Adrienne Culpepper says the smell is the first thing most people notice about the business that she and her husband, Michael, own in Galveston, Texas. “When people who have worked on rigs or ships walk into our shop, they breathe in and say, ‘Aaahh, I love that smell,’” she says.
The Culpeppers’ shop is called Nautical Antiques & Tropical Décor, and it’s filled with all kinds of treasures salvaged from vessels that range from cruise liners and oil rigs to cargo ships and passenger yachts. Some of the items for sale are older than the people looking to buy them. And all of the items would likely be on history’s scrap heap if the Culpeppers hadn’t saved them from ship-breaking yards in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkey. “There’s a finite find in our industry,” Adrienne says. “They’re not using things like brass anymore in ships. Every year that we go to the break yards, there’s less material that’s cool enough to resell.”
The business actually began with Michael’s father, who was an importer of everything from shells to bones, which were used to make knife handles. Around the time that Michael graduated from college with a major in sports management, his father was getting into nautical-themed items. “One of his clients had come across a bunch of salvaged Japanese glass floats,” Michael says. “Dad imported those, and that’s how he got into the nautical thing.”
While keeping an eye on his father’s store, Michael decided that he enjoyed working in the import business too. He opened the Nautical Structures store in January 2000, and about a year later, he met Adrienne, who was studying maritime administration at Texas A&M University. “I got lucky when I met Michael,” she says. “I would’ve been stuck in a cubicle.”
In the beginning, because their cash flow was limited, they’d go overseas to the ship-breaking yards once every two or three years. And every time they went, they’d be more and more astonished by what they saw. Each of the yards is the size of a major U.S. airport, but laid out in a linear fashion, following the contours of a beach. The ships are pulled into slips on the beach. “There are 200 of these slips, so there can be 200 ships being broken at the same time,” Michael says. “And that’s just in India.”
Hundreds of people are working to break down the ships—smashing and drilling and prying them apart—with all of that activity taking place in the shadow of yet more boats and ships sitting at anchor, awaiting their turns to be scrapped. “It’s crazy to wrap your head around how many people are working in each slip,” Adrienne says. “It’s like a colony. They live there, work there and send money home.”
When their business was young, the Culpeppers had to hide under a blanket in the back of a Range Rover to get inside the ship-breaking yards. Westerners with white faces were beyond an oddity; they were considered a threat, especially if they took pictures that showed what were sometimes dismal safety conditions for workers. Today, they team up with locally based spotters who, after years of visits and deals, know what items the couple wants. The Culpeppers spend about a month each year (usually November) traveling to the various yards. The only place they won’t go in person anymore is Pakistan—it’s too dangerous trying to get to the ship-breaking yards there, Michael says—but in Pakistan and in the other countries, they’ve developed relationships with local people they trust to look at which vessels are being broken down, and what they have on board. “They know what we’re willing to pay for certain items,” Michael says.
The Culpeppers are after things that simply aren’t being made for maritime use anymore. They want the stuff taken off old naval ships, items that today’s yacht builders no longer create, and things that sometimes only exist in a grandfather’s attic or basement.
One example is brass portholes. Ships built in the 1970s and earlier typically had brass portholes, they say, while the ones on newer vessels are usually made from aluminum. Similarly, the Culpeppers tell their spotters to salvage pilothouse wheels, especially the ones that are as tall as the helm itself. “These big ships don’t have wheels anymore, and if they do, it’s a little 10-incher,” Michael says. “Most have joysticks.”
Adrienne says the crockery is another popular item at the store. “The plates and cups with the company flag on them are popular with our customers, and you really can’t find them anymore. Shipbuilders don’t spend the money anymore on making a porcelain plate with an emblem. Today, everything is plastic or made in China. We handpick crockery. We dig through piles of stuff to try and find it. In some cases, the crew in the breaking yards are using it to eat from.”
The clientele at Nautical Antiques & Tropical Décor is diverse. There are boaters who want an item to create the right ambience on board, but the Culpeppers also sell to people decorating beach houses, and they get regular requests from the owners of seafood restaurants and clothing stores. “They like to decorate with boating accents, be it wooden materials, life rings, things like that,” Michael says.
Like many of the items they collect, the Culpeppers are a rarity themselves. When Michael’s father started his business 25 years ago, they say, there were maybe three or four people in the world going to the ship-breaking yards. The handful of men knew one another, as if they were members of an exclusive, globe-traversing club.
And even today, there aren’t that many people doing what the Culpeppers do. Given the declining amount of historical items on the dwindling number of older ships left to be broken down, salvaging is not exactly a growth industry. The Culpeppers already supplement their inventory by purchasing from individuals in private sales. ”
For the couple, getting hold of a good find is simply one of life’s precious joys. They have no children, and they both love to play Texas Hold’em poker, but their favorite muse is travel, which dovetails with their line of work.
“Most of our trip in Bali is work, but we do try to have a couple days of fun,” Michael says. They need that bit of fun pretty badly after combing through the ship-breaking yards for days on end. This particular style of treasure-hunting sends most people running in the opposite direction.
“The stink in India, with the heat and the chemicals and the acetylene torches, and the ships themselves have odors from the engine rooms,” says Adrienne.
Even still, the Culpeppers say they plan to keep at it for as long as there are finds to be found. They believe that every one of the compasses, bells, flags, lights and other items for sale at their store deserves to be saved, fixed up and passed on to another generation that appreciates its significance—and that understands the quantities of available items are going to dwindle in the years to come.
“While we like what we do, we know that there is an end in sight,” she says. “Even the people we work with know that the days of us buying eight containers worth of salvaged gear are limited.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.