Lockdown at sea a lesson in sustainable shipping

To combat climate change we need to decarbonise international shipping. Powering cargo ships with wind should be part of the solution

Dr Chistiaan De Beukelaer, University of Melbourne

Published 24 May 2023

Where were you in 2020?

For most Melburnians, this question is a reminder of difficult times. Lengthy lockdowns and major restrictions. Working from home and closed schools. Curfews and travel radiuses.

I escaped that first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. I was at sea researching the feasibility of transporting cargo on sailing ships to decarbonise global shipping.

Dr De Beukelaer spent the first wave of COVID-19 ‘locked down’ on a cargo sailing ship. Picture: Christiaan De Beukelaer

I spent countless days aboard the Avontuur bobbing around Le Grand Bleu, among the flying fish of the mid-Atlantic, the whales off Newfoundland, the frigate birds above the Gulf of Mexico, and dolphins that popped up and disappeared almost every day.

But spending so much time on the ocean was not my plan. Much like many seafarers, my fourteen fellow crew and I were marooned at sea.

At sea, we lived through the pandemic rather differently than those ashore. We were wholly outside the frenzy of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. We merely sailed, as any sailor would – standing watch, trimming sail, helming, eating, cleaning, and sleeping.

Today, owing to a range of factors, including the low price and abundance of oil, very few sailing vessels carry cargo anymore. Sailing has become a form of sport rather than transport.

But the Avontuur, alongside several other sailing cargo ships, aims to change that. I joined her on the Canary Islands to pick up a cargo of rum, coffee, and cacao in the Caribbean and Mexico, destined for Germany.

In doing so, I hoped to find out more about the revival of working sailing ships, which transport cargo using the wind as an emission-free means of propulsion.

In my book Trade Winds: A Voyage to a Sustainable Future for Shipping, I explore the challenge we face in changing the means of propulsion of maritime trade, away from polluting fossil fuels to zero-emission technologies and fuels.

While most of the industry, including its regulatory body, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), focus on alternative fuels, my focus for this trip was on the potential of sail – arguably the zero-emission technology par excellence – in facilitating global supply chains in our globalised economy, while ensuring that shipping doesn’t wreck the planet.

Is cleaning up the shipping industry as easy as returning to sail and getting rid of engines? Picture: Getty Images

Indeed, sailing cargo vessels are making a genuine comeback.

The activists and entrepreneurs who operate small, traditionally rigged sailing vessels to transport cargo want everyone to believe in the future they envisage.

Is cleaning up the shipping industry as easy as returning to sail and getting rid of engines? As a keen sailor and committed environmentalist, I wanted to find out.

I spoke to people working on many sailing vessels like Avontuur, Tres Hombres, Ceiba, Veer, Canopée, Grain de Sail, and Hawila.

And then in February 2020, I boarded the Avontuur, planning a three-week stint. By the time I finally disembarked in Hamburg, Germany on 23 July, we had crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice, sailed the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, the Straits of Florida, and the North Sea.

I lived aboard for 150 days while covering almost 14,000 nautical miles.

During that time, I learned a great deal about myself, about sailing a cargo ship, and about the connections between the shipping industry and attempts to reverse the climate emergency.

Being stuck at sea introduced me to seafarers’ labour and the complex patchwork of rules that governs their waking – and sleeping – hours.

Seafarers’ working – and sleeping – hours are regulated under the Maritime Labour Convention. Picture: Christiaan De Beukelaer

The shipping industry is yet to accept eight-hour working days and forty-hour working weeks.

Seafarers’ working hours are regulated under the Maritime Labour Convention. Ordinarily, they work seven days a week in shifts, creating working days that should be no longer than fourteen hours and working weeks no longer than seventy-two hours, with a strict minimum of ten hours of rest a day and seventy-seven hours per week.

During emergencies, and force majeure like a pandemic, these rules can be suspended. For fear of being blacklisted by shipping companies or the agencies they use to hire crews, workers have little choice but to work longer hours if their captain or commanding officer tells them to.

But I was aboard a German-flagged vessel with a mostly volunteer crew, all of us with European or American passports. This made it difficult to transpose my experience to the industry as a whole.

And yet, through conversations with my fellow crew, learning why people volunteer their time and hard work to make sailing cargo vessels possible, I was left with a question.

If shipping companies that use sailing ships rely on volunteer labour and won’t even pay people fair wages, how can they turn the shipping industry, which transports 11 billion tonnes of goods a year, from a massive polluter to a zero-carbon model of sustainable transport?

The mission of the Avontuur and other sailing cargo vessels is intriguing, but can they show that a different kind of global economy is possible?

Is it possible to turn the shipping industry, which transports 11 billion tonnes of goods a year, from a massive polluter to a zero-carbon model of sustainable transport? Picture: Christiaan De Beukelaer

To find out, I continue my work by following negotiations at the International Maritime Organization in London, talking to the people investing in wind propulsion, and conducting fieldwork in the Marshall Islands to better understand how this tiny atoll nation in the Pacific Ocean is working hard to halt climate change, both at the United Nations and at home.

The shipping industry represents both the global economy and the climate crisis we find ourselves in. At face value, it works well, but the sector is wrecking the planet to deliver the consumption-driven lives that we’ll have to rethink in earnest to tackle the untenable pressure on the planet.

Traditional sailing ships like the Avontuur, on which I sailed, won’t be able to compete on speed, cost, or scale with fossil fuel-powered ships. Though they won’t have to, because a whole new fleet of modern sailing cargo ships that are bigger and faster are under construction.

Trade Winds has a clear message: If we can’t swiftly decarbonise shipping, we can’t solve the climate crisis. Even so, cutting carbon greenhouse gas emissions is only a part of the problem we face.

That’s why small vessels like the Avontuur do matter: would we really transport eleven billion tonnes of goods every year if it took so much effort?

Christiaan De Beukelaer’s new book, Trade Winds: A Voyage to a Sustainable Future for Shipping, is out now, as is the French translation, Cargo à Voile: Une Aventure Militante pour un Transport Maritime Durable.

Banner: Christiaan De Beukelaer

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