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2013-03-09

Cargo by sail barge to New York City? It's more likely than you think.

Barging into history to bring Vermont rice to New York City
Most blog runners have the capability to see all sorts of statistics about their posts, and one of the more popular posts I've written is on the mild return of sail and sail-assisted freighters. In the context of a blog about refitting a steel sailboat, my interest in cargo is admittedly academic, but we have considered the pros and cons of schlepping stuff for money, services or "in kind" trade on Alchemy in a fairly basic manner as a viable route to managing costs and making friends in remote places.
Besides, now I have a excuse to rerun this.
In 2013, we aren't particularly distant in time from the last of the working tall ships, which I define as freight carriers of bulk cargo, as opposed to sail trainers, floating classrooms or romantic forms of tourist transport, many of which started life as the last examples of sail-powered freighters.

Behold the mighty arteries of capitalism's advance!
We are more distant in time from the regular use of sail-powered coastal and riverine water transport and that's why in my original post I hadn't considered the older sort of sailing barge or scow. These are the sort of short-haul, shallow-draft cargo vessel for which North America's canal system was built and which formed the backbone of trade in much of the world until railways and marine motors made them unfashionable, and the post-war commitment to truck transport pretty well killed them off save for hobbyists.

Said hobbyists have, however, sufficient documentation so that you can build your own barge

Truck transport, while undeniably flexible as long as the oil holds out, cannot be considered particularly efficient. Water transport, either powered solely by wind, oars and poles, or with small engine assist, is more so.
Coming soon to a river near you
Alas, "more so" is not "clean". As this report from NASA outlines, the regular routes of our (arguably) most efficient ships leaves a distinctly dirty trail in the sea and sky.

When your blow-by can be seen from space, it's time to re-evaluate your ring job.

This level of pollution seems to be one of the more compelling small but intriguing proposals to revive cargo by sail-powered boats and ships.  Another realization is that even the incremental improvement in the energy efficiency of typical powered marine transport is not really holding back the tide of total energy usage; even in places such as Europe (see grotty seas above) where fuel is twice as expensive as in North America, it is proving difficult to use less of the stuff and maintain their economies, already stung by mismanagement.
The sail transport line must be here somewhere

Before I go all "peak oil survivalist" on you, much of the small resurgence in cargo-by-sail is firmly based in economics, which, as the luxury car, fashion, condo and food industries prove, is itself strongly distorted by sentiment and emotion. In other words, most urban people could have an enclosed electric motor golf cart as personal transport, live in 400 square foot recycled abodes, dress in naturally dyed hemp and wool, and eat only enough vegetables to maintain a healthy weight and productive energy levels.

Right....know anyone like that? There are few things more insufferable than a saint. Some douchebags come in green.

If the history of consumerism has taught us anything, it's a) it requires loads of cheap energy to even have the sort of consumerist economy developed since World War II, and b) people will spend a lot of money in order to use less energy, because it makes them feel both virtuous and more in control of the means, or at least the distribution, of production.
A shitty sailer in the best sense of the word.
So where do the barges fit? As Erik Andrus, the guy attempting to build a barge in Vermont to travel down the Hudson River to New York City and back, states:

"Producing food sustainably is not enough.  The other half is sustainable transport of goods to market and equitable exchange.  A good portion of the damage conventional agriculture does to society and the environment is through our overblown, corporation-dominated distribution systems.  The idea of a small, producer-owned craft sailing goods to market, perhaps even a distant market, is an alternative to this system..."

Given how farmers and fishers have been jerked around and nearly "consolidated" out of business by "globalization", it's hard to argue that a farmer who can see a reasonable means of getting his products to market gets to retain a higher percentage of profit. His customers feel virtuous, probably enough to pay a premium...if a premium is even needed. And that's why newly built sailing barges on canals and rivers could yet trump our old friend the 18-wheeler. You just have to plan a little more for a world where goods deliveries "maybe next Tuesday" instead of "overnight", and you have to want to live in such a world. One needn't be a pessimist (warning: long-winded!) to see that world on the horizon, or to anticipate it as a world of opportunities.


And thanks to the miracle of the Intraweb, those who can appreciate the utility...not to mention the economy...of a barge driven by a pivoting sprit- or lugsail are developing their own networks. Certainly, there is both an admiration and a desire to repurpose "heirloom technologies" for a world with ever-rising fossil fuel costs, but like the practical electric car and that personal jet pack I was promised forty years ago would be stock transport by now, only time will tell.


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