Inside Story

Tack to the future?

A new generation of sailing vessels is highlighting the challenge of reducing shipping emissions

Christiaan De Beukelaer 8 February 2023 1443 words

Mission zero: the Avontuur on a stopover in Rotterdam in September 2021. Frank Schultze/Alamy

On 23 July 2020, in the midst of the first year of the pandemic, I sailed into the Hanseatic port of Hamburg aboard the Avontuur, a forty-four-metre two-masted schooner built in 1920. We had travelled across the Atlantic Ocean and back to pick up sixty-five tonnes of coffee, cacao, rum and gin.

The vessel’s fifteen-strong crew had completed the trans-Atlantic round trip in six months, of which I had spent five months aboard. Throughout its virus-disrupted odyssey via the Canaries, the Caribbean, Mexico and the Azores, the Avontuur had made her way almost entirely under sail.

A week after we arrived in Hamburg the International Maritime Organization released its fourth report on the climate impact of ships. This long, highly technical document looks at how emissions from international shipping are likely to evolve over the next few decades. Despite actions already taken to reduce greenhouse emissions, the report concludes, rather frighteningly, that emissions in 2050 will be between 90 and 130 per cent of what they were in 2008. That’s a 10 per cent drop at best, a 30 per cent increase at worst.

The IMO, the United Nations agency that regulates shipping, was a late starter in the carbon-reduction stakes. Only in 2018 did it set its first-ever target to reduce the billion tonnes of emissions produced annually by shipping. That’s two decades after the Kyoto Protocol mandated the IMO to regulate the industry. Much like large ships, the industry takes a long time — far too long — to manoeuvre.

Well before the IMO accepted that ships, too, would have to ditch fossil fuels and find other means of propulsion, several people thought they’d already found the solution: sails. Surely, they thought, if colonialism, the slave trade and empires could be built with sailing ships, the technology could serve global trade today.

Captain Paul Wahlen, a previous owner of the Avontuur, kept wind-propelled cargo transport alive during the last decades of the twentieth century, well after nearly everyone — including Melbourne-born sailor Alan Villiers — had given up on it. In the late 1990s, businesswoman Di Gilpin developed a modern ship that would incorporate the century of technological progress since the heyday of sail. In 2004, sailor Brad Ives took on the challenge of providing a reliable (although not necessarily punctual) shipping route between Hawai’i, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands.

The quest continued. In 2007, the Dutch shipping company Fairtransport’s Tres Hombres, a 1943 brigantine, began carting up to fifty tonnes of cargo across the Atlantic and the North Sea in its hold. Since 2015, the Avontuur has operated as a sailing cargo ship again — this time under the ownership of Cornelius Bockermann, who runs the German shipping company Timbercoast.

Can sailing vessels like the Avontuur, the Tres Hombres and the Kwai really decarbonise the shipping industry? The short answer is no.

These wind-propelled cargo vessels are so small that the potential emissions savings for the planet are negligible. If the entire shipping industry is to make up the difference between its projected emissions (90–130 per cent of 2008 levels) and its current target (50 per cent of 2008 levels) by 2050, far more than a handful of small sailing cargo ships will be needed. Never mind that a 50 per cent reduction won’t keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, which the IPCC thinks vital for human life on earth.

But does that mean the work of the “sail cargo movement” is futile? I think not.

Sailing vessels like the Avontuur may not be capable of carrying eleven billion tonnes of cargo a year emission-free. But they do have an important role: they highlight the need to rethink how we ship things and how much of those things we need to consume.

Timbercoast, the German shipping company that runs the Avontuur, aims to accomplish “mission zero” — to entirely eliminate the pollution it causes — in five steps: raise awareness about the environmental destruction caused by the shipping industry; model a clean shipping future with Avontuur; sell premium Avontuur products to support the project; establish a demand for products shipped by sail; and build a modern sail cargo fleet.

Their message echoes what Patagonia, an outdoor clothing retailer, has long advocated: buy less, because excessive consumption harms the environment. This isn’t entirely selfless, of course: Patagonia and “sail cargo” companies like Timbercoast want to increase their own sales by providing an ethical alternative that appeals to consumers who buy in to their anti-consumerist pleas.

On the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, meanwhile, Sail Cargo Inc. is building the Ceiba, a new wooden ship. This vessel is designed specifically to operate as a wind-propelled cargo ship. The company “envisions a future where the demands of a global supply chain are dictated by conscious and responsible consumerism, employing a web of carbon-neutral delivery services.”

The French company Grain de Sail operates one ship by that name between Brittany, New York and the Dominican Republic. They carry French wine to New York, humanitarian goods to the Caribbean, and cacao mass back to France. A second ship with a far greater cargo capacity is now under construction.

To date, the most ambitious wind-propelled cargo project based on a traditional design is EcoClipper. The company is raising funds to build the first EcoClipper 500, a steel replica of the Dutch clipper ship Noach, originally built in 1857. The true ambition of EcoClipper lies in the scale at which the company aims to operate. It plans a fleet of clippers on Atlantic, Pacific and global routes, following the trade winds of yesteryear.

These “sail cargo” initiatives do more than proposing an alternative propulsion technology. They engage in hands-on climate activism. By expressing their ethics in a practical manner, these companies aim to show that downsizing and slowing down is not only an abstract ideal advocated for by “degrowth” environmentalists but also a practical possibility.

I joined the Avontuur in 2020 to find out what exactly that world could look like. My plan was to spend three weeks aboard, crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Tenerife to Guadeloupe. Afterwards, I would visit the Astillero Verde, the “green shipyard” where the Ceiba is under construction, in Costa Rica. But that was in 2020, so none of my travels worked out as planned.

These small-scale traditionally rigged sailing ships are not the only ones turning to wind propulsion. More ambitious still, but of a very different ilk, are the modern sailing ships currently under construction or design. The Canopée will transport parts for the Ariane 6 launcher from France to French Guyana. The Oceanbird will transport cars for Wallenius. Neoline will operate between France and North America, while Veer and Windcoop vie to operate the first wind-propelled containerships.

Di Gilpin is now working on Smart Green Shipping, a new venture that combines hardware (sails that shipowners install on existing vessels) and software (to help crews find the best routes to harness wind). The Kwai, meanwhile, is now owned and operated by the Marshallese government, which is committed to reducing domestic shipping emissions by 40 per cent between 2010 and 2030.

Even so, emissions keep increasing year after year. The Avontuur‘s mission remains as important as ever: the shipping industry urgently needs to stop using fossil fuels. In July 2023, three years after I arrived in Hamburg, the IMO is expected to decide on a “revised strategy.” We can only hope this will bring their plans in line with a 1.5-degree future; if we can’t swiftly decarbonise shipping, we can’t solve the climate crisis.

Now I’m about to travel to the Marshall Islands for more fieldwork. This Pacific nation has the third-largest shipping sector in the world, but also pushes for the highest levels of ambition at the IMO. It’s at risk of losing many of its islands to rising seas, but it can’t afford more expensive shipping. That’s why the islanders are pushing for an energy transition that isn’t only environmentally ambitious, but is also equitable. So far, that’s proving easier said than done.

Later this year, I’m joining the Tecla to sail the Northwest Passage from Dutch Harbor in Alaska to Ilulissat in Greenland. We will be exploring a faultline in climate action: melting Arctic ice means the region is fast becoming a shipping shortcut between Asia and the Atlantic, saving on fuel, cargo vessels’ black carbon emissions speed up the ice melt and their underwater noise disturbs marine life. The region is already warming at a faster pace than almost anywhere on the planet.

Meanwhile, the Avontuur keeps sailing laps around the Atlantic. While it can’t compete on scale or speed, maybe it and the other “sail cargo” companies have a point. Slowing down and trading less might just be what the planet needs. •