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As Shipping Industry Looks To Lower Emissions, It’s Turning To The Past: Sailboats

Old-school forms of transit could be a slow and steady way to ship goods in an age of increasing fuel costs and environmental threats.

As Shipping Industry Looks To Lower Emissions, It’s Turning To The Past: Sailboats
[Image: Sailboat via Shutterstock]

Clipper ships, slicing through the Atlantic chop, once brought cargo from London within sight of New York just two weeks after leaving harbor. Yet sails, of course, gave way to steamships, and then eventually thrumming diesel engines. But the era of rapid climate change and rising fuel costs means we may be back where we started.

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Sails and barges are coming back in the form of tiny transport projects that aim to prove the old-school technology makes commercial sense again. One pioneering effort, Vermont’s Sail Freight Project, is reopening old trade routes. The project has launched a new 39-foot sailing barge, Ceres, on Lake Champlain, reports Yale Environment360. The carbon-neutral vessel will carry “grains, dry beans, preserves, onions, squash, and potatoes” and other imperishables as it travels old water routes that once supplied the nation with goods and food. Today, Ceres’s downriver customers (especially at the end-of-the-line in New York) can purchase goods via PayPal and have them delivered by sail. But it’s about more than commerce.

“We are coming to realize that [conventional] highways are at the crux of our most pressing problems, that they erode our sense of community even as they warm the planet,” the project website reads. “So, why do non-perishable food products need to move down the interstate at 75 miles an hour?”

The oceans are also seeing a renaissance of sail and other slower vessels for commercial shipping.

Slow-moving cargo ships (even oil-driven vessels) are now adopting “super-slow steaming” speeds of 12 knots–less than half conventional speeds–to save fuel and cut greenhouse gas emissions. These ships travel slower than even the old clipper ships.


Time reports that 20 companies are now shipping goods without engines. Oil tankers are experimenting with flying giant kite sails to speed up their journeys, but the most ambitious project is the Ecoliner, a 130-meter, 8,000-ton cargo ship designed by the Dutch naval architecture firm Dykstra. Slated for construction in 2016, the ship will come equipped with a hybrid propulsion system: four masts of square-rigged sails and a motor to supplement the wind-driven propulsion.

Dykstra hopes to show definitively that wind is a viable source of power for the world’s shipping–once and for all.

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About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment. His favorite topics are wicked problems -- and discoveries such as how dung beetles rely on the light of the Milky Way to navigate (and all that says about the human condition on Earth)

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