When his world as he knew it was turned upside down, David Heap took a huge risk.
The Weymouth pensioner lost his beloved wife Margaret two years ago.
As a widower in an empty house in Preston, he realised he needed to step out of his comfort zone.
The 71-year-old, a former submariner, volunteered for a six-month voyage to help sail a ship 9,783 miles from Greenock, Scotland to Mombasa, Kenya.
Courageous David called in at six different African countries, encountering corrupt police officers, sailing through waters renowned for piracy and became the ship’s captain by the end of the voyage.
David volunteered his time for charity the Vine Trust, which was donating the medical transport ship to Africa to provide medical and dental care for people in Tanzania.
He said: “I was married to my wife Margaret for 40 years. Since she passed away, I’ve got the time and I just wanted to have something to do.
“I volunteer for the Maritime Volunteer Service (MVS) in Weymouth and I heard about the opportunity. I’d been trained by the Navy so I thought ‘I’m fit enough and I’ve got the experience’.
“I was looking for a change of environment and I’d never been to Africa before. I was asked to be part of the crew on a Friday and I left home on the Monday to join the ship.”
David was assigned the role of ship’s cook. Ever the pragmatist, he dug out two untouched cookbooks which he thought would come in handy – Mrs Beeton’s Household Management and Fifty Things to do With Mince.
David flew to Gibraltar to pick the Jubilee Hope ship and take it to Greenock, where the medical areas had been fitted out by BAE Systems.
A major setback hit the voyage before the ship had even left UK waters – she developed a generator problem.
After 21 days languishing in Falmouth, the crew got the ship back on course, sailing down the west coast of Africa.
David was dazzled by the beauty of Walvis Bay in Namibia and wowed by Durban, South Africa.
But despite the continent’s beauty, the dangers it posed were very real.
David said: “In Angola the police came on board our ship and wanted to take our passports. The police there are very corrupt and they wanted us to give them whisky and cigarettes but we didn’t have any on board.
“The police were saying they were going to confiscate our passports but luckily we had a business card from the British Consul on board so the police gave them back.”
David and 21-year-old Jack Lawrence from Guernsey were the only crew members who stayed for the duration of the journey.
Others came and went for different legs of the voyage, with two people heading home prematurely because they weren’t happy with conditions on the ship.
David said: “It was basic but we had everything we needed. I never got bored because I was always so busy as cook.
“I would supply breakfast cereal, lunch would be something like tinned cold meat – we ate a lot of spam – then I would use my mince book and we’d have things like spaghetti bolognese, lasagne, chilli con carne, curry or roast chicken for dinner.
“I think I was fatter when I came back than I was when I left.”
After five-and-a-half months as cook, David took over as captain for two weeks for the final leg from Durban to Mombasa when someone sent to captain the ship dropped out.
He saw the ship safely on to Mombasa, from where it would go on to travel 520 miles by road across Kenya to Tanzania. The ship will provide medical and dental care for people living in isolated communities on Lake Victoria.
Upon returning to his Weymouth home six months later, David was delighted to find his neighbours had placed a poster on his front door welcoming him back with a map showing how far he had sailed.
In June David was invited to a reception with Princess Anne in London, where he was thanked for his efforts.
He said: “It was the trip of a lifetime and I was very, very lucky to be part of it.
“To anyone else in a similar situation who wants to do something like this, there’s the MVS, which is always looking for volunteers, and the Tall Ship Pelican in Weymouth Harbour.
“I had found myself widowed and I could have stayed at home gardening.
“But I think when one door closes another one opens.”
- The Jubilee appeal is still open for any donations towards the final £150,000 costs of delivering MV Jubilee Hope. See vinetrust.org for more information