain view. Yeah. Not many, so it is instantly better than yours. My role – enforcing the ‘Wear nice clothes and be ready on time’ directive. At least, it was my primary role in the whole thing, but I did have others. But it was a nice morning, we had Galettes buckwheat pancakes. This was my first galette experience, and, they are, surprisingly, quite nice. At least the galettes that Kate prepared. So the bar is already quite high. Good job, Kate! Anywho, it was another time to gather with some pretty cool people, and celebrate the life of a friend. And another MEME WALL. was erected in the honour of Laurianna. Because MEME WALLS are the next best thing. Thank you for the friendship, Laurianna! Then later that day, I found an error in the book about Petra, which labelled one monument as another. I know, the horror!
And, of course, it’s spring, so Easter happened. Last year, I didn’t enjoy Easter on the ship. It was an extravaganza, and this Easter was no different. I think the main reason why I didn’t enjoy Easter last year, was because the concept of celebrating the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ in community was so new to me, and I couldn’t handle being around the number of crew on board. Christmas has always been a time where people get together to celebrate the Birth of Christ, but not Easter. But this Easter has been different, and I think that after last year, I knew what would be going on, so I could mentally prepare myself for the season. It was both that, and I had become used to the number of crew onboard, Because nobody has been allowed to go off-ship. Last Easter, everyone just seemed to suddenly be onboard, but we had gone for nearly a month where everyone was here. During a Sunday worship service recently, we were reminded, that this year, because with so many countries going into lockdown, and everyone staying inside, not being allowed to make large gatherings, and with us onboard, who have to remain onboard, in community, we would be some of the only people in the world, who could celebrate Easter, with other people. And how privileged we are to be able to do so. My question “Why, out of the billions Christians on the planet, have been given the honour to celebrate with people?” So I was ready to celebrate, to make the most of what others could not do. Out of all the Easters and Birthdays I have celebrated up to now, this year will probably always stand out to me, not only because they were both during the time of a pandemic and I was under quarantine, but also because I was onboard a ship, with a celebrating alongside a crew of 200-odd, and we could celebrate together.
And now, my plans, during a time where nothing is certain to happen anymore. I have always been fascinated by history and artefacts from history, and I have the opportunity to study such things, and I have realised that, through working in the deck department, from the stories told by our officers and cadets, a life at sea, is not one for me. So, I have plans to return back to the UK later this year (hopefully) and start a four-year course studying History and Archaeology. I believed coming to Mercy Ships this past year-and-a-half was my calling, but it has only been my calling for the past year-and-a-half, and a few more months. It’s roughly 3 months off two years. I am certainly happy with what I have done during my time, and I have done things I never would have expected to be doing, during my late-teens. I have met people, and become friends some of the most extraordinary people I have ever, or will ever met, that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t come. Those people are both the crew on board, and also the African day crew. So I wasn’t ready to face University a year and a half ago. But after spending a year and a half, helping to bring hope and healing in a completely different continent. So, to my parents. Thank you for inviting me along for the ride. Another thing you should know about me, is that I could not reflect on myself to save my life, and I could not pick out a personal development that has stood out to me.
So, that’s probably about it for now. At least, all that I am allowed to share, and all that has happened in my life for the month or so. Sorry that this has basically become a book in itself, but I truly appreciate you for sticking through it.
Now, enjoy some photos, just so that this book has something for the eyes.
|The very wet (and somewhat salty) forward mooring deck,
from the port side bridge wing. I hadn’t seen the spray get as high as the bridge before
|This is me in the chainlocker|
|BB-Cake got BB-8 (Thank you, Rachel and Anna.)
And that is punch, not blood..
|Sailing away from Dakar, from the Aft mooring deck|
|The horizon….. somewhere in the Atlantic|
|Happy birthday to me, I guess.|
|Aft mooring deck, leaving Dakar|
|A view of the Atlantic from Starboard side, in Tenerife|
|Artsy photo number one|
|Arriving in Tenerife (photo credits: my mother)|
|Artsy photo number two|
|Artsy photo number three|
|A sunset in Tenerife|
|The first thing I saw leaving the cabin on my birthday.
And yes, that is Nigel Farage
|(From January) Surviving twin cannons from the French Danton-class semi-dreadnought battleship Verginuad, on Goree Island. I was looking forward to seeing these in person.|