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Shipbuilders harness the wind to clean up global shipping

Sail Cargo co-founder John Porras pictured in the cargo hold of Ceiba, a three-masted topsail schooner under construction in Punta Morales, Costa Rica. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)
Sail Cargo co-founder John Porras pictured in the cargo hold of Ceiba, a three-masted topsail schooner under construction in Punta Morales, Costa Rica. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)

Find out more about our Reverse Course series here.

If you need to move a dishwasher or a new TV from a factory in Asia to a store in California, a container ship is the cheapest way to do it.

These vessels are as long as several football fields and can carry tens of thousands of individual 20-foot containers. According to the United Nations, more than 11 billion tons of stuff was shipped by sea in 2021.

Container ships use heavy fuel oil called bunker fuel. They’re more efficient than trains, trucks and planes. But bunker fuel is highly polluting, and container ships produce about 3% of the world’s emissions.

Shipping by sea wasn’t always this way. There was a time when boats used the power of the wind to ferry goods across the globe.

And today, as the world looks for ways to cut back on planet-warming emissions, some shipbuilders are traveling back in time to find a solution to a modern problem.

“Sometimes it’s actually better to use a simple system,” says Brad Vogel, a fellow at the Center for Post Carbon Logistics. “Wind moves a vessel. People have known that since Egyptian times.”

A shipyard in Costa Rica

Workers building Sail Cargo’s wooden sailing vessel at a shipyard in Punta Morales, Costa Rica. (Courtesy of Sail Cargo)

In the tropical forest of Costa Rica, a company called Sail Cargo is building a wooden cargo schooner from scratch.

At the shipyard, a short walk from the Pacific coast, piles of hardwood are scattered about like overturned matchsticks. Just on the other side of a towering white guanacaste tree, the frame of a 45-meter wooden sailboat comes into view.

“Some people say that it’s an art piece,” says Sail Cargo’s Alejandra Terán.

Co-founders John Porras, Lynx Guimond (left) and staff member Alejandra Terán pictured inside the cargo hold of Ceiba, a 3-masted topsail schooner under construction in Costa Rica. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

It’s a marvel to see a ship this size out of the water, perched on wooden blocks. The ship is a three-masted topsail schooner that looks like it came from another era. Its name is Ceiba, in honor of a tree that carries cultural significance in Latin America.

Work started in 2018, but the ship’s exterior still isn’t sheathed.

“So you can see all the ribs,” says Sail Cargo co-founder Lynx Guimond, the French-Canadian carpenter and sailor who is responsible for building it. “She looks like a big beached whale carcass, but beautifully crafted out of wood. Anybody who’s been a sailor knows your boat is a living being. It has its own soul.”

To get on board, Guimond climbs the steps of a wooden scaffold, past solid beams of tamarind and Spanish cedar harvested in the nearby jungle. For every tree used to build this ship, Sail Cargo plants 25 more.

Ceiba can carry 250 tons of freight — the equivalent of nine containers. It will transport “anything from coffee to cacao, to electric vehicles. Hopefully sustainable clients, but we can also ship tires or pineapples or whatever else,” Guimond says.

Sail Cargo’s wooden sailing vessel Ceiba is under construction at a shipyard in Punta Morales, Costa Rica. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

Work on the ship has paused while the company raises more money. With another $2 million and two years of work, Ceiba will be ready to sail, Guimond says. Sail Cargo already has a contract to move green coffee beans from Colombia to New Jersey — a journey that will take four days longer than a traditional container ship.

Electric batteries will give it a boost if the wind doesn’t blow.

There’s “incredible demand” for Ceiba’s services from companies that want an ecological solution to shipping goods around the world, Guimond says.

“Shipping is one of the most polluting elements on our planet today,” he says. “But we always say: ‘What’s the real cost of cheap shipping?’ We are paying for it with our planet.”

When ordering products to our doorsteps from far away countries, Guimond hopes a project like Ceiba will prompt people to ask: ‘Do you really need it?’

Momentum and headwinds

There are about a dozen commercial wind ships delivering freight around the world, and a handful of other high-profile projects under development, says Steven Woods, a U.S.-based sail-freight expert watching Ceiba’s progress with interest.

Wooden dhows have been navigating off the coast of Africa for centuries.

But Woods says Sail Cargo is the only company building a large wooden cargo schooner from scratch.

“I am a bit worried,” he says, “because they have been under construction since 2018, on a ship that a shipyard in Maine 100 years ago would have turned out in about six months.”

Woods says banks are reluctant to finance unique projects like this. Plus, there’s a shortage of skilled sailors and shipbuilders necessary for a robust global sail-freight industry.

In the 1970s, in response to the oil crisis, there was a similar interest in revitalizing wind-powered shipping. But when a 96-foot sailing vessel called the John F. Leavitt sank off the coast of New York in 1979 as a result of suspected negligence, “it sent the movement back decades,” Woods said.

In today’s climate-conscious era, he says that Sail Cargo creates a new opportunity.

“If they succeed, it’s fantastic,” says Woods. “They’ll be sailing right into New York. They’ll be seen by a huge number of people. That would be a huge kickstart to any of these types of projects.”

Sailing the Hudson River

There is one high-profile sail freight company in the United States.

On a warm April morning — at a shipyard near the Hudson River in Kingston, New York — Sam Merrett is slapping a fresh coat of paint on the Schooner Apollonia.

When the summer season gets underway, Capt. Merrett will sail the steel-sided Apollonia up and down the Hudson, carrying products like malted grain to local breweries on its way to New York City.

Captain Sam Merrett, (left) prepares the Schooner Apollonia for the upcoming season. The boat will sail up and down the Hudson River delivering cargo to ports between Kingston, New York, and New York City. The roundtrip journey takes about two weeks. (Samantha Raphelson/Here & Now)

“It takes us about a week to get down, and about a week to get up,” Merrett says. “So we’re kind of like leapfrogging down and then back up the Hudson River, picking up cargo and dropping off cargo almost every day.”

Just like Ceiba, the trip take longer and cost more than typical methods.

But without using trucks to move the products, the Apollonia offers a clean alternative that some businesses are eager to use.

“The whole idea is to actually get trucks and fossil fuels out of the equation,” Merrett says.

Most of Apollonia’s clients are right near the river, so the crew can use a bicycle and a trailer to move the cargo to its final destination.

The Apollonia has been sailing freight since 2020, and the economics are tough, says Merrett.

“Paying for fuel is cheaper than paying for people,” he says. “I need a crew of four to six. It’s more expensive to pay them a living wage than to just buy some fuel for a truck.”

Using wind to move container ships

Apollonia carries up to 10 tons of cargo, a fraction of what Ceiba will hold in Costa Rica, and infinitesimally small compared to the 11 billion tons of freight moved around the world in a year.

That’s why massive container ships are the focus of the International Maritime Organization. Last year, the IMO set a goal for the industry to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Just slowing the engines down saves energy. And even the biggest ships on the planet can use sails to catch the wind.

“They operate like airplane wings. They’re 37 meters high — absolutely ginormous,” says Lauren Eatwell, head of WindWings at BAR Technologies.

Pyxis Ocean retrofitted with WindWings setting sail for its maiden voyage, August 2023. (BAR Technologies)

The company has developed adjustable wings that can be placed on cargo vessels. Each wing saves a ton and a half of fuel every day and “that reduces the carbon footprint,” Eatwell says.

According to the IMO, about 30 large cargo vessels are using wind technology to reduce emissions, with more on the way. Eatwell believes future ships will use a combination of wind, clean fuels and sleeker hulls to meet climate goals. And despite the difference in scale, she says there is a role for smaller projects like Ceiba and the Schooner Apollonia.

“I love the move back toward sailing,” she says. “There are all kinds of different vessels and purposes out there. All of these technologies are needed.”

‘Best energies’ from nature

At the shipyard in Costa Rica, the Sail Cargo team is trying to finish one of those vessels.

With Ceiba’s frame looming in the distance, co-founder John Porras is banging away on a beat box that’s been made with left-over scraps of wood — part of the company’s ethos to build as sustainably as possible.

Outside Sail Cargo’s shipyard and headquarters in Punta Morales, Costa Rica. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

“The solution is here in Costa Rica,” he says, adding that the world is starting to understand that “the best energies [are] from nature.”

Sail Cargo still needs to raise the money to complete the ship, and the company is also looking for a new CEO after a recent turnover in leadership. But Porras and his team are undeterred.

“This project is so hard,” Porras says. “It’s the maximum goal to show the world how the industry can change. All the eyes of the country [are on] our project right now.”

Here & Now’s Samantha Raphelson contributed reporting from New York.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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