Shipping with elegant energy

Picture the oceans of the free world teeming with 25,000 commercial "tall ships," their sails billowing with wind, their holds brimming with cargo. In an era of rocketing fuel costs, why not?

The notion hit Lloyd Bergeson full force in mid-Atlantic. Alone on Cockatoo II, his 42-foot yawl, he was making the first solo passage on record under sail from North America to Norway, the land of his Viking ancestors.

"At 8:50 a.m. I happened to stick my head out of the companionway and there, just one mile astern and headed due West, was a steamer. . ." he recorded in the log of his 31-day crossing in June-July, 1978. "As the ship faded into the distance, I wondered why it couldn't and shouldn't have been a sailing ship. Certainly there is no technical reason standing in the way of it."

That moment ultimately led him to form the Wind Ship Development Corporation based in Norwell, Mass. The corporation is a combination "think tank" and practical partnership with three other marine experts, and has just begun a year-long study under contract to the US Maritime Administration (MarAd) to answer this all-important dollar-mark question: Can wind power compete economically with fossil fuels on the high seas?

It's not the kind of inquiry the shipping industry would undertake itself. So MarAd, responsible for promoting the well-being of the merchant fleet, is footing the $139,000 bill as a service to American shippers. What action, if any, shippers take as a result of the study is up to them. But MarAd's aim is to help them cut their fuel costs.

Shipowners have been as shocked as automobile owners by the rising cost of oil. A 100,000 deadweight ton foreign-flag oil tanker now spends a staggering $ 11,000 a day, or 65 percent of its total expenses, on fuel alone. The cost to power diesel- driven American flag ships, whose labor costs are higher, is currently riding at 40 percent of overall expenses. And Wind Ship Development Corporation forecasts that in just the next two years that figure will leap to 50 percent, and for foreign ships to 75 percent.

When oil was selling at $11.25 a barrel, in 1974, (today it's about $26) MarAd funded a modest ($18,000) study at the University of Michigan on the "Feasibility of Sailing Ships for the American Merchant Marine." That report found no technical impediment to developing cargo sailing ships of from 15,000 to 45,000 dwt, but concluded that commercial sailing ships were "marginally uneconomical." No action came of that study.

Pooh-poohing the idea, one MIT professor of ocean engineering flatly said at the time: "Don't get me wrong. I love sailboats. But it's economically ridiculous until fuel costs are at least 10 times what they are now."

It was because by 1978 the price of oil was doing precisely this that MarAd listened when Bergeson and his group of experts presented an unsolicited proposal to study whether sail power for trading ships would make economic sense.

These experts ticked off the tremendous technological advances that have been made since iron men sailed clipper ships: satellite weather forecasting; radar; radio communications and all sorts of other helpful electronic gadgetry; synthetic sails that approach the strength of steel without stretching or mildewing; advanced aerodynamic research that has given new shapes and efficiency to sails; modern anti-fouling bottom coatings that increase the speed of vessels; enormously simplified rigging; luff rollers (like window shades) that furl and unfurl sails by power winches, eliminating the need for large crews.

These revolutionary changes, the Bergeson group contended, are no argument for a romantic return to the age of sail. On the contrary, they suggest how sail power can be brought up into the 20th century -- modernized to overcome the disadvantages of old-fashioned seat-of-the-pants sailing that relied on skill, instinct, bravery, and wet fingers in the wind.

It was cheap oil that had driven canvas from the high seas. Could costly oil pull wind power back?

"What a thrill it would have been," Mr. Bergeson exclaims in the log of his solo trip, "to see a purposeful working ship of, say, the (German) Prussian class under sail with her 60,000 square feet of sail area divided among 53 different sails! She would be generating no pollution and saving tons of precious oil for better use. What an elegant energy source the wind is! And why have not the world's energy planners caught on to this fact yet?"

Then and there Mr. Bergeson firmed up his resolve."I decided that there was only one thing I could possibly do anything about, and that was to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels in ocean transportation."

He was not unqualified for such a globe-girdling self-assignment. An industrial management consultant, he is a lifetime ocean yachtsman with an S.B. degree in naval architecture and marine engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has planned or directed the engineering design and construction of 20 different classes of major commercial and naval ships, including the concept of huge, liquefied natural gas tankers, eight of which are now in service in the Far East.

Before that, he was a top administrator of the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics during development of the first eight sea-going nuclear submarine prototypes, and coordinated all Electric Boat activities in designing and building the first Polaris missile submarine.

What the Bergeson partnership envisions are sophisticated modern sailing ships tailored to a particular cargo; ships with auxilliary power to push them through stretches of light air which left ancient mariners in the doldrums for days on end; ships whose captains are so informed on up-to-the-minute weather and sea states that they can skirt storms and steer toward favorable winds. Such vessels, Mr. Bergeson and associates believed, could be successfully pitted against diesel-driven ships operating on the same trade routes.

The Caribbean, they reasoned, would be a perfect place for a prototype program to test the economic viability of wind-powered ships. "You can be sure the wind is blowing," Mr. Bergeson says. "You can test your theories in more or less controlled conditions, and there are a lot of small motor ships of 1,000 to 2,000 dwt that you can compete against.

"To convert even 20 percent of the world's commercial fleet to sail is a monumental task," he stresses."The investment in present shipping is in billions of dollars. So the problem has to be approached on a very businesslike basis where the cold, hard economics can be put on the tabletop, analyzed, and sell themselves as a basis for investment."

The sinking last December of the much publicized wooden sailing schooner John F. Leavitt on its very first voyage may well have raised doubts in the public mind, but its loss has had no dampening effect on officials of Wind Ship Development Corporation.

Lloyd Bergeson rejects any suggestion that what he and his associates are trying to do -- link wind power with the entire free world's fleet of ocean-going cargo ships, all of which are more than 1,000 deadweight tons -- bears any similiarity to Edward A. Ackerman's romantic dream of reviving the coastal cargo trade of small, 98-dwt, old-fashioned, handwrought schooners between New England and the West Indies.

"It has nothing to do with it!" Mr. Bergeson explodes. If the loss of the Leavitt "is thought to put a damper on our program," he says "it is an illogical , irrelevantly arrived at analogy of relationship. . . his (Ackerman's) romance is irrelevant to the economic problem, the solution to which our effort is dedicated."

Iron men need not apply for duty on the sophisticated sailing ships of the future. According to Dr. James A. Liznyk, program manager of MarAd's Office of Research and Development: "We would not like to subject people to that kind of dangerous environment. So clearly some automated sail handling equipment would be needed because of our concern for safety."

This is where one member of Wind Ship Associates, Frank MacLear, shines.A graduate of the University of Michigan in naval architecture, he, like Mr. Bergeson, was in charge of shipyards in the early part of his career. For 25 years he has been designing yachts, and for the last 10 years has been catering especially to families who like to sail with a small crew in boats up to 90 feet long.

His 87-foot, fore-and-aft rigged ocean-cruising cutter Ariam has the kind of boomless, triangular sails he recommends as ideal for cargo-carrying sailing vessels. The power-assisted roller along the leading edge of the sail makes it possible to unfurl -- or furl -- 4,000 square feet of sail in 36 seconds with a crew of three persons. One person can do it in two minutes. A pioneer in this field, Mr. MacLear says his boats "set more sails in fewer seconds with fewer crew than any other vessel in existence."

In emphasizing that "I believe in no movable or pivoting spars," Mr. MacLear is saying, to state it mildly, that he does not rate the DynaShip as the most viable candidate for the design of cargo sailing ship rigs. Designed by the German aircraft engineer, Wilhelm Prolss, the Dynaship concept envisions a modern square rigger without shrouds or stays.

Each of its six giants 200 foot-tall masts would carry five sails set between yards and hydraulically controlled by rotating the hollow masts. Sails would be unfurled and furled through slots in the fore side of the mast. The DynaShip Corporation of Palo Alto, Calif., purchased manufacturing and marketing rights to the design in 1974, has still not found a client to build it, but is hoping to construct one in another couple of years.

But Mr. MacLear says, "I see tremendous technical problems with the DynaShip. It has to carry a tremendous load through the masts to the hull. I would not want to see masts 200 feet high. And I don't think that rig would work at all. The sails would never go out into those grooves unattended aloft. . . . I think the vessel would be laid up within three weeks of its trial run. The crew would revolt against it because it would be so inoperable. . . A square rigged ship is an excellent vessel for training cadets and midshipmen because it makes work. That's exactly what you don't want in commercial cargo ships."

Wind SHip Associates already has one major client and several prospects."Our first job," says Frank MacLear, "is for a study to move millions of tons of a specific commodity over a specific route during an eight-year period. Our customer, an end user of this commodity, wants to see whether we can get the wind to cut costs of fuel consumption."

Mr. Bergeson and his associates point out that of the 55 million barrels of oil consumed every day outside communist areas, ocean transportation now accounts for 4 million barrels. In 20 years they expect ships will be burning 4 .5 to 5.4 million barrels per day. So even if a switch to wind power reduced ocean-going oil consumption by only 10 to 20 percent, at $26 a barrel, a $9.5 billion saving per year could be realized. They told MarAd that their analysis might well show that sail power can meet half, even three-quarters of all ocean transport needs.

The point, adds Dr. Liznyk, is that "the cost of fuel, not the cost of the crew, now has become the single largest cost element in operating a ship. We are very eager to work with the ship-operating industry to bring that down."

So what Wind Ship Development Corporation is looking for now is a client who would like to build a small-to mid-size ship right away. "On the information we already have there is no question it would cut his fuel costs," Mr. MacLear says. "We might save him from 30 to 70 percent, depending on the seas and the route."

The catamaran is only one of many hull shapes that Mr. MacLear will recommend. He says it is faster than other types of sail boats, is extremely stable on both sea and land, and because of its shallow draft can be beached without docking facilities.

Though Mr. MacLear would prefer to build a ship from scratch, he says he could convert certain small cargo ships right now. Indeed, Wind Ship is now studying the feasibility of converting ships to sail now for its first customer.

"We could put on a modest rig and save 10 to 30 percent of fuel costs or a larger rig and save 25 to 40 percent," Mr. MacLear says.

"In 50 years," he adds, "I think we may be using another type of fuel altogether, or nuclear energy. But that's a long time off. We have an intervening period here in which a lot of people could make a profit and operate ships that otherwise they could not."

While Americans have been talking about converting to sail, the Japanese have gone ahead and done it on an experimental basis. MarAd is keeping in touch with research developments there where a consortium last year completed successful sea trials of an 83-ton, 1/15th scale model of a sail-assisted supertanker which is reported to have cut fuel costs by 10 percent, a significant figure at today's costs. This spring the group is expected to approve construction of a full-scale prototype.

As much lure as the sea holds for yachtsman Bergeson personally, romance doesn't figure in his calculations. Wind Ship Development Corporation is strictly a hard-headed business venture based on economics. The sailing ship, he insists, has got to be shown economically viable, based on standard economic analysis vis-a-vis its fossil-powered counterpart.

"It's a matter of logic, isn't it?" he asks. "If you have waning fossil fuel at exponentially increasing costs, unless you want all world commerce to stop, you had darn well better find another way to produce energy for ships, hadn't you?"

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Shipping with elegant energy
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today