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Climate Change

Trade under sails

Author: Frank Odenthal

There have been initiatives to do global maritime trade the traditional way again before, that is to use classic sailing ships instead of container giants. So far, these initiatives have always been enthusiastic projects started by sailing addicts and alikes. And at first glance of course, it does look completely utopian to do the entire freight transport of our globalized world again by sailing ships.

Jorne Langelaan of EcoClipper in front of Bonaire
Jorne Langelaan, founder of EcoClipper.

However, in times of climate crisis and the urgent need for emission-free transport there are now a number of projects that want to revive this type of maritime trade in a professional, more contemporary way (e.g. using new, adapted ship designs and crowdfunding campaignes etc.). The most ambitious is likely to be a Dutch project called EcoClipper that wants to build a fleet of cargo sailing ships that will regularly serve the world completely free of emissions. FAIRPLANET had a word with EcoClipper-founder Jorne Langelaan.

Fairplanet: What is the idea of EcoClipper?

Jorne Langelaan: Basically, Ecoclipper is the idea of using sailing vessels to bring about emission free transport of goods and people. It‘s a scale-up of what I did before. I was one of the co-founders, captains, and I am still shareholder of Fairtransport who has two ships running now, the Tres Hombres and the Nordlys. For more than 20 years I have been involved with several sail cargo operations. In the late 90s I started my cargo sailing career with the cargo schooner Avontuur, operated by the famous Capt. Paul Wahlen. EcoClipper is a scale-up of that concept, developing a prototype of a ship which will be built serially in one or more ship yards. We are currently in the stage of organizing the investors campaign for next year with a goal to lay the keel of the first ship by the end of 2020. From there on we plan a swift exponential growth of the fleet. Of course it is not so much about the ships, but about offering the very needed opportunity of world wide emission free transport and travel.

The Tres Hombres was possibly the first classic sailing ship to resume cargo sailing according to traditional customs in our modern times. How did that start and when?

Fairtransport‘s first ship was Tres Hombres. In Delft, Netherlands, the city where I grew up, I could see the hull of the Tres Hombres sitting in a part of the harbour there. I always thought that this beautiful ship would be a great sailing ship. It was kind of a boy‘s dream to purchase that ship. So, one day Arjen van der Veen, Andreas Lackner and me bought it in the name of Tres Hombres S.A. for a few thousand Euros. And together with about 150 volunteers from about 15 countries, who came over to help, we totally refitted her within two and a half years. People at that time thought we were totally crazy. That was because all the problems of climate change and the need for emissions free transport was not of any concern for most people. Today it‘s a different story of course. People see the need for changes. When I started EcoClipper in 2018, the first thing I did was to approach different people from the Dutch maritime network, who are already involved in commercial sailing to ask them to become advisers of this new emissions free shipping company – and they agreed.

But the idea of EcoClipper now is to build new ships, not refit older ships again?

Yes. We‘re currently talking with a couple of ship yards in Europe about serial building of these EcoClippers. Because with Tres Hombres and Nordlys we‘ve got old boats with old hulls, and you can do transport with them of course, but only to a certain extent. You have a certain size then, so you have to gear your business plans to watch the old design of these ships. Whereas now we can make our own decision about the size, the amount of cargo, the number of passagers and trainees. And the big advantage is: it is scalable. You can not scale up old ships. But you can order as many identical EcoClippers as you actually need.

So the EcoClipper500 is the prototype you‘re planning to scale up later?

This is a ship that will be able to carry about five hundred tons of cargo, and that‘s about ten times more than most of the sailing cargo ships that are operational right now. But it‘s still very small compared to traditional motor shipping. And it‘s still very small compared to the sailing ships that were sailing at the peak of the age of sail around 1900. The reason to choose a small ship is that you can build more of those ships with a given amount of capital. You can send those ships on different routes at the same time, whereas with only 1-2 big ships you couldn‘t really do that. And the other reason of course is that we start from zero.

So you expect this type of transport to see a renaissance…

Yes, anybody who understands climate science should agree that we need to go back (or forward) to emission free shipping methods. Until now we have proof of thousands of years that this can be done with sailing vessels. No other technology has proven this yet.

There are about five to ten projects in the world now, and they‘ve all just started a few years ago.

Jorne Langelaan

So, the next step is to go with bigger ships. And 500 tons is a nice size, it makes it financially viable, but it‘s still as small as possible.

The big container ships nowadays calculate their load in standardized container size TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit), the biggest ships carrying about 20,000 TEU. Do you calculate with TEU at EcoClipper as well?

EcoClippers will not be fitted to carry containers, they will carry general cargoes. That‘s just the choice we made. But they can carry an equivalent of about twenty containers. That will be mostly pallets and barrels and bags. So it‘s a different logistics. We already have a couple of exporters and importers, and also brokers who are interested in working together with EcoClipper to transport their goods.

You‘re planning to operate three major routes, as you announced on your website, one of them, for example, the Northern Atlantic route. What kind of goods are you carrying from the carribean to Europe, and what goods go vice versa?

Sailing routes of EcoClipperEcoClipper is operating three major sailing routes.

We will transport goods which need to be transported because of their climatic origin. Like coffee, cocoa, tea, spices etcetera. But the EcoClipper prototype is a passager-cargo-ship. So about half of the revenue will come from passagers, the other half will come from cargo. We will be able to carry up to twelve passagers and 36 trainees. And we‘ll have twelve crew members per ship.

When will the first EcoClipper be ready for business?

The ship yards we‘re talking with tell us now that they should be able to build a ship like this in 12-14 months. It depends how successful we are in terms of capital funding. We are preparing a crowdfunding campaign for next year. The first stage, propably in february or march, will be more focused on enlarging our network in order to be able to launch a larger crowdfunding campaign in summer 2020.

How much money do you need for the first ship?

We don‘t know that exactly yet, because we are waiting for answers from different ship yards. But it will be millions…

If you take a look into the future, how many EcoClippers do you want operational in, say, five years?

We would like to have about ten EcoClippers financed in five years time. That would make it possible to serve the three major shipping routes that you just mentioned. So we would have a few ships on each shipping route. And of course one days we want to design bigger ships that EcoClipper500, maybe Ecoclipper1000 or EcoClipper2000. And of course we should not be the only ones doing that. There should be many, many other companies shifting to emission free transport and travel. Because if you look at the IMO goals for 2050, that is at least fifty percent less emissions from shipping, that‘s a huge goal. In my opinion the first action to be taken to reach that is to have a lot less shipping, meaning that we should strive for more local production, so localizing our economies. And if you now look at shipping, about one third of everything that is shipped is fossil fuels; it‘s coal, oil or gas that is being transported. And all that should not be shipped anymore, because we should keep it in the ground for the sake of our climate and for the sake of future generations. Every ship that is newly built now should be emissions free, I think. We need that big transition in shipping. People must realize to what task we‘re up for if we want to shift our economies worldwide towards zero emissions. It took about 80 years for the transition from sail to steam in the 19th century. And now we have about 30 years to meet the goals of IMO 2050 regulations, that is to change an entire industry that has become way larger than in the 19th century. So, yeah, there‘s a lot to be done.

Jorne Langelaan, thank you very much for this interview.

Jorne Langelaan was one of the co-founders, captains, and is still shareholder of Fairtransport who has two ships (Tres Hombres and Nordlys) currently running. For more than 20 years he has been involved with several sail cargo operations. In the late 90s with the cargo schooner Avontuur. In 2018 he founded EcoClippers based in Alkmaar, Netherlands.