Fair Winds for Global Commerce by Sail

Shipping industry is showing renewed interest in fleets powered by wind energy

International cargo ports in Europe and the Caribbean are occasionally treated to an unusual sight these days – cargo vessels with billowing sails slipping in to dock between hulking container ships. The vessels are a symbol of a possible renaissance of the golden age of sail, a period that historians say ended sometime around the last decades of the nineteenth century.

a ship with sailsPhoto courtesy Michel Floch/ TOWTThe 32-meter brigantine Tres Hombres has been in service since December 2009. She maintains a sustainable freight service between: Europe, the Atlantic islands, the Caribbean and America and has a cargo capacity of 35 tons.

There is once again sustained trade being conducted between Europe and the Caribbean, and in at least one case with South America thrown into the mix, powered exclusively by wind pressing upon sails.

A combination of factors – including a greater awareness of global wind patterns, advances in material design of sailing ships, and the economy of scale reached by the great “Clipper Ships” of the mid-nineteenth century – led to the first golden age of shipping. Today a rebirth of sail-powered commerce may be brought about by similar technological changes, as well as by the economic and environmental pressures that are making carbon-based fuels increasingly expensive.

Many cargo companies have already given up half of the advantage that the internal combustion engines gave over wind power – speed – as they have reduced ship speeds in order to conserve fuel and reduce costs.

Currently, a handful of ships and a few boats, mostly tied together in a common effort by Trans-Oceanic Wind Transport (TOWT), a new company based in Brest, France, lug cargos consisting of fine food products, robust wines, quality liquors (especially rum), and other luxury items,across the ocean and to European ports. Moreover, they are doing it in “traditional” ships. Think three masts and at least some square sails.

Founded in 2009 by Guillaume Le Grande, TOWT is essentially an import-export company that makes its mark by booking cargo only on sailing ships. Despite massive advances in material sciences and modern sailboat design, Le Grande’s company is not taking advantage of any of these changes. This is in part because modern shipping design companies are still just playing with the idea of using wind power.

Although shipping accounts for 90 percent of international trade and 3 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, there is no international regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from ships. Which is why even though several projects to design and operate ships that can run on wind power are underway, investment has been hard to come by. The economic pressure to transition from fossil fuel powered shipping still isn’t high enough, say analysts.

Initially promising projects such as Skysail and KiteShip have been plagued by a seemingly never-ending series of trials. Both of those companies looked towards advances in material designs, in particular the invention of the super-strong cordage material known as Dyneema, to control gigantic kite-like “supersails” that could be flown between 1,000 and 3,000 feet above a modern cargo ship to harness the stronger winds found at higher altitudes.

boat with kite sailPhoto PressReleaseFinder/FlickrA kite-sail harnessess winds for Skysail’s cargo ship MV Beluga SkySails.

The intent of these kite designs was not to completely replace the use of diesel engines, but to be able to run them at much lower speeds and take advantage of the wind to cut fuel costs (and carbon emissions) by as much as 25 to 30 percent. Although Skysail still seems to be trying to make a go of it, the world has yet to see a viable large-scale commercial ship powered by wind.

Le Grande, sensing an economic hole, stepped in to plug the gap. His intent is to prove that wind transport, at least for certain categories of goods, can prove profitable. But because there are no large-scale ships using the wind, he is constrained to an older path.

Modern sail racing boats may reach sustained speeds that carry them more than 500 miles in a single day, but they do so at a cost. None could carry anything even remotely approaching a significant cargo. So Le Grande is booking his consignments on a collection of original or replica cargo ships from an earlier age. Among these are the sailing vessel Tres Hombres, a brigantine almost 100 feet long that can carry up to 35 tons of cargo, as well as several lesser craft in the 60-70 foot category. Le Grande is capitalizing upon the appeal of “Green Certification” (his company is the only one that provides a certification for goods transported completely “carbon free” across oceans) for products, as well as the steadily climbing cost of modern fuels to make his company competitive.

Using sails on commercial ships may seem like an exclusive, niche idea right now, but that may change once emissions from the shipping industry begin to be regulated. And that could happen soon. The European Commission is already mulling regulatory options for the industry like a carbon tax and mandatory emissions reductions per ship.

Once rising oil prices and regulatory measures bring the industry to an economic tipping point, cargo shops with sails might become a common sight out in the oceans.

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