Reports of Sail Freight’s Demise Have Been Mildly Exaggerated

INSERT DESCRIPTIONPhoto taken from Kathleen and May

Levitt recently sang the praises of cheap wine. But how can wine stay cheap when oil prices keep pushing up the cost of transportation? Sailing ships might be the answer. Last Friday, a 108-year-old British sailing ship delivered 30,000 bottles of French wine to Dublin. It was the first time since the 1800’s that anyone had made a commercial wine shipment from France under sail power, according to the Daily Telegraph.

While sail freight still costs more than petroleum-powered shipping, that could change if oil prices rise much further. That’s leading to speculation of a tall-ship comeback.

But people have been speculating about the return of sailing ships since the advent of the steam ship. This Times article, published in 1882, chastises merchants for having been “carried away by the idea that the day of the sailing vessel was over … in these estimates they were over-sanguine.” The article goes on to say that it “would not be strange” if sailing ships made a comeback against their steam-powered rivals.

So much for that. The last cargo ship to rely totally on wind power was built in 1926.


build a cargo sailor and ill bet things will look way different. wing sails, electric motors, variable ballast, folding keels and computer controlled navigations would go a long way toward making a sail boat that could pull at least as much cargo as smaller cargo ships of the day.

Paul G

Fifteen marketeers and a business plan
Yo ho ho and a bottle of perrier!
Drink and network and see where they stand
Yo ho ho and a bottle of perrier!
The IPO was announced with great fanfare
Investors swarmed to buy their shares
The capital vanished into thin air
Yo ho ho and a bottle of perrier!


That sounds quite cool to me. I think that around Europe this type of transportation makes sense for some types of products. If anyone needs personnel for their wine ship, count me in.

Ray Hull

Hmmm, no mention of Gilbert and Sullivan. Anyway, for a reality check, let's think fatal car-jacking in Central Park---after they got their "booty."


it seems that if the goods are non perishable that sailing ships or other methods of transport should become more available to conserve oil.


Chesapean suggests that Tall Ships are not up to large cargo runs. DO check the link at the end of the article "built in 1926". The German P fleet including Big K, Sedov, Pamir, Peking, etc., made thousands of runs around Cape Horn carrying cargoes of 3000 tons and more. The reason Pamir was lost was that the cargo was improperly stowed (loose instead of bagged grain, and shifted when the ship heeled over in a squall. The ship, which had done fine in much worse storms, could not right herself due to the shifted cargo. The cargo shift problem has sunk many diesel freighters.

It is true that so far no sail vessel has been built on the scale of a container ship or super tanker. That does not mean it cannot be done. And automation can reduce crew requirements. As suggested above, a combination of sail and solar electric will likely become standard soon. And the lithium-ion batteries will make good ballast.

When you feel the hull of a 300 ton ship lift several inches on a gust as you exceed ten knots, you will know that sail is as practical today as when it carried the grain from Egypt that fed Rome.


Richard Green

I always thought it was ironic that one of the last lines of trade that ran entirely on wind was shipping Australian coal to South America. The cargo was non-spoilable, and furthermore the roaring forties were so strong and constant that it was economical to sail to South America, then simply sail under ballast round the horn and the cape back home.

Ironic because the sailing ship ended its (then) incarnation shipping around fossil fuel energy, which replaced it, and which it must replace.

Joe Otterson

See, see. Here we go again. Give Americans a challenge and they start coming up with all kinds of solutions. It's not that every solution is cheaper than burning oil but that it is not burning oil. Hey why not mount windmills directly on the masts of the ship? Not to push the ship like a sail but to generate electricity which recharges batteries and feeds directly to the giant electric motors in ship. You would have head snapping acceleration from banks of electric motors over diesel engines. Instead of giant diesels in the bottom aft of the ship, these smaller motors could be mounted all along the sides of the ship. the maneuverability of this large ship would be fantastic. It could dock itself! The masts would rotate into the wind no matter the ships heading.


I invite everyone to witness first-hand the majesty of sailing ships in my hometown. The annual event is scheduled in a few weeks (August 20-24, 2008).

As for those who are more inclined towards the modern rendition of sailboats, you can see the most recent developments here. Also, the revival of sailing ships will be dictated by economics not nostalgia.

Jim Jewett

Dan Lundberg, 28:
"""I've often wondered why ships didn't have sails for propulsion assistance. Is it the cost of deck real estate? The required cost associated with having sail trained personnel and maintenance crews? Or is it just a "nobody uses that anymore, so we don't do that" sort of situation?"""

All of the above, but also the cost of hull modification and the extra weight. A typical sail puts a lot of stress on the point where the mast meets the deck -- and that doesn't need to be a particularly strong location otherwise. The extra weight of the sail is paid (in reduced cargo) at all times, but only helps you (in faster delivery) some of the time -- and the shipping company probably doesn't get early-delivery bonuses.


Yes, let's all go back to the 19th century so we can enjoy sail power, outdoor plumbing, cholera, puerpual sepsis and other goodies our ancestors endured!

Debor Ahhhhhh

An article whose title's cadence hearkens back to a romantic era, which opens with an image of cheap wine, which we unfold from our laptops because we ourselves are landlocked on this windless, stultifying day on the cusp of August, since the price of oil has kept us from dashing to the beach on a whim...of _course_ it invites reverie, mild licentiousness, and a longing for an innocent propulsion elsewhere, adrift... I know which posters above I want to meet on the beach, and those I do not, or whom I would gravitate towards if our ship were sinking or bereft of wind...I am sure all we romantics would find each other, but the question is, if the romantics went to one end of the boat and the spoilsports to the other, would the ship be balanced, or sink?

Only the science/art of Freakonomics will determine....


For all of its inherent faults, a life of piracy (at least in the Caribbean from the mid 1500's to the early 1700's) afforded the most democratic existence of any that could be had in the America's. Moreover, the people they were stealing from were, for the most part, colonial profiteers making a killing off of indigenous slave labor so it isn't as black and white a situation as some would have you believe.

Also, has anyone considered a combination shipping / adventure vacation venture? I'd wager you could find more than a handful of people willing to pay to help transport goods across the Atlantic.


Of course, there's another view of what pirates were like. Here's an excerpt from Wikipedia's article on the Flying Spaghetti Monster (

"According to the Pastafarian belief system, pirates are "absolute divine beings" and the original Pastafarians.[3] Their image as "thieves and outcasts" is misinformation spread by Christian theologians in the Middle Ages and by Hare Krishnas. Pastafarianism says that they were in fact "peace-loving explorers and spreaders of good will" who distributed candy to small children, and adds that modern pirates are in no way similar to "the fun-loving buccaneers from history." Pastafarians celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day on September 19.

"The inclusion of pirates in Pastafarianism was part of Henderson's original letter to the Kansas School Board. It illustrated that correlation does not imply causation. Henderson put forth the argument that "global warming, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are a direct effect of the shrinking numbers of pirates since the 1800s."[3] A chart accompanying the letter shows that as the number of pirates decreased, global temperatures increased; the absurdity of this demonstrates how statistically significant correlations do not imply a causal relationship (see confounding)."


Mark in NY

"Contrary to current opinion, pirates were thieves, murderers, and rapists. Not quite like the movies - Posted by Mark"

They still are.


Not a naval architect, but I doubt sail-powered cargo ships will ever be practical at sea.

One reason is the amount of sail area required to move a large cargo vessel. It would be massive!

Picture a typical sailboat, which is mostly empty, except for its crew. The "sail space" runs from stem to stern, and 10 times the freeboard to apex at the top of the mast.

Now picture a typical container ship, which is stuffed to the gunnels and above with big, heavy steel boxes (which, themselves, are full of dead weight).

To move cargo at sea with sail power, you'd need sails vastly bigger (in proportion) to those of any sailboat.

The second reason is that favorable weather, course and sea conditions that would allow so much sail area to be up are the exception, not the norm. On some shipping routes you might get a day or two from time to time to take advantage of sail power, but most often you'd be safer motoring along.

A better choice for moving cargo "greenly" and cheaply -- because the physics and environmental factors are more favorable -- might be solar-powered blimps.

I kid you not. Check it out:


Elizabeth Swain

especially if every now and then they have good looking, sometimes michievous, but kind hearted pirates aboard.



when my kids were 7, 5, 3 I read them a chapter from Robert Louis Stevenson's Teasure Island everynight before they went to bed. Blame books for romanticizing the whole thing and for tainting the minds of my children. Then I bought them that huge Lego Pirate ship. Then I designed a pirate costume for them.

So much thievery I iinstilled in them and myself unknowingly from a great novelist, even before the movie came out.

Yea, and Johnny Dep, a fellow gemini, disorderly, and Kentuckian...we have lots to talk about. What an intersting conversation we might have.

John Neff

There were over 10,000 freight schooners on the great lakes and at then end of the sail era some were converted to barges towed by steam tugs (some of them retained their sails). A few were also converted to steam power. The Sidney O. Neff the last wooden commercial vessel on the great lakes (it sank in 1946) started out as a schooner, was converted to a barge and then to steam power.

The smaller schooners could be operated with a fairly small crew but it was a very dangerous occupation. It appeared to me there was an extra expense in towing sailing vessels into and out of port or moving them inside the harbor. I think the larger steam powered ships may have had smaller crews than a similar sized sailing ship. I suppose with new designs it would be possible to safely operate a sail cargo ship with a small crew. I imagine it would be very difficult to maintain a schedule with sail powered cargo vessels. My guess is the designers will first consider sail assisted propulsion systems.



My mind races thinking of what the modern sail powered cargoo ship might look like. With modern materials and design capability, and current fuel prices, it seems certain this can't be far off.