Smooth sailing for 'Made in Poland' yachts
The contrast is as stark as it is improbable: a dazzling, brand-new superyacht glides across the harbour of the communist-era Gdansk Shipyard, the birthplace of new Poland but the epitome of industrial decay.
Sleek, sophisticated, luxurious and competitively priced Polish yachts are reinventing the country's all-but-defunct ship-building industry with a sporty capitalist edge.
"I think it's the best-kept secret of the boating industry in Europe -- that is: Polish production and Polish quality," said Philip Scott, a British expat and deputy chairman of the Polish Chamber of Marine Industry and Water Sports (POLBOAT).
One leading firm, Sunreef Yachts, boasts it's the world "leader in the class of custom-built, luxury catamarans," according to public relations officer Rafal Lenartowski.
He said clients are "proud" to own vessels made in the hallowed shipyard where the pro-democracy Solidarity trade union rose up under Lech Walesa in 1980 and nine years later helped bring down Warsaw's old Soviet-satellite regime.
Sunreef's head offices are in no-nonsense portable containers on a leased plot in the shadow of rusty, gargantuan cranes. In a rambling red-brick production hall nearby, 250 local craftsmen hone its double-hulled vessels to perfection.
Started in 2000 by Francis and Nicolas Lapp, an expat French father-and-son team with a background in electrical engineering, Sunreef tapped into generations of ship-building savvy in the Gdansk workforce to turn out products for choosy clients from Monaco to Qatar, Hong Kong and even Santiago, Chile.
Their vessels measure 58 to 114 feet (17 to 35 metres) with "competitive" prices from 850,000 to 10.5 million euros ($1.22-14.5 million). The catalogue also offers a "world-first" 200-foot model valued at 30 million euros.
The key to success, says Lenartowski, is quality at the "same or higher level than other yards in Europe" but prices that are "still a little bit lower", 15 percent on average.
"Clients are comparing us to the best-known Italian brand in terms of craftsmanship," he said.
Industry insider Superyacht Business magazine recently carried an eight-page spread hailing the competitiveness of Sunreef and three other home-spun Polish superyacht-makers, Galeon, Conrad and YBM.
The four firms are the stars among Poland's 100 yacht yards that, all told, build around 20,000 boats per year costing an average 9,000 euros -- mostly small and mid-sized motor and sailing yachts from six to 10 metres, according to POLBOAT.
-- 'We put more soul into our yachts' --
"Poland today is one of the leading players in boat production in Europe up to 10 metres," said POLBOAT's Scott. "The share on the European market is significant," he said, with French and Italian yacht-makers the main rivals.
In boat shows across Europe, about a third of all vessels are now Polish-made, Scott added. But they are sold under global brands like France's renowned Jeanneau-Beneteau and US giant Brunswick Marine which "account for around half of Poland's production."
Virtually all Polish-made boats are exported, as two decades after communism's demise most Poles still can't afford such luxuries.
POLBOAT chairman Andrej Janowski, the first to open a commercial shipyard to build luxury yachts after the fall of communism, attributes the drive to make more sophisticated and speedy boats to what he calls the freedom-loving Polish soul.
"Sailing is something which is characteristic of people with a mentality of freedom and we Poles have always been a free people," he insisted.
Indeed, domestic yacht-building exploded when communism collapsed in 1989 and the essential marine-grade resins, fibreglass, plywoods and lacquers suddenly became available on the nascent free market.
Over the last 22 years, two other pioneers in the Polish market, Wojciech Kot and brother Piotr, have built their passion for sailing into a a multi-million dollar business with 450 employees, including 150 certified sailors.
Their firm, Delphia, is located in the town of Olecko, nestled among forests in the picturesque northeastern Mazury lake district. It now has an annual production of 2,000 motor yachts for Brunswick Marine and 200 custom-made sailing yachts sold under its own flag for up to 298,000 euros.
Kot invokes the same high quality-low cost mantra cited by others. "We have world-class design coupled with Polish craftsmanship, with the big plus that the labour costs still aren't as high as elsewhere so we can put more time into customising to fit the client's needs," he said.
Kot himself spends about three months a year on the water as a captain test-sailing his Delphias, most recently across the Atlantic.
In Poland, "we put more soul into our yachts -- that's how I see it," he said.
© 2011 AFP