Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Engine Room

I didn’t really want to go on the tour of the USNS Mercy engine room, but my fellow Project HOPE volunteers kept raving about how awesome it was so I finally caved to the peer pressure. After all, life on the ship has been a huge part of our experience here in Indonesia. And ship-based medical missions are an integral part of Project HOPE’s history, going back to the SS HOPE’s maiden voyage in 1960. To Indonesia, exactly 50 years ago!

As a group of us walked to the far aft end of the ship to start the tour, we admitted all we know about ship engine rooms comes from disaster movies. Titantic came up first, of course, with its scenes of sweaty seaman desperately trying to crank down hatches to forestall invading ocean water. Some of us also remember The Poseidon Adventure, in which the ship actually turned over, and Shelley Winters swam through flooded engine rooms while Karen Carpenter crooned in the background.

Our tour started off calmly enough with affable Chief Engineer Joe Watts giving an overview of the ship while pointing to various places on a large framed schematic. With an accent hinting of his home in Boston, he told us the Mercy runs 894 feet from stem to stern, 105 feet across at its widest point, and 116 feet high. We’re just a speck traveling through the vast expanses of the Banda Sea, but if the ship were to be dry docked, it would take three high school football fields to contain it.

Once we nodded our agreement that this is a really big boat, Joe gave us a mini- history lesson. In 1958, Project HOPE founder Dr. William Walsh persuaded President Eisenhower to donate a U.S. Navy hospital ship, and the concept of ship-based volunteer-staffed medical missions was born.

We are not in that same ship, today, of course. The SS HOPE was retired in 1974. In the early 1980’s bids to build two floating hospitals from scratch went out. The National Steel Company in San Diego came back with a crazy idea to retrofit existing oil tankers into hospitals. It would save millions, they argued, and they were awarded the contract. The hospital berthing units and wards were built “prefab,” then lowered by sections into the discrete vertical “slices” of the ship’s hulls.

Joe could write a book about the mechanics of the ship’s engines, and with a few months at sea, I could probably write a chapter. But this is a blog, so I’ll just share a few highlights: the ship’s propeller is 26 feet wide, and has five blades instead of four, for smoother sailing should surgery be required while underway. Also, the OR is placed dead center of the ship, where the least motion can be felt. (Nonetheless, I’m happy all the surgical patients have been discharged. Today, as we are underway to Australia, the waves are 7-9 feet high, and we are all weaving like drunken sailors.

Finally we pushed orange foam plugs into our ears and encountered the deafening noise in the actual engine rooms. We trudged through rooms as toasty as 118˚, and then computer and repair rooms as sweetly cold as meat lockers. The main room is vast and tall enough to make one dizzy looking up, but other spaces are so tight we had to make ourselves skinny to avoid touching grimy, hot machines. Joe shouted out information along the way, and we all nodded along as if we heard and understood every word.

I did catch this: Enormous boilers that bring to mind Dante’s Inferno produce our water for drinking and washing by heating salt water to 170 degrees. Then they apply some engineering mojo involving vacuum pressure. The sucked out salt sludge is returned to the sea, and more seawater is taken in. No water shortage here, salty or not.

Our tour wound down when Joe opened a hatch and ushered us onto a small balcony featuring fresh air and blinding sunshine. He showed us the gun that shoots a line over to an oil tanker, which ultimately results in a cable that connects the two ships. A hose as big a boson’s arm and then pumps 10,000 barrels of oil from the supply ship to the Mercy, as the two ships remain sailing at the exact same speed for three hours.

The next morning we actually witnessed this process, one of hundreds of wonders, big and small, we’ve experienced these last five weeks.

Thanks for your interest in Project HOPE -- Kathryn Allen, HOPE Public Affairs Officer

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