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From Solidarity to super yachts: Gdansk's historic shipyards try to stay afloat

updated 1:51 AM EDT, Tue May 29, 2012
  • Gdansk was birthplace of Poland's Solidarity trade union movement in 1980s
  • Shipyards today employ a tenth of former workforce
  • French luxury yacht manufacturer has been based in Gdansk since 2002

Editor's note: CNN International's Eye On series is visiting Poland. Read and watch reports from the country online and on TV until June 8.

(CNN) -- During the 1970s and '80s it was said that what happened in Gdansk moved the world.

The shipyard in the Polish port city employed around 20,000 workers building container ships and vessels for the navies of many East European communist countries.

It was also the birthplace of the anti-communist Solidarity trade union movement started by shipyard electrician Lech Walesa, and the spark that would help lead to further civil resistance against communism across Eastern Europe.

Now 30 years on, the shipyards are a very different place.

All people talk about the shipyard in Gdansk. This factory is really important for all Polish people.
Adam Muczynski

Only around 2,000 people are employed in the yards and construction halls and work is sporadic. Occasionally cruise ships will be refurbished here, but aside from ferries, there are very few large ships being built.

But there is one operation helping to keep a small portion of the struggling shipyard afloat and is as far from its origins as can be.

Sunreef Yachts is a French company that has been building its high-end catamarans in Gdansk since 2002.

"We are building history as well, because it started with big container ships and we are continuing with pleasure boats for millionaires from all over the world," says Sunreef's Rafat Lenartowski.

Poland's economy grew by around 4% last year and large-scale luxury goods companies have been relatively untouched by the global economic downturn.

That is good news for Sunreef's local employees, many of whom are highly-skilled shipwrights or specialists, and are second or third generation workers of the shipyards.

"This is important for me," says Adam Muczynski, a 32-year-old employee of Sunreef, whose father was an electrician during the 1980s.

"All people talk about the shipyard in Gdansk. This factory is really important for all Polish people, really."

The construction halls have produced over 60 luxury vessels and many in the city and within the company hope that Gdansk's best days don't have to be in its past.

"We have still a lot of offers that are coming into our shipyard, especially from the emerging markets," says Lenartowski.

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