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Cargo by sail? It's the latest thing

Good bight, Irene.
Thanks to "Hartley 18" at for inspiring this post.

We bought a steel full keeler for a number of reasons: strength, capacity, tankage, strength. We didn't buy it for speed, even though it's not as pokey as one might assume. We also considered that as we sought independence from the shore (involving making our own power and water and carrying a full complement of spares and tools, including the ability to fabricate some items) that we might wish to do a little informal cargo or passenger transport in some of the more remote Pacific atolls we are likely to cruise.

Note that these transactions would be of the "put the diesel drum on the deck, and the roast pig in the galley...thanks, man" type. Cash, not so much.

Alchemy, irrespective of her other fine qualities, is undeniably a capacious steel boat with pipe railings, light-duty crane potential and space to carry several 55 gallon drums on deck. I could safely carry in mild conditions quite a bit of gear or a couple of people willing to kip on deck.

It has occurred to us, therefore, that inter-island transport of essentials outside of the usual cargo freighter runs (or carrying a few passengers in return for a roast pig or something) might be a possibility for us, even in a 41 footer.

Then I read this story.

Avast ye, maties, and steer for Carrot Common!

As for large-scale sail cargo, sure, why not? The 400 foot steel barquentines worked until 1939 at a profit hauling guano and wheat. Mechanization could mean a four-master could be run with a dozen guys. I can see "charter cargo" for carbon-credit types or the richer sort of greenie. Coffee at 20 bucks a pound barely scratches the guilt of some people. Shipping under sail is a perfect fit for shade-grown coffee picked by sponsored orphans...or am I being cynical? Too bad. I just want to see working tall ships come back.

You know what? Screw being a floating restaurant.  Anchors aweigh!

Not everything needs to get there in 10 days. If you can wait, you can get it by sail. Next up: freight Zeppelins. Or, if you wish, today's cargo ships with tomorrow's sail assist.

The new sail-biogas hybrids are not junk

It's called a "ship puller". Duh.

Time and the price of oil will likely determine whether this ever exceeds the "Western guilt/boutique" level of enterprise, but I can actually see, having budgeted the cost of mostly-sail travel per NM, that this could work with certain high-value, non-perishable cargoes and on certain breezy routes.

Is this just a romantic fantasy? No, but containerized shipping via bunker oil-fuelled vast freighters is already so efficient and (relatively) cheap that oil would have to get very expensive indeed before fresh fruit in winter and Chinese-made rubber ducks and other dollar-store staples vanished from Western shelves.

But I can easily see sail being a small component of the mix, just as I can see a return to the cargo dirigible for certain applications. It's not just about running out of fossil fuels. It's the environmental cost of extraction and the willingness of individuals to buy into that, along with the political cost of dealing with unpleasant people in charge of certain areas.

If pne runs the numbers for high-value goods going in the right (downwind) direction, I can see a case being made, especially if one can price in a "feel-good" premium. Putting a two- to five-buck per bottle price hike on an absolutely bog-standard dark rum that was shipped by sail-only brig from the Caribbean to, say, Nova Scotia is a given, even if you've never worked as I have in marketing. Sailor Jerry, may I point out, is a long-dead tattooist, and yet "his" rum gives off the slightly naughty nautical impression people seem to find worthy of buying. If there's anything more y'arrr than Island rum shipped by sail, it probably involved putting a splice in a body part.

Like my shimmy? Then make with the shake, hipster!

It's the entire reason people buy Apple tablets, after all. They don't work so much better, and in some respects not even as well as less image-oriented devices, but they look great and people wish to be seen carting them around. So price them 40% higher and keep the Chinese factories on the down-low! As for Lululemon's line of pricy "yoga-wear", it's indistinguishable to me from stuff one could buy at Winners, and yet it's priced for prestige.

Seen from that point of view, sail works a treat

UPDATE: According to my usually reliable readers on Grenada-based Silverheels III, chocolate is on sail:

UPDATE 12.12.30: Apparently, Tres Hombres, the 32 metre, engineless sail cargo vessel mentioned in the above link, has been involved in a mid-ocean rescue of a German sailor with a busted rudder. It's been some time since a sail-only vessel has done tugboat duty this far offshore, I suspect. Good luck to all involved.
Bar none, that's the sweetest freighter I've seen


Silverheels III said...

Rhys said...

Compact and high-value, sure, but how do I keep 'em from melting?

Or from Becky snarfing the cargo?

Rhys said...

Oh, and thanks for the tip, guys. Have you ever seen this ship in action?

Ken Silverheels III said...

Not yet Marc. We've been basically a barge at our mooring since last June. We'll stay in Grenada until hurricane season is (statistically) over and sail northward again as we did in the winter of 2010/11 Whenever we travel to the Carenage in St Georges harbour we'll keep a lookout for her. That's where she'll be loading up.

Ken Goodings said...

Pretty working boats live so sail again.

Gavin Allwright said...

All power to bringing sail back to cargo. We are looking forward to welcoming the Tres hombres to Portsmouth (UK) May 18-20.

If all goes well, we will be starting our new build sail/solar hybrid ships in November.

Rhys said...

I'll keep tabs on that, and thank you for commenting.

I realized quite early in my own boat project that a new diesel made more sense for me than did hybrid or pure electrical propulsion, but that doesn't mean I don't support efforts to make it happen commercially. I certainly have designed our boat to use as little diesel as possible for purposes of charging, having other means to make and store it from renewable sources.