Is the emergence of a sail cargo movement simply a utopian dream or a revolution in the making? Rob Melotti investigates
On December 14, 1907 a 475ft seven-masted steel-hulled schooner went aground in a fierce gale off Annet, Isles of Scilly, with the loss of 17 souls.
The wreck of the Thomas W Lawson eventually slipped off the reef into deep water leaving a slick of paraffin from the 58,000 barrels that were being transported across the Atlantic in its hold. Launched just five years earlier, the ship had proved incapable of turning a good profit over its short life, despite being the largest sailing vessel without an auxiliary engine ever built.
The tragedy off Annet was caused by a combination of crew incompetence, navigational error and terrible weather conditions, and there were dozens of other such tragedies in that period all around the coast of the UK involving sail and steam ships, but the Thomas W Lawson itself was emblematic of the decline of trading under sail. Fully laden, she drew so much water that she could only deliver goods at one port on the eastern seaboard of the US, yet her rig, though gigantic, was insufficiently powerful. She was converted into a coal barge for a while, being towed from port to port.
Meanwhile, propeller-driven cargo ships were able to grow and grow, culminating the Very Large Container Ship class, which includes vessels that are 400m long and can carry 10,000 40ft-long containers.
Yet sail cargo has not disappeared altogether. In various guises, trading under sail continues to this day, attracting an eclectic mix of serious entrepreneurs, utopians, experienced sailors and total novices.
Classic hand-built barques, cutters and luggers still dominate the scene with owners mixing elements of sail training, holiday and experience adventures and other businesses to make ends meet. But the future could well see a flourish of new wind-driven designs, especially to serve far-flung areas where engine fuel and spares are hard to source.
The English Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes on earth with 150-200 vessels per day heading east or west, to or from the Dover Straits. The north-south traffic is much, much thinner, so how does produce get from Brittany to Cornwall, for example?
The answer, of course, is via lorries that either arrive on ferries and continue by road, or that collect the goods from depots supplied by the large ports of Southampton, Felixstowe, Tilbury and others.
But surely the deepwater ports of northern France and Southern England, just a day’s good sailing apart in almost any seaworthy vessel, can serve each other – cutting out the dozens of middle-men along the way?
Twenty-four-year-old Souryann DeForge is the proud owner of the Bristol pilot cutter Carina. In September and October 2017, he and a band of four friends, plus various other invited guests, decided to follow in the footsteps of the Breton ‘onion Johnnies’ transporting and selling French onions to Falmouth in Cornwall.
They lived and worked on the farm near l’Aberwrach in Brittany, taking part in the harvest, then transported a tonne of produce to the boat, sailed to Falmouth and sold the onions on the street asking for donations, while also performing music, dance and theatre shows.
Souryann admits Project Carina is not economical, “but that is not our aim,” he tells me on the phone. “It is more symbolic, to show it’s possible. If every yacht did it, it could change something. It is an ecological, political choice.”
At the beginning of winter, 2017, the intrepid crew were en route to Galicia with an order of boat paint, anchors, ropes and other paraphernalia (for a friend), from where they intend to search for further paying cargo as they head south to escape the cold.
Also out of Falmouth, British couple Marcus and Freya Pomeroy-Rowden run a 108ft three-masted lugger called Grayhound. She’s a 2012 replica of a 1776 revenue lugger by the same name and now transports organic wine from France and organic ale from Devon in the hold, plus paying passengers in the bunks.
Grayhound, which can carry five tonnes in her hold – all loaded by hand – is the home of the couple and their son, Malachi, and they arrange guest bookings through their own website. They typically allow seven days to complete a 150-mile run, in order to wait for the most favourable winds and reduce motoring.
The yacht is part of a sail trading network run by a French agency called Transoceanic Wind Transport (TOWT), which connects businesses with ships. TOWT’s network of 10 or so vessels ranges from the 22m-long Michel et Patrick to the 47m square-rigger Gotheborg. The Dutch agency fairtransport.eu runs three ships including the 32m schooner Tres Hombres, which can carry 35 tons.
The majority of sail freighters are traditional vessels or replicas, but one vessel built specifically for sail freight is Ceres – a 15-ton capacity sailing barge designed to ply the US inland waterway route linking Lake Champlain in far northern New England with New York City at the mouth of the Hudson River.
The mission to transport organic, local goods from stops all along the route to markets in the city was a roaring success, but the workload was overwhelming for the project’s founder, Erik Andrus.
“In order for us to make a go of it we need to be able to make between 50 cents and a dollar on every pound [of weight] carried,” he says. This is vastly more profit than any modern mechanised transportation can hope to earn “unless they’re transporting pot”!
Exquisite marketing videos, well written web content and a successful kickstarter campaign got the project off to a good start but a faulty keel design delayed Ceres’s maiden voyage and family commitments at home in Vermont have put the project on hold currently.
However, Andrus still fervently believes in his business idea, which, from the outset was designed as an educational platform as well as a retail business. The aim is, of course, to reduce emissions, but also to encourage the next generation to challenge the compulsive ‘need for speed’ in all walks of life.
“When my kids are my age they are not going to be able to consume energy thoughtlessly,” he says. “By giving up speed we can encounter meaning in new and unexpected places.”
From a purely business point of view, this route is a viable market, with handmade products attracting premium prices with access to some of the wealthiest communities in the country. The novelty value alone was worth a good deal in terms of free marketing: “We had a red carpet reception in every community that we visited. Every market we did eclipsed the previous one.”
“People came to do their shopping with us just for the experience of being able to pick up their goods at a public dock instead of at the grocery store.”
On the other side of the world, trading under sail is alive and kicking in the Pacific Ocean and earning a living for one group of ocean traders.
Island Ventures Ltd, a Cook Islands registered company owns and operates the SV Kwai, a 140ft steel-hulled packet ship converted over the last decade to become a fully fledged sailing vessel. In 2016, the full refit of the ship as a sailing vessel was completed with the addition of the mizzen mast and a new deck stretching from the wheelhouse to the stern of the vessel.
The company runs return voyages from Hawaii to the Line Islands and the Cook Islands, undertaking voyages from these remote islands to the even more remote Rarotonga and Christmas Island.
“We deliver ordered cargoes from the least expensive sources in Hawaii, and charge a purchasing fee and freight on all goods. Within the Line and Cook Islands we carry local cargoes out bound from Christmas Island or Rarotonga and return with copra, frozen fish, and other island products and carry up to 60 passengers on deck under a big awning tent.”
The reverse-adaptation of SV Kwai – from power to sail – is no gimmick. The Island Ventures website describes Kwai as: “not only a work of art and beauty, she is a proven, economical vehicle of transportation where fuel is expensive and often scarce.”
What does the future hold for sail cargo? Gavin Allwright is the secretary of the International Windship Association (IWSA), a coalition of technology companies, research institutes, universities and a large network of experts and seafarers, which promotes maritime wind propulsion solutions worldwide. He highlights two ongoing projects promoting small-vessel trading under sail. One, the EU-funded Sail Cargo Network, is a three-year project to develop business models around sail cargo to help active sail traders and potential new recruits to succeed in sail trading for a living.
There is also a new project under way in the Marshall Islands that will be assessing wind (along with other tech) for their small domestic fleet – supported by the German government. “There is great potential for small sail cargo vessels with very low carbon footprints,” he says. “The economics work on certain routes today, and this will only increase as carbon pricing raises the cost of fuel and the advantages of utilising the abundant, free energy of the wind are once again understood. We are also seeing this trend developing in much larger vessels too.”
Sail Cargo Inc is a Costa Rican based business that has started building Ceiba, based on the lines of the Finnish three mast square-topsail schooner Ingrid, while also embarking on life as a sail trading agency. Costa Rica has committed to 100% country-wide carbon neutrality by 2021 and its Caribbean location is ideal for US-Caribbean-Central American trade routes. Ceiba will sport an electric engine that will be charged by regenerated power from her propeller, emphasising the company’s commitment to clean transportation.
In terms of futuristic design, however, one initiative stands out: Fair Winds Trading Company, based in Scotland, is putting its weight behind a futuristic sail trading design. The 60m-long Praocargo only exists as a 3D rendering, but there is a 12m test model already undergoing sail trials and carrying goods along the French Atlantic coast. It is a double-ended multihull with a collapsible rig and a derrick for loading and unloading cargo, originally developed to serve the Fair Winds Trading company’s organic skincare project in West Africa.
However, the design, by Alain Guillard, is now being promoted as a replacement for the fossil-fuel dependent fleet of ships and boats that link the remote Solomon Islands in the Pacific. As with the SV Kwai business plan, where fuel is scarce and the wind is reliable, trading under sail begins to make better economic sense.
Fair Winds is also promoting Hydrogen-electric power – indeed the Praocargo features an energy recovery system in the form of shock absorbers on the yacht’s crossbeam section that will provide power to the onboard hydrogen-making system. Technology such as this could, according to Madadh Maclaine, founder of Fair Winds, see fossil fuels at sea relegated to history.
And there are other examples of ways that the persistence of sailing as a sport and a way of life could well influence the shipping industry. Yacht designer Simon Rogers is responsible for Windship, a set of fixed-wing sail devices that could be retrofitted to reduce fuel consumption on some flush-deck tankers. In addition, there are ongoing tests involving rotors, suction wings, kites, soft sails, hard sails, turbines and new hull configurations.
Could you be a sail trader?
What would it take to set yourself up as a sail trader? “The passion for the boat has to come first,” according to Madadh Maclaine. Erik Andrus is also adamant that it’s a way of life: “I guess I would only advise anyone to consider this if they were willing to live the life of a water trader with all that entails. It’s not the kind of business you get into just for a paycheck.”
Clean technology is almost certainly going to make the internal combustion engine obsolete on the high seas, but will sail freighters really be a threat to the long-term vested interests of the world’s shipping companies? Organic food and fairtrade farming were once considered niche political movements but now wield considerable commercial power. Who knows what the future may hold for delivery by sail?
New Dawn Traders
Retailing fine Caribbean Rum and chocolate made from sail-shipped cargo, brought across the Atlantic Ocean by the 32m Fairtransport.eu brigantine, Tres Hombres. Also UK brokers for Tres Hombres Rum. “Our journey is a symbolic one, which aims to continue the global movement of bringing food trade to a human scale & consumerism to a conscious level.”
Transport a la voile/Transoceanic Wind Transportation is the Douarnenez-based sail cargo agency with probably the biggest turnover in terms of goods and ships. A fast-growing, busy company that takes its business seriously, specialising in rum, wine and coffee.
Trading under sail: do the numbers add up?
Erik Andrus wrote about the prospects for his Vermont Sail Freight Company in a blogpost in 2015: ‘Some assume the economic factors – the boat moving too slow and holding too little – doom the operation. Not really the case. We have still not launched the model that makes full use of the one vessel we have in commission.
‘Earlier this year, I drew up a plan, based on hard figures from our earlier voyages, to have Ceres land 80 tons of cargo on the dock in Brooklyn over the course of eight trips beginning in July and going through October. Each trip would involve a round-trip of two weeks, which entails about five transit days and nine days docked at the north (Whitehall) and south (Brooklyn) terminals combined. With the goods we were dealing, this 80 tons, at an average retail price of $3 per pound carried works out to a volume of about a $500,000 in gross sales annually. This is a fairly small figure in the world of transport and distribution but is still enough to support the annual costs and personnel required to perform these trips. If we could cover such costs operating with one vessel, and develop niche markets incrementally, this would pave the way towards larger vessels and longer routes.
‘But personnel were in the end the limiting factor. I used up a lot of personal capital launching the venture in 2013 and in attempting to continue it through 2014.
‘In early 2015 we drew up a plan that, properly financed, would entail fair compensation for key participants. But a lot of the responsibility in this venture falls upon the vessel’s crew, and who would that be?’