Food for thought?

During the last one hundred years international shipping has suffered a similar epoch-making and incisive transformation as other sectors of the economy, which meanwhile is termed as "developed" and has prevailed worldwide. The milestones of this transformation have been mainly the substitution of the venerable sail by motor propulsion, the emergence of special vessel types for the transport of the commodities demanded by modern economy, the increase in size of some of these vessel types and the consequences resulting from specialization and size for the port economy and the hinterland. 

These trends have led to the development of transport and logistic chains, which meanwhile extend almost everywhere and in which the ship is only an integral component among many others, which has to fit in as smoothly as possible. As all other sectors of the economy logistics and shipping are also submitted to relentless efficiency and cost pressures, which translates into a fierce internal competition among shipping, port industry and transport economy. Who wants to survive in this competition has to be quicker, more reliable or more economic.

Considering the fact that also in shipping bunker costs represent one of the biggest individual current cost items it is obvious to ponder how these could be reduced and what options would be available. In view of a considerable number of more or less theoretical approaches these must further be graded as to their practical implementation under current market conditions. Finally a strategy shall be outlined which may be feasible today and which could lead to actual implementation.


"Sustainable" approaches 

Every vessel's propulsion system is defined by its technological configuration and by the form of energy it uses. Beyond the conventional propulsion technology based on Diesel fuel respectively heavy fuel oil there have emerged some remarkable alternative propulsion approaches in the past decades.


However nothing has challenged up to now the basic fixation on fossil fuels as source of energy, since it is common belief in shipping that the pressure of timetables within the accelerating exchange of commodities can not otherwise be complied with. 



So the question appears reasonable which possible alternative energy sources as well as pertinent technological configurations would be available for economic application. Considering the negative results of nuclear propulsion in commercial shipping which had already been extensively explored for decades, in principle there remain only the sustainable kinds of energy in their various forms. 


Among them and beside the well known and directly used wind energy there are all kinds of stored energy in gaseous or liquid form which a vessel must carry for fuel. When these fuels are of fossil origin (for instance: natural gas), no fundamental progress has been achieved, so that the origin of conceivable 
new energy sources will also have to be considered. 

Among the systems approaching practical implementation today hydrogen as fuel is considered first choice when looking at alternative energy sources. In many scenarios describing the future power supply hydrogen is mostly termed as the "definitive" energy source and the fuel cell as the suitable way of its technological translation, among others in shipping. The question as it presents itself today 1 H.Schaale: Sustainable Energies in Shipping ? August 2003 
is not so much the technological solution - one may think of the new German submarines from HDW with fuel cell propulsion independent of external air supply but more of the economic availability of this new fuel. After all it will have to compete against an energy form which is already worldwide available, can be comfortably and easily used and is (still) cheaper. Furthermore this new relatively difficult application of energy will have to be accompanied by high safety regulations implying that the present rather low quality standards in crew instruction will have to be upgraded.

There will have to be set up many most diverse and energy-intensive processes necessary for the production, transformation, storage and distribution of this new kind of fuel. Considering that this will be indispensable to make this new energy available in a price competitive form usable not only in shipping, a worldwide introduction of this option would be conceivable only with important, 
institutional support and financial subsidies, similar to the introduction of wind generators in Germany. Furthermore and considering the worldwide activities of shipping this support would also have to have a worldwide character, which today appears more than unlikely.

Thus there remains as the sole immediately available, sustainable option only the direct use of the wind energy, to which the following comments will exclusively refer. 

Wind energy 

The use of traditional sailing technology in commercial shipping has been discontinued almost a century ago in view of the transformations mentioned in the beginning and considering the changed requirements to vessels which could no longer be fulfilled by contemporary means. Sailing has survived only in the form of sail training vessels and more recently, of sail cruise vessels. 


Nevertheless research and development had continued, usually limited to specific aspects considering the belief that it hardly appeared possible to "re-invent" such a technology optimised and well proven over centuries. 


INDIGA Project (Indosail Rig) 

Accordingly is must be stated that - with the exception of the two basic rig forms of square sail rig and schooner/gaff rig and their modern derivates and in spite of many efforts - no other system succeeded in becoming commercially 
attractive till today. Even promising new or improved developments (Dynaship, Flettner - Rotor, Indosail, Schwab- Rig, etc.) have always failed one or various of the parameters mentioned above or appeared to represented too heavy an investment 2 H.Schaale: Sustainable Energies in Shipping ? August 2003 
risk. Up to now, due to cheap bunker prices and in the absence of modern sail- and rig technology, conventionally engined vessels in the final count were always able to better fulfil the requirements of sea transport than ships with traditional wind propulsion systems. 

On the basis of present knowledge it must therefore be assumed that also in the near future these two forms of rigging - square sail and schooner/gaff will offer under continuing development the most attractive potential in order to fulfil the requirements of future sea transport in certain sectors, considering the fundamental structural changes which are about to happen again. However, in view of the dependence of the energy supplier "wind", windships were not and will not be all-round solutions for any problem of sea transport like most of their fossil fuel competition, which implies a corresponding specialization on specific sectorial markets. The use and technology are well-known and well-tested and give potential investors the assurance to invest in a technology which does work. 

The modern technological additions to the rigging basically guarantee the easier, less crew-intensive handling in comparison to former times and allow the use of mechanical and automatic sail operation. The system itself will not change fundamentally but will be adapted to modern vessel sizes. Thus modern windships will be operated with the same crew complement as corresponding 
modern motor vessels. 

Independently therefrom, absolutely new approaches like for instance the Skysails concept or the aerodynamic wing sail should also get a chance. Specifically the Skysail concept could be used as a subsidiary sustainable energy propulsion system for the container vessel type and thus lead to substantial bunker reductions in that vessel sector as well. Other promising developments will also ride the wave of sustainable energy and may enter the market in the windshade of more traditional "windships". 


Wing sail Bulker  - Implementation strategy 

It results from the aforesaid that new wind ships will have to fulfil quite a lot of requirements on various levels if they are to conquer a place in modern commercial shipping.

Thus an alternative vessel in comparison to conventional competitors: 

will have to travel at comparable speed levels 
transport commodities in similar volumes 
must be able to be equipped with state-of-the-art cargo handling technology 
will consume substantially less (conventional) fuel 
will have to be equivalent with regard to reliability and safety 3 H.Schaale: Sustainable Energies in Shipping ? August 2003 
must not be (much) more expensive in investment volume as comparable motor vessels 
will have to be more economical in operating costs and finally 
must not obtain its cost advantages to the debit of other components of the transport chain. 


When considering the previous big sailing vessels under these assumptions one must concede that as to speed they were absolutely competitive. This is confirmed also by present sailing vessel newbuildings. The same however does not apply as to the transported tonnage, where motor vessels have acquired a huge advantage. Considering that the development of big sailing vessels had been discontinued before modern shipbuilding technologies and cargo handling equipment were conceived, these were no longer introduced in sailing vessels - which otherwise could have assured their survival. 


The fuel consumption advantage of sailing vessels prevailing till today on certain routes had been overcompensated by a combination of effects in economies of scale, automatization and cargo handling progress in favour of the motor vessel. Furthermore reliability and the ability to keep target dates in those days of engineless windjammers was not so decisive though most performed their voyages within rather strict time limits. 


Today's possibilities 

The speed potential and partly even advantage of windships in comparison to motor vessels on specific routes is undisputed among experts. Already 100 years ago windjammer performed astonishingly regular and quick voyages for instance on the South America - Europe route, which documented simultaneously climax and close of the contemporary sailing vessel development. 


Most of those big sailing vessels didn't even have an auxiliary propulsion plant and many nevertheless concluded their voyages with time deviations of no more than plus/minus 5 percent of their average voyage time. 

Calculations in recent studies based on data gained by old experience and findings suggest that bunker savings of up to two thirds can be expected of modern windships, obviously depending of the trading range and the wind conditions found therein. This limits the successful deployment of such vessels to corresponding routes, so that they must be specialized on specific trading 

areas and cargo types, especially bulk cargoes. The mentioned studies don't claim to offer an all-round solution for any sea transport problems, but they suggest sustainable options with a great future for important sectors of present shipping. 

The formula "suitable cargo availability - optimal wind conditions" is mainly met on the long intercontinental routes which had already been the main square-rigger racing routes more than 100 years ago.  These existed mainly 
between South America and Europe, North America and Far East, but also between North America and Australia and from there to Europe.

Today South America, Australia, Africa and Southern Asia continue to be 
main suppliers of bulk 4 H.Schaale: Sustainable Energies in Shipping ? August 2003 commodities like corn, grain, soybeans, phosphate, ore, bauxite, coal, crude, etc., thus also continuing being important and long-term cargo suppliers for bulk vessels. 


It can be safely assumed that, based on old experience, new technological (partial) solutions as well as modern shipbuilding technology, windships can be built in sizes required today. Computer-based steering and winches technologies as well as new, heavy duty materials allow the handling of the enormous wind forces under acceptable operating conditions, the absence of which had been the main reason for the vanishing competitiveness of the old big windjammer of former times. 

Furthermore it can be assumed, that state-of-the-art cargo handling equipment can be installed in the new vessels. As regards reliability and safety it goes without saying that all the pertinent equipment and procedures will be used which are already operational on motor vessels. Beyond that windships can even offer substantial advantages, since on one hand they obviously carry less fuel (smaller pollution potential; increased cargo space) and on the other hand they dispose of two propulsion systems, since beside the rigging they will be equipped with an accordingly dimensioned propulsion plant. This will be used for keeping the time schedules and for the manoeuvring in confined waterways and 
harbours. Modern development of propulsion systems allows new solutions as well, for instance the azipod system. 

Furthermore the new geographic and meteorological information systems will allow a special meteorological navigation, by which the most favourable courses with best wind prospects can be followed. The possibly greater distance of such routes will be compensated by higher speed and more favourable bunker consumption at a similar voyage time of that of a corresponding motor vessel.

An objection against new windships which has to be taken seriously is that they will have to be equipped additionally with an engine in spite of their expensive rigging, thus increasing investment costs by about 10 to 15 percent. It will be the job of shipyards to prove that by means of measures of technological substitution and adaptation it is possible to improve the financial constraints. 

In a long-term, economic planning this disadvantage for the operator will be offset by the decisive advantages of windships, namely by the savings in bunkers and possibly also in more favourable insurance rates. These represent the decisive competitive edge, which on the routes defined above will guarantee windships an increasing breakthrough. 

There exists the possibility that - especially in the area of cargo handling equipment - modern technology would not be (fully) applicable in new windships, thus leading to the situation, that the resulting additional costs would have to be counterbalanced in other sectors of the transport chain. 
This would obviously reflect in the attainable rates, since cargo owners would arrange for corresponding shifts in their overall "transport costs balance sheet". 


Economic scenario 

A vessel has always been a ponderous investment. This fact not only limits the number of potential investors but does have also repercussions on the economic commitment period and intensity between investor and investment. Furthermore a vessel - being an indivisible, operational unit can be planned and financed only on basis of long-term, relatively conservative assumptions, which also 
reflect in the attitude of its operators. 

Therefore the advantages of windships outlined above must reflect in plausible long-term and well documented finance plans, on the basis of which it is possible to implement on one hand the 5 H.Schaale: Sustainable Energies in Shipping ? August 2003 necessary, extensive investments and to cover on the other hand the risks of a technology which once had been most reliable but would have to be re-invented today. 

Considering the complexity of the transport chain as well as the increasing networking resulting from the well-known ecological problems it must be assumed, that damages respectively their costs will increasingly be "internalised" and centered on the vessel as their originator. Even there being (too) many evasive options today, the potential damage represented by fuel and/or cargo can be such that investment and operating expenses of the system "vessel" become uneconomically high or that the incidence of the problematic commodities is reduced to more acceptable levels. 

As a consequence rates will increase in the first case and costs in other sectors in the second, which both finally will have to be borne by the consumer. The system "ship" will either be reshuffled towards a greater (and more expensive) "safety" of the existing system or towards a substitution of the energy source.


In the last case there will again be two options: on one side the direct reduction of the use of a fuel becoming more and more expensive and on the other side by indirect reduction of the demand for and thus for the transport needs for it. 

It not difficult to recognize that the first option (increasing safety) will not be sustainable in the long run. Analysing the second set of options, one gets the insight that a reduction of overall demand (for oil as cargo) exceeds the possibilities of influence available to vessel operators. Thus there remains 
as the sole direct parameter of influence for the operators the reduction of fuel consumption of their vessels, which is the very theme of the present lines. 

The steering parameters of these worldwide economic processes are the freight rates, the oil prices and the magnitude of the possible damages. 



Potential investors 

As a result of the described scenario there are several economic groups which should have a marked interest to invest in new windships under the specified parameters. Considering the increasingly integrated transport chain this group tends to be wider than some time ago when tackling the solution of the problem "ship financing". Thus there have a direct interest: 

the ship owner/operator expects a direct competitive edge, yielding the biggest possible margin between freight income and operational costs 
cargo owners want their commodities transported as cheaply as possible 
insurers have a basic interest to minimise the risks embodied by a vessel 
the financing companies get a seducing new offer in the innovative and quickly increasing market of "ethical" and "green" investments 
shipyards and suppliers can expect a new, gigantic and innovative field of activity considering the worldwide needs for replacement tonnage 
ecological organisations will welcome a reduced consumption of fossil fuel as well as the consequent reduction of emissions and damage potential 
governments will be relieved by the reduction of damages and the ensuing clearing up .

In view of the at former times absolutely justified stigmatisation of the big sailing vessels as uneconomic, too labour-intensive and "unsafe" ("Pamir"-syndrome) it is understandable that initiatives for a resuscitation of sea transport with big sailing vessels are disregarded as "nostalgic". 

However it is overlooked that on one side it is not a matter of their "resuscitation" but rather of their 6 H.Schaale: Sustainable Energies in Shipping ? August 2003 "re-invention" and that on the other side the parameters which determine the transport chain - and thus shipping - are starting to change again. Therefore the time appears ripe to care not for venerable big windjammer but for new windships ! 



Worldwide shipping is a complex and ponderous system, composed of many, expensive and long-term to be planned units. The decision to abandon up-to-now well-proven vessel types in favour of new ones demands beyond visions sound advantages and substantial investment, which depend of 
each other. The hope is rather modest that a single individual will take such a decision, considering all experience up to now. 

Therefore it is suggested herewith that potential investors join in a group in order to promote institutionally and financially the first steps of the new windships. In spite of the indisputable risks as well as the (initially) "uncovered" substantial investment volume for the first, new wind ship the overall 
objective appears worthwhile: the reintroduction of a sustainable technology tested over centuries in modern form as a contribution to a gradually improvement of economic activities, which are increasingly putting at risk basic foundations of human existence. 


Reproduced with kind permission of Hartmut Schaale 2003


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