Some called it the Love Boat.
To the people we served, it was known as the big white ship.
I simply called it home.
Officially though, her name was Anastasis, a Mercy Ship offering free medical surgeries and humanitarian aid in West Africa.
They say you can hear the ocean calling. For years, I wanted to be a marine biologist. When I realized I would be stuck wearing a white lab coat in an even starker white lab, I decided to return to my original childhood idea and become a writer. But I still loved the ocean.
In college, I landed a spiffy job in publishing in the United Kingdom, managing a magazine by day and soaking up London pubs by night. While gallivanting through the British Isles, I visited a local exhibition featuring several non-profits where Mercy Ships caught my eye. A giant poster of a white ship loomed over ‘before and after’ surgery photos of a baby born with a cleft lip. I thought of my own cleft palate, sewn together in a hospital decades before, and I paused to pick up a brochure – floating hospitals that sail into a port and offer free medical surgeries – my dream job stared me in the face.
As much as I wanted to stay in England, my work permit couldn’t be extended. My company declared, quite seriously, that I needed to marry a Brit in order to stay in the country. However, the man in my life at the time had an American passport, and with only six months left until my departure from England, our relationship fizzled out. My despair at losing both my boyfriend and career all in one blow meant I desperately needed a change. One super short haircut and figure-flattering British suit later, I still didn’t feel any better. I needed something more drastic.
So I applied for Mercy Ships. Somewhat to my surprise, they actually accepted me.
For the next few years, I lived, worked and ate with 350 plus people in this floating community, all while sleeping in cabins that often felt like walk-in closets – most of the time shared between three of us at once. The crew was a mix of people from 40 countries, made up of singles, couples, families, even children – all volunteers who had not only given up salaries, but who actually paid to serve onboard.
I worked in Communications, so on bustling PR tours in Europe, I gave out tours and press packs, and hosted photographers and film crews who spoke a myriad of languages. In Africa I traded that smart suit for tie-dye skirts and flip-flops to write my own stories. In between the chaos, the ship set sail. I never tired of the ocean or sunsets at sea. Yet even with such a large crew coming and going each week, at times life seemed lonely onboard this former cruise liner. I spent evenings on deck writing in my journal, wondering if I would ever tie a knot that wasn’t attached to a lifeboat.
But soon, a brawny South African Sailor captured my attention.
The Sailor arrived days before the ship left West Africa to head back to Europe – the lone arrival in sea of departures. I often kept tabs on the crew for potential stories. I mentally filed this new arrival as ‘quite photogenic.’ The Sailor made my sea legs quiver, while he swaggered on deck and I soon realized I was falling for him. Thankfully, the ship was equipped with sturdy railings.
We played soccer together on the dock with other crew in Sierra Leone, and hit the beach on the weekends. We ate breakfast together every morning, worked on fire teams, watched movies and wandered around deck, leaning on those railings while talking about both mundane and sacred things. We even got roped into coaching a youth soccer camp together one year over Christmas break.
I never felt like I had to pretend to be someone else around him. I was always so comfortable being ME.
The next time the ship set sail, I knew he was a keeper. By the time we arrived in the Gambia, I realized the feeling was mutual. We dated for 18 months onboard until we disembarked in Germany. Together, we watched our floating home sail away, unsure of what the future held for both of us. For the next several years, we endured long-distance dating between a dozen countries on three different continents. Eight months was our longest stretch. Our phone bills were shocking. Our email messages numbered in the thousands; text messages not far behind. Smart phones weren’t as clever as they are now. FaceTime hadn’t yet evolved, WiFi was sketchy in many parts of the world, and we burned through international SIM cards like common criminals.
After the Sailor passed his Officer of the Watch exams we finally tied our own knot in 2007. We officially became married couple #261 who met onboard ‘the Love Boat’ (there is actually a list). Our 10th wedding anniversary is looming on the horizon and we’re still a long-distance couple. Although our Anastasis days are behind us, the Sailor still works at sea. He normally works two months on a ship before returning home for another two months.
Of course, now that we have the Peanut, we’ve added a little more crazy into the mix. The Peanut doesn’t always understand yet why his dad is away for so long, but my heart melts every time he sees a ship and shouts: ‘DA-DOO!’
People often tell me they could never imagine their husband not coming home every night for dinner. And yet, I can’t imagine the ocean not calling every night. The voice may be attached to a crackly satellite phone onboard a vessel I’ve never seen, along a coast I’ve never heard of, but it’s still calling my name. It’s the best sound ever.