“School? I thought that was boring,” says Gerhild Wiendieck over a can of soda in her home in Victoria, British Columbia, from which she can see the bluish contours of the U.S. shoreline across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Her short white hair and rectangular spectacles accentuate the relief of her face, carved by years, laughs and the salt of the sea. She’s pushing 85, but she’s still vital, with a wry sense of humor, an impish smile and an undying love for the ocean, which was a formative force in her life.
Wiendieck, who hails from Germany, never was a rock star in the yachting scene simply because she never made a big fuss about her exploits. Yet she inspired women to take the helm and venture out onto the ocean, following the examples of such audacious sailors as Ann Davison, who in 1953 became the first woman to cross the Atlantic single-handedly, and Ingeborg Heister, who in 1969 was the first German woman to single-hand a trimaran across the Pond.
Growing up during and after World War II in Germany, she had to break some molds to do it. “At age 13 I was the man in the house,” she chuckles, remembering the hard times. Her father was a POW in the hands of the Red Army. Her mom, once a successful rower, had a broken leg. The family lived hand-to-mouth. Wiendieck had to pitch in by helping an uncle who was a blacksmith. “I learned how to grind knives and shoe a horse.”
She became self-sufficient as she learned to handle the burden of responsibility, which would later serve her well. But first Wiendieck did what women did at the time: She married young. However, that’s as far as it went for traditional roles. The groom was Hans Schippmann, a well-to-do architect who owned two sailboats in the postwar years.
Day sails on the Bay of Kiel and weekend trips north to the Schlei fjord or the Danish isles became a favorite pastime for “Schippi,” as Wiendieck became known in sailing circles. She found work at a government office in Kiel, so she was never far from the water and made friends among the pilots, characters and the sailors at the Baltic Yacht Club, where she’s still a member.
Blazing a Path
“Schippi can do everything and fears nothing,” says Mary Lincke, who was one of the youths at the club and often joined Wiendieck on cruises as a trainee. It was common for young club members to join experienced sailors, but “Schippi was extremely generous and later also let me borrow her boat,” says Lincke.
“Suave, popular, companionable, generous, outgoing, yet incredibly knowledgeable about seamanship and always ready to help,” is how Thorsten Ahlers remembers Wiendieck from their time sailing together on the French-built Sangria, a quarter-tonner that was popular in the 1970s. Ahlers recounts two frightening episodes in Schippi’s sailing life, stuff she’d never bring up herself. She once went into the drink in port and wound up between boat and pier, escaping with nary a scratch. The second incident occurred at the east end of the English Channel when she got into thick weather.
“The boat was rolled, and a window in the saloon on the leeward side was stove in,” Ahlers says. “Water was entering the cabin, but she managed to stop [it] with a settee cushion.”
The boat was safe for the moment, but Schippi thought the odds weren’t good. “She was angry about a new sheepskin coat she had bought,” Ahlers says. “If she was to go to Davy Jones’ locker, she argued, she wouldn’t be able to wear it.”
Humble, modest, tough as nails.
By the 1960s, decades before access and participation for women were promoted, Schippi was an accomplished skipper who raced and cruised in Germany’s coastal waters. Unlike Davison and Heister, she didn’t sail solo often — “too boring,” she says — but she wanted to conquer the Atlantic. She knew she had it in her, but it took some goading by a rowing acquaintance to get the ball rolling.
In the early 1970s she crossed the Atlantic for the first time, on Windpeter, a cruising yacht owned by a friend of her husband, who joined the boat for a few weeks every now and then. “It was like‚ ‘I’m sailing to the Caribbean, do you want to join?’ ” says Bernd Lingner, recalling Wiendieck’s invitation to crew for her. He was among the youngsters who hoped to catch a ride while hanging out at the marina in Kiel where he met Wiendieck.
Hard Choices, Rich Rewards
“I quit the office to go cruising shortly before I was to be tenured,” Wiendieck says. Though sacrificing job security for cruising time was incomprehensible to her colleagues, she reaped the rewards by sailing to such places as Barbados, the Bahamas, Bermuda and the BVIs before mass tourism, cruising rallies or charter bases. In those days you had to be wealthy or lucky to sail the Caribbean, let alone for years and on a private yacht. So being friends with Wiendieck offered the opportunity to experience destinations that were considered exotic 45 years ago, which means she never had to beg for crew.
She also met interesting people vagabonding between the Caribbean and Down East Maine on different boats, including the crew of Palawan III. This unusual Sparkman & Stephens design from 1966 was built of aluminum with a center cockpit for Thomas Watson Jr., a former president of IBM.
She also developed a keen eye for personalities in the sailing tribe, “those who like to sail to the lighthouse and back, those who spend vacations afloat and the mugwumps that cross oceans,” Wiendieck says. She lived and breathed that culture but never grew fond of recording minutiae in the logbook. “I loved to put down what we ate and did, more than where the wind blew from or which course we sailed. Because, you know, who gives a fig about that stuff 10 years later?”
She returned to Germany and bought Astarte, a classic 38-foot double-ended spidsgatter-ketch designed by Aage Utzon and planked in larch on oak. It’s a stout vessel, not racy or chic but fit for rough Northern waters and bluewater adventures. It’s a pragmatic conveyance, quite in line with Wiendieck’s no-nonsense approach. (Lingner later took over Astarte, which is for sale.)
Mates on the Water, Friends for Life
Wiendieck was married three times but never had children. Yet she wed only two men; her third husband was the same as her first, Schippmann. He had emigrated from Germany to Victoria and asked her to join him in the cocktail hour of his life. She doesn’t say why exactly she agreed to remarry and move to Canada when she was in her early 60s, except to say that “one has to try something new every once in a while.”
Schippmann has since passed away, but she says she doesn’t rue her decision, perhaps because there is a link to her sailing past named George Stricker. He’s a German emigrant who had settled in Victoria and became successful in real estate. He and his wife were en route from Holland to the West Coast with their brand-new yacht when they crossed tacks with Schippi in Grenada in 1972. They kept in touch over the years, so when she thought about moving, she knew she also had old friends in the New World. And to this day Stricker checks on her about once a week.
Making friends and staying friends is a strong thread in Wiendieck’s life. She built an illustrious circle of them, including Germany’s most prominent circumnavigator, Wilfried Erdmann, one of the few who sailed around the world nonstop and single-handedly — and in both directions. Wiendieck befriended him and his wife, Astrid, early in his career, sometimes lent a hand during preparations for his voyages and gifted him a wind vane for his self-steering kit. “I had three in my garage, so I gave him one to try,” she says with a shrug.
Wiendieck might have detested sitting in class when she was young, but she led a venturous life. Growing up before, during and after WWII in Germany, she figured out how to make the most of very little. That in turn helped her develop resilience and resolve and instilled the kind of confidence to buck the tide and sail her own course. She never took an easy out, and her motto could have been “Impossible is Nothing.” So what if women were not handed the tiller? She was smart, she was skilled, and she took charge.
Curiosity and courage took her to far-flung destinations on a sailboat, but along the way she also touched the lives of many who stayed friends. Down the stretch that’s the dividend from her persistent investment in relationships, which is more substantial than clicking the “like” button. “Whatever she does, she does it right,” says Lingner. “She always was very generous in helping others, and she goes to great lengths to keep in touch with people she’s fond of.”
Schippi and her mates didn’t make a big brouhaha about their adventures. To them the joy of doing dwarfed the urge to brag. That’s really old school, which is why it’s not to the taste of our times, but it’s a valuable lesson, nonetheless.
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue.