Alternative Fuels – Wind

I thought I’d digress a little. Traditionally the UK is a maritime nation and certainly a lot of our food suppliesare imported from overseas, so in a world where emissions count and fuel costs are likely (certain, at some point!) to increase dramatically, I thought I’d say a bit about sailing ships.

Tall Ships, Lerwick

Up until the end of the 18th Century, most trade around the world was carried out by sailing ship. Coal-powered steam-vessels began to oust sail in the second half of the 19th Century, particularly amongst navies where reliable speed really mattered, but the last fleet of windjammers was still in operation, freighting wheat from Australia, guano from the Pacific and lumber from South America, well into the 1950s.

These were not small boats, nor were they traditional wooden-hulled sailing vessels. These were steel or iron-hulled, with steel cable rigging, over an acre of canvas, semi-mechanised sail-handling and enough  capacity for thousands of tonnes of cargo.

There are still a few around, mostly used as sail-training vessels these days.

Tall Ship, Lerwick

As the windjammers were finally put out of commercial operation by the development of cheap, plentiful diesel fuel, they may well become viable once more as the price of diesel increases and its availability decreases. As sailing vessels, the working carbon emissions of a windjammer would be zero (there would be some carbon cost to building the hull, but I don’t know how much. Presumably no more than building a conventional deisel-powered ship).

How long will it be before they catch on again?

I had a little google on the subject and was pleasantly surprised! Not only is the Tres Hombres, a wooden-hulled ship with 35 tonnes cargo capacity, sailing a regular trade route in the Atlantic(Europe, Atlantic Islands, USA, Caribbean), but smaller inshore boats are making a comeback in the States via projects like the Salish Sea Trading Co-operative, the Dragonfly Sail Trading Co, and the Vermont Sail Freight Project. Even on the big freight side of shipping, there are some interesting developments, like SkySails’ kite-powered assist for container vessels, which reduces fuel use, and B9’s ambitious sailing container vessel plans.

I was interested to see, too, that the speeds of these big sailing ships is not unimpressive – the commercial windjammer fleets regularly recorded 15 knots, and one even up to 21 knots, which is better than any modern yacht I’ve sailed on. Modern freighters powered by bunker fuel apparently now often average 12 knots to conserve fuel – so sail now beats steam!

All in all, a very encouraging demonstration of people taking up the climate challenge and putting old technology to a modern purpose.


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