In May of 2022, the Hudson River Maritime Museum will be running a Grain Race in cooperation with the Schooner Apollonia, The Northeast Grainshed Alliance, and the Center for Post Carbon Logistics. Anyone interested in the race can find out more here.
The Great Grain Races from Australia to England in the early 20th century were a relic of the Golden Age of Sail, and were informal races between sailing vessels plying the last economically viable trade route for Sail Freight. Lasting from the 1920s to the late 1940s, the Grain Races weren't quite as intensive as the Tea Races, which will be the subject of a later post, but still are a set of impressive achievements. Since these are what the current Northeast Grain Race is based upon, they are worth a bit of explanation.
The Wheat Trade from Australia to England was a long distance trade which required a large amount of fuel for a steamer or motor vessel to undertake, meaning that the labor costs of a sailing vessel weren't an issue in competition. Further, the journey was going to be relatively slow no matter which method was used to transport the grain, so shippers and receivers would sacrifice speed for lower costs. Thus, sailing vessels, principally from Gustaf Erikson's fleet from the Aland Islands in Finland, could ply this trade profitably.
From the 1920s to 1949, with the exception of the WWII years, the grain races were held informally. While not everyone started or ended at the same port, the goal was to have the shortest passage possible with the least cost in damaged equipment. The informal nature of the competition was due in large part to the lack of a bonus for arriving early with a cargo: The prize was principally fame for the ship and her crew, not fortune; those betting in coffee houses ashore stood to make more than the ship or sailors on any wagers.
According to Georg Kahn's book The Last Tall Ships most of the passages were about 100 days from Australia around Cape Horn to England. The shortest was a passage of 83 days by the ship Parma in 1933, which is an impressive passage time. The fastest ship overall, with 7 voyages averaging 99 days each, was the Passat.
This time period, however, was one of undermanned, mostly older vessels running this trade. While a fast passage was desirable, it was more important to avoid expensive repairs, whether that be to rigging, hull, or sails, because the margins for the trade were very narrow. Arriving late with a cargo of grains was not a great loss to the shipper or receiver in most cases, thus the ships could take up to 130 days or more to make the journey, if needed.
The under-strength crew was partly an effort at cost savings as competition from what we would now consider "Conventional Shipping" became ever stronger, but also a result of the scarcity of skilled windjammer sailors. Standard Seamanship For the Merchant Service (page 13-17) from 1922 remarks upon this in the chapter on type of vessels, and the death of working sail is taken as essentially inevitable in that same manual:
"Nowadays it is a hard problem to find enough able-bodied seamen to man a craft of this type properly. This accounts for the fact that many a square rigger loses half her canvas before a green crew is broken in…. The coming sailing vessel of the future, however, is the auxiliary; no matter what her rig may be. A vessel fitted with crude-oil engines, placed aft for convenience, offers a decided advantage to navigators and one that is beginning to be appreciated…. Many authors dismiss sail with a few sad words of farewell."
Sail Freight had been slowly declining since the 1870s due to increased fuel efficiency and reduced cost in steam shipping, the proliferation of larger steam ships, and the opening of canals which shortened journeys for steam ships, but were unsuited to sailing vessels. The destruction of sailing ships by U-Boats in the First World War due to their limited ability to avoid torpedoes also contributed to the decline of Sail Freight in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
There are some lessons to be learned from these races. First, people will take interest in these types of competitions, and will rise to the challenges offered. Second, many sustainable transport systems will likely first find viability in very long distance transportation, as opposed to the short distance we are competing at in the current grain race. Where distances are long and fuel expensive, Sail Freight is likely to revive especially well. In cases where the addition of some modern technology to sailing vessels to automate or simplify crew functions, a smaller crew would mean lower expense for operation, making sail freight more competitive. With the addition of electric motors, moving through a calm or around areas like The Cape Of Good Hope where the winds can be contrary can be transited under power, likely shortening transit times, the main advantage cited in the manual above for auxiliary sailing craft.
The Northeast Grain Race is a bit more of a game than a strictly-defined race, due to the points-based system and permissive rules on vehicles which can enter, but is very much in the spirit and tradition of the Great Grain Races of up to a century ago. By looking for inspiration in the past, we can certainly find models for making our future a sustainable and entertaining one.
You can find more information on the Grain Race here.
Steven Woods is the Solaris and Education coordinator at HRMM. He earned his Master's degree in Resilient and Sustainable Communities at Prescott College, and wrote his thesis on the revival of Sail Freight for supplying the New York Metro Area's food needs. Steven has worked in Museums for over 20 years.
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