Last January, one of Sunreef’s main production halls caught fire in its Gdansk shipyard, destroying three large catamarans under construction. The fire would be a disaster for any builder, but perhaps more so for Sunreef since it represented over half of the boats under construction.

Sunreef founder Francis Lapp was out of the country when the fire, still under investigation, destroyed the building. While most boatbuilders would’ve let the dust settle for a few days, deciding how many workers would be laid off and what the next course of action might be, Lapp instead decided to rally his employees and begin construction on the three lost hulls. Most of the moulds had survived, and new tooling could be built for the replacement hulls. The company sent out a statement just 48 hours after the fire that delays in the delivery would not exceed three months. The yard also noted that it would increase production capacity not only for the lost yachts, but for a new build it had signed with the owner two days after the fire.

The faith the owners have in the shipyard – the same one where Lech Walesa and other Polish ship workers started the Solidarity movement in 1980 – was also a vote of confidence for Lapp. Instead of furloughs, Lapp hired more staff and increased shifts in a race to complete the yachts on time.

Seven months later, the shipyard has not only lived up to its delivery promise to the owners, but launched two new models – an 82ft “double-deck” sailing catamaran and a 60ft power cat.

Lapp, a 54-year-old Frenchman from the Alsace region who settled in Poland in 1992, entered the marine industry in a highly circuitous way. Early in his career, Lapp worked for French multinationals, doing stints in countries outside France like Saudi Arabia. He quickly rose to management, but soon realised his entrepreneurial skills could be put to better use outside of a large corporate environment. He launched a startup that manufactured switchgear cubicles. His clients soon included giants like Coca-Cola and Siemens.

 

Eastern opportunities

During his time off, Lapp was a passionate race-car driver, participating in long-distance rallies across Europe and Africa. A chance visit to Poland in 1991, where Lapp took third place in a road rally, opened his eyes to opportunities in the former Soviet Bloc nation. France, like most of Western Europe, was stuck in recession in the early 1990s. But Poland was beginning to emerge from a 50-year economic freeze, and the start of a prolonged boom in construction was just beginning. Lapp quickly became fluent in Polish and his company, HTEP Polska, took on many new clients around Gdansk. The company moved beyond swtichgear cubicles and began to design and install electrical, sanitary and air-conditioning systems in large industrial facilities. HTEP Polska grew in step with Poland’s economic expansion, and Lapp grew to love his adopted country.

A few years after settling in Poland, Lapp went out with some friends on a 16ft Hobie racing cat. The experience changed the trajectory of his career. He had not grown up around boats, and had little experience aboard, but the small Hobie’s speed and agility was as addictive as the road rallies. Suddenly Lapp was hooked on racing small catamarans. He finished sixth in the Polish Hobie championships in 1996, and soon after bought a 20ft Tornado, the next step up in racing catamarans.

In 1998, Lapp visited the Paris boat show, intending to buy a racing catamaran. Instead, he bought a 46ft cruising cat, and shortly after he purchased two 56-footers. He shipped them to Madagascar, opened a charter agency called Sunreef Travel, and was soon in the boat business. Two years later, having spent time on a 30m motoryacht in the Med, Lapp wanted an even larger cruising catamaran with a flybridge. But he couldn’t find anything on the market to suit his tastes.

So in 2001, he rented a few buildings at the Gdansk shipyard, employed 60 boatbuilders, and started his own 74ft cruising cat. “I knew what my charter guests wanted in the ideal catamaran –comfort, stability and safety,” he says. “So I based my ideas on the charter clients, and by early 2003 we were completing the first Sunreef 74.”

A rustic painting in Lapp’s office shows the first Sunreef, surrounded by a bright turquoise sea, with an emphasis on the flybridge. After that model – a custom job – was launched, Lapp began to think seriously about entering the cruising catamaran market. With competitors in France and South Africa, Lapp knew he needed to create a standout design that was also practical. He commissioned naval architects in France for a 60-footer.

 

Production boost

With HTEP Polska long established and profitable, Lapp was able to start Sunreef Yachts without taking out large commercial loans. He expanded space in the Gdansk shipyard, and soon a crew of about 100 workers were building the first Sunreef 60. The first model was completed in 2005, sailing to the Cannes show on its own bottom. Lapp had high hopes for the new catamaran, but it was a flop at the show.

“When people heard it was built in Poland, they didn’t even go on board,” says Lapp. “At that time, people didn’t associate luxury goods with Poland.” Seven years later, he says, the ‘Made in Poland’ designation is not an issue. “We’ve been promoting the brand strongly in the international yachting world for the last 10 years, so people know who we are and what we can do,” he says.

Sixty launches later, Sunreef has successfully followed an ambitious product development schedule that has seen the introduction of both custom and semi-custom sailing and power catamarans that have gotten larger over the years. Its four semi-custom sailing cats range in size from 58ft-82ft, while the four power cats range from 60ft-85ft. It has plans for custom catamarans up to 170ft for its sailboats, and 45m for the motoryachts. Last year, Sunreef launched a custom 114ft sailing cat – for the same client who bought the original Sunreef 74. An even larger project is on the drawing-boards.

After designing the first Sunreef 60 with outside naval architects, Lapp decided to bring all design and naval architecture in house. That allows for faster design as well as the ability to make client-requested modifications to the boats more quickly. On the day IBI visited the shipyard, one of the new-build’s captains was sitting with Lapp, working on last-minute changes to the design. He works closely with clients and captains as the build progresses. Almost all work at Sunreef is done in-house, from the moulds and tooling to the final fit-out and upholstery. Sunreef has even started to build carbonfibre masts and spars in house, a rarity for any shipyard.

As the rest of the yachting world saw its average sizes increasing, Lapp kept up by introducing ever-larger models. “Ten years ago, 74ft was considered a large boat,” he says. “Now 60ft or 70ft is nothing big. Many of our clients are experienced sailors, but most want larger boats to cruise the world, typically with crew. That meant designing larger and much more technically complex yachts.”

The Gdansk shipyard, with its Soviet-era hotel, old brick tenements for workers, hulking empty cranes, and weed-choked fields, hardly looks like a spawning ground for new technology. But Sunreef has kept pace with the rest of the boatbuilding industry by using vacuum-infusion and exotic fibers in its layup. “Ten years ago we were doing the layup by hand, but now everything is vacuum-infused,” says Lapp. “We’re constantly looking for weight-savings in the composites. We are always looking for new technologies and designs that we can bring to the boats.”

 

Standout design

Lapp points to a colour rendering of the new 60 Sunreef Power on his wall. “We used concepts that you might see on a superyacht on this boat,” says Lapp. “Notice the ‘beach club’ at the transom. We also wanted to design it with a strong visual appeal for people who have owned other motoryachts. From some angles, you can’t really tell it’s a catamaran.” The company continues to push the envelope of luxury catamaran design, installing full-beam master suites, multiple guest quarters, and other amenities found on larger yachts.

Compared to the rest of the Gdansk shipyard, Sunreef is a hive of activity, with the large modern cats filling the work sheds. The production space totals about 12,000m2, but it is spread around the shipyard. On the August day that IBI visited, five boats – two 60ft power cats, one 70ft power cat, one 58ft sailing cat and one Sunreef 80 sailing yacht – were under construction. Inside one of the buildings, a mould for the 70ft sailing model was being prepped for infusion.

The Sunreef 82, Houbara, was in the water, undergoing the final touches before heading to Cannes. Workers were busy installing electronics inside the cabin, while others were making final touches in the cockpit. From an initial workforce of about 60, Sunreef now employs about 450.

The workers, some of whom did apprenticeships in the Gdansk shipyard, take their jobs seriously. In the woodwork shop, a quarter-mile from the production sheds, about two dozen carpenters are creating intricate shapes and designs for the yachts for later installation. A CNC router is cutting an
oblong-shaped piece that will serve as a hatch
cover. In another building, two women wearing masks are cutting and sewing pieces of carbonfibre for the masts.

Lapp hires women to do the more detailed jobs like sewing upholstery, or in this case, special fabric for the masts. He believes they are more attuned to intricate work. Sexist or pragmatic, Lapp has great respect for the Polish work ethic, and brushes away a question about cheaper labour rates being a reason for locating in Gdansk.

 

Strong work ethic

“I’d already been here for 10 years. I found that the workers are self-motivated and love to work,” he says. “You don’t always find that in other places.” Plus, he could draw on the skills of a shipyard that was losing new-build contracts for freighters and other commercial vessels to cheaper-labour countries like China or Taiwan.

Lapp says the only time he had trouble finding good workers was from 2006 to 2008, when many of his skilled workers moved to shipyards in France, the UK and Germany looking for higher wages. Many returned to Poland as order books have dwindled in those countries.

Despite the global slowdown in yacht sales, Sunreef is completing a larger, more modern facility about 2km from the city centre. With operations under one roof, it will be better organised than the sprawling Gdansk shipyard complex. “We should
start moving in by the autumn of next year,” says Lapp. “We’ll take our time and spend five months moving there as we finish boats here. But the new facility will allow us to coordinate construction
much more easily.”

How does the future look for large luxury catamarans? Lapps says he’s not overly concerned about Europe’s financial woes or a global economic slowdown. Part of the reason for super-sizing the Sunreef line has been to attract a higher, more affluent client base. “The market is tough for the entry sizes – not just the size, but the price,” says Lapp. “There is not much of a market for boats costing $1m, and those owners often seem to be willing to short-change quality in order to cut costs. I’d rather work with a client who can afford a more expensive project because they tend to not compromise on quality.”

 

Building bigger

The trend in building ever-larger catamarans over the last decade has paid off for the shipyard. Sunreef weathered the latest downturn with some pain and layoffs, but its competitors withered. Lapp says his two main French rivals have gone bankrupt in the past three years. “Most of the remaining yards are building small catamarans, with a few doing one-off projects to 70ft,” he says. “A few naval architects have new designs, but they don’t have shipyards. There are no other yards that specialise in large catamarans.”

That leaves Sunreef, according to Lapp, the last man standing in a small but healthy niche. Besides Sunreef Yachts, the company has expanded Sunreef Vacations to become Sunreef Yacht Charters, and has yacht management and brokerage divisions. He is still chairman of HTEP Polska, but spends most of his time at Sunreef. “Short of a nuclear war, I’m very optimistic about our future,” he says. “Most big news these days will have a short-term impact on the global stock markets. Our clients tend not to worry so much about the tremors in the markets.”

Apparently, Sunreef’s clients don’t even worry about disasters at the shipyard, because they know their yachts will eventually emerge, unscathed and ready to cruise the world.