Sail Away

This essay was published in the March/April 2020 issue of The Idler. Shipping by sail isn’t just about cleaning up emissions, it embodies a whole different ethos and way of life. It’s slow food meets slow travel. A sense of the good life permeates my conversations with all the ship-owners, brokers and captains as they talk about journeys imbued with purpose and wonder. They’re rhapsodic about the myriad lifestyle benefits that flow from slowing down and accepting the whim of the wind, namely a deepening of our connections with our environment and each other. Following true idler philosophy, their vision for shipping begins with doing less.

Sunday, 1 March 2020 published by Idler

This essay was published in the March/April 2020 issue of The Idler.

The sea is the thoroughfare of world trade and shipping is the lifeblood of globalisation. The amount we ship has risen exponentially over the past few decades, from 3.7 billion tonnes in 1980 to over 11 billion tonnes in 2018.

Globally, 80% of everything we buy comes by sea. In the UK, being an island nation, that figure rises to 95%. For something so central to our way of life, it’s mind boggling how little we think about it. If you don’t live by a port, this gigantic flow of goods on container ships and bulk carriers happens out of sight and out of mind. 

Shipping is responsible for roughly 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Ships burn the dirtiest fuel – residual fuel oil, known as bunker fuel. It’s the scrapings from the bottom of the barrel after the rest of the oil has been distilled, so filthy that it’s illegal to burn on land.

Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. Global trade used to travel emission-free, by sail. We had the Cutty Sark and other stunning tea clippers bringing luxuries from far-off lands. Vast sailing ships traversed the globe until the invention of steam ships displaced them in the nineteenth century.

Now, a ragbag group of dreamers, sailors and entrepreneurs are hoisting sails once more to carry produce across oceans. For these sail cargo pioneers, shipping by sail isn’t just about cleaning up emissions, it embodies a whole different ethos and way of life. It’s slow food meets slow travel. Whilst the slow food movement aims to reinvigorate peoples’ interest in the food they eat and enjoyment of it, the sail cargo movement seeks to extend this interest to encompass the journey of exotic treats to our shores: whether that be chocolate, coffee, rum or olive oil. They ask us to consider where things come from and how they get to us.

They also sound incredibly happy about it. A sense of the good life permeates my conversations with all the ship-owners, brokers and captains as they talk about journeys imbued with purpose and wonder. They’re rhapsodic about the myriad lifestyle benefits that flow from slowing down and accepting the whim of the wind, namely a deepening of our connections with our environment and each other. Following true idler philosophy, their vision for shipping begins with doing less.

“Number one, and this might sound like a funny thing to say as a ship owner and broker, we need to ship way less stuff. We need to buy what we can locally and stop transporting what we can produce ourselves. Then for the other things that we really want, for example things like coffee which are grown far away, we should be shipping them sustainably.” So says Jorne Langelaan, whose own personal story runs like a wave through the resurgence of sail cargo.

As a teenager who loved sailing, he was captivated by a Dutch documentary about Captain Paul Wahlen, who was sailing goods between Caribbean islands. Wahlen was the last of a dying breed of seamen moving cargo and his boat was called The Avontuur. “It means adventure in Dutch”, Langelaan enthuses, as if that alone explains the irresistible pull of the ship. He contacted Wahlen’s family, flew to St Martin and waited for his adventure to arrive. He was 19 years old when he stepped aboard the hurricane-battered vessel in 1997.

Wahlen was a tough taskmaster and it was a hard induction. The Avontuur mostly sailed at night, and loaded and unloaded cargo at ports by day. Despite the gruelling schedule, the experience stuck with Langelaan. Three years later, he was sailing on the Europa, a beautiful three-masted barque, undertaking long ocean voyages for tourists and adventurers. He befriended two of his fellow sailors, Arjen Van der Veen and Andreas Lackner, and the captain nicknamed them the Tres Hombres. Seeing the big container ships on the horizon leaving a yellow trail of pollution, they looked up at the extraordinary sails propelling their own journey and dreamed of bringing back moving cargo by the power of the wind.

That dream came to fruition five years later when the three reunited, founded the company Fairtransport, bought an old minesweeper and named it the Tres Hombres. It took a couple of years to lovingly restore the romantic vessel and then in 2009 they undertook its maiden voyage.

The Tres Hombres still regularly crosses the Atlantic laden with cargo and Fairtransport have also restored another ship, Nordlys, a stunning wooden ketch from 1843, and put her to work carrying goods across Europe. For ten years, Fairtransport’s pioneering work has inspired many to join their vision of clean transport. Their beautiful wooden sailing vessels have become ambassadors for the movement, beacons of possibility, creating waves far beyond their boughs.

Meanwhile, Langelaan is now working to scale up operations and recently founded EcoClipper to develop a logistics system to facilitate emission-free shipping worldwide. “At Fairtransport we started with small boats because the market wasn’t ready for more, but now we need bigger ships and more ships running more routes more regularly.”

Small ships sailing cargo often supplement their income by taking shipmates as additional crew, people willing to pay for the adventure of a lifetime. Out of mobile range, sailing disconnects you from your virtual friends and brings you together with the people around you. There is a real camaraderie to working as a crew, with friendships forged through living cheek by jowl, sharing meals and stories and songs. You can even sail on Wahlen’s old ship, the Avontuur, which has been beautifully restored by the company Timbercoast to move cargo between Europe and the Caribbean. 

Canadian Danielle Doggett was aboard the Tres Hombres for its first roundtrip ten years ago, sailing rum from the Dominican Republic to France. Already a passionate sailor, she loved the added meaning that sailing goods brought. Having spent the last decade supporting other sail cargo ships, she’s now at the helm of her own groundbreaking project, building Ceiba, set to become the largest ship in the new sail cargo fleet (with the ability to carry around 250 tonnes).

Speaking from her eco-shipyard in the jungle of Costa Rica, with howler monkeys and tropical birds calling in the background, Doggett says she wakes up every morning feeling blessed. She chose Costa Rica because its tropical forest is growing every year and they’re using trees that have fallen in storms to make the keel and running a reforestation project alongside their build. “We wanted to prove from inception that we could make something regenerative”. Doggett’s business plan has a triple bottom line to serve people, planet and profit.

Alex Geldenhuys served an eight-month stint as the cook aboard the Tres Hombres, learning to tame a “sea-swayed stove”, and now runs New Dawn Traders, connecting food producers directly with ethical consumers via sailing ships. Inspired by local vegetable box schemes and land-based cooperative food communities, Geldenhuys is setting up new supply chains outside the supermarket system. “Supermarkets don’t honour the producers of goods, let alone how the products get here”, she explains. “We’re connecting farmers with customers. The human connection comes with the ship as it allows us to see everyone along the way. We collect from the producer, and our customers can collect their goods straight from the ship”. New Dawn Traders turn collection events at docks into celebrations of the whole voyage, with tastings and entertainment laid on. Geldenhuys says that her growing network of enthusiasts and port allies are helping to raise awareness and build capacity and demand for bigger cargo ships.

Another broker, Shipped by Sail, is bringing coffee from Columbia and olive oil from Portugal to the UK. Co-founders Will Adeney and Will Templeman explain that they buy their olive oil “from small non-mechanised farmers and families, where farming is not just a job but a way of life. So we’re buying good quality olive oil in smaller volumes and bringing it by sail boat.”

Just as picking olives brings the grower into connection with his crop, sailing brings the crew into connection with the sea and sky surrounding them. Templeman says, “Fossil fuels separate us from nature, enabling us to give little thought to our journeys or the weather, but sailing makes you much more aware of other processes happening which we’re a part of and need to respect – forces of nature. To give you an example, ships generally go to Portugal and then on to the Canaries and Caribbean and then northwards past the Azores to Europe, and that clockwise flow is the traditional route governed by the trade winds. Those winds are different above and below the equator, because of how the Earth spins, so the whole journey is a huge connection to the Earth.”

He adds, “I think this speaks to a larger lesson that we need to learn, that we’re not in control. We’ve felt in control for a long time and have this false sense of omnipotence, but there is a way to turn this around and we have to align ourselves with natural processes”.

Geldenhuys shares this philosophy, “If you dig into the root causes of the issues of our time, it comes down to disconnection with nature. We need to shift our whole way of being and that can actually be a really exciting and positive journey.”

Langelaan also believes that sailing offers a renewed connection with our environment. He notes that historically sailors were great observers of the sea life surrounding them, watching dolphins, whales, albatrosses, penguins and flying fish. As engines replaced sails, much such knowledge was lost, and sailors regarded a shipmate who “moved over to work on a steamship as somebody who left the sea”. For Langelaan, sailing offers a chance to recapture encounters with the wonders of the deep, the last great wilderness, and could “bring us back to the sea”.

Marine life would doubtless welcome the transition. The huge engines of our colossal commercial ships create a cacophony of sound below the waves, damaging the ability of whales to communicate, navigate and hunt for food. Noise pollution is a serious threat to them.

Sail cargo fleets tend to work seasonally to avoid hurricanes, and the improved accuracy of modern weather forecasting and satellite navigation makes it easier to dodge storms. But when caught in a storm, it comes down to the talent and skill of the captain to manage the ship. A sailing captain is generally more in tune with his surroundings because he is used to standing on deck, working with the wind and experiencing the weather on a sensory level. Doggett tells me, “In a storm, I’d take a sailing ship over a container ship because you have more options to balance the ship”.

Geldenhuys agrees, going so far as to say that storms can even be exhilarating. “When I was on the Tres Hombres, sailing from the Netherlands to Norway one late October, the water coming from the Atlantic was hitting the shallow North Sea and pushing up, making the sea feel like a washing machine. The Captain was listening to AC/DC at volume and in his element singing into the wind. We were all in our harnesses, so someone was washing up whilst being dunked by a wave. I was in the kitchen cooking. Keeping up the routines boosts morale. The sense of community pulls you through. You come out tighter as a group and it shows you how resilient you are individually and as a team.”

Templeman and Adeney acknowledge that going with the wind means that things won’t always run to schedule. They are warehousing goods shipped by sail to enable a regular and reliable supply for their restaurant clients, whilst embracing the flexibility necessary to allow for unpredictable weather. Sometimes sailboats hang around in ports waiting for the winds to sail on, or arrive ahead of schedule and wait to unload their cargo. Such idle moments can breed fresh opportunities. Adeney recalls collecting some cargo in Devon, where the captain had been waiting for a few days, “and the captain told us that he was happy because they’d met some local fishermen who brought them fresh fish which they cooked on deck. And whilst the ship was in harbour an oil painter painted it. That could only happen when you’re there for extra time and everyone made these lovely connections”.

Though sailing epitomises the most fulfilling form of idle transport, even the large container ships and bulk carriers could make a real difference by slowing down. UCL’s Energy Institute estimates that reducing ship speeds by 20% (below their 2012 values) would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 24%-35%. So if the International Maritime Organisation introduced speed limits for ships, emissions from shipping could be cut by a quarter overnight, possibly a third. Crucially, the researchers stress that this figure takes account of the fact that more ships would be required to transport the same number of goods. On top of the whopping emissions reduction, slowing down would also radically reduce underwater noise and the chances of whale collisions.

While the IMO aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from shipping by at least 50 percent by 2050, and the world’s largest shipping company, Maersk, has pledged to go carbon neutral by that time, sailboats are offering virtually emission-free shipping right now. As a fledgling industry, sail cargo is just a drop in the ocean of global trade, but with a fair wind, it might be plotting a course to a better world.