Monday, 14 July 2014


The main selling point for using wind to augment propulsion on ships is simple: there are no plans to alter the price of wind anytime soon. It is an infinite, if intermittent, free fuel supply. Sailing and wind-assist devices deployed today will use ‘fuel’ that costs exactly the same for the vessels’ whole lifetime. Fixing a significant proportion of fuel cost allows greater certainty in operating budgets giving more room for manoeuvre in other critical areas.

21st century industrialised sailing ships are reliable, designed to deliver to the same schedules as any conventional ship - if the wind doesn’t blow there’s an engine to ensure logistics commitments are met. If the wind does blow sailing hybrid vessels increase speed to reduce overall fuel use along any given route. Smart weather routing systems devised for offshore yacht racing, and now adapted for the commercial sector, support optimum course decisions to minimise fuel use whilst maintaining schedules.

Modern sailing and wind-assist systems don’t require extra crew members. Sail systems are operated electronically from the bridge, there’s no rope pulling required, no need to slip across the foredeck in foul conditions risking life. Push button technology also enhances the opportunity to squeeze every bit of performance out of the wind and the rig, in seconds the sail system can respond to shifts in the wind. Research has shown that crews can welcome the opportunity to develop their skills and engage with new technology. 

Whilst there are several obstacles being addressed in the deployment of wind at sea none are insurmountable. Certain cargoes are more suited to early adoption of wind at sea and smaller dry bulk vessels are proving to be most promising first movers. Commercial ship designers and naval architects are figuring out how cargo can work around structures on deck, looking at loading/discharge self load solutions and interfacing with existing automated computerised cranes.

There are various ways of deploying wind on ships, the most basic is as a principle source of propulsion on smaller vessels by way of a 21st century automated square rig. Smaller vessels are inherently less efficient, unable to benefit from economies of scale, and are more vulnerable to vagaries in bunker prices. The proportion of operating budget on small ships attributable to fuel has risen from 10% to 60% in the last decade. Sailing hybrid ships, where 50% of the propulsion comes from ‘free fuel’, make economic sense. This financial prize is what drives the world’s greatest designers and naval architects to work alongside the dry bulk sector to create workable 21st century industrial sailing ships.

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