They spent three years building the boat, equipping it and making it seaworthy. Now there was no turning back. Werner wanted to be out in the world, and Irmtraut was there. That’s how it’s always been with them. He pushed forward, she joined in. They were 45 years old, had raised two children, had worked like crazy, now they wanted to leave their old lives and Berlin behind. A newbeginning. Another one.
Seven years earlier they had moved from Heidenheim to Berlin to live in a high-rise council flat in Lübars. You could also say: They fled. In Heidenheim, Werner had been involved in a major stock market scandal, and Irmtraut was involved. It was about investment certificates of the corporate and banking conglomerate “Investors Overseas Service”. The profits are gigantic, according to the promise of the dazzling founder from America. “Don’t be a victim of capitalism – use it,” was an advertising slogan, and an FDP vice chancellor sat on the supervisory board. Werner believed in it, invested, set up his own sales department and had five employees. Friends, acquaintances, neighbors, everyone invested. Irmtraut took care of the paperwork, also sold himself and managed the employees. The money flowed until the global fast ball principle was discovered and everyone lost their money, including Werner and Irmtraut. But even worse than their own loss was that they had disappointed the people in Heidenheim so much.
When the two met, Irmtraut was in her early 20s and in need. She already had a small son and had just separated from her first husband, who had given her the role of housewife, responsible for the children and laundry. But she hadn’t left the confines of the village at the age of 16 and looked for an apartment and an apprenticeship with a lawyer in Stuttgart, just to let herself be bullied now.
Now Werner was her great love. He looked good, a heartthrob. He thought it was great that she was so independent. And she said to him right away: “Either you mean it seriously, or we’d better leave it alone. I don’t have time for games.” Werner was serious.
So Berlin. Werner worked in sales for a roofing company, Irmtraut started as a saleswoman in a gift shop on Ku’damm. She was a master of the sales pitch. Instinctively felt how to approach which of the customers, how to elicit their wishes, when to leave them alone. After six months, the boss offered her to take over the shop, and Irmtraut accepted. A second shop was added, and they hired seven people. But she still needed someone to organize the camp. “Werner,” she said, “what do you earn? I’ll pay you double.” He accepted. Now she was his boss. And business was booming.
They joined a sailing club. The boys drove regattas, and Werner and Irmtraut also got their sailing licenses. In the end they bought the twelve meter long boat, expanded it and dreamed of the really big trip, of starting over again. The boys were grown now.
“25. April 1982. Berliners wave, film, hugs, good wishes, a few tears. Cast off. Four hands push us from a standing position. All sails are set on the Elbe and a great trip to Cuxhaven with a stern wind.
26th of April. At night, have gale, wind from behind, 7-8, gadfly breaks, high North Sea waves. I’m afraid.”
It was a bad storm. But two weeks later, things were going to get much worse for them.
Shortly before Lisbon, wind force 7, then 8, then 9. Huge waves, the ship was always on the verge of capsizing. “I thought we were dying,” says the younger son, who accompanied his parents during the early years of their journey. “Father was above, we were below praying.” As the waves dwindled and the sun came out again, they felt reborn. “Anyone who survives something like this understands how quickly such a life can be over.”
First they walked through Lisbon, marveling at the palm trees and the pleasant weather, then they drove to the Mediterranean Sea. A division of labor quickly became established on the boat. Werner and his son took care of the sailing and the boat technology. Irmtraut made the galley and made contacts on land. No sooner had they arrived in a port, had the boat moored, than she got to know the first people, had organized the first invitations, knew where to buy something and what to experience on land. Year after year they made more and more friends, in every port, in every country there were friends. At Christmas, Irmtraut sent 200 letters in which she reported what had happened last year. Werner was the quiet one who waited before he opened up.
“This kind of life changed Irmtraut and Werner. It made her happier, more humble in front of the big world, but made her even more alive, it was like a rush of life. Those journeys across the endless ocean, all alone on a small boat that changes. They didn’t miss work at all.” That’s how the son tells it.
But father, mother, grown son on a boat for four years – can something like that go well? “We became best friends. That sounds strange, but we just got along well.” The boat also had several cabins, sometimes they had guests on board who accompanied them for a few 1000 kilometers.
From the Mediterranean it went across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, then to the South Seas, Polynesia, Fiji, Tonga, one dream idyll after the other. Sailing, listening to the weather report, fishing, reading, playing, getting to know people, discovering countries.
Eventually her son left her and started his own life. And Werner and Irmtraut continued. 30 years around the world. They had three ships in total, most recently a catamaran. When the longing for home grew, they moored the ship and flew home. After a few weeks they got jittery, then it had to move on. Until Werner had a stroke in 2010 while snorkeling on a reef, harpoon in hand. He survived, but had to relearn everything: to speak, to write, to take care of himself. Irmtraut at his side, patient, caring, love as big as it was 50 years ago.
In Berlin they moved into a small furnished apartment. Went to the theater and cabaret, traveled, met friends. Until Werner got cancer, a stroke and a heart attack, and ended up being as helpless as a child. Eventually he stopped eating and drinking. That was in 2019. Irmtraut was sad that he had made that decision, but also relieved that it was over now.
She lived a little longer, reading the dozens of diaries she had written on her travels. Went on vacation with friends. Donated 500 euros to the podiatrist when she was in need. And forced her occupational therapist, who visited her twice a week, not only to do sports with her, but also to accompany her when she ran errands. That was Irmtraut, who couldn’t be denied anything. She still had one big goal: to visit her son and grandchildren in Florida. But there wasn’t enough time. In April she died.