By Michelle Segrest

Make no mistake . . . this is NOT bikini and martini sailing.

When enormous Baltic Sea waves are crashing on the bow of a 24-foot sailboat flying through heavy, swirling wind at a 30-degree tilt, a southern girl from Alabama might not even notice the bitter cold. But this one did. Forget the frozen toes and frozen fingers. I couldn’t even feel my face or move my mouth to form words.  

I wanted to help and tried to offer assistance. But a deep, booming, forceful voice echoed from the cockpit with my orders.

“BLEIB IM BOOT!”

At the time I knew absolutely nothing of sailing or the German language, but I could easily translate. My only job was to STAY IN THE BOAT!

I strapped my life vest to Toja’s sea fence rail with a D-ring clamp and held on for dear life. As we maneuvered through the powerful wind, the 3-ton vessel was continuously lifted into the air and then pounded down upon the waves. At times, the only parts of my body that were touching the boat were my clenched fists.

It was intense, but I was not afraid. My captain is an experienced sailor, and I trusted him completely. He skillfully handled the sails and the tiller, and I felt completely calm in the middle of chaos. I felt secure that this day would not be my last.

I did, indeed, live to see the smooth side of sailing. In fact, the next day was still a bit rocky, but I sat on the bow and rode the roller coaster of the sea for what I thought was about 30 minutes. I looked at my watch and realized I had been sitting in that exact spot for three hours. In losing complete awareness of time, I felt pure freedom. I was becoming one with the sea.

The next day was warm and calm, relaxing and sedentary, and I realized that each day at sea is a different, unexpected, and an unpredictable adventure. It was in these three days that I realized how intoxicating the sailing experience can be and how it can change in a heartbeat. The sea has every personality, every mood, every emotion. I was hooked.

This began my love affair with sailing. The battle with the weather conditions, the sea, and handling the sailboat can pale in comparison to the mental and physical challenges—the battle within yourself.

I often tell people that when you sail for the first time, you have one of two experiences. It either becomes a one-time, bucket-list thing that you simply check off your list—or it becomes a part of your soul forever.

After that first sailing experience, I knew I wanted to be more than just a passenger. I wanted to learn to become a sailor. I wanted to participate, be an active crew member, and learn the true art of sailing—and perhaps one day become a captain. It’s a journey that even five years later continues to challenge me in ways I never thought possible. But I’m not sure I realized in the beginning what I was getting myself into when I asked this German Navy veteran to teach me to sail.

A CLASH OF CULTURES

I fell in love with Germany the moment I crossed her border. The romance and allure of France was no more than a faded, distant memory as Deutschland instantly became my second home. A few days later, I met Maik, a sweet, handsome, funny, German sailor who would win my heart and give me the greatest gift I’ve ever received—he shared with me his passion for sailing. 

Maik—my soulmate, captain, and teacher—is a German engineer. He is everything that the title implies…precision, perfection, and attention to detail. I was an A-grader in school, but I must admit that in my adulthood I’m probably not the best student. Impatience, too much confidence, and ignorance about a topic is not the best combination for learning. I love a challenge, but I suppose I underestimated that learning to sail would be a lifetime commitment and not just a one-course seminar—especially if you are learning to sail the German Navy way.  

We started with simple knots. I practiced the tying and the looping. If it wasn’t perfect, my captain ripped it apart and left a tangled mess for me to try again.

I began to get comfortable helping to moor the boat. This became routine, and with the routine I developed confidence—perhaps a bit too much confidence. Once, we were mooring Toja in the Lauterbach marina on the Baltic island of Rügen. The wind was fierce, the sun setting, and the marina full of sailboats. We needed to maneuver our way into a very small slip between two huge yachts. I tried to loop my line on the post, but missed. An abrupt German command came from the cockpit. I didn’t understand the command, but I got the message. Don’t miss again.

The second try caught the post but ripped the line through my hands, shredding the flesh as blood spilled all over the deck. My captain’s only reaction, “Don’t worry, we can clean the blood off of Toja.” There was no concern for my injury. But in fairness, there was no time for concern. The boat was about to slam into the pier. Maik leaped from the cockpit to the bow and in one quick motion, literally lifted me off my feet, and threw me back to the stern. He saved Toja’s bow. The casualties of my sliced flesh and crushed bones were insignificant.

While learning to sail the German Navy way, I also began to learn the German language the barroom brawl way. I learned phrases only appropriate for use during a gang fight in the Berlin ghetto or on the streets of Hamburg’s red district. 

I persevered with my mission to learn to sail, and was eager to try more. I slowly began to graduate from simple swab and crew tasks and one day asked if I could try hoisting the main sail.

In typical German fashion, this requires education, then practice, then review, then exercising, then more practice. We worked on this while moored in the marina in Stralsund, Germany. On the stationary boat secured to the pier, I attempted this about 10 times. It seemed simple enough. Then I begged Maik to let me give it a real try on open water. He checked the weather and warned me that due to the conditions I may not be ready, but I was determined and insisted. He was determined to teach me by proving me wrong. That’s the German Navy way. Every man for himself.

We departed and hit the open water on a swirly, windy afternoon on the Baltic. We were directly in the wind and the captain gave me a nod. I loosened the halyard and began to pull the line. I realized quickly that hoisting the sail in the marina with no wind on a moored boat is significantly different than doing the exact same activity in gusty, heavy wind on open water with dozens of other sailboats and ships all around us. I hate it when Maik is right. I pulled with all my might but the sail did not move.

"NOW! Do it NOW!” orders barked from the cockpit.

I was trying. 

“Don’t try. Do it!” he screamed in German.

I was lying horizontally staring at the sail-less mast as I began to pull with my arms, my legs, and my back. I put every single pound of my entire body into the effort, using any leverage I could find as the wind battled to defeat my mission.

Finally, Maik said very matter-of-factly, “If you ask me to help you, I will.”

“NEIN!” I snapped at him.  I didn’t even know I knew the German word for “No!”

I was determined and refused assistance, pulling with all my might. I finally got it hoisted and secured, then collapsed on the deck, muscles burning, and feeling completely exhausted but satisfied with my accomplishment. I was then lectured on everything I did wrong.

I often joke about learning to sail in such a forceful and difficult way, with every move and action criticized and analyzed. The demand for precision is intense. But now I understand that the German Navy way of learning to sail increased my safety and the safety of the other sailors who share the sea with us. I know now that the harsh discipline is necessary and makes me a better sailor. Sailing is not for sissies.

I will never forget the lessons learned that could keep the crew and me alive during hazardous conditions.

For me, the sailing experience is intoxicating. I love the art of sailing, and the labor of sailing. The work involved to sail safely is vigorous and exhilarating. I am addicted to the feeling that I will never know enough. Every single day is a new learning opportunity. My ultimate goal is to become a better sailor. Every single night when I go to sleep, I know that I accomplished this goal in some small way. And every single morning I can reset the same goal and accomplish it again.

Life is an adventure. These are our stories. Come along for the ride.

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