Neither Nick Granger-Brown nor Irene Blotsky were looking for love.
But as the Brit and the Canadian boarded the same plane to West Africa from Belgium, then the same transport to the same hospital ship and were put in neighbouring cabins, they were amused at the coincidence and started chatting.
It was January 19 2020 when they started their journey and they had both signed up to volunteer for the international development charity, Mercy Ships.
Engineer Nick, 56, from Waterlooville and Irene, a 65-year-old retired nurse from Montreal, first spoke to each other while they waited to be picked up by ground transport at Dakar airport, Senegal, as they headed to hospital ship the Africa Mercy for a planned two-month service.
Irene says: ‘I was on the same flight as this gentleman. The same transport to the same hospital ship. Then we were two cabin doors apart.
‘I think it was meant to be!’
Mum of three, Irene had spotted an article in the Montreal Gazette five years before about a hospital ship that brings accessible free surgery and vital medical care to the world’s poorest who have no access to surgery.
In 2018, the then divorcée, volunteered in the ship’s dining room in Cameroon, as her nursing licence had expired.
Irene said: ‘I thought the dining room would be a great place to meet people – and I was right. It was life-changing.
‘It was great to be with all these people, I’m a very social person.’
However, the impact of the incredible need she witnessed while on board had a lasting effect on her.
She said: ‘I was a nurse for 38 years and I was shocked.
‘It’s so sad to think that these people – if they had access to medical care – would not have had all this emotional trauma and ostracisation from their communities because of their deformities and their growths.’
When she returned to volunteer in 2020 and met widower Nick, her life changed more than she could ever have imagined.
Irene said: ‘I was not looking for romance on the ship as some people do, it was the furthest thing from my mind.
‘I was my own woman, happily travelling. I said if I ever meet someone, it had to be the knight in shining armour – otherwise, I’m not interested.’
Despite Irene’s hesitation at finding someone new during her solo trip, it soon became clear that the couple were set to be the latest couple to meet through Mercy Ships.
Since 1980, more than 520 couples have met and tied the knot after volunteering for the charity.
Irene said: ‘We struck up a friendship and spent a lot of our free time together – we became inseparable.
‘We even had a couch in the lounge which we made our own. It ended up being called the love seat by others that passed it!’
Nick had heard about Mercy Ships at the Christian festival Spring Harvest in 2018, and was keen to get involved and offer his skills having been an engineer the past 35 years.
His wife has passed away from breast cancer five years before.
‘I like being an engineer and problem-solving, but I wanted to do something that had more of a direct impact on people’s lives and it seemed like Mercy Ships – to help a hospital ship - was the ideal opportunity,’ Nick says.
‘I joined as the electronics technician, and it was amazing to do something I was familiar with and with such a worthwhile goal.’
Just before their two months were coming to an end – the pandemic struck and the pair had to make a decision.
They decided to stay on for as long as possible to do what they could for the ship – but also to be together.
‘Covid-19 was actually a great thing for us personally, we got longer to get to know each other,’ says Irene.
Mercy Ships continued with land-based projects in sub-Saharan Africa, sending volunteers to hospitals and clinics and supplying PPE to tackle the pandemic. Meanwhile, the hospital ship was taken for refurbishment work with a reduced crew – giving the pair extra time to get to know each other before Irene went home.
She says: ‘I was bawling my eyes out because I did not want to leave Nick. We had such a special time together. There were 150 of us on the ship in quarantine. No-one came off, no one got on. We were like one big family.
‘We said we are just like teenagers. I just wanted to be together – that’s what it’s like when you fall in love,’ she adds.
Nick stayed on board to carry on vital electrical work and admits it was not just Irene he had fallen in love with.
He says: ‘I’d fallen in love with the ship too. It was fun and it was keeping me busy. The Africa Mercy is a lovely ship, and an older ship so there is always lots to fix so I was always busy.
‘I was busy doing something that was supporting a cause that was making a lot of sense to me, so it was so much more than a job.’
They went their separate ways on June 15 but spoke every day until they were reunited on August 1, 2020 in Portsmouth, where they both now live after Irene fell in love with England and their relationship went from strength to strength.
It would be Easter 2021 when Nick popped the question officially. When Irene had not opened her big chocolate egg on the table from Nick, she got a little reminder.
Irene said: ‘He said to me, “Aren’t you going to open your egg?” I said “Yeah, I’ll get to it later!” When I did, I discovered a little box and there was a ring inside!
‘I got my knight in shining armour.’
Their wedding was booked for December 29, 2021, but with restrictions introduced to combat the Omicron variant, guests found it hard to travel.
The pair faced a difficult decision to go ahead with the registrar and just a handful of guests but were anxious to make their relationship official.
Their ‘real’ wedding is scheduled for July at 16th century townhouse, Pelham House in Lewes, and they cannot wait.
Irene said: ‘It will be a proper English wedding – we did not get dressed up for the first one. Even my little grandson will be wearing a morning suit.’
Nick says he cannot wait for his two adult children and Irene’s three adult children to finally meet.
Instead of receiving wedding gifts, they have asked people to give donations to Mercy Ships via JustGiving.
Irene adds: ‘If it were not for Mercy Ships we would not have met. We both believe in what Mercy Ships do.
‘A whole bunch of people getting together from all around the world and volunteering to change people’s lives – and now with the Global Mercy bringing so much more with its teaching aspect, I’m so excited.’
‘It was a real time of fellowship. It was a very special experience which I hope we will be able to participate in again one day,’ adds Nick.
To donate to their wedding collection visit justgiving.com/fundraising/irene-and-nick-wedding