I wrote a blog a while ago about sailing cargo ships; the possibility of re-inventing sail as a method of reducing the carbon footprint of commercial shipping. While there is no way that sail can replace the huge volumes that today’s container ships can carry – the largest of these ships today weigh 210,000 tons and carry 20,500 boxes – perhaps there is a role for smaller vessels on limited routes. Equally, there’s also no denying that sailing is slower; it would take 70 days to sail from China to Europe, whereas a modern container ship can do the journey in 30 to 40 days, for example.

     However, on some shorter routes, there is a growing industry of sailing cargo ships, and they seem to be effective and even cost-efficient.

     Jorne Langelaan has spent the past two years restoring a sailing vessel with the aim of returning it to its original role – transporting cargo. Last month, the ship, named De Tukker, set sail on its first commercial voyage under the ownership of Mr Langelaan’s company, Ecoclipper. Carrying mixed loads that included everything from cheese, to wine and olive oil, the 40-metre (131ft) long craft travelled from Amsterdam in the Netherlands, to Porto in Portugal, and back again, with stops in Spain, France and England.

    De Tukker can carry 70 tons of cargo, and up to 12 passengers. In her previous life, she transported building supplies and general produce along the Dutch and German coasts.

     Wind-powered cargo ships ruled the world’s waves back in the 19th Century. Then the adoption of the steam engine saw them replaced by much-larger, coal-powered alternatives.

Today’s giant container ships mostly use heavy fuel oil, with the sector said to contribute 3% of global carbon emissions. Given increasing concerns about climate change, proponents of returning to wind-powered ships to transport cargo say that sometimes old tech is the best new tech.

     “If we want to stick to the Paris Agreement on climate change, we really need to keep fossil fuels in the ground,” says Ecoclipper’s chief executive. “Wind-powered sailing is actually the only feasible way to continue with long-distance transport and travel in the future.”

     Today’s startups may be a small contribution, but they could well be the beginning of a trend that could see much larger sailing ships being developed. I have said before that just because something is only a small contribution to environmental preservation, doesn’t mean it’s bad or distracting. If we wait for THE solution, it may never come, and it will more than likely come too late if it does eventually appear, so let’s encourage the small solutions as well.

     Ecoclipper hopes to build a fleet of up to 25 wind-powered cargo ships in the future, utilizing the latest design technology. Each will be 10 times larger than De Tukker, and cost in the region of €9m each. “The big goal of Ecoclipper is to connect the continents to with emission-free cargo shipping,” says Mr Langelaan.

     Gavin Allwright is secretary of the International Windship Association, which now has more than 150 members from 50 countries. He says that wind-powered cargo shipping is making a comeback. “Since 2012, wind power has been growing,” he says. “It’s a small niche sector, but they’re making a comeback in the Western developed world.”

     In the US, a 20m (64ft) steel-hulled schooner sailboat called Apollonia has been transporting cargo up and down the Hudson River in New York State since 2020. The Apollonia connects New York City with towns and cities on the Hudson River. It can carry up to 10 US tons (nine metric tonnes) of cargo, and travels the 250 nautical miles between Brooklyn in New York City and the city of Hudson in Upstate New York, and back again. It ships more than 50 products, including barley malt, its biggest cargo, maple syrup and chilli sauce.

     Another vessel soon to re-join the resurgence in wind-powered cargo sailing is Raybel, a complete she will transport items like olives, coffee and wine along the Kent coast, and into London. “It’s about utilizing traditional UK waterways a lot more, and connecting estuaries to oceans and canals,” says Faye Thorley, project manager for Raybel Charters. Faye is also the coordinator for two organizations set up to help small-scale producers see their organic, fair-trade goods transported via wind-powered sailing vessels – Sail Cargo London and Kent Sail Cargo.

     However, one of the key challenges for cargo sailboats is, of course, the weather. And the longer timeframe. “It is weather dependent,” says Ms. Thorley. “We are trying to re-educate customers not to be in a rush for deliveries, and make bulk orders that will last them six months, for example.”

     I can only use the pages of this blog site to publicize and encourage such thinking. We are always in such a rush today that slowing things down almost appears uncivilized. It is not!

     In conclusion, I would like to make note of two instances of time-related services; one historical and one very recent. I’ll let the reader think about what makes the most sense for the future.

1. I was living in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when we celebrated the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Island. He reported his discovery to Queen Isabell of Spain……and her reply took 18 months………and the world did not fall apart.

2. Amazon announced this week that they are now introducing “Same-day deliveries” for merchandize. I have to ask if this is really necessary, and what additional earth resources will it take to achieve that schedule.

     Perhaps it’s time to stop and smell the roses more frequently. Our lives may improve significantly…..and we might preserve our planet a little better.

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