Seven years ago, John Mather visited the Mercy Ships headquarters in East Texas to conduct a routine compliance audit. Mather, who earned a bachelor’s degree in naval architecture and marine engineering from the University of New Orleans, left the office with a new purpose.
“Over the course of that two-day audit, a seed was planted that I couldn’t uproot,” Mather said. “I was just taken aback by the genuine authenticity of the people I was meeting with; they had a love for each other … they had a passion for what the organization did. I wanted to be a part.”
Mercy Ships is a nonprofit international organization that builds and operates “floating hospitals” that provide free medical services to those in need, particularly targeting people who live in poor countries with limited access to hospitals.
During the audit, when he asked workers about the organization their eyes would “light up,” Mather said.
“They are like, let me show you some pictures of what some of these people have to deal with on a day-to-day basis and they wave the banner high,” he said. “I didn’t know what it would look like, but I just wanted to lend my skillset, my unusual skillset, as a naval architect to these people.”
Mather has worked with Mercy Ships for nearly six years and is currently the director of marine projects. In that capacity, he is chiefly responsible for planning, coordinating and executing the upgrades and modifications carried out on board the ships.
“Our ‘customers,’ if you will, are the other departments within the organization whose teams live and work on board,” Mather said. “As equipment and machinery approach the end of their lifecycle, or the arrangement of spaces on board no longer suit the organization’s needs, my team facilitates for those changes to keep things moving forward.”
Mather, who said he’s always had a love for sailing, estimates that he’s spent more than 40 weeks on board the various ships in the fleet. Most of those times were for three-week stints to check on projects, he said.
“In my previous role with the organization, I had the privilege of spending two consecutive summers on board the Africa Mercy with my wife and kids, which included lengthy sails from Cameroon and Benin to the Canary Islands,” said Mather, who lives in Texas. “Two of my three children have been to several African countries and the Canary Islands before they were 4-years-old.”
A career aptitude test led Mather to enroll at the University of New Orleans, he said. The first college he attended in Florida didn’t offer the naval architecture and marine engineering major, so he went to the internet.
“By the end of that day, I had discovered UNO, applied, forwarded my transcripts, and called my parents to tell them I was moving,” Mather said.
The academic program was difficult, Mather said, but he was determined to finish.
“I would suggest that I’m positioned to be an inspiration for the average man because I’m really not that exceptional in terms of my skillset as an engineer,” said Mather, who graduated in 2006. “It was not easy for me. You just surround yourself with people that are pulling for you and people that want to help you. You just stay the course and you get through it.”
At Mercy Ships, Mather said he’s able to exhibit his outgoing personality, a trait he had attempted to stifle earlier in his career, thinking it “wasn’t professional.”
“I’ve realized now that unless you’re working with robots, you’re better off just being who you are,” he said. “When you’re working with people, a little humanity goes a long way.”
Mather said he was attracted to Mercy Ships because of its mission in helping those in need and the “rare context where someone with a degree in naval architecture and marine engineering could use their skillset to serve the world’s forgotten poor… beyond just throwing money at them.”
The organization, founded in 1978, currently has two ships, both of which are longer than football fields. The Africa Mercy is 500 feet in length and Global Mercy is about 570 feet. For reference, a football field is 360 feet, Mather said.
“Inside you have all the trappings of a cruise ship, minus the bar and the casino,” Mather said. “Considering that several hundred volunteers call the ship 'home' during a given field service, it’s got to feel like it, too. We’ve got a pool, playground for the kids, a gym, Wi-Fi everywhere.
“Most importantly, though, we’ve got several decks which make up the hospital on board, which includes everything you’d expect to see in a hospital here in the States,” Mather said.
The ships typically dock for about 10 months in one location in order to provide medical services, including surgery, at no cost.
The Global Mercy is the nonprofit’s newest ship and its first “purpose-built” vessel, Mather said.
“All of our ships to date were purchased secondhand and repurposed, which has limited what we’ve been able to do with them, programmatically,” he said. “The Global Mercy allowed us to take 40 years of experience serving the world’s forgotten poor, include elements we loved about the other ships, leave out what we didn’t, and build a ship with the capacity to literally double what we’ve been doing with Africa Mercy since that ship was put into service in 2007.”
With 12 decks, the 37,000-ton Global Mercy is equipped with six operating rooms, hospital beds for 200 patients, a full laboratory and simulation training areas. More than 640 medical, maritime and programmatic crew live and serve onboard with space for up to 950 on ship when it is docked.
“Everyone seems to show up to Mercy Ships with the attitude of, ‘This is not about me,’ and that permeates every part of life on board our ships,” Mather said. “It’s infectious, and it’s hard to leave behind when it comes time to walk down the gangway and go back to ‘reality.’”