The Idea Of Switching Is ‘A Little Bit Of Utopia’


  • “I could see it was ugly, dangerous, it had no real cargo capacity, and it was rotting,” he told me.
  • Timbercoast operates a 1920 schooner between Europe and Central America and Colombia, and last year the Apollonia, a 20-metre sailing boat built in the 1940s, started ferrying hot pepper sauce, honey and malt for brewing along the Hudson River to New York.
  • It was Jacques who convinced Olivier he needed to be more schematic: “He had it all mapped out, but without knowing the order of doing things.”

Nearly all of the world’s trade is carried out by massive, hazardous, unclean container ships. Currently, a group of French shipbuilders is bringing back maritime freight propelled by the wind as reported by The Guardian.

Cargo ship stuck 

Last March, the whole world saw one of the largest cargo ships in existence – 400 metres long, weighing 265,000 tonnes, loaded with 20,000 shipping containers – get stuck in the Suez canal.

Shipping accounts for 2%-3% of global carbon emissions, but it also damages the environment in other ways.

While other industries are turning to alternative fuels, shipping has lagged behind.

“They’re a sham … window dressing,” one shipping journalist told me.

Olivier had just turned 40, had cashed out of a wind-energy business he co-founded and was looking for new projects.

He had been brought to the quay by Stéphane Guichen, a friend of a friend, who had given up an academic career to take up harvesting salt in an ancient way, using solar evaporation, and had the crazy idea to transport his salt around the coast by sailing boat.

“I could see it was ugly, dangerous, it had no real cargo capacity, and it was rotting,” he told me.

He is not someone who likes to lose a lot of money.

Still, the idea of a cargo sailing boat stirred something deep in Olivier.

It brought together many things that were familiar to me: the sea, sailing, ecology, the use of a different kind of energy, the use of wind.”

But the economics of it presented a problem.

Here was the challenge: could they make a viable business out of a cargo sailing boat?

Reviving cargo shipping 

Olivier Barreau was not the first entrepreneur to dream of reviving cargo shipping under sail.

It took a while to get going, but Fairtransport now has two ships, which carry freight across the Atlantic and around the coasts of Europe.

Olivier’s plan was a little different: he wanted to build his own boat, not refurbish an old one.

The problem was that no modern-built cargo sailing boats existed.

No client – even one committed to low-carbon global transport – was going to enter into a contract to ship their goods by cargo sail years before a boat was even built, and no bank would finance such a risk.

But, like Fairtransport, these are small operations servicing a very specific organic artisanal demand, with the costs of transport reflected in the price of the products.

To pay for the boat, he realised, they needed cargo.

Early on, Olivier determined that, rather than try to find a client prepared to pay the cost of shipping, the enterprise would have to become its own client: if they became a manufacturer, he thought, they could ship the raw materials to make their own product.

In the end, he chose chocolate and coffee.

“The spreadsheet gives the answer,” Jacques said to me, more than once.

You can’t finance anything by crossing your fingers.”

The Barreau twins are now in their early 50s.

Coffee & chocolate 

Olivier had never roasted coffee or made chocolate.

When Jacques joined as operations manager full-time in 2015, he knew the next step of the plan, making chocolate, was going to be more complicated than roasting coffee. 

“They renamed the company Grain de Sail, a play on the French term grain de sel (grain of salt), which, as an idiom, connotes the germ of a good idea.

This was not an easy decision,” Jacques told me, “because there was always a risk of there not being any boat.”

In 2016, their coffee and chocolate were in around 40 supermarkets, and the turnover was €380,000. By 2017 they were in 150 stores, and it was €1.4m. Now they could turn their attention to designing the boat.

Cargo sailing ship 

No shipbuilder they spoke to had any experience of building a cargo sailing ship.

At one point in his career, he had actually found a company to work with alternatives to conventional engines for the maritime industry.

“The minimum usually would be 30-40 metres.”

They got an exemption to have smaller-than-regulation size cabins, but they had to install bulky aluminium fire doors, and the slop lip for the doorways (the raised edge that stops water flowing between compartments) had to be the regulation 60cm, even though that was much too high for the size of the boat.

Every time they were given a new specification, alterations had to be made.

A ship with an engine wasn’t supposed to tilt anything like that far, “or it would sink,” said Jacques.

Briand, one of those stubbornly optimistic people, told me.

Two years on the drawing board, two years being built in the dry dock.

On one test run out of the boatyard, Jacques recalled, the engine stalled, and they had to tow it back to the yard using an inflatable boat with an outboard motor.

In October 2020, the boat was finally ready.

The budget had initially been €1.3m; the finished thing ended up costing €2m.

“You need a good measure of courage and conscience to do this kind of thing,” their father said, “I think they have both.”

Hybrid solutions 

There are other designers and engineers who have been thinking about how to use the wind to transport goods.

Attenders talked excitedly about their hybrid solutions – different kinds of modern sails, including fixed wings, foldable, foam or kite sails – added to engine-powered ships, which can help power the ship and thus cut down on fuel consumption.

Greener options remain a morass of compromises.

“But alternative fuels are very difficult to find, they are expensive, and their costs are likely to vary a lot over time, so shipowners are like,” – and she shrugged.

For Detrimont, the solution has to be wind.

Wind, on the other hand, is free and abundant.

Entrepreneurs and engineers were coming up with all sorts of solutions to the problem of making sail a viable way to transport freight.

I saw artist illustrations of the Canopée, a 121-metre ship that has been commissioned to transport the Ariane 6 rocket, which carries satellites into orbit, from France to its launch site in French Guiana.

It is being designed and produced by a company called Zéphyr & Borée under contract to the French government.

Fixed sail-wings will help reduce carbon emissions by up to 35%.

In the spring, Neoline, one of the more prominent startups at the conference, announced that their partly crowdfunded project to build a 136-metre, four-masted cargo sailing ship, was delayed for lack of investment, despite having an impressive roster of clients – Renault, Hennessy Cognac, Michelin, Clarins – already signed up to fill the hold.

Atlantic crossing

The first Atlantic crossing of the Grain de Sail was scheduled from St Malo in December 2019, carrying organic French wine (part of the business plan – they needed something to fill the hole for the outward leg) to New York, then picking up cacao from the Dominican Republic. 

“The wind blew at 60 knots and the waves got to 10 metres high.

The rotor blade of a wind turbine sheared off and disappeared into the sky.

At sea, there is no time, no internet, and no pollution of media.

You just eat and live according to what you need and what the boat needs,” he said.

When they were within two days of New York, after more than three weeks at sea, Briand tried to turn on the small diesel engine to be able to manoeuvre into port, only to discover the exhaust had flooded and it would not work.

Sailing into New York was special and strange. 

“You can see the light 30 hours out at sea before you arrive,” said Briand. 

“There is a glow, and you think: what the fuck is this?

And then you come closer and closer and see the great high buildings, a place where money is the religion.”

Money only has the value that you give to it.

A blizzard hit New York the day the boat docked.

Transatlantic voyage 

Last summer I joined the Barreau brothers to meet the Grain de Sail as it returned from the Dominican Republic with its hold full of cacao, after its second transatlantic voyage.

We clambered up a rope ladder to go aboard and were greeted by the rich scent of cacao.

The crossing was deemed to have been a good one, even though a new crew member had broken his leg, caught between the steel guy ropes along the side of the boat when a wave lurched.

Close to the American coast, they had seen the effects of our consumer societies: great floating swags of shredded balloons, and in the Sargasso Sea, acres of multicoloured plastic matted into giant drifting rafts.

Even with good intentions and real effort, the brothers admit the company is far from pure green.

“It’s a spiderweb of constraints,” said Loys Leclercq, the naval architect for the new boat, when I asked him about building a vessel that can sail in rough winds and take advantage of light breezes, fit cargo and wide loading hatches beneath masts and rigging, and balance economic necessities with ecological principles.

Rush of pleasure or greed 

Leclercq is in his 30s and based in Lorient, the capital of French racing yacht design and manufacture, and usually designs small inshore boats powered by electric engines. 

“It is a little bit of utopia, this project,” he said. 

“It’s not enough if we can’t reduce the global appetite for sea transportation,” said Jacques, sitting at lunch at a quayside restaurant in Morlaix one day. 

“Nature will reduce our carbon footprint violently.

The way we think as consumers in this society, is not compatible with sustainable development.”

“Human beings,” echoed Olivier, “are driven by pleasure, by the need to feed endorphins, by the rush of pleasure, of greed.”


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Source: The Guardian


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