National Geographic Daily News

Jackie Snow

for National Geographic

Published November 1, 2013

This past weekend, a flat-bottomed, two-mast sailboat 30 feet (9 meters) long came down the Hudson River at a brisk six-knot clip, hugging the Manhattan coast to avoid bigger boats. Commuter ferries, barges, tour boats, and pleasure vessels can always be found in the water surrounding New York City—which is, after all, an island at the entrance to the Atlantic Ocean. Ships under sail power are a regular sighting here too. But this particular sailboat, the Ceres, is special.

The Vermont Sail Freight Project built the boat this summer with a goal: to go back in time. With 12 tons of food from 30 Vermont farms in its holds, the Ceres became the first sailboat since the 1950s to land in New York City with goods. The cargo was destined for the New Amsterdam Market, restaurants, and customers who had placed orders online.

"Originally, I thought of the project as a kind of a publicity stunt," said Erik Andrus, a farmer and entrepreneur who heads the Vermont Sail Freight Project. But now, after a positive response to the project, Andrus thinks there’s real business potential in sailing produce in the Northeast again.

"We believe ... in rebuilding a regional food system that’s not petroleum dependent," he said. "If people ... receiving ... the food value that kind of resilience, then that’s a reason for them to get their maple syrup from us rather than from the local corner store."

Andrus isn’t alone in his thinking. Sailboats carrying freight can now be found all over the world. These small operations build off local food and environmental movements. They can't hope to compete with massive container ships in terms of economies of scale. But even the shipping industry has started exploring wind power as a potential energy source.

Andrus grew up along the water in New York, working as a carpenter before turning to farming. He says the Vermont Sail Freight Project lets him combine his loves of building, being on the water, and food.

After waging a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $16,000 and forging a partnership with the Willowell Foundation, a Vermont nonprofit that supports the arts and the environment, Andrus and a group of volunteers built the Ceres, taking their design cues from the traditional Thames sailing barges that were common in England in the 19th century.

The Ceres’s maiden voyage, which began October 5 in Shoreham, Vermont, included stops at about a dozen spots in Vermont and New York, often with the boat anchored in view.

Otherwise, Andrus and his crew would string up a banner at the market, announcing the project. They set out stickers to let people know that products were “delivered by sail.” Regulars at each market would come over and ask questions, Andrus said. But many customers came because they had heard about the Vermont Sail Freight Project and wanted to see Ceres for themselves and show their support.

“There is something inherently attractive about a sailing ship,” he said, “and we are trying to make that more than just a tourist event—to make it actually an economic event.”

Freight Sailing Expands

Andrus may be a (re-)trend setter in New York, but businesses around the world are emerging with a similar mission.

This summer in Northport, Michigan, Dragonfly Sail Transport raised enough money to buy a sailboat. Next spring that ship will carry freight such as local wine across the Great Lakes. The company says the area is made for sailing, what with no tides and plenty of waterfront communities.

Salish Sea Trading in Seattle has sailed goods through Puget Sound since 2008. Co-founder Kathy Pelish says Salish is nearing profitability by delivering loads of food as part of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. In fact, the company is doing so well it plans to expand.

Tres Hombres, based in the Netherlands, has been sailing across the Atlantic with up to 35 tons of freight since 2009. The firm’s schooner has room for five professional sailors and ten budding ones, whom it plans to train as freight sailors in hopes of expanding the business.

These small-scale shipping projects try to dovetail with local food movements. But in the same way that farmers’ markets have not put Walmart's grocery department out of business, these sailing operations have remained niche.

(As a backup plan, many also rely on sources other than wind. The Vermont Sail Freight Project’s Ceres, for instance, has a motor. The Dragonfly Sail Transport uses van delivery if winds are calm.)

A Brief History of Sail Transport

Human beings have sailed for more than 7,000 years, with maritime trade dating back to at least 5000 B.C. in Kuwait. There was no alternative to wind-powered transportation until steamships, which emerged in the early 1800s and enjoyed commercial dominance by the 1860s.

The last American-made clipper—a type of fast sailboat preferred for shipping in the 19th century—was built in 1869. The Suez Canal also opened that year, a desert pass in Egypt with inconsistent winds that made steam-powered vessels even more desirable. Heated primarily by wood, then coal, then heavy fuel oil, steamships eventually gave way to diesel power, a process that was essentially ascendant by the 1960s. By then, sailboats had long been relegated to leisure-activity status.

But the biggest sea change of all occurred when shipping containers arrived in the 1950s. Before their advent, the cost of transport made up 25 percent of the price of an item, with hours of expensive labor needed to load, unload, and reload ships of their mixed cargo. Now, with standardized boxes and cranes to do the heavy lifting, shipping adds only pennies to the cost of items from beer to bananas.

Globalization was happening before containers, of course. But the lowered cost of shipping goods has played a big part in connecting the world. Trade carried by sea has quadrupled since 1960. Now, 90 percent of the world’s trade is transported at some point on the ocean.

Referring to the importance of the sector to the global economy, Rose George—author of Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate—said, "We'd be sunk without shipping.”

With so much commerce concentrated at sea, any volatility threatens world trade. Fuel, a bigger expense than labor, is getting more expensive. The bunker fuel used by ships has more than quadrupled in price since 2000. Savings come from reducing speed, a practice called slow-steaming. Now some container ships are traveling at 12 knots, going slower than the historic clippers, which could maintain speeds between 14 to 17 knots.

Greening Shipping, Through Laws and Technology

Beyond fuel considerations, environmental laws are tightening. A 2007 study published in Environmental Science and Technology, "Mortality from Shipping Emissions: A Global Assessment," blames 60,000 deaths near the coastlines each year on pollution from shipping.

That’s largely because shipping uses bunker fuel, an especially unrefined oil that burns especially dirty. Last year the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, passed stricter regulations on ships in areas designated as Emission Control Areas (ECAs).

These ECAs—which so far are the North Sea, the Baltic region, and North America—limit the amount of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and other emissions within 200 miles (322 kilometers) of the areas’ coastlines. That means ships on these routes have to switch to cleaner, more expensive fuel. But even with the tighter rules, the shipping fuel allowed in the ECAs is 600 times dirtier than that of diesel trucks. If shipping were a country, it would be the sixth-largest producer of greenhouse-gas emissions in the world.

To limit pollution, the U.K.-based B9 Shipping is working on bringing back sail power with 21st-century technology. The company’s Dynarig is a computer-controlled mast with no rigging, which will make it more efficient at capturing wind power and require less crew to man the ship. Dynarig—which is at least three years away from rollout—would also allow cranes to access containers on deck, unlike sailboats with traditional rigging that gets in the way.

B9 is designing 300-foot-long (90-meter-long) ships with Dynarigs that could potentially use wind power alone to move containers. The company is also working on an engine—for when the winds aren’t cooperating—that uses renewable, biomethane fuel from waste.

"It’s not just a pretty sailboat,” said Diane Gilpin, the director of B9 Shipping. “We can make a contribution to a shipping sector [at a time] when we really need to be looking at changing."

Initial testing of Dynarigs puts the fuel savings at around 50 percent compared to similarly sized conventional ships.

Kite Power and Fuel Efficiency

Kite technology is also being developed for green shipping. In 2008, Germany-based SkySails put a 1,700-square-foot (160-square-meter), computer-controlled kite on a cargo ship. The result: a 10 to 15 percent reduction in fuel use thanks to the added boost of windpower.

But technologies like kites and electronic rigs won’t fold easily into the greater shipping industry, which plans boat construction years ahead and is often wary of any expensive new additions, observers say.

Still, change is under way in the shipping industry, if only for the need to cut rising fuel costs. Currently planned savings mostly come through fixing inefficient designs and expanding shipping’s already impressive economies of scale by building even bigger ships.

Danish conglomerate Maersk, for instance, one of the biggest shipping companies, just rolled out the biggest ships ever. The Triple-E class vessels are 1,312 feet (400 meters) long, 194 feet (60 meters) wide, and weigh 55,000 pounds (25,000 kilograms) when empty. If you stood one on its stern, it would be the 20th-tallest building in the world.

The name Triple-E comes from the stated guiding principles behind its design: economies of scale, energy efficiency, and environmental improvement. So far, Maersk has rolled out ten of these behemoths, each of which is capable of carrying 18,000 20-foot (6-meter) containers. Yet despite its size, it’s one of the most fuel-efficient ships on the sea, designed to capture the engine’s heat and use it to turn water into steam that drives a secondary engine. The Triple-E is also optimized for slow-steaming, allowing its hull to be wider and hold more containers.

"We have huge fuel consumption, so we spend a huge amount of time trying to reduce our usage," said Bo Cerup-Simonsen, head of Maersk Maritime Technology.

Sails, kites, and alternative fuels are all things Maersk is studying for potential savings, Cerup-Simonsen adds. But the company is more focused on retrofitting the part of its fleet that uses the most fuel: several hundred ships built before 2008, after which fuel costs rose sharply. The retrofitting could chop off 10 to 20 percent of Maersk’s total fuel usage.

Though sail and kite technology are not yet practical on the biggest container ships, they’re getting closer to becoming commercially viable, Cerup-Simonsen says. But he points out that it’s not just about putting sails or kites on a boat. It also requires thinking about the ship’s engineering, cranes, and safety issues.

Still, for Andrus and the Vermont Sail Freight Project, the Ceres’s maiden voyage was a success. There were huge turnouts at all the farmers’ markets they visited, and Andrus says sales almost doubled at each stop.

“Our cargo has been selling terrifically,” Andrus said. “We had a red-carpet reception everywhere we’ve stopped. Something about what we are doing really strikes a chord.”

10 comments
beverly morse
beverly morse

yes. YES. YESSSS!!!  aye, aye, sirs and ladies!

Rick Toner
Rick Toner

Thank you for what you are doing! People need to be more creative and do more things like this.

Steve Smith
Steve Smith

I would be interested in seeing wind turbines and electric motors supplementing conventional or sail powered craft. I've used sail with diesel in low wind conditions and using a headwind on a tack to provide electric power just makes sense. 

Neil Ruddy
Neil Ruddy

"Vermont Sail Freight hauls - locally grown food into - Manhattan markets"

Luke Ridgway
Luke Ridgway

Fantastic development, and I'm glad to hear about smaller operations in sail-shipping getting some well-deserved recognition. I can't wait to see this progress into the standard of ocean transport. 

Funny though; we spend lifetimes and fortunes trying to improve our shipping industry, and the real solution is found in our historic methods. It's a shame that we've had to go through a transition period that has caused so much damage to the environment.

David Rhoads
David Rhoads

Shut off your outboard engine at 1:26 and your Green message will go further. LOL

Eugene Whocares
Eugene Whocares

@Luke Ridgway This isn't really a solution, if all shipping was to somehow (magically) switch to sail driven design the world economy would crumble in a couple of weeks. Trying to propel something like the above mentioned 3E behemoths by using sails is a joke, they'd be moving at a snail's pace instead of the 20+ knots these ships are cruising at currently.

This maybe be somewhat feasible for very local usage, and even then it's extremely dependent on the weather. The real solutions will come from new technology... something out of science fiction books.

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

@Eugene Whocares @Luke Ridgway Sails scale and no business groups are advocating for 100% sail power. It is perfectly feasible to mount modern sails of a ship to cut fuel use from anywhere to 15-50%. while maintaining speeds normal for 2013.

The the Triple E is is not even designed to go that fast. It efficiency curve tops out at 17 knots and its built to steam 15-17 knots.

Jason Joyner
Jason Joyner

@Eugene Whocares @Luke Ridgway If you read the article closely, alot of the container ships are traveling at 12 knots or less to save fuel.  The sailing ships of old maintained speeds of 14 to 17 knots.

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