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David Forrest, Academy Principal. Photo Credit: Justine Forrest.

Imagine teaching in a school classroom on a ship in a different port each year. The Academy on board a Mercy Ship is an accredited international school for the children of the hospital ship’s crew. Catering from preschool to Year 12, small class sizes and big life experiences make teaching on board an adventure of a lifetime.

The 16,000 tonne hospital ship Africa Mercy spends 10 months each year in a different African nation providing free essential surgery to people living in extreme poverty. Founded in 1978, Mercy Ships is a faith-based charity which uses hospital ships to deliver free, world-class healthcare services, medical capacity-building and sustainable development aid to those without access in the developing world.

David Forrest was the Academy Principal for the three years he and wife Justine volunteered on board. Justine, a professional photographer, worked part-time in the ship’s communications team while their daughters attended the ship’s high school.

“The school staff and the ship’s crew are volunteers,” explains David. “The captain, nurses, officers, surgeons, cooks, teachers and principal all work for the same ‘pay rate’. The professional environment created by 400 people focused on providing free, life-altering and life-saving surgeries that are usually unavailable to the local people is profoundly impacting.

“Like any other workplace, there are logistical, cultural, budgetary and social challenges, yet this faith-based community is like no other. The school serves the parents, who serve the patients. While the roles are very different, all are part of fulfilling the mission of Mercy Ships to bring hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor,” says David.

Hospital Open House: Academy Students performing a pretend surgery on one of the crew. This photo was taken on the EVE of the ship’s wards opening at the beginning of the field service. Everyone who is non-medical gets the opportunity to look around the hospital before the patients arrive.

David learnt about the unusual opportunity through a friend.

“He’s a surgeon, and spends one month annually with Mercy Ships, operating on some of the poorest people in the world. Each year he would return talking about his experiences and how Mercy Ships was impacting individuals in countries where the healthcare system is expensive or in many cases non-existent. I was fascinated when I heard the Africa Mercy had a school on board. A school on a ship? Families live on the ship? Kids from several nationalities attend school on a ship? How does this all work?”

Some of the unique qualities of the 50-pupil school came as a real surprise when David began his tour of duty in 2014.

“The level of technology available for the teachers to work with was beyond what I had anticipated.”

All classrooms have very large touchscreen interactive smartboards. The international Christian school curriculum is designed to allow students to graduate to colleges and universities in Europe, UK and US, as well as New Zealand and Australia.

“The school classrooms are situated directly above the hospital deck, and the students share playgrounds with the paediatric surgical patients. The children and their families spend time in different countries with a huge range of educational and cultural opportunities. In one school year we visited a science centre and museum in the Canary Islands, an aquarium in Cape Town, South Africa and had a retreat in a Madagascan jungle. We interacted with very diverse schools in each country,” says David.

The Africa Mercy sails into the port of Congo in Pointe Noire. Academy children and teachers with their Congo flags wave and enjoy the sail into port. Photo Credit: Debra Bell

Despite the uniqueness of the Academy, there were many similarities to other schools David had worked in.

“The daily rhythm, the great staff, the joys and challenges of educating kids. Being Principal had all the typical tasks and challenges of any preschool to Year 12 school anywhere, but with fewer students.

“Living on a ship is an exceptional experience for the children. They ‘do life’ in a way that is life-transforming. This can be hard at times but through this they often forge great friendships that last a lifetime. They see amazing medical miracles on a daily basis. They live in a community of people that model service and love of others. They have great adventures. They climb volcanoes and walk through jungles. They sail the ocean on long voyages and gain geographical perspectives unique to this lifestyle. They see poverty and gain a global understanding most will never have. And at the same time they are still kids who ride skateboards and bikes on the dock (the shipboard version of a street), fight and cry, and complain about homework. The faith-based community is very normal, but fulfils a unique and special purpose in the provision of healthcare services to nations in poverty.

Academy Students and Staff say Thank You. Photo Credit Justine Forrest.

“Working with a committed bunch of teachers from many different countries was inspiring and often created funny moments when language didn’t translate cross-culturally. Ticks and checks mean different things depending on whether you are from Down Under or the US. When I instructed the teachers to put ticks on their student work, they were horrified! A tick to them was a blood-sucking insect.”

“We played, worshipped and worked together with the rest of the crew. It was a real privilege to be part of the larger community focused on providing hope and healing to so many in desperate need,” says David.

The Mercy Ships Academy has vacancies for volunteers at various levels for the next academic year (August to June) including preschool, new entrants and primary, intermediate and high school. There is a particular need for teachers in the subject areas of maths, history/geography, science and French (all ages).

The Mercy Ships Academy runs according to a northern hemisphere school year. An orientation programme in June 2019 is required before commencement. For more information about teaching opportunities onboard, visit www.mercyships.org.nz/teachers-all-at-sea/.


  1. This is so very innovative and hands on learning I wish this Mercy Ship can come to India and get students involved in learning.


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