Why Should Sailing Ships Return?

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Credit: matteo-ulisse-unsplash

Why I’m backing a return to sailing ships, writes Andrew Craig-Bennett.

Ammonia-fuelled ship

Forget wind-assist, we need to go full on sail, argues Andrew Craig-Bennett.

I asked the editor if I could write this. It will seem absurd to most readers, but then there is something absurd about ships being built to transport carbon dioxide captured from exhaust gas emissions when we have neither a reliable and cheap way of capturing that carbon, nor a reliable way of storing it. There is, as famed journo Michael Grey just pointed out to me in an email, something odd about engineers aboard an ammonia-fuelled ship having to put on a chemical suit and a BA set to adjust a fuel valve. So here is some safer absurdity.

We date the replacement of wind power with the oxidation of hydrocarbons as the way to move a ship and cargo across the seas and oceans of the world to between 1863 when a railway engineer named Alfred Holt built the Agamemnon, the first of a class of compound expansion steam ships which could get from Britain to China burning coal without the help of sails or of a mail contract, and 1880, when Thompson’s Aberdeen Line built the Aberdeen, the first triple expansion screw steamer.

Thompsons were interesting people, and in his excellent book on the company, Captain Peter King observes that in that year, 1880, the Aberdeen called into the Pagoda Anchorage, on the Min River below Fuzhou, the most important export port for Chinese tea and the port from which the great tea clipper races to London had started. The “Aberdeen loaded all the export tea in the place. This was to the dismay of the crews of the sailing tea clippers in port, and particularly so because the Aberdeen was a sister ship of the greatest tea clipper of all time, the legendary Thermopylae. She flew the same house flag, and was painted the same green, with cream masts and spars. (That green will be familiar to older readers, as Overseas Containers Ltd used it, as a tribute to a long-vanished standard of maritime excellence.) The point is, the Thermopylae (designed by Bernard Waymouth, the secretary to Lloyd’s Register) had been built just 12 years earlier, in 1868. The Victorians did not hang about – when they saw an advance in naval architecture, in shipbuilding or in engineering, they jumped on it.

I’m going to suggest that wind power might come back. Not so much in the form of kite sails, Flettner rotors, and other wind assistance gadgets but as in the form of actual sailing ships. The professional yachtsmen who race for the America’s Cup, in teams which are supported by the same people as Formula One motor racing, and the mostly French professional yachtspeople who race non-stop round the world in the big – and almost entirely French – long distance yacht races have been achieving remarkable speeds. Twenty knots across an ocean is now slow, 30 knots is common and the upper limit is set at the point where the foils that lift the hull(s) out of the water start to cavitate- 50 knots and over. Just a few years ago, eight knots was good going. This is a changing world.

Why would it be impossible to make use of some of this astonishing scientific and engineering progress to haul cargoes? Not indeed in carbon fibre hulls, but very few of us have carbon fibre cars, yet Formula One motor racing has changed the cars that we drive. We know vastly more about weather systems and how to make best use of them than we did just a few years back, the information processing that allows a hydrofoil and a sail to continue to operate reliably at 30 knots whilst the sole crew member (no, I’m not recommending that – but these yachts have collision avoidance systems better than any found on a ship) sleeps.

If this column persuades just one of Maersk, or Berge Bulk, or Swire (who are building a sail driven cargo ship now) or any other of the more forward looking shipowners to talk seriously to the teams of naval architects, engineers and IT people who tend to be found around Les Sables D’Olonne during the Vendee Globe Race, it will be well worth it.

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Source: Splash 247