Sailing ships have always held a fascination for me. From daydreaming while learning about Captain Cook’s amazing voyages to the ends of the known world while sitting in a classroom in the summer heat, to watching the Sydney to Hobart yacht race cruising out of Sydney Harbor under spinnakers, I’m not a sailor, but the sight of these vessels racing with the wind is pretty awesome. But sailing ships became a thing of the past with the advent of the steam engine, and later on diesel powered engines. For a while these two technologies cohabitated, in case of engine failure, or to get some extra power under favorable wind conditions.
A new way of harnessing the wind has been developed in recent years with the advent of stronger, lighter materials to make massive kite sails. A German ship has made history as the first commercial cargo ship with additional propulsion by a towing kite system…
When the 10,000-tonne Beluga SkySail is well clear of land, it will launch a giant kite, which wind tunnel tests and sea trials suggest will tug it along and save 10-15% of the heavy fuel oil it would normally burn. If the journey from Bremen in Germany to Venezuela and back is successful, it could become common to see some of the largest ships in the world towed by kites the size of soccer fields.
Not quite the sailing ships of old, but a great use of technology to see energy savings in the transportation of heavy goods. For more information about the original blending of steam and sails, see this page at the National Maritime Museum in the UK.
To give you an idea of the value that this technology could bring, have a read of these stats…
Nearly 100,000 cargo ships transport 95% of world trade by sea, and the world shipping industry is expanding rapidly as countries such as India and China become major players in the global economy. But the cost of shipping or “bunker” fuel has nearly doubled in the past two years, forcing the industry to consider alternatives. At the same time, concerns have grown about climate change and air pollution from shipping. It is estimated that commercial shipping uses nearly 2 billion barrels of oil a year and emits as much as 800 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, or 4% of the world’s man-made emissions. Shipping also releases more sulphur dioxide than all the world’s cars and lorries.
Bring on the renaissance of wind powered shipping!