Lloyd Alter at Treehugger talks about our article on cargo ships and wonders if it is time for a new age of sail. One reader comments that sailing boats require a much larger crew than today’s cargo vessels, which would make a comeback of wind power unrealistic. Maybe, but these days, sailing boats can also be controlled by computers instead of sailors.
If you want a revival of sail the ecotech way, you can have it.
The need for a large crew
to operate the rigs makes sailing ships not only expensive to
operate, it also means that a significant part of the cargo space is
taken up by cabins, provisions and water supplies. Sailings boats did better
than rowing boats (which had a very limited range because of their
even larger crew) but they were no competition for later steamboats
and today’s diesel ships, which can get along with only a handful of sailors.
Automated sail handling
The 1902 Preussen (pictured here
was the first ship to automate sail handling. It had no
auxiliary engines for propulsion, but it made use of steam power
for the operation of the winches, hoists and pumps. This limited the crew to 48 men. By comparison: the Kruzenshtern (picture above) a very large sailing vessel without mechanised control, has a crew of 257 men.
The Preussen had 5 masts (with a maximum height of 68 meters) and
47 sails (with a total surface area of 5,560 square meters or 60,000
square feet). It had a length of 147 meters (438 ft.) and a
load-carrying capacity of 8,000 tons.
Today, sailing boats can be operated with even smaller crews. The Royal
a steel-hulled five masted cruise ship built in 2000 and inspired by
the Pruessen (it is only slightly smaller), can be handled with a crew
as small as 20, using powered controls. The Royal Clipper (picture
below) is the largest sailing ship in service today (although it does
have auxiliary engines).
In 2006, automated control was taken to the extreme with the Maltese
the yacht of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tom Perkins. The 88
meter (290 foot) long luxury yacht can be operated by one man using a
central control unit. A small crew is required for maintenance and
fixing problems, but nobody needs to be in the rig during
Touch of a button
Handling, hoisting and lowering of the sails is done at the touch of
a button - the sails roll into the mast. The Maltese Falcon (pictured
below) has 3 masts (58 meters high) and a total sail area of 2,400
square meters (almost 26,000 square feet). It is about half the size of
The Maltese Falcon is equipped with the
technology, a concept that was developed in Germany by W. Prolls in the
1960s as a propulsion
alternative for commercial ships in the face of a looming energy
crisis. It was never applied then - the Maltese Falcon is the first
proof-of-concept. Now some smaller versions have been designed,
DynaRig is a high-tech version of a “square-rigger”, the kind of sail
used by the Preussen. The main difference is that the
yards (the horizontal spars) do not swing around a fixed mast but are
attached permanently to a rotating mast. Only recent developments in
high-tech materials such as carbon fibre have permitted this
technology. The yards keep the sail in a fixed, wing-like form.
to a traditional sailboat, the rig of the Maltese Falcon scarcely shows
any ropes or wires. But it does have dozens of computers and microprocessors,
connected by 131,000 feet of cable. The Preussen is low-tech, the Maltese Falcon is ecotech.
The Maltese Falcon is a
sumptuous yacht that is hard to
qualify as environmentally friendly. Still, it demonstrates the
effectiveness of powering very large boats with a modern sail, capable
of being handled by the small crew necessary for a commercial cargo ship to have a chance of being profitable.
I prefer the low-tech way; higher taxes on fuel, lower taxes on labour. But if you want a revival of sail the ecotech way, you can have it.
Kris De Decker (edited by Vincent Grosjean)
Above: the Portuguese Sagres III.
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