Portrait: Günter Klingbeil is one of the last small ship chandlers (2024)

Topics in this article

  • There can be no question of sealing up
  • The years after the company was founded were hard work
  • Klingbeil expands to its own online offering
  • Starting a family, the boats, the house, the shop - everything comes at once

The Elbe is only slowly awakening from hibernation. In Glückstadt the yachts are still being worked on, outside the fairway belongs to the freighters. Only one of them never takes a break from sailing. Undaunted, for over 30 years. And not just defying the winter - but also the fast times, the competition and the vastness of the internet.

A small shop in Glückstadt. Address: Am Hafen 27, with a view of masts, traditional ships and an old boat shed opposite. The windows of the shop are painted blue and white, flags fly in front of the façade. Inside, paraffin lamps twinkle, nautical charts and logbooks are on display. Pots of paint stand on the shelves, ropes are piled up. Fenders hang from the ceiling and the display cabinets and drawers are full of screws, blocks, brass thimbles, horns, caps and blue sailing pullovers.

A nautical smorgasbord. A colourful villa for water rats. You almost want to rub your eyes. There really is another marvellous sailing shop out there in Glückstadt. A real one, not a virtual one. One that smells of varnish and where the floorboards creak. In front of the door is an unagitated sign: "Bootsausrüstung Günter Klingbeil" (Günter Klingbeil boating equipment). As soon as you step over the threshold, rare territory opens up. This is a truly walk-in boat chandlery equipped to the hilt, probably one of the last of its kind.

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Günter Klingbeil stands in front of a tin of biscuits and a steaming cup of tea, surrounded by spars, compasses and small model ships. He is wearing jeans, a blue jumper and a grey beard. He is the man who took the shop from the cradle, built it up with his own hands and still runs it today. Winter and summer. Klingbeil is celebrating a remarkable anniversary this year. His shop on the Elbe has existed for 30 years. A little dinosaur. An irrefutable one.

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There can be no question of sealing up

Günter Klingbeil's boat shop on the Elbe has seen a lot. It has weathered the times of online retail, experienced the era of the online giants and survived the demise of many of its colleagues. Not to mention Corona. "No, it wasn't always easy," says Klingbeil, now 64 years old. And he adds: "I don't want to say crazy, but you have to be fearless to pull something like this off."

But Klingbeil is looking cheerfully to the future. There is no question of closing down. Not now. Not if, after 30 years, you have become a small institution on the Elbe, have learnt to weather the digital flood of bargains and survive the great extinction of shops all around you. Around 22,000 smaller shops closed in Germany during the pandemic alone, and even before the crisis, an average of 5,000 shops went out of business every year. This makes the blue and white shop front in tranquil Glückstadt, where Günter Klingbeil is keeping one of the last small shops of its kind on course, all the more astonishing.

When you enter and let your eyes wander over the inventory on the shelves, you are overcome by an almost lost sense of life. Look, touch, feel. Take a rope in your hand, feel a shroud tensioner between your fingers. Grab a brush and stroke the bristles over the edge of your hand. In the background, the reassuring voice of the boss: "Better take this one, I've tried it myself, it's the best choice for clear coats at low temperatures."

The years after the company was founded were hard work

They are sentences from a lost universe. Advice from a specialist who is standing right next to you. The shopping experience is real. However, standing in a shop like this today and being able to get up close and personal with the goods is not something that can be taken for granted, and hardly any customers realise that they are standing within the four walls of a survival artist. "The beginning was arduous, really arduous," says Klingbeil. "It took decades to stand on our own two feet. You need dedication and loyal, committed employees to build up a business like this and run it to this day."

Günter Klingbeil has a catchphrase on his lips to summarise this life's journey. "I bought the old house with nothing, renovated it with nothing and opened the shop with nothing at all." No, not a walk in the park. "In the first few winters, we heated the house with reminders, and without the support of my wife, nothing would have worked anyway."

The years after the company was founded were hard work. Although Glückstadt is a long-established harbour, many yachts are moored there and the winter storage facilities were already well frequented back then, it was by no means a sure-fire success when Klingbeil opened his shop in 1994. "Despite the close proximity to the harbour, word first had to get around that we had set up the shop," he says. And then there was also overwhelming competition. The burgeoning mail order business, the dominant industry giants, the internet.

Various crises have Klingbeil sounding out how to find calmer waters

Whenever things started to go well, the next low blow followed. "There was always a crisis of some kind," says Klingbeil. "The internet crisis, the economic crisis, the banking crisis, the energy crisis." The consequences of such developments are still being felt by the Davids of the industry. Steadily declining purchasing power, customers who are becoming increasingly cautious and reticent. And all this with rising costs. Such trends hit a small sailing shop like a permanent earthquake. But Günter Klingbeil kept going and persevered. After all, he loves the boats, the Elbe, the water. Nevertheless, he was now a small entrepreneur who first had to sound out the psychology of the business in order to keep his shop alive and steer it into calmer waters. And he learnt one thing very quickly: "There are goods everywhere - the decisive factor is that the customer leaves satisfied."

Klingbeil once had a key experience. One day, a customer wanted eight large, beautifully spliced mooring lines. Klingbeil didn't have any and didn't know how to do it. But he said: "No problem, you can pick up the goods on Saturday!" He spent three nights in the shop with an experienced sailing friend, working together on the ropes and weaving the cables. "It was such a great order, we just had to give it our all - and the customer was happy."

Klingbeil expands to its own online offering

And so, over the years, Klingbeil finally won what it's all about. Customers who come back. Customers who don't just look. And customers who trust his advice. Regular customers who are ultimately the basis for the survival of such a small boat shop. But that's not all. The depth of the product range is also crucial, says Klingbeil. Because if someone is looking for a certain screw, a fitting, a barometer or something else and then leaves empty-handed - "not good". That's why he has around 5,000 items in stock, says Klingbeil, from the 600 euro Goretex jacket to the three-millimetre nut for four cents, "made of stainless steel, of course".

He now also has his own online range, which includes everything from flagpoles and paddle straps to electrics and bilge pumps. "You can't do without it any more, even if the shop is and remains the heart of the business." But even that is not enough. Other ingredients are needed to keep a boat shop like this afloat today. Perhaps a certain magic is required. Genuine passion in times of business plans and cold commercialism. And if anyone can tell you a thing or two about it - about true passion for sailing and love of water sports - it's Klingbeil.

There has to be someone like that. Someone who has sailing ships carved into his shop doors!

For him, it starts with the doors. After acquiring the old house on the harbour, a hostel built in the 17th century for journeymen, he spent years renovating it. Most of it was done by himself. Klingbeil renovated the roof truss, gutted the attic and uncovered the ceilings on the ground floor, which were decorated with old paintings. Then came the shop downstairs. Floorboard by floorboard, wall by wall. Slogging, sanding, painting. For nights on end. Finally, one or two beautiful entrance doors had to be added. In the spirit of sailing, of course. Klingbeil had them made in a local joinery. The old cassettes were sent to a wood sculptor in Hamburg, who then carved pretty sailing ships into the wood: three historic shrimp boats from Wewelsfleth, based on original photos. "One is coming in, the other two are just setting sail," says Klingbeil. "Under full sail, of course."

There has to be someone like that. Someone who has sailing ships carved into his shop doors. Blue on a white background, the ship motifs still cross customers' faces before they enter the shop. It's like a subtle gesture. One that says more than a thousand words. Welcome to a thoroughbred boat enthusiast. The enthusiast didn't skimp on the interior design of the shop either. However, he was not interested in maritime decoration and lighthouse design, but in solid furnishings. Klingbeil ordered metal tool cabinets from Italy, which fill the entire right-hand front of the shop.

The drawers are equipped with double roller pulls, neatly labelled and contain pretty much everything a sailor's heart could possibly desire: Snap shackles, sprayhood fittings, brass thimbles, jettisoning rings, copper nails, spring clips, luff cleats, clamcleats, sheet rings, shroud tensioner sleeves, compass lights, blanking plugs, spreaders, reefing hooks, rudder bushes, anchor rollers, oar cuffs and, of course, screws in all alloys and sizes. Sailors will be amazed. And even find nautical parts here that they didn't even know existed. But that's what it's all about in the end: obsession with detail. The sheer devotion to the beloved sailing ships.

As a teenager, Klingbeil explores the Elbe with the pirate. Further and further

For Günter Klingbeil, this is no coincidence. Water, boats, wind: this triad has characterised his life. Born in Glückstadt, he spent his childhood by and on the water. "The dyke foreshore," he says, "was my playground." Even as a toddler, he saw the boats sailing on the Elbe, and he got his first rubber dinghy when he was nine. He took it out on the Rhin, paddled through the nearby rivers and the inner harbour.

His father owns a bakery in the city. He also dreams of sailing, but the business leaves him no time. In the end, it is his son Günter who can't give up the water. They soon buy a pirate from friends of the family. At the age of twelve, Günter and his brothers sail through Glückstadt's inland harbour, with the big freighters delivering cellulose for the paper mill right under their noses. It was the 1970s and Günter Klingbeil's dinghy years. As a teenager, he sails out onto the Elbe, runs with the tide as far as Pagensand, navigates along the reed belts and shimmies along the pricks into the old harbour. "Pure adventure," he still remembers today.

He continued to explore the Elbe with his pirate, sailing as far as St Margarethen and Brokdorf on the beach. And then his father realised his dream. He buys a Dehler Optima, which they use to sail the Baltic Sea from then on. His son Günter only got more blood - and promptly started as a shipbuilding apprentice after school. At the Kremer shipyard in Glückstadt, he was soon standing in front of 40 metre-long commercial vessels, working on mighty tugs and supply vessels for the oil rigs. He familiarised himself with one of the last lacing floors, straightened by hand and drew construction cracks one-to-one on the huge hall floor. Shipbuilding from the bottom up: Günter Klingbeil experiences this at first hand.

Starting a family, the boats, the house, the shop - everything comes at once

After his training, he completed his military service as a paramedic. And even after that, Klingbeil remained loyal to ships. However, it was no longer commercial shipping that appealed to him, but working as a wooden boat builder. At the Kunya yacht shipyard in Neustadt/Holstein, he learnt the trade of boat builder, restored cutters, laid teak decks and carried out repair work on countless sailing ships in winter storage. And so it goes on. A decade and a half dedicated to the water. To sailing, to ships.

In Denmark, he worked for a designer who created blanks for boat moulds and worked in Sønderborg on the sea-going ewer "Petrine", a museum ship with a pointed stern. Klingbeil restores cutters, refits A&R yachts and builds V-boats for the navy, "double diagonally carvel-planked", as he remembers. During these years, he also met Joachim Kaiser, the enterprising ship rescuer from the Elbe. Klingbeil soon built two new masts for his "Undine". And when there is time, in the summers, he sails. Elbe, Baltic Sea. From Funen to Marstrand in Sweden. His special interest in traditional ships has long since been awakened. Calfing, laying wooden decks, shafts. Eventually, he signed on with Michael Baars, whose winter storage facility holds a good 100 yachts. There is plenty to do. Repairs, refits, paintwork.

He also bought his first own boat during these years. A former Danish lifeboat that had been converted into a dinghy with a ballast keel on the Ox Islands. Günter Klingbeil buys the boat in Kappeln - and first has to completely restore it together with a friend. In the meantime, his life project was also underway: the purchase of the old house in Glückstadt harbour. The total renovation. The path to self-employment - and thus to running his own business. "It all came at once," says Günter Klingbeil. Starting a family, the boats, the house, the shop. And: it was to become a life dedicated to the craft - and ultimately to sailing.

Klingbeil is not only behind the sales counter

Today, 30 years later, Klingbeil stands behind the sales counter. Petroleum lamps dangle above his head, ship's bells hang on the wall, surrounded by a collection of lifebuoys and southern westerns. His shop has long been unique in the north, an original. Author Johanna Benden has even immortalised the shop as a setting in her Glückstadt novels such as "Salt in the Wind". However, only Klingbeil himself knows how such a small boat chandlery has survived to this day. "It's only possible with idealism, the support of the family and great employees," he says.

Which is not to say that he is only on one side of the sales counter. Klingbeil still can't keep his hands off the ships. As a board member of the "Rigmor von Glückstadt" association, he and the members look after the floating monument, which is moored opposite in the harbour, on a voluntary basis. Built in Glückstadt in 1853, the ship once sailed as a customs cruiser and stone fishing vessel - at 170 years old, it is nothing less than the oldest sailing ship in Germany. Over in the boat shed, parts of the heavy rig are stored in winter, where the swords and running rigging of the venerable barge are maintained.

A quiet man in boat shoes and a blue windbreaker, whose recipe for success is ultimately a very simple one

The association also operates the historic slipway in the harbour. The "Nellie & Leslie", a former fishing cutter with a gaff rig built in 1911 at the Worfolk shipyard in England, is currently being restored here by an owners' association. Günter Klingbeil knows these ships and projects inside out. He coordinates the winter work, lends a hand with the restoration and often stands on the ladder himself to replace planks or wield a paintbrush.

He also organises the "Rhinplate rund" regatta, formerly the autumn meeting of the "Freunde des Gaffelriggs". Up to 35 traditional ships sail there every year, making it their largest gathering on the Elbe. But the season has not yet started. The sun is already shining warmly on Glückstadt harbour in the morning, where the ships are waiting for the summer and Klingbeil likes to walk past before the shops open. Then he marches back to his shop, which is just opposite. A quiet man in boat shoes and a blue windbreaker, whose recipe for success is ultimately a very simple one: You don't have to live off the boats, you have to live for the boats.

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Portrait: Günter Klingbeil is one of the last small ship chandlers (2024)
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