They say you can hear the ocean calling.
I must have heard my name sometime between second and third grade. Before I ever saw the sea, I took an avid interest in an over-sized picture book on the Titanic, during school library sessions.
At the age of 12, I finally got to see the ocean. I remember gawking as I walked over a sand dune and saw the murky blue-green sea for the first time in my life.
I was hooked – and the sea became an obsession. Shortly after declaring to my family that I wanted to be a Marine Biologist, I took a school Biology trip along the east coast of America. The morning we spent on a reeling fishing boat, my lifelong friend and environmental chum Andrea turned a deeper shade of pea-green with each heave of the vessel. I, on the other hand, loved the feeling of wind whipping through my hair, salt spray on my clothes, and turbulence as we lurched back to shore.
It took another decade until I sailed again on the sea, but not as a Marine Biologist. In the meantime, I took an altered course and landed a publishing gig with a magazine in the UK.
Whilst gallivanting through the British Isles, I visited a local exhibition featuring non-profits. Mercy Ships soon 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 Chicago hospital years before. I was fortunate. In a world where cleft lips and palates make up the second most common birth defect, my mother gave birth to me in a society where my problem was repairable; hospitals affordable.
As a child, I watched a television program that focused on a teenage girl with a cleft lip. I don’t know where she was from – I seem to recall some country too distant in my comprehension to be real. My adolescent eyes must have been bulging at seeing the girl’s three lips though, because I do remember my mother explaining to me that if my cleft palate had been worse, I might have been born with a birth defect like that.
I silently thanked God that I only had two lips.
I had the same kind of thankfulness as I paused to pick up a brochure – floating hospitals that sail into a port and deliver aid, free surgeries and offer training and education to those less fortunate – my dream job stared me in the face.
I made my way to the ship in Europe, as the vessel began a public relations tour before heading off to Africa. There, the ship would drum up support, collect donations, recruit staff, procure supplies and pack in cargo. Working in the Communications Department I hosted visiting media teams, wrote PR material and took photos.
For the next three years, I lived, worked and ate with 350 other people in this floating community, all while sleeping in claustrophobic cabins – 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 given up salaries (we all actually paid to ‘volunteer’ onboard), friends, jobs, and their space to serve the poor and needy in the developing nations we sailed to – all because they believed in something bigger than their every day life.
The ocean proved glorious – I never tired of sailing, sea salt, sunsets across the waves, or sitting on deck reading and writing. But even with a crew of that size, at times life seemed lonely onboard this 152-meter long former cruise liner. Crew referred to the ship as ‘the Love Boat’ – a result of the record number of relationships onboard.
I spent evenings on deck writing in my journal, lamenting my loneliness – wondering if I would ever tie a knot that wasn’t attached to a lifeboat.
But soon, the voice of a brawny Afrikaner Sailor captured my attention and I found myself altering my course each evening to collide with him.
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.
The Sailor and I dated forever until we finally tied our own knot in 2007.
The Sailor no longer works on the Love Boat, but he still goes to sea. I don't get to sail with him, but on rare occasions if we're in the same country, he lets me photograph him onboard one of his ships. We get to see each other half of the year. Our life is nowhere near 'conventional' but I wouldn't have it any other way. Thankfully, despite spending so much time surrounded by water, the Sailor still enjoys the beach, so on his time off, I can still see and hear the ocean.