Trade by sail

A sailing ship carrying coffee, cacao and olive oil has arrived in Bristol as renewed interest in zero emission shipping takes hold.

Climate change and environmental concerns are refocusing attention on a revival of an age-old form of transport – wind power. Cargo-carrying sailing ships are yet again crossing the oceans and linking ports and communities.

September saw the arrival in Bristol harbour of the Blue Schooner Company’s vessel, Gallant, with a cargo of wine, olive oil, coffee, chocolate and mezcal. The Gallant sailed from Holland, after collecting its load from two other emission free shipping companies, Fairtransport and Timbercoast.

The sailing ship Tres Hombres, owned by Fairtransport, had collected cocoa beans from the Dominican Republic and coffee from Colombia. The mezcal was shipped from Mexico to Hamburg aboard Timbercoast’s Avontour, while the wine and olive oil came from Portugal.

Other sailings are due to follow, making Bristol one of a series of ports that is part of the growing trade by sail movement linking the Caribbean, Colombia, Mexico and northern Europe. 

The Gallant sailed from Holland after collecting its cargo of cocoa, coffee, oil and wine. 

Alexandra Geldenhuys set up her company New Dawn Traders to connect products transported by sail to markets. She says: “Since 2012, we have been invigorating a new maritime culture around sailing cargo ships, the goods they carry and the communities they support. Our rally cry is ‘buy less, buy better, buy local or by sail.”

Shipping by sail mostly attracts small traders, says Geldenhuys, or businesses who want a sustainable option. “We go to smaller ports like Porto, Penzance, Brighton, Ramsgate, Great Yarmouth,” she explains.

“We have had to work closely with port authorities, because most of these small ports have not had customs’ facilities for over 100 years. People buy products in advance like a vegetable box system, then turn up at the docks and collect them. We sell to individuals, restaurants and small businesses.”

As word has spread, bigger companies are also showing interest: earlier this year, ethical cosmetics company Lush used sailing vessels to transport cargoes of salt and cork from Portugal to the UK, and plans to do more.

Cork pot
Ethical cosmetics company Lush is using sail cargo for some products.

Agnes Gendry, from the Lush buying team, says: “Obviously, it is faster and logistically much easier to use a conventional ship rather than a sailboat.

“In an era of increasing environmental degradation, we feel it is crucial to look at all possible solutions to reduce our environmental footprint. Sailing could be an emission-free alternative well worth revisiting.

“We hope to have more sail ship deliveries over the next 12 months to start integrating this positive handling of freight into our regular practices.”

But just how viable are sailing ships as a form of cargo carrying transport?

“Sailing ships are more expensive than conventional ships, but wind is a sustainable fuel,” says Geldenhuys, who adds that, given that wind power can be variable, some ship owners also have an engine that is used for limited periods to top up on power.

“It is a learning curve for some producers as they don’t realise what will actually fit onto a sailing ship,” she adds.

Alexandra Geldenhuys set up her company, New Dawn Traders, to link sailing ships with markets. 

Windpower is being investigated by larger maritime organisations concerned about the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. Maritime transport currently emits around 800 million tonnes of C02 each year, making it responsible for about 2.2 per cent of global greenhouse gases.

According to the third International Maritime Organisation (IMO) study, such shipping emissions could increase between 50 and 250 per cent by 2050, mainly due to growth in maritime trade.

And it’s not just purely sail-powered vessels where the interest is taking off. Shipping companies are looking at harnessing wind power as an additional fuel source to improve energy efficiency.

Windpower in the form of fixed sails or wings, kites and Flettner rotors is being studied by the IMO’s Glomeep project. The technology is still unproven in terms of its efficiency and viability since a large part of the 10 billion tonnes of cargo loaded annually onto ships are heavy bulk items unlikely to be suited to sailing ships.

“When transporting by sea, cargo is often shipped in bulk via metal containers but an ecological wind-powered ship like the Gallant would need products stored in individual containers, boxes and crates,” says Don Marshall, head of e-commerce at logistics company.

While cargo shipping is set to increase in the coming years, the fuel that powers those vessels will undergo changes. What will replace it is still uncertain – but sustainable wind power is arousing interest. The sight of wind-powered vessels heading across the oceans could well become a reality in years to come, but it is likely to be a 21st century version with combining wind supplemented by an engine to make it a practical alternative.


Leave a Reply

  1. Whilst I would welcome the return to trading by sail (sadly I am now to old to indulge – having had some 37 years at sea in various forms, I’d love to get back to sea but that’s besides the point). The main problem to my mind seems to be various pieces of legislation from different countries – this includes manning and qualifications required (manning being the most expensive part of the whole business) and for reasonably sized cargo vessels the old qulifications of “Master and Mate Under Sail” have long gone. OK they could of course be brought back – if there is a demand for them – this means that only relatively minor vessels can be used. The size and capabilites of these vessels make the complete system far from advantageous when it comes to the amount of cargo carried and the profit made – OK it’s not all about profit but unless a reasonable return is made crews will not be available to man these vessels. They do have other commitments especially once marriage and children take over

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience and feedback about what would be needed for it to work on a wider scale. Lets hope that some innovative work is done to create a more environmentally friendly way of shipping cargo again.

  2. To continue on the sail theme there are, to my mind, two different types of cargo that would profit both the world in general and individual cargos in particular – not counting at this stage “human cargoes!” By “human cargoes” I am of course refering to the yacht like journeys made for both exploration and/or furtherance of self.

    the manin cargoes to which I refer are either the light but high speed cargoes such as food stuffs and the likes which because of the need for speed would be borne on fast yacht like vessels such as the “Cutty Sark” etc. Heavily manned and sailed fast and hard to get the relatively small, high grade carog on its journey as quickly as possible. Or the slow speed bulk cargoes such as various kinds of stone, rock and earth required somewhere else but with no great urgency to get them there – these would generally be carried in large slow moving vessels tavelling at little more than walking pace with minimal crews.

    In both cases in this present era the prime requirments are for smaller well trained crews and the saafety of those crews, trimming the “sails” from the relative safety of the deck with little or no need to send men aloft and increase the likelyhood and risk of injury to any body involved. The sustems are already in place to a certain extent and just need to be refined better to reduce or remove those risks and the need for large crews required at the moment. It is possible of course but most of it is at a price, which is the main problem all-round! Ship owners are notoriously tight fisted, it comes from the risks mantion above but also includes weather and sea conditions, they will be very reluctant to invest in a new way of doing things if the present methods appear adequate which most of the time they do, within reason. But to ensure cost and life saving in everything done more must be done or the system will sink into oblivion fairly quickly.


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