Sailing Ships Are the Carbon-free Alternative For Cargo

Talk about back to the future: Could ships like the clipper ships of earlier centuries replace today’s giant cargo ships that rely on fossil fuels to transport aluminum and steel containers?

Ships powered by the wind of course hark back to ancient times. In the past decade or so, a number of small companies have been seeking to revive the use of sailing ships to transport freight as an alternative to cargo ships whose giant engines spew out 3-5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. If the global shipping fleet were a country, it would be the sixth-largest emitter in the world, says Diane Gilpin of B9 shipping. Her company is seeking to develop a coastal cargo ship that would use both massive sails made of carbon fibers and an engine running on bio-gas from food waste.

French company Transoceanic Wind Transport (TOWT) owns the Tres Hombres, a twin-masted, 32-meter brigantine that can hold 35 tons, five crew members and ten passengers. Tres Hombres first set sail from Amsterdam in 2009 and has shipped cargo ever since as one of a small fleet of sailing ships.

“It’s not some sort of adventurous poetic revival of 19th century technology, on the contrary it’s something that is definitely addressing energy transition at sea,” Guillaune Le Grand, TOWT’s founder — who holds a degree in Sustainable Development, Energy and Environment — emphasizes to the BBC.

We don’t think about it much, but large cargo ships provide us with many commodities, from cars to computers, that are mainstays of our day-to-day life. Studies have shown that large cargo ships emit twice as much soot as had been thought and efforts are underway to develop alternative fuels such as liquified natural gas (LNG). Cargo operators have also reduced the speed at which their freighters travel to below 15 knots (instead of 20 knots on average some ten years ago), to cut down on emissions. This practice is known as “slow steaming”;it is something shipping executives are not fond of, as it causes damage to the giant ships’ engines which were made to plow through the oceans at far faster speeds.

Others around the globe are searching for sustainable alternatives. In Vermont, a farmer, Erik Andrus has started the Vermont Sail Freight Project out of the belief that it is “not enough” to produce food sustainably. Instead of relying on “our overblown, corporation-dominated food distribution systems,” Andrus is working with boat builders to create a carbon-neutral alternative to bring “8 tons of grains, roots, wine, cider, and maple syrup” from Vermont to New York City.

SkySails, a German company, has a system that uses a giant kite (picture that!) for towing commercial shipping boats while the University of Tokyo’s Wind Challenger project is working on using sailing ships to transport cargo.

As Le Grand says in the BBC, “We are using solutions of the 18th century to speak to people of the 21st century.” To find innovative and sustainable solutions for today’s problems, we need to look not only ahead but back in time.


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Photo by Thinkstock


Stephen S.
Stephen L5 years ago

An engine running on bio-gas from food waste is a great idea, Christine. Just don't try to put on a commercial vessel.

Christine Jones
Christine J5 years ago

I like the idea of an engine running on bio-gas from food waste. A kite would be a sight to see!

Alicia Guevara
Alicia Guevara5 years ago

Very interesting info. Tks!

Tim C.
Tim C5 years ago


Wendy yukihiro
Wendy yukihiro6 years ago

I've got a Brother that has always wanted to go on a big ship like those. and Its great that they have been making a come back. I wish that one day he could go on one with my best friend my sister law.. Ahoy. Eh!

Jonathan Harper
Jonathan Harper6 years ago

Ahoy me hearties!!

Stephen S.
Stephen L6 years ago

Right, Holly, just don't try to haul cargo in them.

Holly Lawrence
Holly Lawrence6 years ago

There is nothing like the beauty of a sailing ship - and now in more ways than one!

Stephen S.
Stephen L6 years ago

Thanks, Eric, yours is one of the few posts here dealing with facts rather than "Look how beautiful that ship is!" or "Wind is free, therefore sailing ships are cheap." Quite refreshing.

Eric Holohan
Eric Holohan6 years ago

Traditional Sailing ships look great but as global transport they have problems. They cannot keep schedules , they are not very safe places to work and they are slow and inefficient.
Modern Magnus efect sails have been developed for the largest ships afloat. They retract below the weather deck when the ship is manuvering , or during high or adverse wind conditions. There is no requirement for crew to go aloft or handle sail with sheets and halyards. The bottom line is they can save an average of 35% of the fuel cost on average ocean voyages while maintaining schedules. It makes sense to have sail assist for heavey shipping before changing over completely to purpose designed Rotor sail ships. You can see more at