Bookings for sailboat cargo are on the rise, but the shipping industry still has a whopping carbon footprint to address
Worse things happen at sea, or so the saying goes. And it rings true in the context of emissions: while countries bring in bans on petrol and diesel on land, at sea, ships are still permitted to run around on heavy fuel oil, a tar-like substance that belches out toxic pollution as well as carbon dioxide.
According to the European Commission, the shipping industry accounts for around two per cent of global CO2 emissions, which is more than Germany’s contribution. With the industry hitherto not obliged to comply with the Paris agreement, concerns abound that shipping could be a drag on emissions targets.
However, last week the sector changed tack and agreed on new guidelines to make shipping compatible with the UN climate change goals. Critics claim the guidelines lack ambition and that, like a cargo ship performing a U-turn, the pace of change will be slow.
Some shipping companies are aiming for greener horizons and driving positive change. CalMac, a Scottish ferry company, has two hybrid ferries in operation, but it will be a long time before battery power can feasibly send vessels across oceans.
Other businesses are looking to the past for inspiration. New Dawn Traders, an experimental cargo business based in Bristol, transports goods across the Atlantic by sailboat and says demand for its service is booming.
“We’re up about 70 per cent on sales year on year,” owner Alex Geldenhuys told Positive News. “I feel that in lockdown, people have definitely switched around to our way of thinking.”
New Dawn Traders has an open database that allows businesses to pre-order anything from one bottle or rum to several tonnes of coffee beans direct from suppliers in Latin America. This, says Geldenhuys, gives small producers access to new foreign markets.
Falmouth-based Yallah Coffee Roasters is one of Geldenhuys’s clients. Over the summer its owner Richard Blake had the rare privilege of watching a boat sail into the town’s harbour carrying a consignment of coffee addressed to him.
The beans were transported aboard De Gallant, a French schooner, which took three months to make the 7,500-nautical mile trip from Colombia to Cornwall.
“It’s magical seeing the cargo you’ve imported come in by sailboat to your home port,” said Blake. “This is trade as it was done hundreds of years ago.”
It was more expensive to ship the coffee on a sailboat, compared to a cargo ship, admitted Blake, but not much. “It works out at roughly 20p-30p more per kilo, and a kilo makes about 50 cups,” he said. That didn’t seem to put punters off – Yallah sold out of the coffee within a week. “We thought it would take three months [to shift],” said Blake.
Paying for the beans six months in advance was quite a commitment for a small business like Yallah, admitted Blake, but he is undeterred. “Our aim is to keep increasing the amount of coffee that comes in by sailboat,” he said. “I hope in the not too distant future about 50 per cent of our coffee will [arrive by sailboat].”
New Dawn Traders isn’t the only business taking shipping back to its roots. Fairtransport in the Netherlands is another specialist in sailboat cargo, while Grayhound Adventures in Sweden has built a business model out of ferrying tourists as well as cargo across the water.
And in Costa Rica, a Canadian seafarer called Danielle Doggett is building what is expected to be the world’s largest wind-powered cargo boat out of tropical trees that fell over in storms.
“In the context of the shipping industry at large, [sailboat cargo] is still tiny,” said Geldenhuys. “But we are showing that other ways are possible.”
Main image: James Bannister