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December 07, 2005

The Return of Sails on Commercial Freighters?

I spent much of the weekend tearing apart the outboard motor on my new sailboat. It was really frustrating and I kept looking up at the sails and the mast thinking - I already have two good engines! Why do I need this stinking, finicky piece of metal? Well the reality is, the motor in small boat sailing is used for 2 things - maneuvering in tight quarters, and more importantly, providing a little speed boost when sailing into the wind or in light breezes. (Historical tech trivia - when engines were first introduced to sailboats in the 19th century they were often called the "Iron Jenny" because the large foresail is often called a genoa. Hence "iron" gennie) In that sense, the role of the engine in much modern recreational cruising is to lay down a base supply of power which the sails can augment depending on a couple of factors: 1) how much effort you want to expend trimming the sails, 2) how much wind there is, 3) how wild of a ride you want. So I was thinking - with fuel prices rising, a glut of trans-oceanic shipping capacity looming (and thus margins falling), why aren't we seeing experiments in sail-assisted commercial freighters. Well, a wee bit'o'Googling later, and I found out those ingenious Germans are looking into this very area:
For several weeks last summer, a team of German engineers sailed back and forth across the Baltic Sea playing with a large inflatable kite. The engineers, from the Hamburg company SkySails, were testing the potential of high-tech kites to pull a ship across the ocean by hitching a ride on winds high above the waves. The idea isn't to propel a ship by wind alone - a conventional diesel engine will help it along on days when the wind is blowing from the wrong direction, is too strong or dies away entirely. But since the kite reduces the need to use engines, the team at SkySails believes it can halve the amount of fuel a ship burns.
It's the same basic idea - lay down a base of power with the engine (and run it super-efficient under a near constant load) and tap the wind for that extra boost of speed to keep you moving at the rate of the 21st century global economy. But what makes wind power all the more attractive today is that new technologies, materials and some clever sensing are cutting down the manpower requirements for controlling the sails. Airfoils replace canvas, and cockpit controls replace lines and winches. It's an interesting possible future - maybe one way we can leverage all that climate instability , pushing freighters along in front of those evermore frequent hurricanes!

Posted by dymaxion at December 7, 2005 05:39 PM



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