Local Scenes Stuff

Fair Winds And Following Seas: Alabama Woman Embarks On Sailing Adventure From Germany To Gulf Shores


UPDATE: This post is written by Alec Harvey from Alabama NewsCenter.  Learn more at: http://alabamanewscenter.com

Michelle Segrest is thinking a lot about trash these days.

“Trash and water,” she says. “Those have both been on my mind lately.”

And not in a save-the-environment and conserve-our-natural-resources kind of way. Segrest is all for that, but right now she’s talking about plain ol’ everyday trash and water – where to throw it away and how to drink it and bathe in it.

Segrest and her boyfriend/traveling companion, Maik Ulmschneider, have just a few days to figure it all out. That’s when they set sail from Ulmschneider’s home in northern Germany to Alabama’s Gulf Coast, where Segrest, a Decatur native and former Birmingham resident, lives now.

It will be a 6,000-nautical-mile journey on the 43-foot Seefalke. The duo will hit at least 12 countries and eight bodies of water, including a 20- to 40-day trek across the Atlantic.

During that leg of the trip, fresh water will be limited, and trash … well, that’s still up in the air.

“We can’t carry huge garbage bags full of trash, because there’s just not room,” Segrest says. “We’re still trying to figure that one out.”

In the grand scheme of things, that’s a minor detail for Segrest and Ulmschneider, who will chronicle their six- to eight-month journey via their websiteFacebookYouTubeTwitter and Instagram. They’ve branded themselves as “Sailors & Seadogs.” Segrest and Ulmschneider are the sailors, and their beagles, Cap’n Jack Sparrow and Scout, will be along for the ride.

The voyage was set in motion five years ago, when Segrest, an Auburn University journalism graduate who was then editor of a pumps and systems magazine, met Ulmschneider, a pump engineer.

“I met him while working on an article in Germany,” Segrest says. “We became friends first, and more developed later. He loved to sail and wanted to take me sailing.”

Ulmschneider comes by his boating skills honestly, learning to sail more than 20 years ago in the German Navy. Segrest loves the water and grew up fishing with her father, but it wasn’t until she met Ulmschneider that she really learned to sail.

“He wanted to take me sailing because that was his passion, so my first big sailing experience was on the Baltic Sea,” she says. “This is not bikini-and-martini sailing. This is heavy wind, rough conditions, high waves, and it’s super, super cold.”

And Segrest loved it.

During the next few years, she started her own company, Navigate Content, moved down to Gulf Shores and bought her own boat, a 15-foot catboat she named Protagonist.

“I love the physical labor of sailing, and I love the art of sailing,” Segrest says. “You’re working on the conditions and the wind, and you’re not in control. You’re really just responding to the elements around you. There’s something really cool and adventurous about this. Some people just hate it – it’s too slow, or too hard, or they get sick. Or it just really becomes a part of you. You connect with the sea and the art, and you want more. And that’s me. I just fell in love with it.”

As it turns out, she also fell in love with Ulmschneider, and she’d visit Germany often, sailing with him on his 24-foot boat Toja.

When Ulmschneider bought the Seefalke about a year ago, the two started making plans to bring the vessel to Alabama.

“It’s not a fancy or expensive boat, but it was built for a journey like this,” Segrest says. “This boat is sturdy. She can handle grueling, heavy conditions.

“Really, the hardest part was making the decision to do it,” she adds. “Once you do that, then it’s just all about the details.”

Chief among those details – how to make it work financially.

“We’re not wealthy,” Segrest says. “We’ll be working while we’re doing this. We have to. We can’t just take off six to eight months and not work.”

And then there are the dogs. Taking them along for the ride also came down to money.

“When we originally planned this trip, we thought we’d go back and forth, maybe sail for two weeks or so at a time and then work and then go back to sailing, but we’ve got to be conscious about money,” she says. “It’s expensive to board the dogs, and we also wanted them with us.”

The dogs love being on the boat, Segrest says. “Anytime we’re near the marina, they’ll run and jump on the boat.”

So the happy foursome – all of whom will have life jackets — will set sail from Stralsund, Germany, on Aug. 1 or 2. Segrest and Ulmschneider are going to be documenting their trip with blog posts, photos and videos. Segrest will report from the point of view of a novice, and Ulmschneider, via videos called “Maik’s Nav Corner,” will provide expert commentary for veteran sailors.

“I’ve sailed for five years in heavy conditions, but I still consider myself a beginner,” Segrest says. “Maik has been sailing half his life.”

Ulmschneider is looking forward to sharing that knowledge.

“I think lessons learned at sea are lessons learned for life,” he says.

The two will sail the Baltic and North seas, reaching Falmouth, England, by Sept. 1. From there, they’ll either cross the English Channel or, if necessary, go up and over through the Bay of Biscay.

“To be honest, the only thing that scares me about this whole journey is the Bay of Biscay,” Segrest says. “Gigantic ships, 10 times bigger than our ship, can just be slammed with waves in the Bay of Biscay.”

The voyage will then take them through the Sea of Gibraltar, because Segrest has always wanted to see Spain and Portugal. “Ultimately, we want to get to the Canary Islands, the last stop before you cross the Atlantic,” she says. “We have to be sure we have enough food, enough water, enough extra fuel for the tanks, if we need it.” (The Seefalke does have a motor, but it will be used only to maneuver in and out of ports and in case of emergency, Segrest says).

After they reach the Caribbean, the two will travel up the coast, hitting the Gulf of Mexico and, finally,  Bon Secour Bay.

“We’ll be living on the boat the entire time, even when we’re visiting ports,” Segrest says.

They’ll stay connected with friends and family – both Segrest and Ulmschneider have two children – via their social media posts and text messaging. From time to time, if work demands it, they’ll anchor the boat and travel where they need to travel. Those who want to “join the crew” and follow the trip in real-time via GPS can go to the couple’s Patreon account.

It will be a lot of togetherness for the couple.

“There’s nowhere to escape,” Segrest says with a laugh. “We’ll give each other 43 feet of space, and we’ll just work things out. We have to be a team, because we need each other to get through it.” The Atlantic crossing, for instance, will be 24-hour sailing, so they’ll work in shifts throughout the day and night.

A small purification system will help them keep fresh water for drinking and showering – and the dogs – and a refrigerator will allow them to keep fresh meat, cheese and other items, up to a point.

One thing the duo won’t do, Segrest says, is fish for their food.

“Most people who do this fish, but we don’t like to kill animals,” she says. “We will eat animals that are already dead, but Maik feels like the fish are our comrades in the sea. We have a strong connection to wildlife. The three things we love are travel, wildlife and sailing. If it’s an emergency and it’s all about survival, yes we will fish, but only then.”

Segrest says that although the dogs won’t swim in the sea because they might be mistaken for prey, she and Maik will be in the water a lot, and she’s not afraid of sharks or any other sea creatures.

“The only things I’m really afraid of are seasickness and the Bay of Biscay,” she says. “The rest we can handle. I have so much confidence in my captain.”

Ulmschneider says he has few concerns.

“The boat is seaworthy, and the crew is fit,” he says. “We are equipped for the worst but hope for the best, so there are no particular worries or concerns. … If there is any concern it probably is how we are going to cope with our regular jobs while at sea. But I am sure we will figure that out, as well.”

The goal has always been to get the Seefalke – which is painted bright orange, a nice coincidence for the Auburn graduate – to Alabama.

“We have some ideas of some ways to use it as a business in Gulf Shores,” Segrest says. “We want it here also because we want to sail some waters that aren’t in Northern Europe.”

In the meantime, Segrest, 51, and Ulmschneider, 41, are getting appropriate shots and papers for themselves and their dogs, and Segrest is reading “The Atlantic Crossing Guide” by Jane Russell.

It’s full of advice on how to make the long trip, including packing as light as you can.

“There’s only so much space on the boat, and you need to use every square inch,” Segrest says. “There’s a great quote: ‘I never realized how little I needed until I went out to sea.’”

And with luck, she might just find out how to handle bags of trash.

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