Finding Alternatives To “Sail Fast, Then Wait” Approach


A motto in much of the shipping industry is “sail fast, then wait” – which can be an expensive and wasteful way of traveling. Some ships are making the bold move of slowing down to save money and emissions.

Reducing Emissions 

A giant containership traffic jam was swelling in the waters off California. In late 2021, demand for goods had exploded as Covid-19 restrictions eased and the world began – slowly – to return to normal. The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles couldn’t cope with the sudden influx of vessels from Asia.

By 9 November 2021, around 100 ships were waiting to dock. Some had been stuck in the queue for more than a month. But then port officials had an idea. If vessels departing Asia knew their place in the queue, they might be able to time their arrival to coincide with when a berth was ready for them – rather than steaming head-first into a traffic jam. So, the ports started giving incoming ships a queue number.

What happened next was extraordinary. Vessels began sailing roughly three or four knots slower on average across the Pacific Ocean, easing the congestion problem – and incidentally saving around 460,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) of emissions, according to Xeneta, an ocean and air freight analytics service.

It was a particular situation,” says Emily Stausbøll, an analyst at the company. “It was looking increasingly stupid to have hundreds of ships waiting outside Los Angeles.”

What if the shipping industry could implement slower sailing like this more widely, by default – as a climate measure, not just an emergency measure?

“By reducing the speed by 10%, maybe by a mile an hour, you can reduce the emissions by around 20%,” says Grant Hunter, director for standards, innovation and research at Bimco, a shipping industry association.

But slowing down comes with logistical and economic challenges. One maritime technology is now looking to solve these, helping ships save fuel and money without delaying shipping times.

Supply Chain Running 

The smooth running of supply chains tends to dictate how a wide range of companies and systems function, especially in the transport sector. Avoiding delays is so desirable that the mantra of “sail fast, then wait” is specified in some of the legal agreements signed by ship operators.

And yet there are other ways of doing things. “We aim to slow down the ships when there is congestion at the port,” says Pekka Pakkanen, executive vice president for shipping solutions at Napa, one of the maritime industry firms behind Blue Visby Solution.

The system tracks shipping traffic in and out of a port to forecast the ideal arrival time and sailing speed, Pakkanen explains. Weather conditions that could affect the ships’ movement are factored into these calculations. The method is currently most applicable to bulk vessels, which move large consignments of things like grain, stone, and coal since these ships are especially prone to the “sail fast, then wait” approach. Conversely, container ships tend to operate a bit like buses – sailing on predefined routes with ports of call set to a reasonably tight schedule, says Pakkanen: “When things are working normally, it is already close to optimal.”

Based on comparisons with computer models of the ships sailing the same routes but at slightly faster speeds, CO2 emissions from the real-world voyages were between 7.9% and 28.2% lower. The exact number can be affected by the size and type of ship in question, and the weather conditions encountered en route, among other factors, according to Blue Visby Solution. The calculation for emissions reductions also depended on how fast the digital versions of the vessels were set to sail in the simulation, which ran concurrently to the real-world voyages.

“I think it’s quite incredible and it shows the opportunities that are out there through efficient operating of vessels,” says van Wyngaard. The slower sailing saved money as well, as less fuel was burnt. However, a cost was incurred by prolonging the sailing slightly, resulting in an approximate “net balance”.

The only slight hiccup occurred when one of the masters on one of the trial voyages was “a little bit surprised” when orders to sail slower came through, says Pakkanen. According to Blue Visby Solution, the master in question required instructions from another party in the trial, delaying the execution of the order. Communication is key for getting this system to work as intended, explains Pakkanen, but overall he says the trial was a success. 

We’ve got to share these good news stories to demonstrate things can be done like this,” says Hunter, who wasn’t involved in the trial.

Challenges In Execution 

The concept of sailing slower is not new and there are other ways of implementing it. But Pakkanen points out that the premise of Blue Visby Solution is to ensure the operational availability of ships. If you were to simply put a speed limit on all vessels, yes, they would slow down – but that would also constrain the amount of cargo they could transport within a given time period. Blue Visby Solution tries to be more precise by converting waiting time into sailing time so that the transportation process doesn’t actually take longer overall. The ship just sails at exactly the right speed to glide into port when a berth is ready.

There are challenges to ensuring wide adoption of this approach, however. “There will always be somebody who would deviate and profit by going faster than the others,” suggests Dagmar Nelissen, senior researcher and manager of shipping at CE Delft, an environmental consultancy in The Netherlands. She notes that new regulatory pressures to reduce emissions might have a broader effect on the industry in terms of encouraging slower sailing.

Michelle Wiese Bockmann, principal analyst at the shipping data firm Lloyd’s List Intelligence, says ship operators will have to be convinced of the economic advantages of any voluntary scheme to reduce speeds. “If it costs anyone money, it won’t happen. That’s how shipping works,” she says.

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Source: BBC