Tokyo — Old salts bewailing the passing of the majestic sailing ships need grieve no more: Sailing is about to make a comeback. With an urgent need for energy conservation, as well as for cutting down on the oil-dominated transport costs of its raw- material imports, Japan has decided there is a definite place once again for the merchant sailing ship.
The first commercial vessel, a 1,600-ton coastal tanker, is now being built and is scheduled to take to the seas this fall.
It might not please the purists, howover: In addition to billowing sails, it will have a conventional engine. Research conducted in Japan in the past two years has convinced engineers a combination of sail- engine power makes the best economic sense.
The shipbuilder, Nippon Kokan, at first thought of merely rigging an existing tanker with sails. But he eventually decided it was more sensible to specially design a vessel.
An Experimental ship of the same class is already at sea researching the best routes for the first of a new generation of sailing ships.
The tanker has been ordered by a small shipping company in Tokuyama, near the southern end of the inland sea, which handles petroleum products primarily for delivery to the tokyo Yokohama area. Plans have also been drafted for a 14,000 -ton gravel barge using sail for auxiliary power.
Adventure Company, a Tokyo-based trading enterprise, says the barge will still have to be towed. But the sail is expected to cut down the tugboat's oil consumption.
Again the original idea was to simply add sails to an existing barge. The Mitsui engineering and shipbuilding company, however, is now designing a barge with a hull better suited for sail. It will go into service in 1982, travelling between Japan and other parts of the Far East.
The program to revive merchants sailing ships was begun in 1978 by the Japan Marine Equipment Development Association. It commissioned Nippon Kokan to experiment with wind-tunnel and other land tests before going to sea in the 83 -ton experimental ship "Daio," a model 1/15 the size of some tankers.
The results of the test were "outstanding," according to a development association official. "It proved to us at least that sail has a definite place in the future of ocean transport.
"According to the data we acquired, a ship using three sets of sails in addition to its engine in a 10-meter-per-second wind can rach a speed 1.3 to 1.7 times faster than it can manage using its engine alone."
However, he stresses the need for equipping the ships with engines, too. "One of the drawbacks of sail is that you get nowhere fast if there is no wind," he says. "That would destroy the economics of it."
It is estimated that adding sails to a 20,000- ton bulk cargo ship would cost about $670,000. Judging from the present price of fuel oil and future trends, the development association says, merchant sailing ships are already becoming economically feasible.
"There is a bright future for sail if the right ships are put to the right service," a spokesman said.
One of the drawbacks of the old clipper sailing ships was that they required hundreds of men to handle the dozens of complicated sail combinations.
Given the power of today's seamen unions, such a labor-intensive operation would no longer be feasible.
Nevertheless, the developers of the new generation of sailing vessels say that virtually all sail operations can now be automated. At present, the coastal tanker and gravel barge are the only sail-powered ships for which plans have been completed.
But studies under way are looking into adding sails to automobile carriers playing between Japan and the United States, as well as into large ocean-going fishing boats.
A Transport Ministry official predicts that "when safety and other factors have been thoroughly tested, sailing ships are likely to take over a sizable protion of the world's merchant marine traffic in the face of a growing need to conserve fuel."