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Sailing back to the future: a new dawn for wind-powered shipping?


Sailboat cargo reserves are on the rise, but the shipping industry still has a huge carbon footprint to tackle

Worse things happen at sea, or so the saying goes. And it rings true in the context of emissions: While countries ban gasoline and diesel on land, at sea, ships can still run on heavy fuel oil, a tar-like substance that belches toxic pollution and carbon dioxide.

According to the European Commission, the shipping industry accounts for around two percent of global CO2 emissions, which is more than Germany’s contribution. With the industry so far not bound by the Paris agreement, concerns abound that shipping could be a drag on emissions targets.

However, last week the sector changed course and agreed on new guidelines to make shipping compatible with the UN climate change goals. Critics say the guidelines lack ambition and that, like a cargo ship making a U-turn, the pace of change will be slow.

Some shipping companies are aiming for greener horizons and driving positive change. CalMac, a Scottish ferry company, has two hybrid ferries in operation, but it will be a long time before battery power can send ships across the oceans.

Other companies look to the past for inspiration. New Dawn Traders, a Bristol-based experimental cargo company, transports goods across the Atlantic on sailboats and says demand for its service is booming.

“We have increased approximately 70 percent in sales year over year,” owner Alex Geldenhuys told Positive News. “I feel like in the confinement, people have definitely changed our way of thinking.”

According to the European Commission, the shipping industry accounts for around two percent of global CO2 emissions.

The European Commission says that the shipping industry accounts for about two percent of global CO2 emissions. Image: Ian Taylor

New Dawn Traders has an open database that allows companies to pre-order anything from a bottle or rum to several tons of coffee beans directly from suppliers in Latin America. This, says Geldenhuys, gives small producers access to new external markets.

Yallah Coffee Roasters, based in Falmouth, is one of Geldenhuys customers. During the summer, its owner, Richard Blake, had the rare privilege of seeing a ship sail into the city harbor with a shipment of coffee addressed to him.

The grains were transported aboard De Gallant, a French schooner, which took three months to make the 7,500-nautical-mile journey from Colombia to Cornwall.

Photographed amid the sea spray, it took De Gallant three months to sail from Colombia to Cornwall

In the photo, amid the sea spray, it took De Gallant three months to sail from Colombia to Cornwall. Image: James Bannister

“It’s magical to see the imported cargo arrive on a sailboat to its home port,” said Blake. “This is commerce as it was done hundreds of years ago.”

It was more expensive to ship the coffee on a sailboat than on a freighter, Blake admitted, but not by much. “It costs about 20p-30p more per kilo, and one kilo makes about 50 cups,” he said. That didn’t seem to put off gamblers: Yallah sold out the coffee in a week. “We thought it would take three months [to shift]”Said Blake.

Paying for the beans six months in advance was quite a compromise for a small company like Yallah, Blake admitted, but he’s not intimidated. “Our goal is to continue increasing the amount of coffee that arrives by sailboat,” he said. “I hope that in the not too distant future around 50 percent of our coffee [arrive by sailboat]. “

It's magical to see the cargo you've imported arrive by sailboat to its home port, Blake said.

“It is magical to see the cargo that has imported arriving by sailboat to its port of origin. Image: James Bannister

New Dawn Traders is not the only business taking shipping to its roots. Fair transportation in the Netherlands is another sailboat cargo specialist, while Greyhound Adventures in Sweden it has built a business model based on transporting tourists and cargo through water.

And in Costa Rica, a Canadian sailor named Danielle Doggett is building what is expected to be the world’s largest wind cargo ship of tropical trees that fell in storms.

“In the context of the shipping industry in general, [sailboat cargo] it’s still small, ”Geldenhuys said. “But we are showing that other ways are possible.”



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