The Building of the Global Mercy
Jim Paterson is a Marine Engineer from Scotland and currently serves as Marine Executive Consultant for Mercy Ships. Jim has served the organization for almost 35 years, both on and off ships, and just completed overseeing the building of the Global Mercy.
In this episode, Jim shares about his early years with Mercy Ships and what it was like to serve on the first Mercy Ships vessel, the Anastasis, while having his wife and small children onboard at the same time. He also gives insight to the building of our new ship, the Global Mercy, and what he is most looking forward to as she sails into Africa for the first time.
New Mercies Podcast Transcript
Welcome to New Mercies a podcast by Mercy Ships, where we’ll take you behind the scenes and on board our incredible hospital ships that are transforming lives all over the world. We invite you to join us each week as we sit down with our crew, patients, volunteers, and partners to hear their stories of life-changing hope and healing.
Well, Happy New Year, everyone. And the New Year always brings new dreams, hopes, and expectations of the possibilities of what is yet to come. At Mercy Ships, we’re excited about our new ship, the Global Mercy and the possibilities she has to transform many more lives. Well, today, you’ll get to hear from Jim Patterson, a marine engineer, who has overseen the building of this new ship over the past eight years.
He’s a lovely man from Scotland, and I’m excited for you to hear what he has to share.
Well, Jim, thank you for being a guest on the New Mercies podcast and Happy New Year to you. You are our first guest of 2022, which is so exciting. And I have done a little bit of research to find out a little bit more about you and looked over your resume. And it is quite impressive. You started working with Mercy Ships in 1987. So, we’re at almost 35 years of service and just for folks listening, I have to read off just little bits of your resume. It’s really impressive.
In 1987, you joined Mercy Ships as an engineering officer on the Anastasis and then moved to the chief engineer. And you kept climbing the ranks to become Vice President of Marine Operations, eventually Senior Vice President of international operations, Senior Vice President of Marine Operations, and currently you’re serving as the marine executive consultant. Again, bringing us to almost 35 years of service with Mercy Ships. So, tell us how did you hear about Mercy Ships in the first place? And what caused you to say yes, and join Mercy Ships.
It’s a long time ago. So, it’s a little tough to recall. We actually were at the Bible College in the UK, my wife and I, we had a general call from the Lord to go into missions. We were fairly young Christians, we hadn’t a clue what missions really was about. But while we were at this Bible college, we had a visiting speaker from Youth With A Mission that we had never heard of before. And he was talking about their work in Amsterdam in particular. But at breaktime, we were talking to one of our good friends who had actually been with Youth With A Mission and we didn’t know it, and she had worked in the refugee camps in Cambodia.
So, we found out that they actually had a ship. And of course, I’m a marine engineer by training, sailing before Mercy Ships. So we shared our information and cut a long story short, a couple of years later, we actually joined the Anastasis for, we thought, a two year commitment. Which at this time, we had two little girls, one was three and one was 18 months. And we thought we were going for two years. But by the time two years was up, we were expecting our third child. So, we had to come home anyway, but really felt we were being encouraged by the Lord and by others to return after our third child was born.
So, we went home for four months, and our son was born. And we went back again. And you know, one interesting part of the story when we first left, thinking that we were only going for two years, and as we were fundraising, and one thing that people would say, “Oh, you’re so brave, and you’re giving up so much. And you know, we admire you,” and at that point in our lives, we didn’t see it that way… it wasn’t so difficult for us. We’d already given up a lot to go to Bible college, of course, Lord had been preparing us, pruning away material things and so on in that process. So it wasn’t that difficult to make that first two-year commitment for us.
But when we were home having our son Angus… just before we got home, my wife’s mother died. And then her father hadn’t been in good health for quite a while. But we stayed in the same little town where he was and his health deteriorated significantly to the point that 10 days before we were due to come back to the ship. He died.
And my father, who had always been a healthy guy never had a sick day in his life was in his bed with pneumonia. I thought he was on death’s door as well. And I remember driving home that night after visiting him and as I said, getting ready to go back in 10 days to the ship, thinking, “Lord what are you doing? Our family’s a mess, and here we are. It seems like we’re abandoning them.”
And I wouldn’t say I heard an audible voice or anything, but I did get the impression that this is all about the cost of serving him. That He’s capable of taking care of these situations and our families. And it wasn’t as if there was nobody else, we both had brothers and sisters and so on. We totally could depend on and rely on to take care of our family. And of course, the ship was desperately looking for us to come back. And the chief engineer who had relieved me was desperate to leave again. And one thing, so we went back, but that was definitely, for us a big cost, to leave our family in that sort of situation.
So, we joined, rejoined the ship for another six years, children had their formative years in the school, excellent experience. My wife is a schoolteacher, she actually worked in the school. Before we got to the point where we thought, well, the cabin’s still the same size, and the kids are getting bigger, and it was time for a change.
So, Don Stevens asked us if we’d come here to Texas to the head office and begin the Marine Operations Department. Prior to that we did everything from the ship. We organized all our parts and our repairs and our drydocking from on board, which was quite a challenge. Back then we didn’t have email, it was all fax, and our fax numbers changed regularly so no easy communication. So when we moved here to Texas in 1995.
That’s incredible. And I think that something a lot of people don’t realize is that just about everybody who goes to the ship, in one capacity or another, there is sacrifice that is required. And a lot of times it does come down to that sacrifice of family in a way. Not sacrifice that you completely are disconnected… nowadays, as well. We have FaceTime, we have technology that allows us to still communicate close with our families that are back home when we’re abroad. But that is something that is a cost, you know. But it is true that the Lord can take care of those things that we leave behind. And when we’re obedient to Him. That’s really the best place to be.
That’s right. Yeah, and I think it really, for anybody coming long term, I would say you really need to be sure of God’s call in your life for when you go through these tough times. There’s no doubt about it, you run into situations where you really have to question, “why am I here?” But if you can look back and know, in your heart that God has called you them. And that gets you through whatever tough time it might be, whether it’s a simple thing like the laundry slots in the ship or all having to leave your family.
Sure. Well, the interesting thing, though, about being a mariner and working for Mercy Ships, is that you actually got to keep your family, your wife and your three children with you, on board, which is very rare, from what I understand. So, what was that like for you to be able to have your children live with you on a ship?
Yeah, exactly. I think that was one of the one of the deciding factors for us. We did a little bit of research after we heard, and we were encouraged by other families that have been with Mercy Ships at that point. And often their grown children would return to serve. And that said something to us that it was a positive experience for the children. Because we didn’t know other… sad stories of people that got in the mission field had to send their kids to boarding school or whatever. The kids were far away from the Lord and far away from their parents. And we certainly don’t want that to happen.
The fact that we could stay together was a big deciding factor in the commercial ship. You can take your wife, but it’s difficult take the children there’s no school onboard. The difference with Mercy Ships is that we have a full-fledged school all the way up to 12th grade. And it’s a wonderful school. As I said, we had fantastic education for the kids, not just academic but life experience. I remember we were in Scotland with a ship and we were only Scottish family and the newspapers came on board, of course, looking for interviews. And one of the reporters said, “Surely, your kids are missing out on so much. They’ve got such an isolated existence here.” I said, “They’re missing out and a lot, but it’s all a bad stuff. But they certainly don’t have an isolated existence. They have experienced life. You know, they’ve seen the poorest of the poor, and they’ve mixed with some of the richest people that there are and they see the difference. And their world experience is second to none.”
Yeah, we experienced that with our three children on board. Where else in the world can your children just freely even on their own walk down into a hospital and visit with patients or walk down into the engine room of a ship and get a tour or go up into the bridge and chat with the Captain, I mean, it’s unheard of. You make special plans to do these things in the real world, but not in Mercy Ships, you know. Your kids get to do just about everything. I know our kids even helped out in the cafe and helped out in the dining room, they got an experience that they will never ever forget. Which is pretty remarkable.
So, what was that like for you and your family to transition back to land, if you will, to go from a ship to Texas, which obviously you’re not from Texas. So that must have been a whole new experience as well. Tell us about that.
Yeah, so we’re not from Texas. We’re from Scotland. But rural Scotland and we live in rural Texas. So surprisingly, the culture is very similar. So, we felt from that point of view, we felt at home quite quickly here. The climate is obviously very different. The geography is very different, but the folks and that’s what makes a place as warm and friendly. You’ll never be a local of course, because you weren’t born here. But that’s the same at home. So yeah, we’ve settled in.
I think our youngest, Angus had the hardest struggle settling at school, he came into first grade. And he went from a class and maybe three or four people to a class of 30. The first six weeks or so he cried every morning going to school. But after that he adjusted and did great. And the two girls, they already knew people who had been on the ship before and came here ahead of us. So, they already had friends here. And it was relatively easy for them to settle in here. And I think they were ready for that change. Our middle daughter, she’d always wanted a dog, cat. Every Christmas, she got a stuffed dog for Christmas. Now she could have a real dog.
So, there were a lot of benefits coming ashore, but they all treasure their time on board. In fact, our son who was only six, when he wasn’t even just turning six when we came ashore, he even yet he’ll say, “Why did you leave so soon?” Because, the girls of course, have a lot more memories than he does. He does remember some things, but not so much.
But I do take all of them back from time to time, especially our son over the years. When I was doing ship visits. And he ended up becoming a marine engineer. He’s actually a chief engineer certificate already. So, yeah. And the girls both the time on the ship on their own working in the dining room or whatever.
So obviously, it was a very positive experience for them that they wanted to go back.
It was very much. Oh, that’s neat.
Well, tell us a little bit about your current role with Mercy Ships.
Yeah, well, I just finished the completion of the Global Mercy and the shipyard back in July. I had the privilege of letting the last line go in China and waving goodbye to the ship as they set off to sail to Antwerp. So since then, been recuperating a little bit with some miscellaneous projects. Currently working on the Africa Mercy refit details. I’ve been in Liberia a couple of weeks ago, looking at the situation there. We have some problems to overcome before the Global Mercy docks in Liberia. What else have we been doing… It’s kind of hard to remember. I can remember what I was doing 35 years ago, but not last week…
Well, I think the truth is, you have just come off a historical project for Mercy Ships in the building from the ground up our purpose-built hospital ship the Global Mercy. And Jim, really, you have had an integral role in that. So, tell us about the project of building the ship how that impacted YOU personally and your family? Because I think that required another move for you. Tell us what that was like.
Yeah, so we did the conversion on the Africa Mercy, which was a very long-drawn-out affair for various reasons — the shipyard went bankrupt and so on. But at the end of that, I think that was a 8 year project traveling back and forward to Newcastle. Several of us sat down towards the end of the project and said if we really get the chance, it’d be great to build something from scratch. Because a conversion always ends up to be a series of compromises. The Africa Mercy is a good ship and has served us well, but it’s still compromised. We have we did a survey after a year in operation, and we find that the main complaint was the accommodation… not so much for the families but for single folks.
Some of them are staying six and a cabin. Not even two cabins. One’s eight-berth one’s 10-berth. That’s okay for young folks. But when you get a little bit older, like me, you don’t want to climb up into a top bunk. There’s limited storage onboard, the hospital’s too small… you know all these things together, we came up with their concept for a new ship that talked about it. Then it became a topic at the board level, we did a lot of research into what it would take to do another conversion. To build new from scratch or some people suggested we should really have barges because we don’t move so much.
So, it was a couple of years project. But finally, the board agreed that the best option was to build something new. We were introduced to a broker. Well, actually, the broker introduced himself to us in Geneva, a few years before, so I contacted them and said, “Look, we’ve got to go ahead. We’re serious about building a new ship. Can you help us?” So he introduced us then to company in Europe. Stena, it’s the biggest ferry line in Europe, the ships are actually a very small part of the Stena business. But anyway, we finally agreed that the thing to do was build a new ship, using them as our partner. We actually had a concept for a new ferry. And if you took our concept and their concept, the ships, the physical ships were very similar.
So, we spent about a year with them, merging the ideas, mainly the hospital, into this ferry design changing a little bit, came up with a package. Our broker friend sent it around the world to 12 different shipyards for a quotation. And basically, hands down China was the cheapest place to go. Stanford themselves had come to the conclusion to build new chips, they needed to do it in China, because most of the components nowadays, come from China anyway. So if you build a ship in Europe, or the US, most of the stuffs going to come from China, unfortunately. So why not build the ship in China, the transportation costs and the timeline.
So, we negotiated a contract, and signed the contract and 2013 started building. Now Stena warned us they had some experience building in China, to expect delays between one and three years. That was fine for us. You know, we weren’t in a desperate rush to get the ship finished. Price obviously, was more important at that point than the time. So, we entered into the contract knowing that it would be delayed. We experienced delays early on in the project design, phase two ended up being four years delayed. But part of that was due to COVID. I was traveling back and forward for monthly meetings for the shipyard up until the epidemic started. I was actually, I think, on one of the last flights out of China before they shut the door in January 2020. I actually flew into LA and drove home from there. Yeah, the yard shut down. It was Chinese New Year’s, the yard shut down anyway. They had about two weeks delaying reopening after that because of COVID. But then they were back to work. And of course, we couldn’t get back because the cancelled visas. And they didn’t actually cancel, they just said that they’re no good anymore.
So, it was a long process to try and get a new Chinese visa. I won’t go into all the details. But it took until August to go to the UK and get a visa from my UK passport rather than my US passport. Finally got back to China. Then it was a single-entry visa. So, you had to stay there till it was finished. So I ended up being there 10 and a half months…Which was interesting.
We’d never been away that long. I think one occasion that I was away more than three weeks. But typically, we would try and limit our separations to three or four weeks maximum. So this was quite different. You mentioned earlier about Skype and the internet at least that makes a huge difference. We were able to talk everyday on Skype early in the morning for me in China and the evening here from my wife. I think that’s what made it possible for us to survive that time.
We had chief electrician who’d actually stayed in China with his family during the pandemic. He’s from South Africa. And they had decided not to go anywhere for the Chinese New Year and then they got stuck. They couldn’t go anywhere after that. They were there for the duration. But meantime, we were having meetings by Teams. Midnight, my time, morning time in China. That was not very satisfying. So, it was good to get back and the project turned out to be okay.
Yeah. You had mentioned signing a contract was it 2013. So this has been about eight years or so. And along the way, was there ever a time when you felt like, “This is not going to happen… This is just not going to work.”?
For me personally, I never felt that. I mean, we had a similar experience on the Africa Mercy, actually, that was very much delayed. I mentioned the shipyard went bankrupt one thing another… many people believed it would never finish, somehow or other. I just had that confidence and belief that God called this project into being and that He was going to bring it to completion somehow. And He did.
And I think the same thing on the Global Mercy. Certainly, I think there were, there was a period of time when the shipyard probably felt they’re bitten off more than they could chew. I think we had nearly a year when we only had about 50 people working on board every day. Normally, in a project like that, you need about 500 people working everyday. So that was one of the reasons why it was delayed as well. They just, I think they were ready to give up. But thankfully, they brought a new project managers and renewed sense of enthusiasm as it were. And I would say that last year, we did as much as we had done, maybe the previous three years, trying to get it finished.
Wow. Well, what was that like for you to watch her sail away? What was that like after these years of work and preparation and flying back and forth from China to the United States, ultimately, staying in China for 10 months… What did that feel like? To watch that ship actually sail away?
It’s hard to put into words it was it was a strange emotion. Perhaps it’s the same for when you have your kids graduating and leaving home and going to college. You’re working towards that day, for a long time to prepare them to stand on their own feet and, and fly as it were. But then it’s very sad when they leave home. And I think it was like that watching the ship sail away. We were building it, obviously to go and do what it’s designed to do in Africa. But it’s a lot of your life, you’ve poured into, along with many, many other people, of course, it was a strange feeling to be finally finished. But it was a great feeling to be finally finished. So it was it was a combination of emotions.
Well, it’s incredible. We’ve seen some beautiful pictures and some video of that new ship. And we tracked along with the sail for getting to Belgium. And really, it’s quite remarkable. And I know for my family, our hope is to be able to see it in person one day. But you have just done an incredible job in really managing this whole project and seeing it through and it is such a gift for you. Was there a moment that you really just saw God provide an incredible way?
On this particular project… I can’t think of any specific examples. But there’s just so many small things. The right people… I mean, I had the privilege of being there, but I wasn’t, it wasn’t me building the ship. I was just part of a big team that made it happen both from Mercy Ships, from Stena, all the fundraising that was done by our international board. Don Stephens, I think personally, was responsible to raise a large part of the funds that paid for this. So, it’s my privilege to be there to see it finished and to be there in China. We had planned this big party, and everybody’s going to come and of course nobody could come.
But to think of very specific instances, probably just too many small things. I don’t think it was one big one, but many, many things. I can tell you a story. It happened recently. I was in Liberia a couple of weeks ago. We’re hoping to take the ship there. Of course, that’s what it’s designed to do to go and help these poorer countries and Liberia is probably one of the ones that need it most. But we have some issues with the dock and the berth and also the water supply.
And the captain had been done a couple of times talking to different people about different things trying to come up with plans to make it work. And his last visit a couple of months or a few months ago, he noticed some gasoline cans floating in the harbor just off the dock. And he said to the people, “What’s that?” Well turned out that it was a wreck. Fishing boat had sunk there a few months before and nobody thought to tell us. So anyway, we knew this was a problem. We sent some diver down and they confirmed that yes, there is indeed a fishing boat there and the top of it comes pretty close to the surface of the water.
So, I went down a couple of weeks ago with the salvage company to see what it would take to solve this problem. You know, those petrol cans of gasoline cans are not visible from the pier anymore. They’re below the water. You can see them when you go over there in a little boat but you can’t see them from the dock. So if he hadn’t been there that right time, we would never know when that wreck was there. And we would immediately sailed in there, and we would had a huge problem on the Global Mercy. I believe that’s an instance where God preserved us ahead of us and prevented what could have been a nasty surprise.
Absolutely. Oh, gosh. And I know there’s so many stories like that, you know, it seems to be little things. But the reality is that could have turned into a big, big problem.
It could have been a disaster.
Yeah. And I think the fact even for the Global Mercy, that China was a big part of the beginning of that pandemic, and through all of that, all those roadblocks and all of that opposition. Look, she still was accomplished, and God really saw through what He began.
Yeah. It was interesting in China during that last 10 months, it was like the pandemic didn’t exist. China really got it under control. We had to quarantine of course, when we arrived, everybody still quarantines going to China for three weeks. But they had, I think they had eight cases locally around Christmas time last year. And that weekend, they tested 2.6 million people. And there were no other cases. So, life went on as normal.
When I first went over, people were still wearing masks everywhere. And the restaurant in the hotel, we’re bagging breakfast for you and stuff like that. That was only I think the first two or three weeks and it was horrible. We would not have known there was a pandemic, all the bars and clubs and restaurants and everything were all open. Cinemas everything. I don’t know what they’re how they’re going to cope now though, because they’ve been so isolated. They have a country of 1.2 billion people have never really been exposed to COVID. Cluster when it first started.
Well it’s pretty incredible to know that the Global Mercy is complete, and being outfitted and continues to, you know, get ready to go to Africa, as you mentioned. That’s the purpose she was built for. And what are you most excited about? In the Global Mercy first arriving in Africa?
Well, I think, obviously, to see that first patient come up the gangway. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what we built it for… I mean there’s lots of things that happen between now and then there was an event in Dakar where I think 12 heads of state of African countries are coming and having a big celebration and officially naming the ship. And all that’s fantastic. But I think the real, the real thing is the first patient coming up, or maybe even more importantly, the first patient going down the gangway after a successful surgery, that’s probably even better.
Absolutely. Yeah, it’s exciting. I know, with all of your experience, and all of your expertise, you could really work anywhere in the world. Why Mercy Ships?
I’m too old to work anywhere else now. I think “Why Mercy Ships?” in the beginning was the fact that we do have an opportunity to use the gifts, talents and abilities that God has given us working together as a team to make a big difference. That has never left us. When we see the opportunities, we have to bring that hope and healing to so many. Nowadays, we don’t see it firsthand, working like I do in the office or in the shipyards. But I can still remember the patients walking down the gangway just outside my office window. You know, going on board blind and coming off, they could see again, cleft lip, palate repair, whatever. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. There’s lots of people get to my stage in life are looking for a second career. But I’ve done my second career, you know, it’s very meaningful what we do. You cant put a price on it.
Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for all that you continue to do for Mercy Ships, and really bringing hope and healing to the poor people in the world. And thank you so much for taking the time today to share with us a little bit and, Jim, we wish you and your family a very, very happy new year.
We’re all looking forward to many patients walking off the ships in this new year with changed lives. And next week, we’ll get to hear all about the new Academy on board the Global Mercy and learn what it’s like to be a teacher in a floating classroom. Come back to hear from Catherine Dungworth as she shares her story of teaching the littlest crew members.