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The North Sea Region SAIL project has been running for two years, looking at the ways that wind assisted transport can help deal with pollution and other issues in the North Sea region. Having been interested to join the last few conferences, it was a pleasure to be able to join this one. Hearing from some of the experts what is possible and what is probable, listening to some outrageous plans as well as some well analysed schemes, hoping that this was not all balderdash and self delusion: a great way to plan to spend a day.

It took me a while to find the location, amid the swarms of Tall Ships Race visitors, the hall where seats were lined up and a projector ready was a haven of near-normality. Registration was painless, as one would hope, I deposited a pile of Time’s Up postcards on the information table to bring some Kraken-style deviation from the flash production values of the other documents.

I grabbed a coffee and some strange green cake and fell into a conversation with a woman[name, link] looking at communication strategies for the SAIL project, or more importantly, for companies that would be able to trade on the kudos of green transport, or Fair Transport as it seems to be known. What products can pull this off, what sort of added value from this level of fairness and organic-ness makes sense? As Andreas Lackner from Tres Hombres quipped later that day, an organic banana no longer is after it has been transported by a pollution spewing cargo vessel.

The Tres Hombres, hard at work saving us from air and water pollution, delivering high quality products from across the Atlantic.

It turned out that the focus of this meeting was the Ecoliner, which has been developed by Dijkstra Naval Architects as an optimal sail assisted cargo vessel. The Dynarig, first developed in the 1960s by Wilhelm Proelss, is the chosen sail drive. High tech and able to be operated by minimal crew, the main feature might be seen as the fact that it is optimised for sailing on the wind as a result of the fixed curved shape, making it very appropriate for sail-motor combinations, as the motoring brings the apparent wind forward. This is in stark contrast to the square rig, which is crew-intensive as well as not being so effective on the wind. It would be interesting to see a comparison like this one about the standard fore-and-aft sail systems, that includes the square sail and Dynarig as well.

Greenheart Project rendering

The main problem that the Ecoliner is facing is the lack of financing for building. This was being dealt with in a parallel meeting with a group of high end financiers and shipping company representatives, the so-called VIP meeting. One delegate at our meeting said that that was the “serious” meeting while we were the “loonies” with wild ideas. However, the loonies might have a few advantages. Gavin Allwright from the Greenheart project, outlined their planned vessel, which having a price around 350,000 Euro, costs a fraction of the Ecoliner. Large enough to transport four shipping containers, low draft so as to be able to enter lagoons and river estuaries, it is proposed as a solution for the south Pacific region, where fuel oil based shipping is becoming impossible. It is, of course, also perfectly useful in many of the other areas where infrastructure and finances are not available for larger shipping, or the desire for clean shipping makes cheap fuel oil impossible or undesirable.

An alternative project came to light in discussions. The Fair Winds Trading Company, based in Scotland, is working on shipping solutions for the west African coast, transporting valuable organic produce (tree oils, for instance) by small, fast ship to markets in Europe. Their plan, based upon the original Banana Boats, which brought bananas from the Caribbean to Europe before cheap heavy oil shipping took over, offers a solution in ships around 24m in length carrying 10 cubic meters (around 8 tonnes) of produce directly from producer to markets.

This plan, starting small, is what has made Tres Hombres such a success. The three friends, Arjen van der Veen, Andreas Lackner and Jorne Langelaan, started work on refitting their vessel in 2009 and delivered their first totally organic rum to the Netherlands in 2010. In 2013 they managed to break even for the first time, 2014 is looking good too. This year they are expanding their fleet with a second boat, Nordlys which will stay in the European region to deliver organic produce by fair transport from early 2015. It was discussed that organic bananas are produced in the gheologically heated greenhouses of Iceland, offering another possibility for completely fair and organic banana delivery. While this sounds encouraging, the banana production in Iceland is apparently nevertheless a bit too low to be usefully traded.

Other issues were raised. Caroline von Tilborg from REBEL Groep introduced some figures and thoughts that raise some further financing possibilities. If the Ecoliner runs according to plan, with appropriate carbon market pricing, once the systems for carbon saving are developed, could earn between 900,000 and 1,200,000 Euro per year. The development of these frameworks must be financed, as this is a complex process, but once developed, these protocols and this methodology would allow actors within the European and global transport markets to cash in carbon credits. This has already been implemented for hull surface treatments, for example, so there are possibilities.

After the conference came to and end, after a series of interesting talks outlined above and extended with talk about solar powered boats, traditional techniques, engine emissions analysis and other issues, a group of us remained chatting over lunch. The rest of the group had slowly been taken off to the VIP meeting, so one of our hosts took it upon herself to wangle us into the meeting ourselves. I have never been much of a party crasher, but this one seemed worthwhile. The saloon of the Stad Amsterdam, one of the large tall ships in harbour, was the venue. As we entered, discussions about financing were falling into place. Gavin Allwright had been there longer, so he could bring us up to speed a little. We learnt that the cargo shipping companies had already managed 25-33% fuel savings, the low hanging fruit had been taken. Some figures were thrown around, questions of financing, pricing and costs were addressed. At some point, amidst discussions about the fine details of whether this sort of development would be “affordable”, Arjen from Tres Hombres jumped up and spurted out “But you are poisoning my air!!” with the elephant in the room being at least pointed at: what is it worth to not poison our planet? Bankers and shippers ignore this. Surplus tonnage and minimal margins have pushed cargo prices down. Profit is one day on a voyage, so a one day delay kills the profit. There is no room for experiments.

The Sail meeting and the people I met their indicate that, while these big players are wary about experiments – but not so wary that they would not turn up to at least discuss these ideas – there are several smaller players who are making this happen. We can only hope that these smaller players are able to make experiments that work, that fail in interesting and useful ways, that explore the possibilities and work out some ways out of the ocean and air poisoning situation we have gotten ourselves into.