In August, Australian John Borrow was appointed captain of the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest independent hospital ship. Currently docked in the west African nation of Benin, the ship, which is run by Christian ministry Mercy Ships, delivers free health services and training to people in the developing world. Mr Borrow spoke via email about his work on the ship…

Congratulations on being appointed captain of the Africa Mercy. What were you doing prior to this job?
“I was chief officer on board before being promoted to captain. Before that I was chief officer on the Anastasis, a previous Mercy Ship. In between ships we lived in Sydney for eight years away from the sea, bringing up the two boys and living a normal life. [During that time] I worked in the corporate IT world, as well as in commercial shipping. In September, 2015, I went to Texas for a five-week ministry training program, and in October, 2015, I joined the Africa Mercy as chief officer, together with my family.”

I understand you have a long-time connection with Mercy Ships. How did that come about?
"I first heard about Mercy Ships in 1996 when someone from my church told me there was a Mercy Ship docked in Newcastle. I drove up from Sydney to visit the Island Mercy and quickly volunteered for a three month trip to Papua New Guinea. I knew I had found my calling."

John Borrow

“Sailing to PNG was my first up close experience with the developing world. The impact was significant and came away with the realisation I needed to do something real and practical to help those living in countries not as lucky as my own. I could no longer do the life of comfortable middle class Australia.”

Can you describe a little of what that experience was like and why you knew you'd found your calling?
“I'd left the sea for a shore-based life and wondered why I had spent four years being trained for a career I didn't pursue. As soon as I stepped on board the Island Mercy, I knew the reason for my training. It was an amazing feeling to realise the Lord had a plan for my life, using my love for the sea, and my maritime skills to serve His kingdom. I had found my calling.
     “Sailing to PNG was my first up close experience with the developing world. The impact was significant and came away with the realisation I needed to do something real and practical to help those living in countries not as lucky as my own. I could no longer do the life of comfortable middle class Australia.”

What attracted you to the job of captaining the Africa Mercy?
“Having served all the Mercy Ships as chief officer, it was the next step in a journey, and something the Lord prepared me for over time….Most deck officers aspire to be a captain at some stage. Having to work under many captains, good and bad, you hope to be one of the good ones that can make a positive impact to the ship and her crew.
     “Looking back, I can see the Lord preparing me this job. It takes some maturity of both personality and faith to work in the role of master on board a Mercy Ship, and the Lord waited until I was ready for both. Some may say I am a slow learner!
     “I can also see the Lord was using my corporate world experience…and in particular the management and leadership training I received. Leading and motivating people is a challenge and great opportunity, and while I have a long way to go, I have also learnt a lot in the past few years.”

So your faith played an important role?
“It's all about faith isn't it? Sometimes our faith can take a battering, and sometimes we hold on long enough to be directed to His paths. I really had no control over my promotion to captain, nor did I have a plan. The Lord opened the door, and I knew it was time to go.”

How did you originally come to be working in the maritime industry?
“I went to the Australian Maritime College [in Tasmania] straight out of high school [when 17-years-old], on a cadetship with the Howard Smith shipping company. They were very good to me, and I owe them for the high standard of training. I always loved boats, and wanted to do something connected with boats and the sea. Both my dad and my brother were yachties, so it was in the family.” 

The new role carries a lot of responsibility - with more than 400 volunteers from 40 nations living and working on board the ship. How do you cope with that?
“I have confidence in the team around me, our emergency preparedness, and our systems. We are blessed with amazing crew, and I am especially grateful for them and for my officers.”

Those on board include your own family - your wife Lee-Anne and two sons, Tim and Sam. How challenging is it personally to live full-time on a ship like the Africa Mercy?
“Boys have energy and need to run around, and one of the biggest challenges is finding space for them to be boys. They are not allowed to run on board, or make much noise so it’s a challenge. We have a good sized dock here in Benin, which is great, and most families head out there after dinner so the kids can run around.        Living with 400 crew, I need to be careful with boundaries and ensure we have enough time for the family and be purposeful about it. We have a family nights every Wednesday and Friday night, which is our time together as family. There is so much going on, almost every night of the week there is something you can do.”

Does Lee-Ann work on the ship as well?
“Yes, my wife Lee-Anne is a trained dietitian and works in speech therapy and the infant feeding program. The main focus of the feeding program is to ensure baby patients reach the minimum weight required for surgery. As you can imagine, many babies come in severely malnourished and some cases are life-threatening and need immediate hospitalisation. The speech therapy is for assisting patients who have had different types of the facial and cleft palate surgery to learn to speak clearly. She visits the dockside medical tents most days and loves helping local babies and their mums.”

"Being a medical ministry there are many extra challenges that need resolving on a daily basis. We have a good leadership team and hope we get it right most of the time, by God's grace.”

How are you supported?
“[T]he captain's job is volunt[ary], and we have a fantastic group of friends back home, who support us both financially and with prayer. We couldn't be here without them.”

The ship spends extensive stints in port - as it is now doing in Benin where it is docked until June next year. How do you spend that time?
“There is plenty to do, the captain's job involves a lot of paperwork, meetings, emails and reports, so I spend far too much time at my desk and not enough outside on deck. Being a medical ministry there are many extra challenges that need resolving on a daily basis. We have a good leadership team and hope we get it right most of the time, by God's grace.”

What do you love most about your new role? And while it’s early days, what do you find most challenging?
“I love the opportunity to help create a happy, healthy culture on board, and to help the crew develop personally and achieve all they can while on board. Staffing shortages are the biggest challenge right now. If you are a marine engineer or engine hand, please call us!”

What can Christians be praying about on your behalf?
“Please pray for engineers, we are very short handed. And wisdom in my leadership.”

~ www.mercyships.org.au