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When the charity Mercy Ships was preparing its new hospital ship Africa Mercy for service in 2005, Nautilus was there, meeting husband-and-wife crew members Andy and Brenda Cole as they helped fit out of the vessel in South Shields. Now another new hospital ship is on its way – Global Mercy – and the Coles are still involved, but this time in Antwerp and Rotterdam. Hans Walthie catches up with them and hears about the charity's new recruitment campaign
For Andy and Brenda Cole, serving with Mercy Ships has always been a family affair. The Africa Mercy is where their daughter spent summers helping patients in the hospital wards, inspiring her to become a nurse. After getting a front-row seat to watch their dad at work, two of their sons went on to become maritime engineers. Their youngest son's passion for acting began onboard, with his first-ever role in a play staged at the vessel's own school. Ten years later, other long-time crew members still approach Andy to compliment his son's natural talent on stage all those years ago.
Twenty-one years ago, their Mercy Ships adventure began with a prayer. 'As a seafarer I had the desire to not be separated from my wife and family for six months of the year. I wanted to spend more time with my wife and children and take them on an adventure by sharing my world as a seafarer,' marine engineer Andy says. 'I love the ocean – the open seas are such special places. Having my family onboard and travelling to many countries in West Africa and getting to know African cultures is so enriching. It's been an amazing journey.'
The family's journey officially started in 2000, when Andy became involved with the refit of the Africa Mercy. Sponsored by their church to cover their living costs as they worked as volunteers for the Christian charity, they sold their house and moved to the Newcastle area, halfway across the country from their home in Liverpool.
They originally expected to live in Newcastle for just a year – but the process ended up taking nearly seven. Andy and Brenda were in the front row for every step. 'It was my defining moment,' Andy says, 'getting the Africa Mercy out of shipyard in South Shields, going out on sea trials, and the maiden voyage sail to Liberia after all those years. It felt how I imagine everyone on the Global Mercy feels right now.'
Human resources professional Brenda add: 'Here we are, 21 years later. We've learned a lot in that time, so to go through that process again and be involved in similar ways has been incredible.'
As the Telegraph caught up with Andy, he was serving onboard the Global Mercy during its very first sail, what he calls 'real pioneering'. He would take over as chief engineer once the ship reaches Antwerp, Belgium, for its equipping phase. He's had plenty of opportunities to use his maritime engineering skills and technical expertise with Mercy Ships over the past few decades, and Brenda, who has served in various HR roles during her time onboard, calls Mercy Ships the 'perfect blend for us as a family'. No matter where or how they serve, they both appreciate the organisation's ethos that all roles are equally valuable: A top surgeon is on the level with everyone else. They are all needed to keep the ship functioning and the hospital working.
Outside their official roles, the Coles have loved discovering their place in the community onboard. Several years ago, the family experienced heartbreaking tragedy when they unexpectedly lost their 22-year-old daughter. Andy and Brenda have been able to channel their painful experiences to further enrich their relationships onboard and find healing in community.
'By being honest and vulnerable about our life journey, we're able to break down cultural barriers. Going back to the ship and sharing our story helped us to come alongside people. Because of what we'd been through, we had a deeper level of care and understanding. We've learned to laugh with those who laugh and genuinely cry with those who are hurting,' Andy says.
Among the community, Andy appreciates being vulnerable and nurturing people. Brenda says life onboard challenged her need for personal space, but it developed her social skills. 'I'm an introvert, but I'd push myself to be in the community and always ended up being so energised by playing games in public spaces. I'd call myself a bit of a puzzle solver, both in games and in life.'
As they reflect on more than two decades of service, Brenda and Andy know they're exactly where they are meant to be. They've both left a mark on the Mercy Ships community, and the community is all the better for it. 'It's not easy to leave the comfort of home and the familiar; however, the rewards on so many levels are so worth it. Our journey of 21 years associated with Mercy Ships has changed the destiny of our whole family.'
With the Global Mercy nearly ready to start its essential work providing life-changing surgery and medical care to deprived communities, Mercy Ships is running a 'Make your mark' campaign to find more volunteers to contribute to the operation of a state-of-the-art hospital ship.
Numerous Nautilus members have taken part in this enriching experience over the years – often volunteering during their periods of leave from their main job. If you would like to be next, go to mercyships.org/makeyourmark to learn more.