Do tall ships have a place in international trade?

A new wind is blowing over maritime trade. While giant container ships continue to provide almost all of the world’s sea freight, despite their consumption of heavy fuel oil and the congestion problems they cause, the new ships are aiming at their bow ends. More modest in size, powered by wind power, they also transport their cargoes from one continent to another, with an impressive carbon footprint as a result. Has the maritime sector finally found a way to reduce its CO2 emissions?

“The battle is not yet won, tempers Lise Detrimont, general delegate of the Wind Ship association, which brings together the players in this emerging sector. It is not tomorrow that we will see today huge container ships propelled by a sail, no one is considering equipping these ships with a sail propulsion system. That would not work. At the moment, innovation plans in the maritime transport sector seem exclusively towards the search for a green fuel. However, wind propulsion – as a complement or as a complement main source of energy – it is a very serious clue”, assures the specialist. As proof, more and more shipowners are embarking on the adventure.

“Fifteen large freighters are already equipped around the world. Oil tanker, bulk carrier, ferry, freighter or fishing vessel, they navigate the North Sea, the Atlantic, the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. At the moment, it is a question of “retrofit”, that is to say existing but modified ships. However, the first new buildings, specially designed to harness the energy of the wind, will not take long to come out of the works”, warns the specialist.

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A 121-meter ro-ro vessel equipped with 4 wings designed by the French company Zéphyr et Borée will be launched at the end of 2022. About ten times a year it will cross the Atlantic to meet the needs of Arianenespace, which has found a way to transport its future launchers at a lower cost. With ten years of experience in wind propulsion, the TOWT company recently embarked on the construction of a fleet of four modern cargo sailers. The latter will travel from France to North America and Asia transporting carbon-neutral freight on behalf of major brands.

“Wind propulsion, be it rigid wings, rotors or kites placed on the bow, is particularly effective for medium-sized boats operating at moderate speed,” says Lise Detrimont. Based on tests so far, it can reduce fuel consumption by 5-20% on existing boats that are being retrofitted. However, the gains would go much further on the new ships.

Eliminate almost all CO2 emissions

“The cargo sailboat that we are going to build will use the wind for 95% of its crossing time. During the remaining 5%, the engines will take over at low speed, mainly for port maneuvers. Ultimately, this should eliminate almost all CO2 emissions related to fuel consumption,” said Guillaume Le Grand, president and co-founder of TOWT. “Of course, in practice, the wind does not blow everywhere in the same way. Towards West Africa, profits will be closer to 80%, which is already very good,” continues the businessman. On the other hand, towards North America or Central America, we will approach 100%.”

In its business plan, TOWT plans to deliver, with each of its schooners, 20,000 tons of goods per year. A tiny amount compared to international maritime trade. But the sailing segment is destined to grow because customers, whether they sell clothes, champagne or cocoa, see it as a way to strongly and quickly decarbonize their activity, for a cost and an extension of the duration of the trip. that are making. deem acceptable. In addition, the Covid pandemic and the blockade of the Suez Canal following the grounding of the container ship Ever Given in March 2021 have highlighted the vulnerabilities of the current system.

“Thus, the current organization of maritime transport, massive, fast, concentrated in a few main routes and in the hands of large operators, could be shaken by the appearance of secondary lines provided by smaller ships”, underline the members of Wind Ship in a recently published White Paper. The association is also very skeptical about the development of alternative fuels. “Aucun ne semble en mesure de replace le pétrole avant 2030 pour des trajets au long cours du fait du manque de maturité de ces solutions, des problematiques de stockage, de la chaîne d’approvisionnement et de la logistique. Il n’existe pas de source d’energy presents the same densité énergétique volumique que le pétrole (le nucléaire mis à part). Le risque de fuete, et sa facilité à s’enflammer voire à exploser, doit générer des importan mesures de sécurité.La toxicité de l’ammoniac also constitutes a veritable deficit, étant mortal à très faible concentration dans l’air. , sa combustion génère la production d’oxides d’azote (NOx). The document .

The express

“We must not fool ourselves. The current system based on the use of large container ships will continue for several decades. But in the long term, a two-speed system could be implemented,” believes Lise Detrimont. This development even offers an opportunity to France, which has extensive knowledge in sail propulsion through its SMEs and start-ups. Currently, the sector represents only 350 jobs. However, this figure could be multiplied by ten by 2030, estimates the Wind Ship association. As long as, of course, favorable winds are taken advantage of.



François Bazin, essayist and journalist specializing in politics.By Francois Bazin


Christopher DonnerChristopher Donner


Donner Chronicle CREDIT: LAURA ACQUAVIVAChristopher Donner


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