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  • Hannah Hurford

Sailing back to the future: could ships ditch diesel for wind?

Hannah Hurford of EcoClipper takes us on a journey back to the future, where she hopes conventional diesel cargo ships will be replaced with modern wind-powered alternatives.

Over the last year, maritime shipping has garnered significant public interest. It accounts for 90% of global trade, so when its supply chains are affected people notice.

The effect of climate change, a global pandemic and an enormous ship stuck in the Suez Canal have certainly counted as disruptions this year.

Dig deeper and it's hard to avoid some uncomfortable truths - maritime shipping accounts for 2.5% of greenhouse gas emissions emitting 940 million tonnes of CO2 annually. Containers (often transported empty during the pandemic) have ended up in the ocean and waste water is altering underwater habitats – a sort of mass maritime littering.

Suddenly, a traditionally conservative industry has had to reassure the world of its necessity and face up to its own impact on the planet.

Back to the future

What can be done? From renewable energies to biofuels, the industry is assessing options to allow it to continue some sort of ‘business as usual’. After all, cheap products and quick shipping is what consumers expect.

However, a new solution is gaining traction: sail cargo.

Cast your mind back to the Age of Sail (not much more than 100 years ago!). Sailing ships, of all sizes, were used to transport goods up rivers, through canals, along coastlines and across oceans.

Using the power of the wind - and some ingenuity - sailing vessels were optimised for transporting the cargo of the day. Clearly times have changed. But we believe wind power could again be utilised in the shipping industry whilst providing jobs and transparency to consumers and keeping alive wonderful maritime skills that may otherwise be lost.

Jorne Langelaan, CEO and founder of EcoClipper, came to this realisation whilst sailing. Having worked on a mechanically-propelled commercial shipping vessel and various sailing ships, Jorne’s expertise is extensive. He and two others started Fairtransport, a company that operates Tres Hombres, one of the most well-known sail cargo ships of today. His latest venture, EcoClipper, was born out of the need for larger ships operating on different routes around the world.

The sail cargo industry has grown over the last 10 years, with a focus on on value-driven shipping and ethical products. It predominantly serves Europe, USA and the Caribbean, with sailing ships crossing the Atlantic annually. EcoClipper plans to focus on other areas of the world by operating on the East Trade Line, Trans-Pacific Line and Global Line.

Unlike the development of sailing yacht design over the last century, EcoClipper ships need to be able to transport heavy cargo across big seas. Clipper ships of the 19th century were optimised for this and provide a foundation for our approach. Their sleek hulls, strong materials and “analogue” sails (not a mechanical furling system in sight) provides the perfect solution. It’s a far cry from today’s technology but if our forefathers sailed these ships, why can’t we?

EcoClipper ships will also carry passengers and trainees onboard. This provides further income for the ships, provides emission-free travel and an educational workplace.

Currently, EcoClipper is preparing for a financial campaign to fund the first ship - the EcoClipper500. This ship will carry 500 tonnes of cargo, 12 passengers and 36 trainees. Already, Letters of Intent being signed by various companies to work with EcoClipper. People have also expressed interest in sailing on-board. Once EcoClipper500’s keel has been laid down, a round of financing will begin for the next ship.

These ideas may seem bold, and sometimes it’s hard to let go of what we know. Indeed, we might well need to accept slightly longer transport times and different ways of doing things. But wouldn’t consumers welcome added transparency in shipping, knowing that their products have been carried by the wind instead of dirty diesel?

If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that humans can adapt quickly. The future looks grim, but if we respect each other and nurture this planet, there is hope of something better.

Time is running out, and here is a golden opportunity to go back to the future, using a clean and elegant method of transport, tried and tested over centuries.

What’s to lose?


If you’re interested in the EcoClipper project their website is: where you can sign up to the newsletter. You can follow them on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook.



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