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.
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.
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.
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.