The Return of the Sail Cargo Ship

While everyone is talking about electric cars these days, another transport revolution is happening quietly out of most people’s sight: The return of emission-free shipping and seaborne fair trade.

As we know by now, the environmental impact of shipping can be substantial. Global waterborne trade and tourism account for more than 2.2% of human-made emissions, with the 15 largest ships in the world, for example, omitting as much nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide as all the cars of the world together! Cargo ships and ocean cruisers are also responsible for the spillage of huge amounts of oil as well as for the disposal of millions of gallons of sewage and millions of tons of solid waste into the sea each year. Plus don’t forget the damage caused to marine wildlife by collisions and sound pollution through ship’s engines.

The A-Class label of Fairtransport.

Over the past few years, a number of inpired companies have taken on the challenge of tackling some of the environmental issues attached to maritime trade. And though their steps are small, the Armchair Sailor thinks these enterprises are a big step forward for mankind!

Tres Hombres and Fairtransport

The world’s first modern “emission free” shipping company was founded by three young Dutchmen – the Tres Hombres – in 2007 and is called Fairtransport. The company’s fleet currently consists of three cargo liners, the Tres Hombres, the Nordlys and, most recently, the clipper ship Spirit of Rotterdam, which carry fair-trade cargo across the Atlantic. The products shipped – and partially also distributed – by the three merchant sailors fittingly include coffee, rum and chocolate from the Caribbean.

Tres Hombres Rum
A glass of Tres-Hombres Rum,

If you’re up for some maritime adventures, you can sign on as a trainee on board the Nordlys or Tres Hombres or invest in your own cargo ship. If you’re more of an Armchair Sailor like me, though, you might simply want to trace the ships’ journeys via their logbook: on their blog, on facebook or twitter.

Avontuur and Timbercoast

Two years ago, several further ships united under the Fairtransport flag and formed the Sail Cargo Alliance. The most famous is the cargo schooner Avontuur (Dutch for “adventure”), which launched in Germany in 2016 and runs under the company name Timbercoast.

Its owner, German-born Captain Cornelius Bockermann, had been working in the maritime industry for twenty years before he and his family moved to Australia. Worried about the ways in which commercial, fossil-fuel based shipping destroys our environment and feeling especially responsible for the preservation of the endangered Great Barrier Reef, he decided to buy an old 1920s schooner and re-vamp it as a sail cargo ship.

My Avontuur
The Avontuur,

With the help of many young volunteers, Cornelius Bockermann was able to get the Avontuur  ready for her maiden voyage in spring 2016. Throughout the ship’s long and strenuous re-build, the project received immense media attention (see this German documentary, for example). Just as with the Tres Hombres, you can join the Avontuur as a shipmate or follow its movements and those of its young and adventurous crew in a blog and many video clips. The ship carries fair-trade cargo such as gin or slokoffie (“slow coffee”), aiming to be the “missing link between the sustainable producer and the conscientious consumer”.

The Brigantes

The story of the Avontuur – whose success, at one point, seemed to be a fragile dream – demonstrates how much can be achieved with technical skill, passion for the environment and a little help from a lot of friends. This bodes well for the most recent sail cargo project, the Brigantes, which has recently started a crowd-funding call.

Brigantes 1911
The Brigantes in the early 20th century,

An Austro-Italian team of entrepreneurs are currently refitting a 1911 schooner destined to sail between the Caribbean and the Mediterranean Seas from 2018 onward and meant to specialize in organic coffee and cocoa. The project runs under the motto “A step back to move forwards” (see short video here). And I guess that’s what it’s all about. How lovely that nostalgia for the “Age of Sail” may actually also be the answer to some of the most pressing environmental problems that we face today.

Further Information

Find a list of further sail cargo projects on:

A recent article about long overdue global regulations to limit carbon dioxide on the high seas:


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