1989 – 2003


To live my life over

is not a wish I entertain. 

For that would mean fighting
life’s battles again. 

The storms that have passed are best left behind,

Time is a teacher, bear it in mind:

opinions burst forth with force in youth,

then experience culls those that fall short of the truth.

But the pain of mistakes fades with the years

and resilience and courage drive out the fears.

My errors, misadventures and trials at length

have ended up bringing me insight and strength. 

Now is the time to enjoy the fruits, 

not to hark back to the days of my youth.

Why revisit misjudgements and tears 
just to learn the same lessons and end up back here?

It can be tempting to try to trick ourselves into glossing over our mistakes, but we see through ourselves too easily: buried deep down inside, the memories burn away and eventually do us more damage than simply tackling them head on and paying the full price up front. So far at least…

Collateral healing to mend my soul:
as I write these lines, that’s my goal.

It’s time the work started, 

an effort whole-hearted, 

there’s steam in my boiler (as ever) to use.

I’ll not be distracted, detained or misled 

or allow advancing age to muddle my head. 

Stay on target, focus in,

tell it straight – no distortion or spin.

Hello? 71 years old already? The story grows longer by the day and I have been falling behind in the telling of it, which oversight I now intend to put right by filling in (some of) the 29-year gap. Will it ever happen? Daft question: take fifteen years or so of experience (leaving a round 14 for another time), pare off the fat, dice that experience into concentrated little morsels for the interested sailing public (including a few jokes with a familiar punchline – me) and look forward with renewed hope to the possibility of eventually catching up to today, the possibility of one day being able to write only about projects of the present and future.

It is almost exactly four years since I wrote about the five pillars at the centre of my life and four years on, I think I probably captured it just about right.

1984 – 1989

And so I sit here poised before my keyboard – conscious of the rain falling outside and of the urgent crowds panting past in search of that one perfect gift to ensure expectations are met – thinking what better opportunity could I have to make good on a promise to myself:

Little Foerthmann, sit you down and continue your tale.
Your life has followed a bumpy trail. 

Allow the light in, air out the facts.

No judgement, no pity, just recount the acts.

Let your fingers over the keyboard fly 

and if it needs to be said, don’t let it lie.

Christmas is here again,

so why not allow the brain

a writer’s reflection on the joy and the pain!

It isn’t even December any more as I write this, but rather than poetic (?) licence what we have here is a reminder that despite my Christmas (Christmas 2017!) good intentions, my promise remains unfulfilled. It’s time to try again –and harder this time – to pass another scoop of Little Foerthmann’s life through the sieve of hindsight.


This chapter begins (and not for unequivocally joyful reasons) in the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall – and indeed in the same locale. The 9th of November 1989, the day that ended with people dancing on top of the sinister concrete slabs, found me at the town hall in the Schöneberg district of Berlin facing a dramatic (and, looking back, an unnecessarily foolish) upheaval of my own: there, in the late morning, under the moist gaze of soon-to-be new relatives, I invited the sword of Damocles above my head and uttered the words “I do!”

Did I really? Was I of sound mind? Was I scared? Was I too weak-willed to second-guess my own judgements even when instinct implored me to run for the hills? My grandfather used to say that if you start something, you should see it through. Just words, of course, but perhaps having once placed my lamb’s foot on the ramp of the butcher’s van I felt duty-bound to see the business through. And an expensive business it turned out to be too – albeit it not literally a slaughter, certainly a financial and emotional bloodbath. And I didn’t have to wait long for the knives to come out either, poor me (yes, self-pity is pointless – but more of that later).

Anyway, the ceremony rolled along as it will and we made our way past the heaving crowds (including the mayor, always quick to make an appearance) and the throngs of East Germans in their distinctive East German jeans queuing at the banks to collect Chancellor Kohl’s 100 Deutschmark “welcome money”. Some time later we heroically hauled a Trabant back to Hamburg on a length of thin flag halyard. Trabbis seemed to run out of puff very quickly once they hit the Autobahn and there were lots of them lined up along the hard shoulder waiting for a sympathetic former enemy-of-the-people automobile to give them a tow. “You can smell a Trabbi coming before you see it,” they said – and not without good reason. But Trabbis crossing the (former) border into the West were still met with welcoming (and not, I hope, condescending) applause, at least for a while. Improbable as they may sound to people who weren’t there, these things really happened!

I mention these events not least because, having very obviously failed to think properly about what I was doing at the time, I hope (and I recognise it may be a forlorn hope) that in revisiting them I may eventually be able to extract some value from them. My particular weakness for trying to make other people happy has landed me in calamity after calamity. Ignoring the facts does me no good (and I have certainly tried), so all that remains is to find a way to make these thoroughly chastening experiences work for me after all.

It was a need for a different kind of rethink that confronted me all of a sudden back then though. Could I convince myself that my opposite number was right and that the mighty loan I had taken out to invest in growing my business and building a home should indeed be defined instead as an increase in our joint assets and hence as property in which she, as part of the married couple that had “generated” this “asset”, was entitled to a half share – to withdraw and use as she saw fit? Now, this may not sound like the most cunning of plans, but there was more: if, my wife carefully explained, I could not find a way to accept her proposition, I could forget all about the divorce. Moments like this take some digesting, but there are valuable lessons to be learned from them once the initial tempest of negative emotions subsides and equilibrium returns.

Anyway, I managed to weather the storm, restore my tender soul and move into my new home once again a free agent. I had designed and built the place with dreams of a rosy shared future in mind, but my sadness at living alone again was more than offset by the relief of having completed the separation before the building itself could become another bargaining chip.

Having dodged this bullet by the thinnest of margins, I was able to regain full control of my life relatively unencumbered – albeit with rather large debts (and my financial position was not helped by having to pay a settlement – effectively a penalty for breach of contract as I have always seen it – to a woman who felt perfectly justified in placing all of the blame for the failure of the marriage on the shoulders of he who dared to stick up for his belief in cooperation, fairness and respect instead of meekly resigning himself to a life of ovine acquiescence). My lesson of the day? Nothing lays a person’s true nature bare like a divorce!

Anyway, bill paid, process completed and lessons learned, it was time to move on. The shock therapy provided by this grand debacle proved highly efficacious, leaving me immune to being led astray (in any meaningful way) by the temptations of the flesh for the best part of 16 years. In the meantime, peace of a sort broke out again in Windpilot country.

Swipe-and-go with Tinder hadn’t even been thought of yet and meeting new people largely meant just that: meet up face-to-face and deal with the consequences face-to-face. Having established that the answer was not to be found in the circles in which I then moved, I had to find a way to cast the net more widely. Close quarters action can be a valuable way to broaden one’s horizons, but there is usually a right time to apply the brakes and he or she that does not has no right to complain about lost time later on. Hope springs eternal even from the untidiest of endings.

I tried at the time to earn myself some good fortune with a personal ad in a national newspaper (always under the watchful eye of my mother, who enjoyed making sharp observations about her offspring’s public activities: “The hunter is on the loose again” and so on). These adverts turned out to be an imprudent investment, for it was one of them that led to me being in Berlin on that fateful November day in 1989 and exposed me to the crushing costs of (first) marriage and (then) divorce.

As I said though, all of this did at least immunise me against similar ventures for many years – in fact right up to the moment I fell headlong for the friend, partner, confidante and collaborator who remains by my side today. It has been fourth go lucky for me: this time I have had nothing to regret, no harsh lessons to learn and no heartache to mend. Thanks to her, I know now that two souls can indeed come together to share a life in fun – a life greater than the sum of its parts – and that the dreams I always dreamed of contentment in company were not hopelessly idealistic after all.

I firmly believe (in the unlikely event that anyone has any interest in the matter) that a full and satisfying life can only really be enjoyed two-up, in an atmosphere of harmony and mutual respect (spiced, naturally, with humour and a sharp wit). Sharing a pleasurable existence brings spiritual peace and an end to disaffection in a way nothing else can ever match.

A man searches for a wife for as long as it takes her to find him…

The years that followed brought nary a pause for breath. Problems were tackled one after another, with each matter resolved seeming to spawn two new challenges and the pace of life accelerating all the time. This remains the case right up to the present day (early October 2018).

The annual itinerary was for many years filled with up to 14 boat shows – no fewer than eight in the USA. The work the web does for us now we once had to do in person, flying all over the place loaded down with bags and exhibition cases to meet the sailors face-to-face and awaken them to just how far they might go if they would only invest in some modern engineering for the aft end.

The lectures proved a great success, but the green-eyed monster of envy began to stir too as competitors sought to carve out a niche of their own in my lee. Life is a roller coaster – full of twists and turns and amply provided with fellow travellers happy to coast on the wake of other people’s efforts.

I decided to write these stories down so that I wouldn’t forget them, which would have been a shame because they are rich in the lessons of life – lessons that my life, at least, seems to have been trying very hard to teach me (other lives may vary). One of those lessons, of course, is that for as long as life lasts, there are always more lessons to come!

Bang your head against the wall hard enough and often enough and eventually you’ll be able to squeeze through the hole you’ve made and carry on going. Putting this lesser known aphorism into practice could have driven me out of my mind I suppose, but it didn’t. Indeed with the benefit of distance and hindsight, I like to think of it now as a lifetime of good fortune…

Intrigue and copycats

The toughest lesson in my life has always been the issue of dealing with toxic individuals, those men and women whose poison only starts to act once they have infiltrated your life and earned your trust.

Progress was slow, but the realisation eventually implanted itself in my brain: anything from a friendly face to a shared bed can be a trap for a benevolent personality with a weakness for new experiences. Lack of enthusiasm was never my problem. I suffered, rather, from a sort of cognitive dissonance that ensured my objective understanding in no way impaired my career as master of disaster.

Instinct of a certain kind led me into situations and instinct of a different kind (the survival instinct, more often than not) would eventually lead me out of them again, but only once affection with the promise of more to follow had given way to verbal waterboarding, the sort of one-sided telephone call that leaves you wondering how the handset didn’t melt and, finally, stony silence. How often the wheels would come off at the very first bump in the road…

Fourteen years passed full of boat shows, the redesign of the Windpilot range, simultaneous conversion to industrial manufacturing techniques with in-house CNC machining, investment in the reconstruction of the workshop and the writing of the book Selfsteering under Sail, which was to be published at the same time in the UK and the USA. Strong nerves required.


Preparations for the launch of my book in the USA took me to Camden, Maine, to visit Jonathan Eaton at publishers International Marine Books and gave me the chance to spend a few unforgettable days in Rockport and Mystic Seaport.

The year was 1998 and it was a busy one – busier in fact than any year should be. And it ended with the pace of life ratcheting up yet another notch or two.


In December 1998, I was sued in the High Court in London for libel. Cases of this sort involve exorbitant costs and I believe the intention of this particular one was to put me out of business permanently.

I have recounted the story elsewhere:

A singlehanders fight

Unlike my publisher Adlard Coles, which reached an (expensive) out-of-court settlement with the plaintiff, I stood my ground and fought on alone (what other choice was there?) until the case was thrown out and I was vindicated. The decency and loyalty of a number of the people I met in connection with these proceedings deserve to be reported.

Im Gegensatz zu ADLARD COLES, die sich mit dem Kläger – teuer! – verglichen haben, habe ich meinen Prozess im Alleingang zu einem positiven Ende bringen müssen bzw. können. Ich habe darüber einige Menschen kennengelernt, die mir zur Seite gestanden haben, weshalb ich sie hier erwähnen möchte.

First of all I must mention SIMON EKINS,whom I met in the course of a long (several days long) quest for a capable and experienced lawyer in London. Having already visited quite a number of firms by this time, I was pretty sure I knew what to expect. They’d all “done a bit of sailing” and they would all be happy to have a look at my case just as soon as I had crossed their palm with silver (£ 10,000 seemed to be about the going rate for the first step). But at 16 Great Queen Street, they played a different tune. Simon simply asked me to leave the files with him for an hour, suggesting I stretch my legs in Hyde Park while he read them through. When I came back, the news was good and in an unbelievably short time we had everything agreed and sealed with a handshake. So grateful did I feel to Simon that I named my son after him.

Auf der Suche nach einem geeigneten Barrister, der unseren Fall vor dem HIGH COURT vertreten sollte, ist unsere Wahl auf Adrienne gefallen.

Our ensuing search for a suitable barrister to represent us before the High Court led to ADRIENNE PAGE – QUEENS COUNSEL one of the leading specialists in defamation, libel and media law, who had not just an incredible record of success in international legal wrangles, but also a MOODY 42, which she sailed with her husband and which, by coincidence, had been upgraded with a Windpilot some years previously.

This, I felt, was just the stroke of luck I needed to keep me going in the complex and esoteric legal maze into which I was now descending: having the right people on my side made life and work easier and motivated me to persist.

My many meetings with Simon and Adrienne in London did my head and my business a world of good. And I say that even though I ended up having to pay the enormous bills racked up during the case myself when the plaintiff, having had his case struck out and been ordered to pay costs, declared himself bankrupt and paid nothing. The scale of my financial liabilities at that point was breath-taking, but fortunately I had learned from my mother always to compartmentalise such worries (and make sure they never spilled over from the “financial” compartment into the “stuff that can really get to me” compartment).

I must also be grateful to High Court Judge the CHARLES GRAY – HIGH COURT LONDON a man with enormous experience whose sure hand steered my case to the only fair conclusion.

The lessons I learned from my legal adventure in London have had a profound influence on my life. The book, to which I owned the copyright, was published in German a short time afterwards by the Delius Klasing company. Such a specialist book apparently lacked the necessary mass-market appeal in the German-speaking countries though (something they would have done well to tell me before I started writing it) and SELBSTSTEUERN UNTER SEGELN was remaindered due to “insufficient sales” after just a few years in print.

I subsequently published the book myself in six different languages and my website tells me it has now been downloaded (free of charge) something like three million times. It looks as though it has become a preferred source on the subject and, with this in mind, I am currently preparing to revise and re-release it in both print and e-book form (not before time).

We set up our own publishing company, Windpilot Books, a while ago and plan to start offering specialist books and other titles shortly in electronic and hardcover formats. This is something I have had in mind for years, but it has always been one of the quieter chicks in the nest so that I have always ended up giving my time to other, more insistent projects.

The flow of my life has always been – and I suspect always will be – interrupted at regular intervals by unforeseeable events that tend to break over me/us without warning and draw off time and energy from the things I expected to be doing.

Having been building sales and reputation steadily for years, Windpilot came to enjoy quite a high profile in the USA. This was very welcome, of course, but there had to be a dark side..

Windpilot USA

Memories of the crazy developments of the period from 1998 to 2003 still set my palms sweating even the best part of two decades later: I’m still not sure how I managed to hold it all together. The High Court affair threw everything up in the air for a solid two and half years and left me with bills running into six figures. The simultaneous switchover to a permanent mould casting process – financed with bank loans running into a stately seven figures – became a sinew-straining high-wire act with no dress rehearsal, no safety net and no soft landing. My bank manager had given me his personal vote of confidence (this was in the years before the Basel banking reforms made such a thing unthinkable) and my only option was to grit my teeth and get on with it (hence exhibiting at up to 14 boat shows a year for many years).

The tragedy of 9/11 in New York changed everything for me. Suddenly, travelling to America with a case full of solid aluminium components didn’t seem like such a good idea, especially as suspicious US customs officers could hardly be expected to recognise a windvane self-steering system for the harmless (though potent!) tool it is.

I reflected, contemplated, pondered and deliberated over the next couple of years before deciding, in 2003, that my boat show days were over. I estimate that I have done time at approximately 220 shows around the world – a total I imagine few in the marine industry could match. I joyfully allowed my once-bulging air miles account to lapse and decided that flying would henceforth be an occasional pleasure rather than a regular routine.

This decision also ended my direct involvement with the bluewater seminar series, which I had been involved in setting up between 1997 and 2003 and which was carried on by Bobby Schenk.

Scaling down my outgoings in this way had a welcome effect on my bank balance, as did the fact that I no longer had or needed any employees (if I had an MBA, I’d call this “consolidation”). Windpilot has operated strictly as a family business ever since – and that is definitely how I like it even if (or should that be because?) we end up spending some very long days in the workshop.

My personal life took a wonderful new direction in 2003 when I was found by my now-wife. I hadn’t realised – or perhaps didn’t dare to dream – that what I wanted was so close at hand, but fate did its stuff and entangled two lives that turned out to be just right for entangling.

Which, I think you will have to agree, is a pretty succinct way to summarise 14 years of two lives.

For me, 2003 marked a new start, the beginning of a new existence with new horizons. I couldn’t have known it at the time of course, but the pace of life was about to pick up dramatically once again. And things (good things) I had always suspected but never quite been able to grasp were about to become very real.

Less time spent pondering my own personal relationships (and the question of where to find the next one) has meant more time for pondering the subject that interests me most of all (apart from self-steering), namely how we as people interact with each other generally – how we form relationships, how we build trust, what different people hope or expect to gain from their relationships and what (if anything) they are prepared to give in return, for example.
We talk, we blog, we chat 
but there’s more than that. 
Whatever we might like to whisper, shout, scream, insist is true, 
it is via our actions that our true colours come shining through.

Hamburg, 1 October 2018
Peter Foerthmann

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