Sea freight (re)sets sail

A wind of change is blowing over the merchant navy. At a time when global maritime traffic continues to grow and global warming is accelerating, sea freight, famous for being highly polluting, is getting back to basics and relying on wind power to progress. But you can forget the sailboats of yesteryear. Today’s boats, whether driven by sails or hybrid propulsion, are a concentration of technology.

Did you know? 90% of the world’s freight is transported by sea, generating 3% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention sulphur dioxide and fine particulate emissions. Faced with this situation, sailing is making a comeback in the freight sector, an ecological solution that reduces CO2 emissions by 90%.

Sailing is making a comeback in the merchant navy

TOWT, short for TransOceanic Wind Transport, is a French startup that specialises in sailing freight transport. It charters a fleet of old rigs capable of carrying 10, 200 or 300 tonnes of goods to England, Portugal, Scandinavia or across the Atlantic. To promote this mode of transport, the company has created its Anemos label (ancient Greek for “the wind”), which it stamps onto the products it transports. The label informs consumers about the product’s origin, the route it has taken and its carbon footprint. In 2018, the company transported 220 tonnes of goods. Riding on the wave of its initial success, TOWT has now begun building a modern three-masted, 67-metre sailing boat able to carry 1,000 tonnes. It will have a cruising speed of 11 knots, similar to that of today’s cargo ships, except that the TOWT Cargo Sailboat “will save more than 10,000 tonnes of CO2 per year and more than 300,000 tonnes over its lifetime compared with a conventional carrier,” according to TOWT founder Guillaume Le Grand.

Other companies are taking the same route, for example Grain de Sail, a French SME committed to ethical trade that manufactures and markets chocolate and coffee. The company has begun building a 35-tonne vessel to carry its cargo across the Atlantic. But these small-scale projects, although virtuous and rapidly expanding, represent a drop in the ocean compared to the 10.5 billion tonnes of annual world freight.

The good news is that the ecological advantages of sailing boats are attracting more and more interest from large manufacturers. In Nantes, for example, the French startup NEOLINE has signed a three-year partnership with Renault to deliver its vehicles to the Saint Pierre and Miquelon archipelago, involving the construction of two 136-metre sailing cargo ships. These vessels, with a capacity of 5,000 tonnes, will be equipped with 8 flexible sails mounted on 4 masts. They will use fossil energy only during port manoeuvres and docking and when there is no wind, thereby reducing fuel oil consumption by 80 to 90%. Its launch is scheduled for 2021. The car manufacturer is counting on this new mode of transport to meet its carbon footprint reduction targets.

“I’m convinced that working sails will prove useful again.After all, they were used for 5,000 years before being replaced by mechanical propulsion in the past 120 years.” Michel Péry, Chairman of Néoline


Hybrid cargo ships, with sails and a motor

In Vannes, the French naval architecture firm VPLP has been working for about ten years on the propulsion of commercial sailing boats, drawing on its ocean racing experience. The inventors of the OceanWings technology, which are the rigid wings seen on certain sailing boats during the America’s Cup, have been working for 10 years on ways of integrating it into cargo ships, to achieve an energy mix that will reduce fuel consumption by between 15 and 40%. Composed of two articulated flaps that can be individually adjusted, the rigid sail operates like an aircraft wing erected on a boat. Each sail is fully automatic and can be lowered thanks to a battery concealed in the hull. The first cargo ship equipped with these wings is expected to carry parts for the Ariane 6 launcher between European ports and French Guiana for ArianeGroup by 2022. The 121-metre high-tech vessel with a capacity of 5,000 tonnes, named Canopée, will have 4 articulated wings standing over 30 metres high. With automated wings, retractable masts and a sophisticated routing system, able to calculate the most appropriate route according to the most favourable winds, it will be capable of reaching 16.5 knots at maximum cruising speed. The boat will then rival conventional cargo ships, which travel at an average speed of 15 knots. It will also offer a serious competitive advantage by consuming about 30% less fuel  through use of wind energy.



Following the automotive and air industries, it is now the turn of maritime freight transport to cope  with ecological challenges. Returning to sails seems an obvious solution. And the potential is enormous, with a British government study estimating the wind power market at some £2 billion (€2.3 billion) by 2050.

Photo credit image header : ©Zephyr et Boree