Sailing Ships: Back to the Future

Ahoy, there, Captain Hornblower. More than a century after coal- and diesel-powered engines banished sailing ships from ocean commerce, the capricious tides of technology are beginning to turn in favor of sails once again.

The reason is simple: fossil fuels are dirty and expensive. With modern materials and designs, high-tech sails can dramatically reduce fuel consumption and curb the shipping industry’s outsized contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollution. By one estimate, a mere 15 giant diesel cargo ships may pollute the air as much as all 760 million cars on Earth.

The German company SkySails, previously profiled here on NEXT100, recently announced a deal to supply a 320 square meter kite sail—basically, an enormous spinnaker—to Cargill, which plans to install it on a vessel of up to 30,000 tonnes.

The computer-controlled sail will fly at a height of up to 420 meters, pulling the ship along and slashing its consumption of dirty bunker fuel by up to 35 percent.

“In a world of finite resources, environmental stewardship makes good business sense,” said G.J. van den Akker, head of Cargill’s ocean transportation business. “As one of the world’s largest charterers of dry bulk freight, we take this commitment extremely seriously. In addition to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, the SkySails technology aims to significantly reduce fuel consumption and costs. We are very impressed with the technology and see its installation on one of our chartered ships as the first part of an ongoing, long-term partnership.”

A 2009 study by the International Maritime Organization found that the widespread application of sail technology on ocean-going commercial vessels could save up to 100 million tonnes of CO2 emissions each year, according to SkySails.

Closer to home, Wind + Wing Technologies, a Napa company founded by two operators of a sailing charter company, proposes outfitting diesel-powered passenger ferries in San Francisco Bay with wing-like sails mounted on catamaran hull—similar to the technology used by the BMW Oracle team to win the America’s Cup. One preliminary design would carry more than 400 passengers and store up to 100 bicycles.

“The final design will save up to 40 percent in fuel costs compared to the ferries currently operating in the Bay Area,” the company promises, for an annual saving of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fuel costs.

Earlier this month, the company pitched the Golden Gate Bridge District on the idea, seeking funds for a six-month demonstration project with a much-smaller six-passenger prototype vessel.

“I am very much excited about it and the environmental gains are wonderful,” said Dick Grosboll, a member of the district representing San Francisco.

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