News & Views

COMMERCIAL SAIL: Is It Viable?

Sailing cargo ship

AS A SAILOR I can't help but be intrigued by the notion that the commercial cargo carriers of the future will be sailing vessels. Or at least motor-sailing vessels. Environmentalists, and even a number of normal people, increasingly decry the fact that contemporary cargo vessels have absolutely enormous carbon footprints, and every other month it seems some idealistic non-profit or pie-in-the-sky corporate entity circulates drawings of a sailing cargo carrier and announces the concept is "in development." Up top you see one such suspect, a cool-looking Dyna-rigged ship designed by Rob Humphreys for B9 Shipping.

The party line here is that the Dyna-rig will provide 60 percent of the vessel's motive energy; the rest will come from biomethane-fueled engines. The methane will be produced from recycled waste (remember the power-generating pigs presided over by MasterBlaster in Barter Town in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome?).

Here's another variation on the Dyna-rig theme:

Sailing cargo ship

The mighty Ecoliner, a modern sailing cargo vessel proposed by Fairtransport, which is already attempting to operate a traditional brigantine, Tres Hombres, on a commercial basis.

Tres Hombres

She's been hauling small cargoes of rum and chocolate around the North Atlantic for a few years now.

More recently, a group of engineers from the University of Tokyo have proposed using an intriguing telescoping hard-wing rig on a vessel they've dubbed UT Wind Challenger.

UT Wind Challenger

Watch the video and you can see how neatly the wings, hollow structures to be fabricated of aluminum and plastic, retract into themselves.

All of which seems perfectly fabulous. It would be a gas to see the silhouettes of vessels like this on the distant horizon while wandering about the ocean.

But one thing I notice about all these vessels is that there really doesn't seem to be much room aboard for cargo. At least not for the sorts of cargoes we're used to seeing on commercial vessels.

Container ship

There's no denying they are ugly beasts. But there's a reason why modern ships carry large amounts of containerized cargo on deck. It's much easier to load and unload the ships that way. More than anything else, it has been the development of efficient container-handling systems that has driven the huge increase in global shipping traffic over the past decades.

Kite sail container ship

So maybe wind-driven commercial vessels will have to look more like this. Kites at least can be retrofitted on existing vessels, but with a rig like this it's the sail that is the auxiliary power to the fossil-fueled engine, rather than the other way around.

The bottom line is I think we're a long way from seeing cargo ships that are primarily driven by sail. Not until the fossil fuels run out... or are prohibited.

Which raises a question I ask myself all the time: are we really smart enough to save us from ourselves???

I sincerely hope so.

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