Sail Transport

Translated from: La fin de la voile de travail, by Transport á la Voile

The story of the death of the sail as an integral part of the merchant navy, is a very British one. Britain was, for centuries, a maritime nation and the vast majority of her freight was carried, up until recently, by large sailing vessels.

According to Michael Emmett, author of Working Traditional Sail, this all changed after WWII when Britain began to nationalize large portions of her economy, including sections of her transport industry. The plan was eventually turned on its head and the nationalized industries were returned to their original owners. Unfortunately though, this came at a price as the owners demanded compensation for lost revenue and devalued assets that had been returned to their control. Part of the gentleman’s agreement they reached with the government at the time, which was eventually became law in 1963, included the (unofficial) expunging of the railway and coastal freight trades so that the road transport industry (or more specifically the oil industry) might flourish. An example of this was the removal of capillaries in railway branch lines (known as the ‘Beeching Cuts’) that connected end destinations to the national rail network, including various docks.

The ensuing years saw branch lines torn up and low road bridges built across water channels blocking access to existing docks and wharves by vessels with masts and sails (undoubtedly a conscious decision taken by government-linked quangos, who planned to see wharves disappear as part of the wider plan designed to profit those with road transport firms). Britain had manacled herself to a promise and so began the demise of the sail. A living testament to this is Exeter – once one of Britain’s largest ports thanks to the transport artery that was the river Exe, her cargo vessels disappeared and today you’re unlikely to see more than pleasure craft gliding its way through town.

Although the deterioration and full collapse of the sail network took a couple of decades to reach fruition, it was a lot more sudden and apparent in the world of sailing ‘coasters’ – coastal sailing ships – whose numbers were decimated almost overnight: of the 300 strong coasters that existed at the end of WWII, only 12 remained in 1955, the majority of their work having been picked up instead by smaller, modern, oil-powered cargo ships.

A collective of coaster owners attempted to lobby Parliament towards the end of the 1950s but were told in no uncertain terms that the government was not there for them but to protect the interests of the road transport industry.

As Michael Emmett insists, it is now urgent for the UK to re-examine its political rhetoric and look to overturn these laws that are inhibiting the successful implementation of its own goal of reducing the country’s oil dependency and its carbon footprint. Given that most cargo today is for stock rather than immediate use, the essence of speed is much less relevant. Consequently sailing cargo is an easy and obvious first step not just in terms of the global green agenda, but also more specifically because Britain, as an island, can only benefit.  Perhaps it is time for a UK-wide ‘Big Boat Appeal’!

Conventional shipping

a)      CO2 emissions

We often hear about CO2 emissions in relation to aviation but did you know that global shipping emits double the amount of CO2 that aviation does in a single year? It is also increasing at an alarming rate, which, according to John Vidal, Guardian environment editor, will have a serious impact on global warming.


“Separate studies suggest that maritime carbon dioxide emissions are not only higher than previously thought, but could rise by as much as 75% in the next 15 to 20 years if world trade continues to grow and no action is taken. The figures from the oil giant BP, which owns 50 tankers, and researchers at the Institute for Physics and Atmosphere in Wessling, Germany reveal that annual emissions from shipping range between 600 and 800m tonnes of carbon dioxide, or up to 5% of the global total. This is nearly double Britain’s total emissions and more than all African countries combined”

Others agree. The “CO2 Emission Statistics for the World Commercial Fleet” study by Psaraftis and Kontovas, from the Laboratory for Maritime Transport of the National Technical University of Athens, found that shipping emissions total about 3.5% of World’s total CO2 emissions, and the European commission recently reached a similar conclusion in a study called “Reducing emissions from the shipping sector” where they state: “globally, emissions from ships are a large and growing source of the greenhouse gases (mainly CO2) that are causing climate change. Emissions from shipping are currently some 1000 million tonnes annually, and in the absence of action they are expected to more than double by 2050. However, to limit global warming to 2°C, global emissions need to be reduced by at least 50% below 1990 levels by 2050.”

Unfortunately, however, shipping’s CO2-emissions are not covered by the Kyoto protocol and there are, as yet, no legal limits binding the shipping sector or coaxing it to set emission reduction targets. As the International Maritime Organisation, the main lobbying body for the industry, states on its website ( “as already acknowledged by the Kyoto Protocol, CO2 emissions from international shipping cannot be attributed to any particular national economy due to its global activities and complex operation.”

Perhaps the solution lies in rising oil prices, as large, oil-guzzling cargo vessels are having to curb their fuel consumption thanks to cost. As John Vidal mentions in another article about ‘slow steaming’, “modern cargo ships slow to the speed of the sailing clippers”. We would suggest, why not simply sail instead? What’s more, given advances in technology and boat design, it is certainly possible to build 21st C cargo sailing ships that are efficient and fast and can rival their oil driven counterparts. Perhaps the sailing merchant navy isn’t over yet…

b)      A lack of transparency

Did you know that it is impossible to track most products that are shipped by sea? Indeed, if you want to find out what port, what ship or what container was involved in the transit of goods, you would find it almost impossible to do so. Dr Ian Cook, Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Exeter, and his students tried. In 2011, he ordered 5,000 reusable shopping bags from a factory in China with the intention of shipping the goods back to Exeter. As he explains, ‘when they were made and half paid for, the factory sent us their shipping documents. They would be traveling to the UK on the container ship Cosco Pacific. So, we began to track its journey via and tweeted its location and any stories of ship and port labour we could find along the way. It left Qingdao port on September 19, docked at Yantian…, entered Singapore Harbour…, traveled along the Malacca Strait, across the Indian Ocean, past the Southern tip of India and Sri Lanka, through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean, out into the Atlantic, along the English Channel, to Rotterdam, then Felixstowe… where our bags were unloaded… They were finally delivered by truck on October 29’. Working with shipping documents, he says, can provide unprecedented insights into the complexities of international trade that consumers rarely, if ever, think about. But, following a ship’s GPS signals as they trace a line on an electronic map still doesn’t provide much of an insight. What’s in the containers on those ships remains a mystery, not only to consumers but also to those working on board. This trade is, unfortunately, at its most transparent when a container ship catches fire and is abandoned at sea (like the MSC Hyundai Fortune in the Gulf of Aden in March 2006, or the MSC Flaminia in the mid Atlantic in July 2012) or runs aground in a storm and breaks up (like the MSC Napoli on the UK’s South West coast in January 2007, or the MV Rena on New Zealand’s North Island coast in October 2011).

Shipping disasters like these become big news, sometimes because they report tragic losses of life, sometimes because of dramatic accounts of their salvage, and often through reports about the ordinary things on board (e.g. the containers full of fireworks that caught fire on the Hyundai Fortune) and wash ashore (e.g. containers full of hazardous liquid chemicals from the Flaminia, and of motorbikes, make-up, bibles, string, sweets and all manner of goods from the Napoli). Dr Cook will soon be opening a ‘shipping department’ on his spoof shopping website, its first page being devoted to student research on a critically acclaimed 2010 documentary film ‘The Forgotten Space’. This documents the grinding, humdrum, everyday lives and travels of container ships at sea and in the ports where they load and offload countless goods that people make and buy. Its reviewers were shocked by how little they knew about a forgotten world they couldn’t live without. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review was typical. He confessed,  ‘I‘m sure that I learned a lot more from The Forgotten Space … than I did from any other feature that I saw last year, fiction or nonfiction. In more ways than one, I’m still learning from it, and its lessons start with the staggering but elemental fact that over 90 percent of the world’s cargo still travels by sea – a fact that seems all the more important precisely because so many of us don’t know it.”

As it happens, this lack of transparency is not accidental as the shipping industry actively lobbies to protect its « confidentiality » and lack of transparency. As such they are free to ship whatever and however they wish – no questions asked. The question is: at what cost? It clearly takes its toll on the environment but what of the transparency of supply chains? As the recent UK horsemeat scandal suggests, people care and if supply chains were forced to be transparent, it would be a lot tougher to dismiss their concerns or fob them off with nonsense and substandard products.

Now this lack of transparency should also be regarded as a « confiscation of information about a service that the final consumer pays anyway »: why can’t we know what port, what ship, what container has contributed to the transit of purchased product? Has the industry actually pushed for « confidentiality » (ie. opacity), not really to protect their clients’ « confidentiality » but so as to protect itself against any question: « how much GHGs has my product emitted on its maritime journey?

Because we ship cargo by sail, it seems natural to provide all information regarding the maritime journey with a special label.

Global Village Institute's Sail Transport Director, Jan Lundberg, SAIL-MED