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Towards a return of sailing in international commerce?

From Mediterranean maritime trade by civilizations during the age ofAntiquity to the discovery of the route to India by Vasco de Gama, to the great adventures and exploration of the Viking Age: sailing enabled humankind to expand and trade beyond land borders!

The arrival of container ships

It wasn't until 1956 that world maritime trade took a major turn: the invention of the container by the American Malcolm McLean. This innovation made it possible to standardise the method of storage in order to optimise space on ships, but above all to save precious time ($$) during loading and unloading. In addition, technological evolution has made it possible to build container ships up to 400m long with a capacity of approximately 180 000 containers!

This transport method has managed to become so profitable that today, almost 90% of the world’s merchandises are transported by sea!

The underside of container ships

But this hegemony is not achieved without leaving any traces.

Air Pollution

In Europe, it is estimated that about 50 000 premature deaths are caused annually by air pollution from maritime transport!

The main reason is that cargo ships use heavy fuel which, when burned, emits large quantities of pollutants: ultra-fine particles, sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), etc. For this last one, global maritime transport is estimated to contribute to 15% of total emissions. This can be easily seen in this next image, where on the left is the AIS (Automatic Identification System) position of cargo ships and on the right is the evaluation of NOx concentrations:

Marine traffic in September 2019 Left: Marine traffic / Right: Windy/Copernicus

Deterioration of marine biodiversity Ballasts (boat water tanks that stabilize the ship) can transport large quantities of water from one end of the planet to the other. However, they can contain certain stowaways like eggs of molluscs, fish, bacteria, microbes ... The emptying operation can therefore have the impact of introducing into the environment species coming to compete with the native species of habitat.

Noise pollution

In addition to the impact of collisions on marine mammals that we have already discussed in a priorarticle, global shipping traffic has a detrimental effect on cetaceans. These giants of the seas are dependent on sound for communication, for hunting and for navigation. However, our cargo ships emit powerful low frequency sounds that travel great distances and which, in addition to other anthropic activities, disturb these animals in their environment.

Blainville’s beaked whale, Mathieu Marzelière

Although we need to rethink our consumption expenditure and commit to being responsible consumers by returning to a local and sustainable consumption, unfortunately international maritime trade will not stop overnight.

In order to face current social and environmental challenges and limit their impact, this industry has no choice but to adapt. And to do so, why not look to the past in order to move forward?

NeoLine and the return to sailing

NeoLine is an initiative started from a commitment of a group of Merchant Navy Officers. This type of vessel can be one of the solutions to some of the issues discussedpreviously. They aim to combine the current technology of shipbuilding and maritime transport, but by usinga way of propulsion alreadyused by the old merchant ships: sails!

The first pilot ship (136 m long) is planned to be built between 2020 and 2021, so this project is about to see the light of day.

With an operating speed reduction to 11 knots (compared to an average of 25 knots for cargo ships) and thanks to the 4,200 m2 of total sail surface, Pris du site Neoline). they plan to "lower fuel consumption by 80 % - 90 %,while ensuring a competitive and efficient service". At the same time, this will significantly reduce air pollution, by eliminating nitrogen oxide and sulphur emissions.

According to the manufacturers, this combo would make it possible to reduce by half the energy cost per mile travelled. And, at the same time, being able to prevent possible collisions with whales and the deaths associated with these impacts. Moreover, having a main propulsion system of a sailing vessel and an auxiliary diesel/electric propulsion system, this type of vessel will reduce the noise impact on the marine environment.

To learn more about the global impact of maritime transport, non-compliance with labour rights, tax exemptions, containers lost at sea, etc., we recommend Denis Delestrac's documentary ''Cargos - La face cachée du fret''.

And you, would you like to see maritime transport go back to sailing?


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