Showing mercy on old ships


Africa Mercy, courtesy of

If you’ve ever taken a long journey on a ship, chances are you reminisce about the romance of it all; sitting in deckchairs with your dearly beloved, watching flying fish pass over the bow. The sweet memories bypass the sad realities of sharing an 8-berth cabin with other young travellers, determined to ignore the claustrophobic realisation that your cabin is below the water line.

Ships do a reliable job ferrying people and cargo from one port to another. According to, the number of passengers carried by the cruise industry is expected to exceed 25 million in 2019. The numbers are also huge around container trade, which accounts for about 60% of all world seaborne trade. The quantity of goods carried by containers has risen from around 100 million metric tons in 1980 to about 1.5 billion metric tons in 2013. If those numbers dazzle you, just stare at your flat-screen TV or your other household goods for a while and multiply it by every other similar household in Australia and you quickly realise the extent of trade by sea.

But there comes a time when the rigours of salt water and the impact of waves pounding at the hull takes its toll and ships must be retired.

While you may have seen documentaries about third-world ship recyclers, pulling beached ships apart by hand, there are occasions when older ships are used for worker accommodation, emergency housing or as hospital ships.

Mercy Ships is an organisation which provides much-needed medical care for people in developing countries. The idea was born in 1964 when founder Don Stephens, then 19, survived the devastation wreaked by tropical hurricane Cleo in the Bahamas. In the aftermath of the storm, Don was struck by local people talking about the need for a hospital ship to treat their injured and provide urgently needed medicines. Though it took many years, in 1978 he and fellow fundraisers paid $US1 million for the Victoria, a former cruise liner. Work began to convert her to a hospital ship and in 1982, the vessel, refitted with three operating theatres and a 40-bed ward, sailed as the Anastasis – the first Mercy Ship.

The Anastasis was home to Queensland nurse Helen Walker from late 2004 to February 2005. Specialising in ophthalmic nursing, she spent three months volunteering in Benin, West Africa. She and a colleague from Jamaica assessed 5,000 people who had gathered outside the city stadium many days before, after hearing the Anastasis was soon to dock at Cotonou.

The main mission was to perform cataract operations, routine amongst Australia’s 65+ age group, but life-changing for poor people in Africa.

“Those who showed evidence of advanced cataracts were allowed inside for further assessment by the British or American ophthalmologist, who also volunteered his time to help the poorest of the poor,” Helen said.

Helen, who now works as a remote area nurse in far north Queensland, tells a story which she says typifies the resilience of the Benin people.

Pascale, an elderly gentleman dressed in his best suit and waistcoat, stopped to mop his sweaty brow as he was gently escorted from dockside to the eye examination room aboard the Anastasis.

“He had said to the taxi driver in the north of Benin, ‘take me to the big white ship’.

“How this man, with only ‘perception of light’ sight, had made it to dockside is beyond me.

“We did our eye checks, found him a bed and he had his cataract surgery next day.

“The following morning, when the eye pad was removed and the eye chart held 6 metres away, Pascale was able to read half way down the chart!

“I watched for the usual lively signs of happiness that the Africans show, but Pascale had only the faintest smile on his lips. He just knew that we would fix his sight.”

The Anastasis was one of four Mercy Ships, three of which have been retired after serving in 150 ports throughout developing nations.

Mercy Ships relies on donations and volunteer staff to carry out its works. In Australia, the head office is in Caloundra, Sunshine Coast. The most recent field mission starts this month in Cotonou, Benin, where the flagship Africa Mercy will be based until June next year.

Africa Mercy is a former Danish rail ferry acquired in 1999 and commissioned in 2007 as the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship.

The eight-deck Africa Mercy’s lower decks are a modern hospital with five operating theatres, an intensive care unit, an ophthalmic unit and a recovery ward with beds for 82 patients. The ship also has accommodation on its upper decks for 484 crew members including families, couples and individuals.

The ship’s medical equipment includes a CT scanner and X-ray laboratories. Physicians can consult with pathologists in the US via satellite communication.

In 2016, the medical team will provide up to 7,000 surgeries a year, including patients suffering from maxillofacial deformities such as cleft lip/palate. The team will also be providing reconstructive plastic surgery for patients suffering from severe burns, congenital abnormalities, and soft tissue tumours.

From February to May next year the team will be providing surgeries and treatments to female patients suffering from obstetric fistula, uterine prolapse and other gynaecological conditions.

Ships used to garrison troops and workers

Your average land-lubber may not know this, but ex-passenger ships and ferries have long been used as barracks for navy personnel, construction and oil rig workers and as emergency housing.

Barracks ships were used to garrison UK troops in the Falkland Islands after Argentinian occupation forces were ousted in 1982. Rangatira and another former ferry, Odysseus, housed workers building an oil platform in Scotland circa 1977–78. Rangatira housed workers who built the Sullom Voe Terminal in the Shetland Islands in 1978–81.

I fondly remember taking a journey from Sydney to Singapore aboard the Chandris Line’s backpacker special, the Patris.

After Darwin was almost destroyed by Tracy on Christmas Day in 1974, the Patris anchored in Darwin Harbour for nine months to provide emergency accommodation. Many people of my vintage journeyed on the Patris in the 1970s, as it was often the first leg of the great Overland Trail from Singapore to London via Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries now seen as no-go zones.

According to MuseumVictoria, after leaving Darwin in November 1975, the Patris was converted to a car ferry cruising between Greece and Italy. In 1987, after a long period of idleness, she was towed to Karachi, Pakistan and left in the hands of shipbreakers.

Surely a humanitarian cause like Mercy Ships is a nobler end for vessels nearing the end of their service lives? But as observes, the vast majority of old ships are sold to breaking yards on the tidal beaches of South Asia.

European-based ship recyclers offer ship owners between 150 and 225 euros per ton of steel. South Asian shipbreakers can offer up to 450 euros per ton.

You can read more (above) about this dirty, dangerous work and the workplace health and safety risks taken by workers in places like Karachi (Pakistan) Alang (India) or Chittagong (Bangladesh).

Or you could go to and read more about a truly enlightened use of recycled ships.


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Paul Hardman
Paul Hardman
August 5, 2016 6:57 pm

it’s never nice to see an old lady of the sea being sent to the scrapers and it’s good to read about the possibility of a new lease on life for a ship.
I had the pleasure of spending 8 months on the MV Finmarken a cruise liner chartered by Boskalis for worker accommodation on the Gorgon Project – Barrow Island. (2011-2013). Self contained accommodation, gym, pool and sauna to name but a few of the creature comforts brought to the island via this magnificent ship.

Edward Littleborough
Edward Littleborough
August 6, 2016 1:11 pm

Ah, the Patris! Do you remember sailors with rifles patrolling the decks watching out for pirates when going through the Indonesian islands? Thanks for this, Bobby

August 6, 2016 8:34 pm

In early 1969 I sailed on the Patris from Sydney to Djibouti. Six birth cabin in the bowels of the ship, which was full of elderly Greek people returning home from visiting relatives. Then we flew to Athens. In Greece the Generals were in charge, and I was warned in taxi from airport not to talk politics. There was an atmosphere which I had never experienced before, nor since.

August 6, 2016 8:35 pm

oops it was easy 1970