Ride the White Horses
Are we headed for a new Age of Sail?
(Article originally published in July/Aug 2023 edition.)
Pamir, the last sail cargo vessel to operate commercially and at scale, ran her final route in 1957 on behalf of Hamburg’s Laeisz shipowning dynasty. With three masts, 86 crew and 3,780 tons of barley, she set out from Buenos Aires to Hamburg and sank off the Azores when hit by Hurricane Carrie. Thus ended the era during which attaining zero emissions in logistics overlapped with economic feasibility.
Even prior to her tragic voyage, Pamir had been a curiosity, and crew frequently complained about her poor state of repair and overall antiquation. Oil-powered vessels had gained popularity in the 1950s, replacing the coal-burning vessels that enjoyed their heyday in the 1920s. In other words, Pamir was, at last sailing, fully two generations behind in terms of her propulsion system.
It makes intuitive sense to use wind to move cargo across the world. It is, after all, free of charge and takes up no space in the hold – unlike coal or oil. Yet despite their weight and their dirtiness, coal and oil are superior to wind in terms of energy availability and cost to operate. Not requiring as many ratings to handle the sails more than makes up for the extra consumables, and the ability to get to your destination even with the wind against you is a blessing.
The IMO notes that shipping today burns some 300 million tons of fossil fuels per year – 86 percent of which is heavy fuel oil (HFO). Ships move 80-90 percent of the world’s cargo and cause “three percent of global emissions.”
HFO, a waste product, is left over after gasoline, diesel and kerosene have been distilled from a barrel of crude. Since it’s cheap, energy-dense and readily available, it’s an ideal ship’s fuel. But tar-like HFO is seriously polluting, and so the efforts to regulate it and restrict its use are multiplying.
Inside sovereign waters, specifically in Sulfur Emission Control Areas (SECAs), the IMO 2020 MARPOL regulation limits HFO consumption to the cleaner burning low-sulfur variant called Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oil (VLSFO). VLSFO contains 0.5 percent sulfur rather than 3.5 percent as HFO does.
Some shipowners blend cleaner fuels with HFO to attain the desired sulfur content. Others only switch to the low-sulfur fuel in SECAs while continuing to burn HFO for the rest of the voyage. Still others have installed scrubbers, which remove some of the sulfur and permit the burning of HFO as before. It’s estimated by Clarksons that about 4,460 ships have scrubbers, representing 23 percent of global gross tonnage.
Deutsche Bank believes the new regulation will impact HFO demand, reducing it by two million barrels per day, and correspondingly increase demand for mid-distillates (diesel, kerosene). Yet overall demand for HFO continues to trend upward, and the biggest user remains international navigation. In the E.U. in 1990, just over 20 percent of HFO consumed went to ships compared with just under 80 percent today. The goal of these regulations – to change fuel consumption patterns in shipping – remains elusive.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that HFO is, as mentioned, a waste product. If it’s not consumed by ships, then it must be disposed of or dealt with in some other acceptable manner. The options are few: Some hospitals or industrial facilities use a little bit of HFO for their backup generators to power critical systems; it’s also used in asphalt for roadbuilding; or refiners can re-refine it, squeezing a little bit more diesel from it, but this comes at a high energy cost.
Concawe, an oil industry group, noted in a 1998 dossier that “[h]eavy fuel oils are primarily used as fuels for combustion and disposal as waste is seldom necessary.” Apart from vague references by Concawe to “local regulations” and “local waste management authorities” and the indubitably helpful suggestion in BP’s 2019 HFO Safety Data Sheet that “generation of waste should be avoided or minimised wherever possible,” there doesn’t appear to be any plan to deal with HFO if ships aren’t burning it.
Dirty HFO and its emissions have repeatedly put a “green” crosshair on shipping’s back. But shipping was nevertheless omitted from the 2015 Paris Climate Accords. Ships largely travel in international waters, which is where they burn most of their fuel – and where they’re outside sovereign jurisdiction.
This has led some regulators, like the E.U., to attempt to pass extraterritorial rules. For example, the E.U. Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) Directive incorporated maritime shipping by way of an amendment dated April 18, 2023. It now governs any ship in excess of 5,000 gross tons which starts or ends its voyage at an E.U. port, regardless of whether its origin or destination lie outside the E.U.
The E.U. ETS is onerous for shipowners, imposing upon them extensive reporting and disclosure duties pertaining to distances travelled by ships, their ports of call, their fuel consumption and their speed. It also requires shipowners to buy emissions allowances at public auction and file an emissions report. Some 78.4 million allowances will be up for auction, and that number will decline gradually. Any unused allowances will be cancelled instead of being freely allocated, as in aviation.
The ETS represents an unprecedented intrusion by government and will lead to granular, comprehensive insight by the E.U. into shipowner operations. It seems that collecting a company’s entire activity record presents no issue to a jurisdiction otherwise obsessed with protection of individuals’ data.
The ETS may also cause conflict between owners and charterers. Owners argue that the E.U. Monitoring, Reporting and Verification Regulation lets them hand off responsibility for compliance to charterers, who are responsible for commercially operating the vessel, but many contracts lack clear rules at this time.
Mark Twain joked that “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.” That is clearly no longer the case. The idea that humans influence and modify the weather by their behavior enjoys support in academic circles and the popular imagination. Movements are drawing surging media attention. Remember Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future? More recently, Germany’s Klimakleber and Letzte Generation have been involved in hundreds of incidents ranging from vandalism of artwork in museums to gluing their bodies to things to obstruct traffic and generate buzz.
It's clear that HFO-burning and the negative image it’s lent shipping have shoved the industry into the center stage of the green fuels debate. Liquefied natural gas, biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells or even methane have been considered as alternatives, even in the absence of a solution to HFO as waste.
But wouldn’t it be wonderful to just sail away from all these issues? Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, a major Japanese shipping company, last year completed a voyage from Japan to Newcastle in the U.K. with its wind-assisted cargo vessel Shofu Maru. Ironically, she was carrying 80,000 tons of coal. Her 180-foot (55-meter) fiberglass sail reduced her fuel consumption from 525,000 liters to 500,000 liters, or by 4.7 percent.
Dubbed the “Wind Challenger,” Mitsui is considering installing this sail system on other bulk carriers, LNG carriers and tankers of various sizes, but “car carriers are not suitable due to their high freeboard.”
To avoid issues with crews unfamiliar with sailing, Wind Challenger is under automatic control. The system detects wind speed and direction using its own sensors, then extends or retracts to optimize. The sail will rotate automatically as well, so the captain never has to worry about the weather gage. On the other hand, notoriously superstitious ship’s crews may resent AI’s effort to supplement them.
At the other end of the spectrum are companies like EcoClipper, based in the Netherlands. Advertising “SHIPPING & TRAVEL using the power of the wind,” EcoClipper operates a single sailing vessel, De Tukker, which was built in 1912 and runs a regular short sea liner service. She carries between 50-70 tons of cargo and visits ports in the North Sea, Bay of Biscay and the Baltic – so it would take from 54 to 76 of her to carry as much cargo as a single Pamir had on board during her final voyage.
As of this writing, De Tukker was making 6.8 knots on the way to Amsterdam from just east of England’s Hull River estuary. Her maiden voyage took place in March 2023 and involved carriage of chocolate from Amsterdam to Porto for a chocolatier desiring to specialize in 100 percent carbon-free production processes.
This kind of cargo service caters to a particular kind of customer more interested in a bespoke, luxury experience than in cost-efficiency, so it’s not suited to a mass market. But it is proof of concept, and it shows that there is some demand, however tiny, for carbon-free, Age of Sail-style logistics. And depending on how onerous regulations become, Mitsui’s approach may gain economic viability.
For those who wish to witness the green movement’s progress first-hand, you can book a ticket from EcoClipper on De Tukker’s voyage from Ijmuiden to Amsterdam, a three-day cruise, for €330. Unlike those who sailed De Tukker when she was built, you’ll even enjoy toilets and electricity.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.