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  • Jordan Avery

Preparing for a New Adventure: Sailing from Gran Canaria to Tenerife

The Africa Mercy is not a vessel that gets the opportunity to sail frequently. It seems strange that the ship only sails around twice a year but there are many reasons and benefits. If you get to be onboard during one of those rare occasions it almost feels like a privilege. At least that is the way I felt this past week when I had the chance to be onboard while we sailed from the shipyard on Gran Canaria to the port on Tenerife.

The AFM, or the Africa Mercy Ship, sails to shipyard and then to field service. That's it. That's all. There are rare occasions like 2020 and 2021 where she gets to sail one or two more times but this doesn't happen often. On average for the last 5 or so years the ship sails twice a year. The rest of that time she sits in port and the engines stay off.

The goal of the AFM is to bring surgical care to the worlds forgotten and that can't happen if we spend most of our time in the middle of the ocean like many other vessels. The only way to make sure that we can give the care that these people deserve is if we stay in port for long periods of time. Each field service location is set up for the AFM to stay for approximately 10 months in order to give the aid we planned. Then it spends two months in dry dock for mandatory cleaning and repairs and then its back to the field service again.

The last two years have been the exception though. With COVID running rampant in Senegal the ship pulled its care to retreat to safer ground in the Canary Islands. The hospital didn't leave those who were scheduled for surgery aboard the AFM high and dry though. To this day the hospital staff are still in contact with 90% of those who were meant to receive life-changing surgery during the previous field service. The hospital director, Keren, did say that about 10% have lost touch since then. The hospital crew attempt to reach out to these people every week but it is likely that some have now passed on; whether it be from their condition or COVID, we don't know. I know the crew hope that they just have lost contact or received their treatment elsewhere and no longer need our help. That is the ideal situation but in reality the reason why we've lost touch could be any of those mentioned. The truth is that we just don't know. We all pray that they are taken care of and continue to reach out to them but they are in God's hands now. The Senegalese are very religious and family-oriented people, so, I personally have no doubt that they are at peace with where ever life has brought them.

No matter the cost, the Oak Foundation, the hospital on board the AFM, strives to use the vessel in a way that benefits the poor and forgotten. The ship was purchased, taken from a scrap yard, and remolded to fit this mission. And now, 14 years after the original refit, the ship is being remolded again to make sure it can survive another 15 years of sailing periodically to bring hope and healing to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Packed Up OR in the Oak Foundation Hospital

On a logistical side it is nice that the vessel doesn't sail that often because the amount of prep that goes into each sail is immense. In many ways, the ships interior wasn't meant to sail often. Yes, the tables in the café and dining room are bolted to the floor, but there are so many other things that have to be strapped down or secured in another way to make sure broken things are avoided. The biggest thing to do is the hospital. Down on deck 3, the hospital deck, is where the most preparation takes place for major sails. As you can imagine, that it is where majority of the valuable items are on board. The entire thing gets packed up when we leave field service to make sure everything is safe and sound.

As you can imagine, it takes a lot of time and effort to pack up the entire hospital every time the ship sails. Hours on end are spent at the end of field service packing up as the crew say good-bye to the people and the culture they were just immersed in. It is not meant to be a frequent task. To put it into perspective, imagine packing up your entire home, and then packing up the rest of the homes on your block. That's a lot of work right? That's what it's like after a field service before sailing. This past week it was much nicer in preparing for the sail since most of the work was already done. Like I said earlier, this year is an exception because of COVID.

Now that the ship is done in shipyard we would normally head straight to the next service location. But this year we aren't able to go to Senegal, the next service location, right away. COVID is still keeping the ship away but only for a few more months. Instead of sailing to Dakar we've instead sailed to Granadilla, Tenerife. It's a neighboring island to the one where the shipyard was so it only took us three hours to sail here. Now we are sitting in port at the Puerto Industrial de Granadilla until 31 January 2022. That is the tentative date we will be able to sail back to Dakar to finish the work we started nearly two years ago.

Logistics aside, the actual sailing bit is quite interesting. Depending on the individual, it can be either a great experience or it can be absolutely horrendous. Even on a short, smooth sail like the one from Las Palmas to Granadilla the crew was split between those who were having a blast up on decks 7 and 8 watching the old island fade and the new come into view, and those who were green in the face. Walking about the ship there were loads of people who looked like they were about to pass out. Before the sail the crew clinic handed out sea-sickness meds to prevent it from happening so it could have been a lot worse for some people.

Personally, I was one of those who had a blast. I thought it was absolutely hilarious that, while on the ocean, I couldn't walk in a straight line. The ship was constantly rolling from one side to the other. So naturally, I was walking in a zig-zag, like everyone else, as the ship rocked from one side to the other. There were times where the ship reached 4 degrees of a tilt. Doesn't seem like a lot but it certainly is enough to toss you to the side if you're not prepared. Those are the instances where the officers advice pre-sail comes into effect. They told us all to, "keep one hand for you, and another for the ship". Very good advice especially for the stairs!

During the sail it really did look like everyone onboard was drunk during the time at sea. The entire crew either looked like they were currently drunk, stumbling around and walking into doorways and walls. Or they looked like they were hung over, green in the face looking like every move was a struggle. Quite a funny sight! It's a good thing the officers in charge of the vessel knew how to stand their ground and not let the rolling affect their ability to keep the ship safe.

Overall, the experience of sailing aboard the AFM was truly one to remember and one to cherish. The ship doesn't sail that often but when it does it is quite interesting and, in my opinion, fun.


Thanks for reading this weekly post! Each week I pick a topic that was meaningful from that week on the ship and write a long form post about it. If you're curious about previous weekly updates click here to be taken to all of the updates I've posted during my six weeks on the AFM. Additionally, if you'd like to read about my day to day life on the ship you can click below to find the home page for the #MyDay series.

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