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 coming sailing vessel of the future, however, is the auxiliary; no matter what her rig may be. A vessel fitted with [Electric] engines, placed aft for convenience, offers a decided advantage to navigators and one that is beginning to be appreciated. [Electric] engines [and batteries] take up a certain amount of hold space, to be sure, but the advantage gained through being able to make headway in all kinds of weather should not be undervalued. When a dead beat to windward is encountered, instead of sailing 500 miles to make 250, all that is necessary is to start the engines and plow ahead into the wind's eye. Again, in light airs, the engines can be used to advantage in decreasing the port-to-port time. If the vessel should happen to be dismasted, the engines are there to be called into service. If anchored near a lee shore with no chance of ratcheting off- Start the engines."
--Modified from: Reisenberg, Standard Seamanship For The Merchant Service. New York, NY: D Van Nostrand Co, 1922. Page 17.
While improvement of the early sailing auxiliary designs and capability was abandoned due to the low price of fuel in the majority of the 20th century, Wind Assist systems such as kytes, Flettner Rotors, and Wing Sails are being deployed through the EU today as a way of reducing fuel costs. Modern Wind-Assist systems can give up to 50% fuel savings on certain routes, using properly designed vessels, and some add-on modules for existing container and bulk carrier ships are showing 20-30% fuel savings. The International Windship Association has a large list of ships planning on or having already adopted these technologies.
Adding traditional sailing rigs to smaller cargo vessels was experimented with extensively in the 1970s to 1980s, and showed significant fuel savings of up to 30% on some routes. This was most successful in South East Asia, where the Oil Crises of the 1970s and early 1980s had made fuel nearly unaffordable to small island states who were entirely dependent on imported diesel. The SV Kwai is a great example of this type of adaptation in the same region, operating today.
This goes to show that to adopt Sail Freight, we need not abandon modern technology, we simply need to rethink and reapply it. In the world of Sustainable Shipping and Sail Freight, there are far more places to avoid carbon emissions than using sails to reduce heavy fuel oil use slightly. Starting from the idea of an auxiliary sailer as described above, but using modern motors and knowledge, one can create a near-zero carbon cargo vessel.
An Australian designer and shipwright is doing just this in the realm of small cargo vessels. Designed with essentially traditional Ketch or Schooner rigs, electric motors, propeller regeneration under sail to charge the batteries, and the capability to carry containerized cargo, these modern designs are simply an update or evolution of older vessels to suit modern needs and wants, such as auxiliary engines and containerized cargo. Pairing electric motors and batteries with sailing rigs can be a highly sustainable, near-zero carbon means of sail freight shipping which retains the advantages outlined in the 1920s. This is especially true of vessels like the Electric Clippers mentioned here that are designed for as long a service life as possible.
With a practical limit to the size of a traditional sailing vessel being imposed by the nature of wind power at around 12,000 tons displacement we will need a far larger number of these vessels than current, conventional, container ships to accommodate shipping requirements, but the benefits to the world in reduced carbon emissions and transport system resiliency can be astounding.
Other innovations are in progress, such as entirely modern, very large sailing vessels. Neoliner is one of these, which is building a 136 meter long, 11,000 ton displacement sailing vessel of entirely modern design. The vessel is designed for RO-RO (Roll On-Roll Off) of vehicles, can carry 5,000 tons of cargo, and is also equipped with auxiliary engines.
There are a few traditionalists in the Sail Freight Revival, including EcoClipper and Fair Transport, which are planning on using and making strictly sail powered vessels with no engines. However, these ships are still equipped with modern navigation and communications equipment, which is responsible for significant improvements in safety for crew and cargo. Even the traditionalists want to improve health and safety.
There's no need to abandon modern technology in moving forward to a post-carbon future. There is, however, a need to recombine it with older technologies in a way which serves human purposes while respecting environmental boundaries.
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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