Survival skills help Gdansk shipyards rise from post-communist decline

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Lifted out of the water, a huge blue ferry towers over the quay, its propeller suspended in mid-air above brick warehouses. Workers in overalls and red helmets scurry about, as cranes tilt and swing into action.

These shipyards were once written off as a historical relic, famous not for the ships they built but for the communist system they sank. As Poland embraced the .

But not any more. The yards have undergone a remarkable renewal, emblematic of the new Poland: successful, competitive, and outward looking.

Ships built here now ply seas from the Channel and the Minch to the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico, with clients including Scottish Fisheries, Brittany Ferries, and BP. The Queen and Princess Anne are both “godmothers” to ships built by , bestowing British royal patronage on ships made on the other side of Europe.

As well as being one of Europe’s largest shipbuilders, Remontowa operates one of the world’s biggest repair and maintenance yards, set on the flat Ostrów island (the word literally means “island”) on the Vistula delta as it enters the Baltic Sea. Gdansk’s skeletal shipyard cranes loom along the coastline, symbols of a centuries-old tradition that refused to die.

Remontowa now has a turnover of €500m (£355m), equivalent to around 1% of Poland’s GDP, and nearly 8,000 employees.

“I think if you ask people who are 45-plus, they will remember how there were strikes here in the shipyard, and that atmosphere,” says Arkadiusz Aszyk, the crisply suited managing director of Remontowa Holding, as his Audi glides rather incongruously across the slimy cobbles of the shipyard. “But younger people don’t think about it any more, I don’t think they’re proud it was here. They’re proud to work for a big company recognised worldwide. The company is of huge importance for local people.”

Rafał, a worker coming off his shift at the heart of the island, agrees when asked if the Solidarity protests of the 1980s, which channelled a new spirit of revolt in communist eastern , are significant to him.

“I’m 39, I’m too young to answer this question. The shipyard has huge importance for Gdansk, and I’m happy more and more ships are being built here.”

The Gdansk shipyards, once written off as a historical relic, have undergone a remarkable renewal. Photograph: Peter Andrews/Reuters

In the repair yard, ships of up to 250,000 tonnes are lifted out of the water, their hulls suspended mid-air. These are some of the 300 vessels repaired a year. Workers huddle beside portable buildings. One, smoking a cigarette and dressed in a hoodie and sunglasses despite the rain and gloom, asks Aszyk to park elsewhere, an unusual occurence in a part of the world where top-down hierarchies often dominate companies.

What is now Remontowa Holding was founded in 1945, when Poland was emerging devastated from the second world war. The company’s yards overlap with the old Lenin Shipyard, where Solidarity’s Lech Walesa launched his protests, though much of the Lenin site is now in the hands of the , majority-owned by a Ukrainian company. It has not enjoyed Remontowa’s success due partly, it is said, to political considerations, as the Polish government has a minority stake.

The industry as a whole, however, is quietly flourishing, having struggled after the collapse of communism. Employment in the sector has risen to 32,000 from 23,000 as recently as 2009, according to the . Specialisation has helped Polish shipyards compete with Asian producers, says Agnieszka Szymczyk at the bank’s Warsaw office. Among the niche vessels produced in Poland are “jack-up” ships for installing offshore wind turbines, and boats for the offshore oil and gas industry. Remontowa is building a new 60-metre hull for a Polish navy ship in some secrecy – it is shrouded in tarpaulin-draped scaffolding three storeys high.

Repair and maintenance operations are also becoming more diversified. In the murky Vistula just off Ostrów looms a huge oil platform clothed in scaffolding and lit by bright white lights. Cranes swing around it while workmen scale metal staircases at the sides. The company is converting the rig from drilling to refining operations, a process that will take two years.

“This shipyard is important for the whole region, for jobs,” says a worker waiting for his bus at the Remontowa offices. He and his brother came from Ukraine to work at the yard. “I’m proud to work here, in this historic city.”