On the site of a former marzipan factory in a western district of Hamburg, Germany, there stands a two-story brick building housing the ship chandler Toplicht. Upon passing through the store’s unassuming entrance, the visitor is welcomed by the aroma of tar and oakum.
As the heavy wooden door closes gently behind, the visitor leaves the busy city of 1.8 million behind, and is transported to a world of vintage vessels. All around are blocks with cheeks of ash, elm, or beech on display; bronze turnbuckles and galvanized rigging screws; old-fashioned bollards, cleats, bitts, fairleads, and mooring pipes. In short, the lover of old ships, vessels, and boats can find anything here, from adze to zinc.
Nearly all of the company’s 14,000 products are displayed in its catalog of over 400 pages, and each item is in stock and ready for inspection on site, or to be shipped immediately anywhere in the world. In fact, shipping on the day of the order is one of Toplicht’s promises. The store’s catalog, with its hallmark brown cover and charming sketches of products, is practically an encyclopedia of hardware and supplies.
Toplicht keeps 25 employees busy, and earns revenues of nearly US$5 million per year. In contrast to the shaky situation in the mainstream yachting industry, its business is rising steadily. “We are within a niche of yachting, but one with a continuous demand,” says Michael Thoennessen as he gives a tour through the well-organized and tidy storage aisles. This tidiness may seem surprising for a ship chandler, but this level of order is utterly necessary for quick delivery. “This makes the client happy, and we save time by avoiding customer requests regarding the status of shipments,” says Thoennessen.
Thoennessen is one of the six founders of Museumshafen Oevelgoenne, a visionary society established in 1976 to preserve traditional vessels of the region. He took care of the Dutch tjalk FORTUNA, a 30-ton flat-bottomed vessel launched 1914. He knew then, before it was fashionable, where to get tar and the linseed oil. He had the right blocks in his garage. His dealings in traditional-vessel hardware and supplies became the foundation of Toplicht, which was established 1981. Since then, Thoennessen has simply kept to his course by adding meaningful products or relaunching nearly forgotten ones, enlarging his crew, and shipping items all over Europe, to the U.S., and worldwide.
Toplicht sells to the private boat owner via telephone and the Internet. While its main site is in German, it has an English-language website too. The company also acts as wholesaler for yards, be it for boat restorations or new construction. Virtually every traditional yard in Scandinavia, the U.K., The Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy, and the German-speaking countries is supplied by Toplicht.
At times, if boat owners seek products that are no longer commonly available, Toplicht arranges a relaunch of an item. One good example of this is Ettan sealant plank wax, a traditional Swedish compound used for sealing splits in underwater planking. The compound, according to Toplicht’s description, “adheres like the devil.” Responding to customer demand for this stuff, Toplicht has arranged to be its sole distributor. Likewise, the chandlery manufactures and sells its own line of high-quality caulking irons and mallets in response to customer demand; the production of these tools is subcontracted to a blacksmith in Denmark.
If you’d like to sheet-in your sails with the same hardware used by the legendary bluewater sailing couple Susan and Eric Hiscock, you’ll appreciate that Toplicht stocks bronze winches made by the New Zealand manufacturer Murray. You’ll also find replicas of the once-famous U.S.-manufactured Merriman winches – the so-called halyard brake, which eliminates a coil of line on deck by capturing the wire (or, often, Spectra today)halyard entirely on the winch drum. (These winches are not only for halyards, but are also good choice for handling the leeboards on flat-bottomed boats.)
Regarding brass ship’s bells, Toplicht found a German supplier whose traditionally cast bells have a vessel’s name cast-in instead of being engraved. And should you need to replace your ordinary stainless-steel running lights to match the traditional hardware complement of the rest of your boat, Toplicht carries ones made of sheet copper by Peters & Bey.
For the power boater, Toplicht has relaunched the nearly forgotten folding helmsman seat. So you can either stand with the seat flipped up or sit comfortably with the same view across the bridge and bow. The patented folding mechanism is made of cast bronze. It’s a small- run item, with only about 10 sold annually. But that’s Toplicht’s specialty: providing a massive inventory of rare and hard-to-find hardware to the traditional-boat aficionado.
Freelance journalist Erdmann Braschos wrote about the Square Meter classes in WB No. 114. He is the author of the book Riva Tritone No. 258 (see Books Received, page 116).