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  • The Return of Commercial Sail?

    Posted by David Foster on July 27th, 2008 (All posts by )

    In a post on Ships and the Global Economy, I mentioned a sail-assist technology which has been develope by a German company. Operating something like a kite, the SkySails system is said to be capable of lowering vessel fuel costs by 10-35%.

    Comes now Compagnie de Transport Maritime à la Voile which has entered the cargo transportation business with a pure-sail approach. The 106-year-old Kathleen & May will be running wine from Bordeaux to Dublin. CMTV has chartered several additional sailing ships and will be using them to ship products such as coffee and jam. The company also intends to have new vessels built to its specifications.

    Here’s CMTV’s website. Note that shippers get a “logo sticker” that they can attach to their products, certifying that “goods are transferred to consumers in a clean and socially responsible way that contributes to sustainable development, without neglecting the requirement to exchange necessary goods between people.”

    I doubt if pure sail will ever recapture a significant portion of the world ocean transportation industry, but it may well thrive in some niche markets, serving people who want to buy products which are defined as “green” or “sustainable” and who may also enjoy the association with the romance of sail.

    Sail-assist technologies for powered vessels, on the other hand, may have a significant role to play, particularly if oil prices continue to climb and if environmental restrictions mandate the replacement of bunker fuel with the more-expensive distillates.

    Here’s a report on the test on the SkySails system on the multipurpose cargo ship Michael A. Note the interesting comparison of the tractive force from the sail with the thrust from an Airbus A318 turbine engine.

    CMTV item via Checks with Chart.


    9 Responses to “The Return of Commercial Sail?”

    1. Shannon Love Says:

      This is not new. I remember reading about this back in the 70’s during the “Energy Crisis”. I don’t think it is a viable technology. Rather, I think it is another in a long line of energy scams whose major benefit to the purchaser lays in its public relation values.

      Wind energy won’t help modern sea trade much for several reasons: (1) Modern ships are simply to big: The ships displayed on the skysail website are small ships by modern standards. I don’t see a sail of a size that can add significant energy to a full size container ship being practical. (2) The sails will only work with a tail wind. When the wind changes they have to be winched in. (3) Lines and fabric are dangerous around ships because they fall into the water and tangle props.

      High energy prices never persist for more than a one to three years. No one is going to deploy such a marginal technology on a wide scale just to save a few bucks short term. If they would, this thirty year old technology would already be in wide use.

    2. David Foster Says:

      I dunno, Shannon. From browsing around on the Wessels website, it looks like these little ships use about 7 tons/day of fuel. Last I checked, bunker was running about $500/ton. That’s $3500/day, or pretty close to $1 million/year with some utilization assumptions. If you can save 15% of that, you can justify some pretty substantial capex and still get a decent return on investment.

      What oil price would you assume for analysis of long-term (10 year) capital investments?

    3. Robert Schwartz Says:

      Jimmy Buffett – “A Pirate Looks At Forty”:

      Mother, mother ocean,
      I have heard you call,
      Wanted to sail upon your waters
      Since I was three feet tall.
      You’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all.

      Watch the men who rode you,
      Switch from sails to steam.
      And in your belly you hold the treasures
      That few have ever seen,
      Most of them dreams, most of them dreams.

      Yes, I am a pirate
      Two hundred years too late.
      The cannons don’t thunder
      There’s nothing to plunder
      I’m an over forty victim of fate
      Arriving too late, arriving too late.

      * * *

    4. Shannon Love Says:

      David Foster,

      What oil price would you assume for analysis of long-term (10 year) capital investments?

      I wouldn’t hazard to guess. My skepticism rest on the premise that this technology dates from the late 1970’s and yet never saw wide adoption. Regardless of fuel price, any ship equipped with technology back in the 70’s would have recouped the investment several times over if it works as advertised.

      I simply think that like most such energy scavenging technology, this one requires a great deal of futzing about for very little return. For example, if deploying the sail required just one extra crewman per ship, then it would cost $30,00-$50,000+ a year just in labor. One damaged prop would wipe out savings for many ships.

      If they really paid off ships would be using them all ready. Even with very cheap fuel, a sustained 15% savings would justify the cost unless substantial tradeoffs existed. Since, no one has adopted them in the last 30 years, I conclude that either the benefits are exaggerated, the tradeoffs more costly or both.

    5. mishu Says:


      Sail furling systems have come a long way since the seventies. Roller furling was just getting started. There are roller systems for spinnakers now which are the most finicky sails to deploy. These systems can be automated and make labor costs minimal.

    6. Shannon Love Says:


      I’m sure the technology has improved I just don’t think it was ever viable.

      People involved in transportation such as ships, trains or trucks pay a great deal of attention to even slight improvements in fuel efficiency because even fractional net improvements add up over the course of many years. If the sails could reliably improve fuel efficiency even 1% under real world conditions ship operators would adopt the technology in droves.

      Since this has remained a niche technology at best, I feel confident that it doesn’t deliver under real world conditions.

    7. Omri Says:

      The viability question comes from both ends. Container ships were invented for a world where the cost of loading and unloading a ship was orders of magnitude larger than that of the actual trip. Commercial sailing can’t be reconciled to today’s containerized shipping, but if bunker fuel costs continue to rise, it’s container shipping that will become unviable.

    8. Dave Says:

      I think that this is an idea whose time has definitely come. Unlike other periods of fuel crisis, the cost of virtually all fuel is no longer going to recede.

      Gone are the days of the clipper ships, but with the technological advances since the early 1900’s this is a truly viable option.

      Just think, you can easily sail a decent schooner (great on most points of sail – not only from behind) from New York to Boston in about a day. All for the mere cost of crew and insurance and loading fees. Not a bad deal at all. With the advances that have been made with weather forecasting and especially navigation, the two greatest risks of the loss of a vessel have essentially been eliminated.

      Sort of makes sense, don’t it?

    9. Obloodyhell Says:

      > Sort of makes sense, don’t it?

      No. I don’t believe so.

      I’m not the least an expert in shipping, but holistically, the problem with this is that it adds a level of complexity to the problem. I’m more inclined to suspect that self-contained nukes are going to be the future of container ships, if fuel prices go up.

      The kind of thorium (i.e., non-weaponizable) self-contained pocket reactor they are talking about making for commercial power generation should be possible to reduce in size to the point where it could probably be worthwhile to use for a container ship. And, amortized and mass-produced, they are more likely, to me, to come in at a price which will make them worthwhile.

      I haven’t dug into this, but I’ll lay you odds that it’s the way it will be 30-50 years from now, and that sail won’t be a part of the mix.

      I have no doubt that robotic sail handling has come a long way in the last 30 years, in explanation of why it might work now but not in the 70s, but it’s still a kluge. It might be worth doing for a decade or two, but beyond that, it’s not the future of shipping.

      As the price of oil climbs, nukes become the future. First fission, then fusion, and eventually total conversion, however that might be done.

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