Dehler Turns 50: A Story of Survival

Seasoned sailors associate fast, thought-out, and well-built boats with the Dehler brand. However, celebrating a half-century in business in 2013 was not always a given for this Germans boatbuilding icon.

9th January 2013.
By Dieter Loibner

When Willi Dehler started building boats in 1963, he wanted to deliver fine craftsmanship and innovation, which he accomplished in fine fashion while turning out boats that embodied quality and performance.

Dehler’s Varianta 18 is a modern, easily handled one-design sloop based on an older design.

The first model, called the Winnetou-dinghy, was assembled in an old movie theater and sold around 400 times. Soon Willy was joined by his brother Heinz, and together they were to introduce the Varianta (an E. G. van de Stadt design), a small cruiser that turned into a best-seller, featuring smart details like a pop-top and a keel-centerboard. From 1967 until 1982, approximately 4,000 of these boats were built in several variations. These were the boom years when GRP made the boats affordable, light, and very durable. Many of the Variantas are still actively sailed, mostly in Northern Germany. Following the Varianta were other successful models, including the Optima, Delanta, and the Sprinta DS.

Dehler continually tried to make sailing easier, developing boats with a central winch system (CWS) and self-tending jibs that simplified maneuvers. The company also built very competitive 470s and the Sprinta Sport, supposedly Germany’s first IOR one-design class. Later, the firm also got into fitting out Volkswagen vans.

The Sprinta Sport was an early one-design class in Germany in the IOR days.

Despite the many successes and the general respect this brand enjoyed, Dehler was always highly exposed to the pressures of lean economic times. In 1998, three years after Willi Dehler stepped down as company president, a Dutch group of investors saved it from going out of business. In the following years, a string of successful models gave Dehler another lease on life until the recession of 2008, when debt and a dearth of orders forced the firm to file for bankruptcy.  A bailout plan involving the local government of North-Rhine Westfalia failed, as did the idea of cooperating with the Polish Delphia Yard. At the end of 2008, Dehler was about to join the ranks of defunct boat builders. Doing so would also take with them the Belgian Etap yard, which they had acquired just a year earlier.

But in the spring of 2009, disaster was once again averted, the time by the Hanse Group, Germany’s second-largest sportboat builder, which had gone public on the Frankfurt stock exchange and was in expansion mode. Hanse decided to acquire Dehler to expand its offering. Solid and successful models like the Dehler 34 and the Dehler 44 were very welcome in Greifswald at the time. In addition, the Varianta 18, a modern re-issue of the old best-seller Varianta was launched, and was well received in the market with its aggressive sticker price of less than 10,000 euros.

At first Hanse tried to continue building boats at the old Dehler yard in Freienohl, but in spring of 2012, the operation was shuttered to slash costs, and the entire Dehler production was moved to Hanse’s main site in Greifswald. At the show in Düsseldorf in January, 2013, the new Dehler 38 will be rolled out. The boat was designed by Judel/Vrolijk & Co., and is the first Dehler model that’s entirely built in Greifswald.

The occasion will ring in the 50-year anniversary with many planned events and celebrations in 2013. At the Dehler booth in Düssledorf a summary of the company’s history will be shown. In addition, a book is going to be produced, scheduled to be published in 2014. Everybody is invited to share photos and stories by sending e-mails to 50years@dehler.com. Of course, there will be sailing, too. A Dehler rendezvous will be organized in the fall on the Schlei River.

- Dieter Loibner


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