Sailing on an ocean of greenwash

In 1979 there was an oil crisis brought on by the revolution in Iran. Crude oil doubled in price to $39.50 per barrel. The supply of oil dropped by around 6%, but that was enough to get people excited. So far as shipping was concerned, there was a wave of orders for bulk carriers to carry all the coal that the world was about to start using (see “bulk carrier crash, 1983-7”), the big tankers that had poked their noses out of lay up went back into lay up (see “tanker crisis”), the flood of product tankers ordered on the back of a famous Drewry report found their market had vanished like the morning dew, and a handful of people thought that there might be an opening for a sailing cargo carrier.

I remember the design that they came up with. It was a completely orthodox square rigger, picking up roughly where the Flying P Line of F. Laeitz GmbH had left off in 1914, but larger, 14,000 tons deadweight rather than 8,000, because the proposers, some of whom had experience in the last real sailing ships, thought their ship might substitute directly for an SD14 ‘tweendeck tramp. The ship was never built, but it did attract some comment in the shipping press. There was little doubt that this ship, had she been built, would have performed as intended, using technology, such as the Jarvis brace winch, which had been developed in the last real sailing ships, with internal combustion substituted for muscle power.

By 2030, we are meant to have 5% of the world fleet of some 60,000 ships using no fossil fuels at all

Financially, this ship might not have done so well; there were already capesize bulk carriers, and the proposed ship’s hatches were small by 1970s standards, whilst the tracery of standing and running rigging would have to be moved clear for a shore crane to work, so she could not work many hatches at a time, making her slow to stow and slow to discharge, but the ship would certainly have got from A to B with a cargo, without using an engine. I regret to say that I cannot remember the names either of the proposal or of the people behind it, but it was an honest outline design, not that insult to everyone’s intelligence, an ‘artist’s impression’, whilst CGI didn’t exist in 1979.

We are now seeing new proposals for sailing merchant ships. Those that I have seen are ‘artist’s impressions’ or ‘CGI’ and they do not look like any sailing ship that has been seen before. Two well-known proposals get round the hatch size problem by being envisaged as roll-on, roll-off ships. One is a car carrier, and the other is a cargo roro.

Both have dates of 2024 or 2025 attached to them, at present they only exist electronically, and both are aimed at the North Atlantic, which is quite well suited to sailing ships, as it is windy for most of the time, unlike, say, Shanghai to Rotterdam.

I would like to take these ideas seriously, but they do not look as if they are really intended to sail; that is, to operate as a cargo carrier under wind power alone, because the sail area in the CGI pictures looks too small in relation to the size of the hull, and they have novelty rigs, yet to be tried and proven. The power to weight and sail area to windage ratios seem low, assuming the rig works reliably, so I suppose that they are going to start the engine to get anywhere in all except ideal conditions. The North Atlantic is not famous for its ideal conditions.

Are these sailing ships real, or are they exercises in kite flying, like the ‘proposals’ for odd looking superyachts that are touted around to catch the attention of billionaires seeking to impress their neighbours at Cannes? Meanwhile, the ordinary everyday shipping companies, including one that is behind one of these proposals, get on with ordering ordinary motor ships, made from ordinary steel, to be fuelled with ordinary methane, or even ordinary heavy oil, or that fashionable thing, a combination of both.

By 2030, we are meant to have 5% of the world fleet of some 60,000 ships using no fossil fuels at all. Do you suppose, gentle reader, that we are going to see 3,000 wind-powered ships in nine years’ time?


  1. Cogent observations, no need to re-invent the wheel. Worth noting that technological advances in sailing yachts since the 1980s (when the above 14k dwt design was proposed) have witnessed a quantum leap – hence a ‘Passat design fit for the 21st century’ must be worth investigating.

  2. Container ships: there is no room to put the sails.
    Bulk carriers: slow to load and discharge with the enormous amount of canvas they will need.
    Tankers: I see some opportunity here: the sails won’t be in the way of loading and discharging.

    The real problem, hwoever, will be that these vessels will still need generators to run all the vessel’s equipment (as well as the sails’ winches!) and will still need a sizable engine to allow the vessel to safely navigate areas of heavy traffic and to go in and out of ports.

    1. Exactly. Maersk recently sold their aframax tanker (Maersk Pelican) with rotor sails. Sails were installed in 2018.

  3. 3,000 wind-powered ships will require around 50,000 (or more) of specifically and adequately educated and trained officers, say nothing about ratings. To get them educated, academies should have IMO approved courses and training centers with lecturers, text books, simulators, etc. Who will invest in such ships if there are no crews available on the market to handle them? Who will invest into training centers if there is no demand for such officers? And who will be willing to spend their time to be licensed for joining such vessels if there is no fleet for them to be employed?

  4. Frank Coles is right? If the industry is to meet zero emission targets by mid century the only way to do this realistically and at scale is to pursue the nuclear option.
    I very much doubt we’ll see more than a handful of trading vessels resorting to wind power by 2030.

  5. Imagine how much further developed the wind-assist solutions would be if we’d started in 1979.
    I don’t think anyone in this space is currently proposing 100% wind power, not many suggesting canvas.
    Rather than focus on the “can’t”, in a climate emergency perhaps we should be thinking about the “why?”

    Wind is free, abundant and exclusively available to the shipping industry – in an energy constrained future it is beholden upon everyone to make best use of all available energy.
    Wind availability, and so value, on any ship on any route is more predictable via decades of historical data, smart weather routing; thus enabling ‘green financing’ per land-based renewable energy systems; the value of wind is more predictable than the cost of any of the proposed ‘net-zero’ alternative fuels; not subject to the volatility of commodity markets; delivers fuel autonomy; needs no land-side infrastructure upgrades; is available now; is automated and intelligent requiring minimal crew development.
    Wind is clean or in other words ‘real-zero’, safe (leakages aren’t too problematic) and we’ve got 8000 years or so of experience using it to move ships through water. The oil-age has interrupted tech development over the last 100 years or so – there’s loads of untapped innovation potential esp from yacht racing. By working with brilliant, progressive minds in the shipping industry, with cargo owners , naval archs, marine engineers, insurers, Class, finance we have developed close to market solutions.

    The problem: insufficient innovation, R&D funding. Lots and lots of talk about it but very little actual cash. As it’s been since 1979

    When the first wind turbines were installed everyone said: NAH! Now it’s producing cheaper energy than any other power source. The first cellphones: Never work…they said. Now more computing power in your phone than there was on Apollo 11. It is ALWAYS easier to be a sceptic, but not half so much fun as addressing the challenges.

    1. But why, Diane? Why is nobody “suggesting 100% wind power”; why is nobody suggesting canvas (which actually works, whereas rigid wingsails, as anyone with any knowledge of sail design will be happy to explain, generate little thrust at normal speeds and only come into their own at the sort of speeds that grand prix racing yachts achieve)?

      Neither of the projects that I have identified here put themselves forward as “wind assist” projects, both are presented as sailing ships, though, obviously, they are unworkable as such.

      They are just good old fashioned hokum, intended to deceive the gullible. They are pure greenwash.

      1. I agree with the “The power to weight and sail area to windage ratios seem low” and there will soon be an effective 5000 teu “work horse” zero emission solution available.

      2. For one, the Neoliner project you have cited state on their website that their vessel incorporates a diesel electric prime mover which compliments rig performance to maintain a steady 11kt voyage speed; so they are of the wind-assisted variety and not pretending to be the next Cutty Sark.
        Whilst not an America’s Cup winning ratings bandit by any standard, my fag packets calculations put her SA/D at just a shade under 10. That means she will be fairly summed up as beyond sluggish under sail alone, and the good Lord knows she couldn’t hope to get on her ear and pull to windward from a lee shore. But that is missing the point entirely isn’t it? With her sails set, her fuel consumption (MGO), is anticipated to reduce by up to 90% on an average crossing. If it achieves just 15% on average, that is potentially significant, surely?
        Tillig and Ringsberg put it like this in Vol. 211 of the academic journal ‘Ocean Engineering’: “Although the implementation of wind-assisted propulsion in shipping is not without challenges, the large potential savings make it a viable solution concerning the environment and the economy”

        1. Matthew,

          Thanks. Borrowing your fag packet (those reading this in American English may like to note that we are speaking of cigarettes, here) I think that the high windage of a ro-ro hull comes into the equation so an SA/disp of 10:1 is decidedly on the low side, even for regular motor sailing. You have sent me down a rabbit hole computing the SA/D of well known sailing ships…

        2. Thank you, Matthew.

          Borrowing your fag packet, the SA/D of the “Cutty Sark”, built 1869, an “extreme tea clipper” 1,100 dwt, 2,100 displacement, was 19.86, and that of the “Preussen”, built 1902, 8,000 dwt, 11,150 tons displacement, a successful late large windjammer, was 15.00.

          Both with far less hull windage.

          “Average speed of a clipper ship (Cutty Sark) 6kts, average relative speed 0.38…
          Average speed of the Preussen 7kts, average relative speed 0.35”
          (Professor C.A. Marchaj, “Sail Performance”)

          11 knots port to port, “saving 90% of emissions”? I call greenwash!

    2. The problem is not insufficient funding… in the second half of 19th century there was no problem with financing sail ships construction, but steamships nevertheless prevailed, guess why.

    3. Thanks Diane, the planet needs more positive minds and wind assistance is surely one way to reduce emissions!

  6. Nuclear power.
    Those of us who managed to live long enough, may recall sad story of the first nuclear powered merchant ship The Sevmorput, delivered in 1988 (
    If in 1990 vessel was denied port entry (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) on the pretext that “… evacuation and emergency response measures of the city were not deemed adequate in case of an accident involving the ship’s nuclear reactor”, what would be a response to similar challenges today? Are there ports with an adequate system to handle potential nuclear accident?
    And again, where are all those officers, trained and certified to sail those nuclear vessels???
    Completely unrealistic.

  7. The carriage of goods by sailing ship is not as far distant in time as we might think.

    I recall the late TK Boesen, founder of the eponymous operator and a jolly nice chap, telling me that his first fixture as a young broker was for a sailing ship. And today there are these people running across the Atlantic, actually doing it, albeit on a luxury goods scale.

    At least the projectors of sailing ship projects are willing to put up with being laughed at; I just wish they would not insult the intelligence of the public.

    1. thanks for sharing, customers will have their say in greening and also in greening of shipping.

    2. Cher Guillaume,

      Un beau CGI. Toujours “90% de réduction des émissions”… voyons si cela arrive un jour..

  8. Downsizing the shipping industry, as in my proposal where I suggest also new composite based containers, will be the only way out of the disaster course shipping is on. The changes needed is foiling cargo transportation, autonomous operation by satelite as happening in passenger transport with autonomous Uber and fuel production onboard by wind and hydro power, all technically viable and already proven by air transportation industry.

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