My First Cruise – Sailing, Sea sickness and Medical Mission

A few years ago, I took my first cruise.  Not P&O.  It was aboard a 30 year old ship that had once been a training vessel for Japanese fishermen.  My destination was not the Pacific or Mediterranean Islands, Alaskan coast or European rivers.  This ship did not have multiple dining rooms, theaters, gyms, running tracks or hot tubs.  It did have a dental clinic and storage for medications, wound dressings and medical equipment.  This was not a typical holiday, but an adventure in providing basic medical care to people in remote areas, far from hospitals or medical clinics.  This was the YWAM Medical Ship, Pacific Link.  Our starting point was Port Moresby, our destination Daru, Western Province, Papua New Guinea.

YWAM Medical Ship

YWAM Medical Ship

I had heard about the ship through an email from a medical organisation.  I was excited to see that they wanted doctors with general practice experience.  I had long had an interest in medical mission.  This was the perfect opportunity for me to join a team of health professionals for a short term medical mission, not far from my home country of Australia.  The team consisted of 50 people from 10 nations.  There were doctors, nurses, a physiotherapist, optometrist, dentists, general volunteers and the ship crew.  Over two weeks (one week in Port Moresby, one week in Daru), we would do clinics in villages, providing health checks, consultations, immunisations, wound care and health education, eye checks, glasses and dental care.

Life aboard a relatively small ship was a novel experience.  There were so many people that we couldn’t all fit into the dining room at the same time and ate dinner in two shifts.  There were still port holes in the dining cabin and lounge area.  Everything was very compact, from stairs to tables and benches to the bunks.  Workmates, curious about my time on the ship had asked if I got my own cabin!  Down below are men’s and women’s dorms.  The bunks were certainly designed for Japanese fishermen and not long-legged Westerners.  Each room contained four bunks (two top and two bottom bunks), separated by a narrow central aisle, big enough for one person to stand in.  Each morning, I would lean over to put my hand on the top bunk across the aisle before letting myself down off the bunk.  Each bunk was cosy, with a navy blue curtain you could pull across for privacy, a reading light and small bookcase, useful for stashing all my personal items that didn’t fit in my locker.  I tried to make mine more homey by sticking up pictures of the kids and a painting done by my 3 year old.

I love the port holes!

I love the port holes!

Compact locker space

Compact locker space

The bunks

The bunks

I was glad I had followed instructions to pack light, as each person has a locker, or really half locker with 3 shelves and 10cm wide hanging space.  The girls shared a small table and mirror in the main corridor which had power points all around it.  There was always a tangle of cords from phones, ipods and cameras plugged in for recharging.  This was not a trip for anyone who does not like to get close to their fellow homo sapiens.  I loved it.  It was like school camp in the old days.  It was social and multicultural and a great way to meet people.  Some people got a double cabin – a little luxury, but certainly not like the state room on the Queen Mary!

The lounge area was large and spacious, with a good sized screen for watching movies and presentations about our trip.  This was also a great place to hold meetings.  On the aft deck was a large storage cupboard with a cumbersome wooden door, nicknamed ‘Narnia’ by David, our team nurse.  There was an air of mystery surrounding this cupboard as a person who entered may not re-emerge for sometime as they searched for particular items among the medical paraphernalia.  On my second trip, ‘Narnia’ had disappeared, to be replaced by a variety of well ordered and compact storage areas.  The aft deck was opened up to be used for meals and barbecues.  This was a marvelous innovation, but I felt nostalgic for ‘Narnia’.

Compact medical storage, a replacement for 'Narnia'.

Compact medical storage, a replacement for ‘Narnia’.

Showers were limited to 3 minutes per person a day as the water supply was obtained by desalinating sea water.  The girls had 3 showers between them, no doors, just a shower curtain and a bath mat.  This brought on the challenge of dressing quickly and maintaining modesty without getting clothing soggy wet.  The toilets would regularly get a blockage due to the curious bends in the old pipes.  It was the lucky job of the earliest risen member of the ship’s crew to grab a plunger and remove the offending blockage and smell on the mornings this happened.  These little things are bound to happen anywhere a large group of people use a small range of facilities.  The crew were very handy and always quick to fix any problems.  A blockage did occur at the start of one of our sails.  Going up onto the deck for fresh air, the wondrous aroma of fresh sewage would waft towards our nostrils as we lay prostrate, fighting off the waves of sea sickness.  God bless the man who fixed this problem early in the voyage!

Sea sickness is funny in retrospect.  At the time, it felt like an ordeal that would never end.  It did not take me long to turn green.  Ironically, I threw up just after taking my second sea sickness tablet.  I think it was the claustrophobia of navigating narrow ladders down to the bunks while the ship rocked beneath me.  I grabbed a bucket from the laundry, kept there for the express purpose of gathering the stomach contents of the truly sea sick.  That bucket became my comfort item for the rest of the voyage and I held onto it for almost 24 hours.  I didn’t need to use it, but felt safer with it nearby!  I lay on the aft deck with a group of other similarly affected people.  We lay on woven mats, side by side, as the ship moved relentlessly up and down, sea air blowing across our faces.  Every now and again, a large wave would cause the ship to tilt to the port or starboard side and we would slide in unison across the deck, just like a can of sardines.  I counted hours until our projected arrival.

Towards the end of the voyage, the waves levelled out.  We were approaching land.  I grinned with relief.  We were almost there.  I would soon feel my equilibrium return to normal and be able to face the thought of food without flinching.  It would be a week until our return voyage.

At the bow

At the bow

I had an incredible time, serving with a health care team in the Western Province.  I loved meeting the people of Papua New Guinea and have returned since.  Next week I venture to Port Moresby again – this time with my husband.  I am happy to say, I don’t have to sail this year as we will be based in Port Moresby.  Soon YWAM will add a new ship to the mission, one that is larger and more stable in the water.  I am banking on this one being less likely to induce sea sickness and look forward to visiting it soon…and sailing without a green-tinged complexion!


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