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Setting sails towards a green future of transport

October 20, 2021
topic:Climate action
tags:#climate crisis, #travel, #trnaportation, #sail cargo ships
by:Frank Odenthal
Dutch start-up EcoClipper is bringing traditional sail cargo ships back to the international commercial stage in an attempt to create an emission-free future for transport and travel.

About 90 percent of world trade is conducted via shipping. That‘s a big share, and so is its ecological footprint. The shipping industry is set to change, but will it happen in time to prevent the most catastrophic implications of climate change?

Alternative systems of propulsion are being tested, and the International Maritime Organisation‘s (IMO) latest amendment to its regulatory framework, IMO 2020, has just been entered into force, limiting sulphur content of marine fuel to 0.5 percent instead of 3.5 percent. Yet, the path to achieving climate neutral transport remains long, or at least so it seems.

There are ways to conduct maritime freight transport completely emissions-free, however, and there is a record spanning thousands of years to prove it: sailboats. 

Now, old freight vessels are being restored and refitted to carry out transport in the traditional way once again. But those are small-scale projects run by sail enthusiasts in their spare time.

Dutch entrepreneur Jorne Langelaan takes on the task of sail cargo transport in a more professional way. Langelaan doesn‘t want to refit the old boat; he‘s up to building new boats, including computer designed hulls and rigging, using the latest navigation technology.

His prototype is called Ecoclipper, and while the ship is yet to be built, Langelaan is confident that it will set sail within a few years.

The Beam Magazine, a content partner of FairPlanet, spoke to Langelaan about Ecoclipper and the project’s goal of reshaping the shipping, transportation and travel markets.

The Beam: what is the idea behind Ecoclipper?

Jorne Langelaan: Ecoclipper is a company which is established to bring sustainable travel and transport to the public by way of sailing vessels.

How did you come up with this idea?

I was working on motor cargo ships before, and then I started sailing on traditional sailing vessels in the 90’s on board the Avontuur under Captain Paul Wahlen. In those days, nobody was really interested in sustainability or emissions-free travel or emissions-free transport, so it was really a niche thing. But it really got me. And at a certain point I wanted to start using wind power to distribute cargo. I was 19 years old back then, so I decided to start my own sail cargo business. It felt like a dream was coming true.

These were, of course, times when people didn‘t talk about climate change so much, it wasn‘t a mainstream thing. It was in 2000 when I met two of my partners in later years who I would work together with later on and start Fairtransport; that was in 2006. 

We then purchased a hull in Delft, the town where I was born. I knew that old hull before. I actually played on it as a child, and always thought about sailing with it. We purchased that hull and refitted it into what can be said as the first engineless sail-cargo ship in the 21st century, the Tres Hombres.

But that was way before Ecoclipper. The Tres Hombres was really pioneering at that time, as an ambassador for sail cargo from 2009 on. Then quite-fast other companies started to do it in a similar way, like Timbercoast with the Avontuur that I was sailing on in the 90’s. 

The company Ecoclipper was launched in 2018, basically to scale up the successes of the then-existing sail cargo companies.

Today, we‘re in a situation where even traditional passenger sailing ships are looking for sail-cargo opportunities, because it is becoming more and more clear that sail-cargo will be the next big thing in logistics. 

Basically, sail-cargo is the only way to distribute cargos and travel passengers emission-free on a possibly large scale without having to set up a huge industrial background system. 

Currently it‘s just a niche market with about 10 sailing ships carrying cargo. Today, a lot of shipping companies are looking for sustainable alternatives, but that‘s all based on a large industrial system, which has to be built and financed. 

But the wind is there, and it can be used by everybody! So, that‘s what we do with Ecoclipper.

“It is the first engineless sail cargo ship in the 21st century”

So the idea of Ecoclipper is not to refit old boats, but to build new boats?

Originally, we intended to design a ship that would be very flexible to be used on all different routes around the world, and we‘ve actually done that. We went through a couple of design cycles, we have a couple of naval engineer teams who work on it and did a really good job. 

Three years ago we contacted about 25 European shipyards, and now we think we found a fitting partner shipyard in the Netherlands for our design ideas.

With this new boat strategy, it is really important to be able to scale up, to build more identical ships, if needed, and to offer a certain quality on different shipping lines.

But it takes time, and it‘s a costly affair, as well. From 2018 on we‘ve been working as a start-up to design this prototype. It all depends now on how successful we are with the financing campaign that we‘re preparing right now.

Currently, you are a ship company without a ship. What are your short-term plans?

Recently we realised that it takes up to 18 months to build that new ship. So, in the meantime, we‘re keeping our eyes open for existing ships as well, which could be put into service sooner. 

We‘ve been in contact with a number of companies that would be interested in the service we‘re going to offer, and it‘s getting harder and harder to tell them that it takes another 18 months for the ship to be ready. So, that is actually a new strategy, because we‘ve gathered so many letters of intent from companies that are interested to ship with us. There are huge opportunities for cargo ships at the moment. So, for us, it‘s just a matter of bringing ships into the water and to start operating.

What is the intended load of the Ecoclipper? Is it comparable to container-carrying vessels?

The Ecoclipper 500 is designed to [carry] just below 500 gross tonnage. Gross tonnage is a measurement of volume, it doesn‘t say so much about the weight of the cargo. But, coincidentally, we will be able to take on 500 tons as well. 

There is an advantage in terms of legislation and registration costs to have a ship below 500 gross tonnage. The largest unit we will be taking is a pallet. Usually containers are filled with pallets. So, instead of stacking containers, the Ecoclipper will load about 300 pallets.

And we will not only be serving the transport market of goods, but also servicing the market of travel. Nowadays, many people don‘t want to fly anymore or want to fly less, but still want to travel. And what a wonderful way of travelling it is to use a sailing ship! And we‘ll accept trainees on board as well, which is a very adventurous way of travelling. 

It takes a lot more time, of course, but it ultimately results in fewer emissions. 

We did this life cycle analysis; we calculated the carbon footprint of the Ecoclipper ships. And compared to container vessels, Ecoclippers are about 5 times cleaner, and compared to flying they are about 10 times cleaner. 

On each Ecoclipper we‘ll have accommodation for twelve passengers and a maximum of 36 trainees. These trainees are actually helping to run the ship, and are being trained by the professional crew to become seamen. But they are at the same time passengers, too. I was a trainee myself, and I can really recommend it to everybody.

“Shipping is an industry with very high investments”

There are currently only about 50 projects around the world for shipping cargo by wind power. Why are there still so few of them? Shouldn‘t this market be accelerating much faster, considering how hard we’re being hit by the climate crisis?

Well, let‘s not forget that about 20 years ago there was only one ship, the Avontuur, doing it this way again. We actually did a market research last year, and the outcome was that there‘s really exponential growth in that industry of projects doing sail-cargo. But we should also not forget that these transitions are huge. 

Shipping is an industry with very high investments, so things do take time. A lot of today‘s shipowners invested in their motorships, and they last for at least 20 or 30 years. So for them it‘s very hard to make a change, because they would end up with stranded assets. 

But at the same time it‘s good for large investments in alternative ways of transport. If someone is looking today for investment opportunities, I would definitely recommend looking into sail-cargo projects, because this is the next big thing. But it takes time.

What we‘ve seen in the 19th century with the industrial revolution, that was of course an enormous transition, too, just the other way around: from sailing ships to steam ships. It took about 150 years for that transition. So, it really takes time, and we‘re actually still at the beginning.

What is the financing strategy behind Ecoclippers?

We were preparing a crowdfunding campaign last year, but it was meant to hire naval engineers and to move on the design process. But instead of the crowdfunding campaign we met some bigger investors, and that was a second financing round, which funded the whole design process. 

Currently, preparations are being done for a way larger crowdfunding campaign. People will be able to invest into the company, not into single ships. And as a company, I expect that we will be growing really fast. 

For the next five years, our company strategy is to finance 10 or more newly-built vessels and a few retrofit projects. For a start-up, that‘s of course a big investment;  it might turn out to be around tens of millions of Euros. But in comparison to the large shipping operators this is still just peanuts. 

We are now about one and a half years into a pandemic. Did the Coronavirus have any impact on your business?

Yes, definitely. Back then we had an office in Alkmaar with a few people working there. When Corona hit, we started working at home and shut down that office. We had an international team, and they lived in an apartment here in Alkmaar. Now they all went back home to their countries, and started to work online. 

In that office in Alkmaar we were looking locally for our specialists. Now, it doesn‘t matter anymore where they‘re from. We have our naval engineering team in Portugal, our systems engineering team is based in Switzerland and the Netherlands, our interior design team is from the Netherlands and Germany, our head of communication is in the UK, other communication team members are in Mexico and Portugal. So that works fine.

But all these events like maritime fairs, where we could have presented Ecoclipper to a larger public or to potential new investors, they all got cancelled.

“Goods should only be transported over such distances if they can‘t be produced locally”

What kind of goods do you expect to transport?

Mainly goods that need to be transported due to their meteorological circumstances. For example, you cannot grow tea or coffee in Europe, so we need to import it. There are, however, many goods that are being imported, just because it is cheaper to produce them in China or anywhere else around the globe. 

If the cargo prices would become more fair, more realistic, which means taking into account the environmental and social impact of it, that wouldn‘t pay off anymore. 

The container prices have already been doubling last year due to congestion caused by Corona lockdowns and because of a rise in the trade in consumer goods. You can already find producers of textiles moving their production closer to Europe because of that. So, we at Ecoclipper are looking at first-class goods that really have a necessity to be transported over long distances. 

We think transporting goods just because of less strict environmental rules or lower wages is not a good reason. Transporting goods is such an energy-intensive thing to do, so we think goods should only be transported over such distances if they can‘t be produced locally.

That sounds like stepping back from globalisation to localisation.

I would call it a step forward, though. 

Image by: EcoClipper

Article written by:
Odenthal Frank_Autorenfoto
Frank Odenthal
Ecoclipper has been working since 2018 as a start-up to design this prototype.
© Ecoclipper
Ecoclipper has been working since 2018 as a start-up to design this prototype.
The Tres Hombres, the engineless cargo ship, served as an inspiration for the Ecoclipper
© Wikipedia
The Tres Hombres, the engineless cargo ship, served as an inspiration for the Ecoclipper
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