Second wind - The Forecast 14 - Magazine | Monocle
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The ‘Tres Hombres’ sails into Copenhagen with olive oil, wine and rum for the city’s restaurants

If it takes a long time to turn a cargo ship around, try getting the entire shipping industry to change course – to a cleaner future. Having spent 200 years burning the dirtiest combustibles, some ship owners are discovering that the most promising technology for their industry is one abandoned years ago: the abundant, free fuel called wind. That’s why cargo decks are sprouting all manner of breeze catchers, each an ungainly prototype, competing to see which is best at augmenting grubby engine power with wind-assisted propulsion. 

While these eye-catching experiments make headlines and win investment, a smaller fleet of wind-powered pioneers is sometimes overlooked. These heritage wooden schooners and newly designed sailing ships have formed a loose global alliance that’s attracting venture capital and enjoying a told-you-so moment. The maritime industry has agreed to quit carbon by 2050 but this vintage fleet is proving that, for some cargo, emissions-free shipping is available now. It might seem that the giant cargo carriers revisiting sail power and their tiny brethren who never deserted tides and trade winds sit in opposite camps. But differences aside, their combined efforts are shaking up an industry that has long been resistant to change.

It took the hottest summer in history for the UN’s International Maritime Organization (imo) to finally commit to quitting carbon “by or around 2050”. While the finish line remains maddeningly vague, the starting gun has fired. Few sounds are sweeter to John Cooper, veteran of both McLaren Formula 1 and the Americas Cup. Now ceo of maritime innovator bar Technologies, he’s confident that ocean carriers will be transformed by sail power. Or at least, by the sail his team is designing: Windwings.

These giant steel and glass-composite contraptions can be raised to provide propulsion, lowered in a storm and manoeuvred according to the direction of the wind. The Pyxis Ocean, a bulk carrier, was the first ship retrofitted with this new technology. Owned by Mitsubishi Corporation and chartered by agricultural powerhouse Cargill, the Pyxis Ocean emerged from its dry dock in Shanghai with two huge Windwings lashed to its deck. Though they might not be pretty, these sails do look like they mean business. 

We catch up with Cooper during his early morning drive to bar’s Portsmouth HQ. He’s cautious of making too many promises about Windwings’ performance. Don’t expect headlines, he says, like: “Technology provider stuns the world with their own figures.” What he does claim, however, is that his sails “have substantially more thrust than anybody out there”.

The Pyxis Ocean has already completed its first voyages – from China to Singapore, then on to Brazil and Poland – with Cooper commissioning independent experts to publicly report on its emission reductions. “No other wind-propulsion company has ever done that,” he says. “And I’ll tell you why: because they’re not making the savings that they claim. We will be dominant in this market.”

But market domination won’t come without a fight. Along with competing rigid-wing designs entering the fray, a dizzying variety of novel wind-propulsion ideas are taking shape. While cleaner fuels will also contribute to greener sailing, the surest way to reach the imo target – and minimise looming carbon taxes – is to find the best wind solution. As a result, a parade of varied sails is dotting the horizon.

Tyre-maker Michelin is developing – what else? – inflatable sails. A couple of its Wing Sail Mobility models already help to propel the 12,000-tonne carrier MN Pelican between the UK and Spain. Modelled after aircraft wings, the retractable sails allow for navigation in ports and under bridges, and are in sea trials to assess savings. Not to be outdone, French designer Airseas looked to kite surfing for inspiration. It wants to help pull cargo ships by using flying sails, which would be attached with cables to the bow. Transatlantic tests are under way. 

“Sail cargo is definitely growing. There’s enough for everyone”

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Bottles being hand labeled, certifying them delivered by sail
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Bosun Eilish Turnbull and deckhand Markus Rapponen furl the headsails

Meanwhile, Norway’s Hurtigruten is designing an eco cruise ship. Sketches show a classic floating hotel: bulging prow, gleaming decks and three massive smokestacks amidships. But instead of smoke pouring from the chimneys, giant sails pop out, covered in solar panels. 

Whichever design wins out, the reward might be substantial. Out of about 60,000 carriers worldwide, few are currently using wind-assisted propulsion. But according to non-profit International Windship Association, that number could skyrocket to one in every six ships by this decade’s end. Yet even if this very optimistic forecast is achieved, it will still be a far cry from – and 20 long years until – the imo’s emissions target is met. This is where the smaller wooden ships are making a mark as successful examples of zero-carbon mobility that the mainstream industry has pledged to meet.

The same week that the Pyxis Ocean set off for Europe, another sail-powered pioneer, theTres Hombres, docked in Copenhagen. The ship’s arrival stopped traffic as, one after another, the city’s famous bridges opened to let it pass. Like the Pyxis, this ship is a remarkable sight, having crossed the Atlantic on a breeze, laden with food bound for Europe. But that’s where the similarities end. While the huge Pyxis is cautiously attempting its first deliveries under sail, the smaller Tres Hombres has completed hundreds. And though bar’s experimental wings do reduce fuel use, Tres Hombres makes the 9,000km trip without a fuel tank. After all, it’s an 80-year-old wooden boat carrying cargo the traditional way: by wind alone.

The Tres Hombres is not the only boat demonstrating how solutions from an earlier maritime age can benefit our present one. From schooner Apollonia navigating the Hudson River in New York to Sail Cargo London plying the Thames, and from France to Fiji, a growing number of entrepreneurs are putting sail heritage back to work.

It’s a rich history for Netherlands-based Fairtransport. Now in its 17th year, the company is profitable and expanding at pace. “At the beginning, we were laughed at,” says ceo Sabine Fox. “Now everyone is trying to copy us.” And it’s easy to see why. With demand increasing for climate-friendly ways to convey cargo and passengers, Fairtransport has seen its fortunes rise, even during the pandemic, various global conflicts and other ill winds. Though Fox grew up near the sea, she never expected to make it her future, training instead for a career in law. By chance, her first job was at Rostock’s Hanse Sail maritime festival. She hasn’t looked back since. At another harbour fair, she picked up a flyer from three friends – the “tres hombres” of their flagship’s name – seeking partners to find a ship and revive sailed cargo. 

The boat that they found was a wrecked Second World War-era German minesweeper, destined for the scrap heap. Instead, they gave it a new lease of life as a champion of zero-carbon trade. Starting with just one vessel, Fairtransport is now a shipping agent for three more. Imports include organic cocoa, coffee, rum and other delicacies from the Americas. With a crew of 15, Tres Hombres also transports salt from France, olive oil from Portugal, honey from Spain and wine from all three. “Our customers have grown with us,” says Fox, mentioning several, such as Switzerland’s Atinkana Kaffee and Chocolatemakers from the Netherlands. “As they get bigger, we’re able to put more cargo on more ships, including new ones we’re developing.” 

Asked about the new vessels and clients, Sabine demurs. “I am a little hesitant to name them because so many new shippers want our customers,” she says. Sail cargo is definitely growing. There’s enough for everybody if we’re not all importing the same goods to the same people.” However, she is able to reveal that Fairtransport is expanding into Sweden and increasing deliveries to Denmark.

“What we are creating is a new generation of vessels”

And it’s here in Copenhagen that wine merchants Rosforth & Rosforth welcomed the Tres Hombres for its third visit this year. The ship docked just past Knippelsbro bridge, which is in the heart of the Danish capital. As masts creaked and canvas stirred, the snug brigantine was thronged by locals, snapping selfies with this vision from their city’s past. Some passers-by even volunteered to help unload its 20,000 bottles of Loire Valley vintages. The boxes were then stacked on freight bicycles, which ferried them off to the city’s restaurants. 

As customer demand grows, the company is helping to fill the holds of similar ships in France and Germany. Those boats are also busy with their own clients. As word spreads about truly climate-friendly transport, all sorts of requests flow in. One is from artist Olafur Eliasson’s studio in Berlin, reserving space for artwork bound for Manhattan.

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Captain Arthur Petrie (on right) and crew hoist cargo

While these green journeys need no fuel, they do require plenty of elbow grease. To provide it, the ships welcome passengers who pay for the privilege of being trainees and stevedores while travelling the world carbon-free. Some of these paying guests find ship life so appealing that they stay on as paid crew, with one even becoming captain. Those who sai

l the Tres Hombres all the way to Martinique might end up doing the frog kick, swimming with barrels of rum from tropical beaches to the side of the ship. These long winter journeys are so popular, berths sell out more than a year in advance. 

For those who might prefer getting their Caribbean liquor faster, Fox suggests a visit to the German Rum Festival. At this annual Berlin conclave, the world’s finest spirits are blind-tested by experts. “There has been no year we entered when Tres Hombres rum did not win a medal,” says Fox. “Last time, it was a gold and two bronzes.” The secret? Months spent under sail. Deep in the holds of traditional ships, rum inside wooden barrels gently moves with the waves, deepening, maturing and interacting with tannins in the oak staves. 

These vintage rum runners might soon be joined by a modern steel incarnation of the classic clipper ship, launched by France’s TransOceanic Wind Transport (towt). “What we’re creating here is a new generation of 21st-century vessels, inspired by the heritage of sail propulsion,” says ceo Guillaume Le Grand.

Seeing the advantages of both a zero-carbon fleet and mainstream carriers, towt hopes to create a niche somewhere in between. “We’re cherry-picking technologies from all the sectors: fishing, regatta, cargo,” says Le Grand. “Our boats, which are 90 per cent sail-powered, are using carbon masts and will be the sons and daughters of the old ships.”

Anemos – which is Greek for “wind” – will be the first towt ship, one of two set to launch in 2024. Aiming for a maiden voyage in April, Anemos is designed to have more freight capacity and passenger berths than the Tres Hombres, but only half the crew. towt also hopes for shorter crossing times thanks to mechanised sails. “We’ve got tremendous commercial traction at the moment,” says Le Grand, pointing to their ability to negotiate long-term contracts. “We’re telling customers that one hop across the Atlantic for greenwashing PR is not what we do. If you want to load your cargo on board, you’ll have to sign a contract that commits you to several crossings.” So far, towt has firm cargo commitments from wine and spirits seller Pernod Ricard and other leading French brands.

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Bosun Eilish Turnbull
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Former deckhand Thore Holsen, stevedore for a day
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Sete of Rosforth & Rosforth
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Ship’s cook and scribe Giulia Baccosi

This is still a period of experimentation, development and investment for both sectors: the sail-only fleet and its giant cargo cousins. And there are opportunities for co-operation. One example is the crucial last mile of carbon-free delivery. Many mega-freighters can only squeeze into huge container terminals. Agile smaller craft can meet them dockside, cross-load cargo, then navigate it to downtown Hamburg, Amsterdam, London and countless other harbours.

Wind-assisted propulsion might also lead these different fleets to sail the same routes. Standard cargo ships, using engine power alone, could sometimes ignore breezes when mapping a journey. But as they adopt hi-tech sails to reduce emissions, that calculus will change. According to Cooper, it might even prove economical for sail-assisted carriers to stop going back and forth across the Atlantic. Instead, it could be smarter to sail continuously around the globe, following the trade winds. In that scenario, the heritage cargo fleet – along with racing teams and other open-ocean mariners – will have valuable experience to share about optimising routes and logistics for wind. So like sharks and remora fish, the massive cargo carriers and small sailing vessels might find ways to assist each other as maritime commerce goes green.

But what has been most important to both fleets is that vintage ships are proving themselves powerful ambassadors for wind-powered transport. They’re building global awareness and a loyal customer base, which is willing to pay the sometimes higher cost of transitioning to clean ocean shipping. 

Whether the two sectors choose to compete, co-operate or ignore each other, one thing is clearly on the horizon: more sails. Lots of them – steel ones bolted to giant carriers and canvas flapping on ships such as the Tres Hombres, returning the richness of slow-sailed coffee, cocoa and rum to Denmark’s capital.

But for Danes, the most exciting taste these ships are delivering might be something else. By reviving dockside flavours and accents, clamour and commerce, visitors such as the Tres Hombres are also bringing back the original meaning of the name Copenhagen: Merchants’ Harbour.

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