The New Odyssey of Sailing Transport

Will Aeolus sink fuel?

By Matthias Beaufils-Marquet

Published the 4th of December 2020


© Aline de Pazzis · Sailing Hirondelle

Savouring a piece of chocolate with a coffee, what could be more mundane? And yet if you think about it, where do cocoa beans come from? Where was the coffee grown? If we calculate the carbon footprint of this little everyday pleasure, it suddenly has a bitter aftertaste...

One need only look at the number of products with an organic or fair trade label to see that there is growing concern about their environmental impact and the social conditions of their production. As far as transport is concerned, on the other hand, we associate the same product less easily with the supertanker that transported it over thousands of kilometers, even though 90% of the products transported worldwide are transported by sea.

90% of the products transported worldwide are transported by sea.

But after all, why should we change course? Don't CO2 emissions from shipping represent "only 3%" of annual global emissions? It is not so simple: beyond the fact that reducing emissions is necessary in all sectors to achieve carbon neutrality, which is clearly specified in the Paris Agreement (2015), if nothing is done to decarbonize maritime freight, emissions could be multiplied sixfold by 2050... to reach 17% of global emissions! This is a far cry from a drop of water in the ocean.


Until the beginning of the twentieth century, sailboats and steamboats coexisted.

To achieve these goals, there is a lot of talk of carbon-free fuels, hydrogen or electric propulsion, but the new technological leap needed in maritime shipping may not be where we think it is. If since the beginning of the 20th century, with the boom of steamboats, sailing seemed to be definitively out of the picture, new initiatives promise it a bright future. To understand how this is possible, one must remember that in the 19th century and until the beginning of the 20th century, sail and steam ships coexisted, like the "Belém", a mythical tall ship originally chartered to transport cocoa and built in 1896. While the fastest clippers could reach speeds of up to 8 knots, steamboats, which had to stop regularly to reload with coal, were initially unsuitable for long crossings, such as the Transatlantic. Gradually, other technological advances made it possible to increase tonnage, and lighter fuels appeared, making sailing less competitive. Surprisingly, it was not so much speed as reliability and an accumulation of technologies that gradually precipitated the decline of sailing. Today, that trend could turn around, due to the ecological emergency of our situation and thanks to navigation assisted by cutting-edge technology.

Container ships are very advanced economic weapons of war: it is impossible for a sailboat to compete with them.

Among the new initiatives focusing on sailing transport, the Breton company "Grain de Sail" is betting on a different mode of consumption, based on a different vision of globalized trade. Created in 2010, the company specializes in roasting coffee beans and producing chocolate in Morlaix, using organic and fair trade products, some of which are imported from Central America and the Caribbean. To move towards a model that would bring the producer closer to the consumer while minimizing its carbon footprint, the model of transport by sail seems promising: "The sailing cargo ship is a technology that has been mastered for several centuries (...) it's very efficient," notes Jacques Barreau, co-founder of Grain de Sail. However, it is impossible to compete with container ships: "Container ships are very advanced economic weapons of war (...) when it comes to transiting a product between the European and American coasts (...) it's a few tens of cents per kilo". The idea is therefore to integrate the entire value chain by being both a shipowner and a producer.

Everything has been thought out to optimize the route with an import/export model: the ship will leave Brittany with a cargo of natural organic wine that will be delivered to New York, before reaching the Dominican Republic loaded with humanitarian products destined for Haiti, to avoid making an empty voyage. Once the holds are loaded with coffee and cocoa, the ship will make the return crossing via the Azores to buy spices before finally reaching the port of Montoir-de-Bretagne.

This trip, which should last nearly 3 months, leaves us dreaming and makes us more aware that the distances that we thought we had abolished thanks to our ever-faster means of transportation have an environmental cost. In order to responsibly consume products that remain a luxury for many, we may have to integrate a factor of sobriety in shipping. In other words, accepting to transport less often and more slowly products that we know will be transported in an energetically sustainable manner. In addition, these initiatives create a more virtuous link in trade and show that it is possible to consume without entering a race to the lowest social and environmental bidder. The challenge is not so much to eliminate trade as to see what cannot be produced locally and what each country can bring to the others.

This successful venture by Grain de Sail shows a real enthusiasm on behalf of consumers who want to support responsible consumption. In the same spirit, the pioneers of the revival of sailing transport since 2011, TOWT (TransOceanic Wind Transport), also based in Brittany, have created a label, "Anemos", certifying that their products are transported by sail. So far, TOWT has opened five sailing transport lines: transatlantic, cross-Channel, but also coastal, regional and European.


In this context, it may be time to hoist the sails again because this approach, combined with navigational aid technologies, can prove to be both low carbon and efficient, opening up new perspectives for more environmentally friendly freight on a larger scale.

Sailing can make its comeback thanks to the routing tools developed for offshore racing.

Former officer of the merchant navy, Adrien Simonet, co-founder of the company "Neoline", is now deputy director. For him, Neoline's project can be summed up in a few words: "the wind is an inexhaustible, free and clean resource that can be used to decarbonize maritime freight".

To be able to compete with classic cargo ships, the key to success is the regularity sought by shippers: "even if we go slower, the important thing is to be on time (...) It is important to know that what killed the sailing boat at the beginning of the 20th century was not speed but regularity, we knew when the boat was leaving, but we didn't know when it was going to arrive". With a commercial speed of 11 knots compared to 15 or 16 knots for classic cargo ships, the bias is somewhat that of the tortoise against the hare and is based on technological tools. If sailing can now take its revenge on motorized transport, it is above all thanks to the routing tools originally developed for ocean racing (such as the Vendée Globe). Accurate weather forecasts (wind and current) allow the route to be optimized and to predict when the boat will arrive at its destination.

Sailing also takes advantage of hydraulic assistance to complete maneuvers, which can also be partially automated. With the transition from engine to sail, a transfer of skills takes place from the engine to the deck, making the total crew (14 people) equivalent to that of a conventional vessel. Sail transport can therefore compete on an equal footing in terms of competitiveness, break into freight, and why not bring in its wake a new economic model.

 It is estimated that nearly 60,000 premature deaths per year in France are caused by maritime transport.

In addition to low carbon transport, sailing transport responds to other environmental challenges, first and foremost that of air pollution! According to the ESPO (European Sea Ports Organisation), air pollution has become one of the top environmental concerns of port management companies over the past 20 years. The big disadvantage of container ships, which currently run on heavy fuel oil, is their nitrogen oxide (NOX) and sulfur oxide (SOx) emissions. The low engine speed when they are manoeuvring, and even more so in port and coastal areas, further increases these polluting exhaust emissions. In total, it is estimated that there are nearly 60,000 premature deaths per year in France as a result of maritime transport! Admittedly, the new standards in force since January 1, 2020 reduce the sulfur rate in fuel by a factor of 7 (from 3.5% to 0.5%), but this is forgetting that the English Channel, where traffic is dense and close to the coast, is classified as an "emission control zone" and that the sulfur rate there is already limited to 0.1%. To breathe fresher air, it makes sense to rely on the wind.

Sailing transport considerably reduces noise pollution.

Thanks to the use of sail propulsion, transportation can also become more respectful of the marine environment, by considerably reducing noise pollution. Although still largely unknown, this problem is very real, as Marie-Kell, a marine biologist and violinist working on the impact of ocean noise pollution on cetacean populations, has also shown us. The reduction in speed, inherent in sailing transport, generates a number of environmental benefits: it reduces the risk of collision with cetaceans, which are already less disoriented by the noise of engines and can more easily avoid ships. This problem, also pointed out by oceanographers, is not yet legislated, even if it is the subject of debate within the IMO (International Maritime Organization).

Eric Foulquier, Transports maritimes et changement climatique (2020)

Far from being a retrograde option, sailing transport is now being seriously considered as a solution to decarbonize shipping. Based on an inexhaustible source of energy, sailing is also remarkably efficient. Moreover, it has been able to integrate high technology and very precise routing tools, optimizing routes and meeting requirements in terms of regularity.

Small-scale projects are on the rise, showing it is possible to market products that are transported by sailing vessels, and thereby more respectful of the environment. And the demand for these products is growing! This paves the way for larger-scale projects seeking to compete with container ships powered by heavy fuel oil.

By relying on auxiliary engines (electric, hydrogen...) when wind is scarce, sailing will help democratize carbon-free transport. In the meantime, the challenge of transport by sail also makes the reality of the distances traveled by the products we consume more concrete. It invites us to be more sober, that is, to consume perhaps less, but better.

Finally, beyond being an alternative to carbon fuels, sailing vessels considerably reduce air pollution, which kills every year, in addition to noise pollution, which despite our deafness dangerously affects the marine environment.

A l'occasion du festival des Aventuriers de la mer à Lorient nous avons eu la chance de découvrir le projet "Iliens". Pour les découvrir et les soutenir c'est ici.


Go check out our video on the impacts of marine transport on cetaceans!


Eric Foulquier, Transports maritimes et changement climatique (2020), disponible sur : →