I Sailed the Seven Seas on a World War II Ship…
and lived to tell about it
~You cannot discover new oceans until you are willing to lose sight of the shore~
I inherited my love to travel from my father, and I had once dreamed of traveling the world for God, but now divorced, and a single mom, I shelved that dream … until I married my prince charming in my forty-second year.
After the fall of Soviet Union Communism in 1991, Rob and I were invited to assist in the new Christian schools in Estonia and Russia. My mind raced, Go to Russia? Are you crazy? Then a Voice asked, are you going to let fear rule you? Shoulders back, I took a deep breath of faith, blew out every ounce of fear, and in the dead of winter, I was on the way to my first international journey. From Tallinn to Tartu, from Leningrad to Moscow, for two weeks I was like a little girl in a candy store, soaking in new traditions, unfamiliar languages, delicious foods, but best of all, meeting warm and caring people.
After returning home, we felt God calling us to attend an international Bible college in Sweden, but I reasoned away the idea. We can’t leave our jobs, our ministry, and our family for a year. Then one night as I struggled for sleep, a challenging thought came. Don’t you want to live your dream? Faith swept over my tired body, and in the summer of ’91 two expats leased their home, sold their cars, bid their family and friends farewell, and boarded a jet plane for Sweden.
Our year was full of learning, from books to museums, but it was the people who taught us valuable lessons. I’m grateful to my Swedish neighbor who took me shopping at the centrum market and showed me that mayonnaise came in a tube instead of a jar. Later that evening after brushing his teeth, Rob informed me that Swedish toothpaste was yummy…tasted like mayonnaise. Oops.
After graduation, we toured Israel, and then joined a team in St. Petersburg to live for a month on the former Youth Communist propaganda train to distribute humanitarian aid throughout Siberia. There we were—twenty-five Russians, twenty-five Swedes, and the two Americans. Via interpreters, English was the main language spoken, but there were moments when I had to flee to our tiny cabin to escape the constant blending of Russian, Swedish, and Swenglish—a humorous combination of Swedish and English—to keep my head from spinning off. And heaven forbid if I left the train without my day’s supply of toilet tissue tucked in my pockets! (I learned the value of used newspapers, which most hospitals, orphanages, and homes supplied upon request).
The Russian’s kindness made every inconvenience fade and erased my doubts of traveling in the once-feared country, but I couldn’t wait to touch American soil. There would always be short trips, but to live abroad again? Never. Until …
Two years later a flyer crossed our path asking for volunteers to work on a WWII ship that was moored in Seattle, Washington, whose sole purpose would be to rescue Russian Jews from the Black Sea to Israel. Rob was ready to set sail. Not me. I didn’t want anything to upset my comfortable lifestyle, and I certainly had no desire to live on an old troop transporter ship the government had stored in mothballs after the war. She had only 93 running days, so there was no guarantee that her maiden voyage could even make the journey from Seattle to Stockholm, much less sail to the Black Sea and Israel.
But I wondered, Could this dangerous assignment mean an adventure of a lifetime? Hmm, I guess this is where faith must kick–again. So in spite of my fear of water and the unknown condition of the ship, the expats once again packed up, leased the house, quit jobs, sold cars, and bid farewell to family and their safe harbor. God had new oceans waiting.
As we sailed the seven seas, it didn’t take this lady long to fall in love with another lady, the MS Restoration. However, it was sometimes a stretch to love-thy-neighbor while living in such close quarters…a cabin large enough for a bed and four gym-size lockers, sharing dining experiences with a forty-plus crew in a small troop mess that often smelled like diesel oil. I often asked while cleaning stained toilets and hairy showers, God, what am I doing here?
Fourteen months on board the Restoration reminded me of life’s simple lessons: You don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy—four gym lockers will do. Instead of criticizing, (why do the Swedish cooks serve pancakes and—yuk—pea soup for lunch?), take time to understand their customs. Instead of judging (why does she have special privileges?), practice patience and find out. And no matter how small, boring, or unthankful the task, it is a very big, exciting, and thankful event in God’s eyes. Today, I remind myself of these lessons as I clean my own toilets and showers.
You’re probably wondering why I had to live on a WWII ship to learn these simple lessons. I asked myself that question often until one night while we were sailing across the Black Sea. As I gazed up at the stars, a familiar Voice spoke to my heart. I have chosen you to be a small part of my big plan to help bring my people home to Israel in these last days. From that moment, I felt honored to have been on this amazing journey.
The Titanic was called the ship of dreams, but the MS Restoration was our ship of miracles. Food, ship parts, bedding for the crew and Russian Jews, donations for fuel–the list goes on–showed up expectantly. But the greatest miracle was our changed hearts. Living on the Restoration truly restored everyone’s faith in God, in human kindness, in relationships, and in faith for forgotten dreams. And the dreams continue.
Read Lady and the Sea for my complete story. I wish you smooth sailing and oceans of blessings … and enjoy your journey! www.sharonleaf.com
SHARON LEAF: Born in South Carolina and raised in California, since turning forty, Sharon Leaf has traveled to sixteen countries, lived in Sweden to attend an international Bible college, traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and sailed 26,000 miles on the WWII ship, MS Restoration, to transport Russian Jews from Russia to Israel. She received a degree in theology at sixty, proving that it’s never too late to fulfill another dream. Lady and the Sea is Sharon’s debut novel. She lives in South Carolina with her husband and keeps busy swimming, zumba-ing, and writing short stories (author Linda Kozar’s Moving Tales). www.sharonleaf.com
SONIA MARSH SAYS: What fascinating life experiences you’ve had, and there are two phrases that stuck in my head. 1). Are you going to let fear rule you? Shoulders back, I took a deep breath of faith, blew out every ounce of fear. 2). You don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy—four gym lockers will do. So true Sharon.