Unfurling the Sails — Part I: The Ghastly Pollution of Container Ships and the Revival of the 19th Century Freighter

by Owen James Burke


 Cargo sailing vessel Tres Hombres makes her rounds through the Atlantic. Photo: Fairtransport

Here’s Why We Should Bring Back Sails. Gargantuan, Sky-Scraping Sails.

The modern cargo freighter plows through the seas, its iron and steel displacing hundreds of thousands of tons of water as it crosses the ocean, ceaselessly back and forth, choking down millions of barrels of the unseemliest sludge of fossil fuels in production: Bunker 380, what is essentially tar. The fumes from this black nightmare of a fuel – the lowliest scum offal from the oil-refining process – perennially char the air from Hong Kong to the Panama Canal, Los Angeles and London. It’s so toxic that on land, Bunker 380 is generally only permitted to produce asphalt.

Cargo ship

The smoky stuff premature mortality is made of – liquid asphalt, aka bunker fuel. A recent study suggested over 80,000 people are killed from these funnel fumes annually. Photo: Shipping Herald

In 2009, New Scientist consultant and award-winning science writer (author of Confessions of an Eco-Sinner) reported after a enlisting the research of the University of Delaware’s James Corbett, an authority on ship emissions, that the global death toll of these ship-borne sulphuric gases and particulates could be pushing 100,000 annually.

Meanwhile, on the banks of the Thames River in England, among the most-affected areas with an estimated 2,000 deaths from these “funnel fumes,” lies the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN’s policy enforcers of the world’s shipping industry. For over 35 years (in accordance with the UN’s 169 allegiant governments), the IMO has allowed most ships to run on this sulphur-heavy solution, clogging ports, shipping lanes and lungs with the thick, ghastly black smoke.


Above: The CSCL Globe, the world’s largest container ship, measures 1,312 feet long and 192 feet wide and is capable of carrying 19,000 TEU’s (about 19,000 20-foot containers). It generates as much pollution per year as 1/16 of all the world’s cars combined.  Photo: HHI

Container ships are broken down into seven size categories, with the largest being “Ultra-Large,” with a cargo capacity of over 10,000 containers. 100,000-horsepower diesel engines push these floating pollution factories across the seas, sucking down – and belching out – over 1,500 gallons of Bunker 380 an hour, and producing three to four percent of all the world’s CO2 emissions. A single transatlantic voyage for one of these quarter-mile-long container ships can consume as much as 200,000 gallons of fuel. Oddly enough, despite their horrific fuel emissions, these behemoths happen run some of most fuel-efficient engines on earth, with a thermal efficiency rating of about 50% — twice that of even the best automobile and airplane engines. Much like trains, they also haul huge amounts of cargo for the amount of fuel they actually consume. But that does little to mitigate the fact that they still consume the dirtiest fuel and generate almost inconceivable air pollution.

Consider this: As of December 2012, according to an article in ShippingWatch entitled “World Ports Not Ready for Giant Ships.” there were 151 “Ultra-Large” class container ships. Just one of these ships may cause as much pollution 50 million cars annually, and accordingly, a mere 16 of them might emit as much sulfuric vapor as all the cars in the world combined.

If that weren’t enough of an argument to call for a revolution in the shipping industry, a sulfur cap imposed by the IMO beginning in January of this year requires that ships entering Emission Control Areas burn less than 0.1% sulfur fuel, down from the 1% allowed during the previous five years. As a result, cargo ships are having to switch to cleaner — but more expensive — fuel when running nearer to ports and running at a mere 12-14 knots. 130 years ago, the clipper ships like the famed Cutty Sark averaged 14-17 knots.

In short, it’s time to ditch the bunker oil and get break out the canvas. Big, honking, sky-scraping sails, the likes of which the world has never seen.


B9’s plans for a hybrid 100% renewably powered sailing vessel with automatic sail rigging system dynarig — 1960s technology. Photo: B9

Responding to the world’s ever-diminishing oil reserves and the IMO’s sulfur cap, Rolls Royce and partner B9 Shipping announced in mid-2013 that they’d begun developing a 100% renewably powered hybrid cargo ship which is to be propelled by relatively cleaner methane gas, and a 180-foot sail — the first cargo vessel keel to be laid for a sail in nearly 100 years. These sails are a far cry from the last sail freight vessels to be constructed. The dynarig system is fully automatic, each mast aligns with the wind, and can rotate to make way for cranes when loading in port. So far, its been tested on the leisure sailing yacht Maltese Falcon – 100,000 miles and counting.


Above: The Maltese Falcon in San Francisco Bay with her dynarig masts. (photo CC BY SA 3.0 Rick Bucich)

Although building the hybrid design will increase capital costs going in, because fuel costs are not an issue, B9 expects the difference to be paid off in just three to five years.

Anyone who’s ever spent any amount of time around commercial shipping will probably be quick to admit that spirits are not high aboard the bunker-fuel gurgling container ships, and will assure you that the merriment on display in the video above is absolutely unheard-of. Video: TIME

Meanwhile, a small scale movement is catching wind, too. Fleets of traditional sailing vessels have taken back to the high seas by way of canvas, however they’re not yet carrying iPhones, flat screen TV’s, cars or the wide variety of modern commodities that their petroleum-powered gargantuan cousins are. These 19th century ships, were of course not built for such cargo (but using the same plans there’s no reason they can’t be).


Above: Fairtransport’s cargo vessel Tres Hombres en route. Photo: Fairtransport

Instead, companies like Europe’s Fairtransport are reviving old sailing vessels like the the 141 year old fishing ketch Nordlys — reported to be the oldest sailing cargo ship on earth — and Tres Hombres, two of their small fleet of three. Tres Hombres, which looks to be a more likely prototype of sailing freighters to come, is a 32 meter, 35 ton engineless schooner that has been sailing since December of 2009, bearing the same goods freighters were first built to carry: olive oil, wine, spirits, ale and salted fish. Her cargo capacity may pale in comparison to the container ships of today, but she’s a promising century and a half-old prototype of the gargantuan successors that will give modern ships a run for their money.


The three captains of Fairtransport’s Tres Hombres, Arjen van der Veen, Jorne Langelaan and Andreas Lackner. Photo: Fairtrainsport

What should resonate most are the smiles on the faces of Tres Hombres’ captains. Classically dressed to the nines, hair to their shoulders and stubble on their chins, these men are enjoying the finer points of not only what it means to be a sailing captain, but to live.


Vermont Sail Freight’s Ceres prepares to round New York City’s The Battery. Photo: Vermont Sail Freight Project 

In the United States, Vermont farmer Erik Andrus has founded the Vermont Sail Freight Project. Keen on small-scale agriculture and sourcing, he got the idea to build a sailing barge to ferry goods between Vermont and New York City, via the Hudson River. Between 2012 and 2013, he had raised nearly $17,000, and was able to design, build and launch a 15 gross ton, 39.5 foot river barge fully serviceable for transport.

Vermont Sail Freight Project

Vermont Sail Freight’s barge and cargo. Vermont Sail Freight Project

These organizations spearheading the revival of sail are a small few, but what must be recognized is that they are surviving financially, and could create alternative, more exciting jobs and careers for millennials and others (with and without higher education diplomas) who are stagnating in wage slavery or increasingly meaningless 9-5 cubicle-bound occupations.


Not having to maintain engines means more time for sailors to do what they have been doing between ports for hundreds of years. Not something you’re likely to see on a large bunker oil burning ship. Photo: Vermont Sail Freight Project

Media attention, of which there has been little, could no doubt draw a young and adventuresome demographic — among myriad others — into looking seaward for new modes of employment and travel.

Still, the greater questions remain: will the export giants of the world buy into shipping by sail? Sure, small, ethical businesses with an environmental conscience will begin to invest, but will Amazon? Wal Mart? And if so, how?

Find out how you can sail along and crew at Fairtransport.eu — OJB

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