Alaska Ferries to sub-Sahara Africa—a captain’s tale of giving back to society

Serving Mercy Ships since 2007, Capt McGrath says hospital ship was also a great career opportunity

Captain Joshua McGrath has served on Africa Mercy several times but Senegal is the first as master of the hospital vessel.

And with it comes plenty of challenges compared with the cruise ships and roll-on, roll-off, long haul passenger ferries he has worked in the past.

Not least ultimate responsibility for 400 crew including doctors, nurses, marine and other staff versus around 20 on a normal cargo ship and 50 on the ferries.

“Most have never been on a ship and have zero maritime experience,” says the 42-year-old, who was born and raised in Seattle WA.

Responsibilities range far beyond the normal deck, engineering and stewards to meeting the needs of multiple departments including the hospital central supply, transportation, dental clinic and the Hope Centre offshore patients clinic.

Safety is always high on the agenda and complicated.

McGrath’s early seagoing career was on small cruiseships in Alaska before returning to a maritime academy in the US for four years.

After graduating in 2005 he worked for the Alaska Marine Highways System (Alaska Ferries) which has a fleet of 11 ropaxes linking continental US and Canada with Alaska. Bellingham to Kodiak is one of the longest ferry crossings in the world.

McGrath first volunteered with Mercy Ships for three months in 2007, followed by a further seven months in 2008 as a third mate in Ghana and Liberia where he met his wife Daniela who was working in the medical laboratory.

He returned in 2017 as chief officer, sailing Africa Mercy from South Africa to Sierra Leone. And again the same year in Benin when he was joined by his German wife and six month old son Noah.

Now in Senegal for four months, the family have both children with them, Noah now aged three and Lily one-and- a-half.

The captain first heard of Mercy Ships while at maritime academy and from a friend who had spent several months onboard.

Not only, he says, was it an opportunity to give something back to society using his maritime skills but also a “great career opportunity,” helping to advance his licence and learn about other parts of the industry.

Africa Mercy’s age (built in 1980) means extra work but McGrath is used to that. Most of Alaska Ferries’ vessels were constructed in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The ship has a uniquely diverse crew with dozens of countries spanning the globe represented, he says.

McGrath says he enjoys especially helping the Africa crew build their maritime careers by securing their ratings as seamen.

“Almost all of the deck and engineering department play soccer a few times a week after work, which creates great relationships,” he adds, while Senegal offers plenty of leisure activities for families.

“We spend time at the local beaches and pools, head to the local markets, sightsee and have plans to take the kids on a safari upcountry in a few weeks,” says the skipper.