Shooting the breeze over wind power

It was at least 45 years ago that I learned to sail. I don’t get much opportunity to do it these days but I credit that introduction to boats and, through it, ships with setting me on the path to a career in shipping.

It is why I have always been fascinated by attempts to marry sails and commercial shipping. In the 1980s, when I worked for The Motor Ship magazine, I remember describing various wind-assistance concepts. There were some Japanese projects, with single large slab-like rigid square sails but I also remember a geared bulker being given a huge spinnaker, rigged on its forward crane. I forget its name; if you can remind me, send me an email.

I also remember writing about a small sail-assisted cargo vessel, Guinness Clipper, which was built in 1984 to ship the famous brew to the Caribbean and backhaul general cargo. It now operates off the east coast of Australia as a recreational diving vessel, Atlantic Clipper.

Finally, I was in the crowd when the small dry cargo ship Ashington was put on show in the UK with its Walker Wingsail aerofoil in 1986. I was so impressed that I bought a few shares in that innovative concept. Then the oil price fell and you can guess what happened to my investment and of all the other sail-assistance schemes.

Because of that experience, I have always been wary of subsequent attempts to succeed where Ashington and the rest failed. There have been some cruise ships that have fitted sails – I was at a champagne-fuelled reception in France in 1986 for Wind Star, which is still in operation for the cruise line of the same name – but in that case the sails are at least as much a customer attraction as they were for saving fuel.

Perhaps the same can be said for last week’s announcement that the sailing cruise-vessel project Silenseas, launched two years ago by the former STX France shipyard, has been revived. The sail-assisted cruise ship Le Ponant was fitted with a half-size prototype of the project’s solid sail at the French yard – now owned by Fincantieri, which restored the yard’s former Chantier de l’Atlantique name – at the end of October for a year’s trial. As I write these comments on 26 November, the MarineTraffic website shows it to be berthed in Martinique.

I have contacted the ship’s operator for confirmation, but I believe it is just the forward mainsail that has been fitted in this way, as suggested by the image at the head of this piece. That is taken from the ship operator’s announcement, which mentioned 300m2 of sail being involved although the ship has a total sail area of 1,500m2 and the other sails are clearly made from conventional fabric.

Also last week, there was an announcement that a feasibility study has begun to explore whether big box-shaped bulkers could benefit from sails. And not just any sails: they will be designed by Humphreys Yacht Design of the UK, whose background is in offshore yacht racing.

In a statement issued last week (20 November), one of its directors, Tom Humphreys, said that “transferring knowledge and technologies from offshore yacht racing to improve the performance of commercial merchant ships mirrors the way Formula One drives design development in the automotive industry.”

There is much more detail in our report last week, which explained that the project involves a number of partners, including the Danish bulk carrier operator Ultrabulk, which carries biomass for UK power station operator Drax, and the Smart Green Shipping Alliance, which promotes the Fastrigs sail system that will be used in the project. A sum of £100,000 (US$128,000) has been funded by the UK government-backed InnovateUK, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and private investors for the feasibility study that could lead to a commercial demonstrator being in service 2021.

That project is particularly innovative because – unlike cruise ship sail installations – no one could accuse it of being just for show. Its backers think the sails can justify themselves by saving significant amounts of fuel.

I have my concerns, though. A number of wind-assistance projects in recent years have used Flettner rotors, which spin and use the Magnus effect to generate a force at a right angle to the airflow past them. That seems a much simpler technology than the Fastrig. And is a bulk carrier the best ship type to experiment on? With all the heavy grabs and cranes that line a bulk cargo quay, how long will delicate masts survive without being damaged? I put these points to the Ultrabulk project partners and they at least recognise that these points must be addressed and I look forward to seeing their final concept.

One high-profile Flettner rotor promoter is the Finnish company Norsepower, which was founded in 2012 and already has some high-profile installations, most recently in August on Maersk Pelican, a Maersk Tankers long range 2 product tanker. Fuel savings of up to 10% have been predicted.

Earlier this month (15 November) Norsepower concluded an equity financing programme, raising €3.6M (US$4.1M) to support its expansion and growth plans, in particular to expand production in Asia. Much of the company’s funding so far has come from the European Commission and the Finnish government and I presume they have put in more cash; this latest investment has been supported by its existing investors, its statement said. But new investors formed the majority of investors, it went on, “signalling the growing interest in rotor sail technology.”

It certainly does that, and I wish those new shareholders better luck with their wind-assistance investment than I had with mine 32 years ago.

The point I am making here is that wind-assistance is being taken seriously. But how long it will be before it becomes commercially sustainable is another matter: both the Ultrabulk study and Norsepower’s development depend on public funds.

That is obviously not a long-term option. But it may be the essential seed-corn funding that is needed if the industry is to meet IMO’s ambition, set by its Marine Environment Protection Committee in April, of reducing annual greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008 while pursuing efforts towards phasing them out entirely.

I will not be sitting at this desk in 2050 to see how that works out, but I have no doubt that wind assistance will have to play a significant part in meeting that goal.

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