I’ve been out of the job and into an improbable new world of sail cargo pioneers for six months now. It’s an enthralling dream of transporting goods by wind-powered ships, some old, some new. An alternative to the mass containerised shipping that is a key feature of the global economy.
The new business is Raybel Charters, and our plan is to carry goods into London, and back out again, along the Thames Estuary, by sailing barge – much as was being done a century ago. But with a modern twist – more craft ale, coffee and sea salt than bricks and hay. We will be the link between sustainable prodcuer and ethical consumer.
We’re keen, as well, to run routes up the east coast of England, to Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and – getting more ambitious – along the south coast and cross Channel too. In time we want to connect with other routes being opened up by the new breed of sail cargo pioneer: the Avontuur, running across the Atlantic to Montreal, the Carribbean and back; the Tres Hombres and Nordlys, set on their journeys to the Caribbean from Den Helder on the northernmost tip of the Netherlands; the Grayhound, home port Douarnanez, but Cornish built.
You can see this as romantic and small-scale – miniscule would be closer to the mark given the 50,000 billion tonne miles of freight being hauled around the seas each year in mega containers. So what’s the point?
That environmental issue is the most obvious, for sure. Shipping might be more carbon efficient than air or road travel, but it still spews out 1,000 million tonnes of carbon a year – over 2% of all global human emissions.
That’s twice as much as aviation. Moreover, emissions are predicted to rise by anything between 50% and 250% over the next 50 years, when other sources are set to fall. With shipping still heavily reliant on ‘bunker fuel’ – basically just waste oil – it’s an even worse story on other pollutants like nitrogen oxides and sulphur.In those cases over 10% of global emissions are due to sea freight. It’s easy to feel that small initiatives don’t make a difference – but change happens at the margins, through trials, tests, mad ideas that offer spark and inspiration.
And the ‘old’ technology of wind power is genuinely seen as part of the solution. In a Lloyd’s List article, 14 experts in the shipping field were asked what would power shipping by 2050. The majority said wind propulsion would be the key development. Certainly some of what is being talked about here is very high tech indeed. Plans for a Dutch eco-liner are coming off the drawing board. Two members of the sail cargo network founded Coriolis Trading plan to raise investment for the middle ground of small to medium size freight ships operating under sail.
But, alongside these new tech developments, and in common with so many issues today, there is much left and inherited from the past that can help in creating a more sustainable future. Whilst the new ideas for modern sail ships can be thought of as putting the industry back to where it might have been, but for the interlude of fossil fuel propulsion, in other cases – the Thames sailing barge, for example – the technology in 1920, when the Raybel was built, can still function perfectly well in the role of estuary and coastal shipping today.
Sail cargo taps into much else besides. Freight is about making connections, linking buyers and sellers, producers and consumers, communities, nations and continents. There’s the chance here to pioneer a supply chain on a human scale – slow cargo – re-connecting people to products and to the movement of goods at a pace dictated by nature – an antidote to the ‘just in time’, ‘always available’ culture of modern consumption. Indeed some of the staples of this new sail-freighted trade – olive oil, wine – are the same as sea-traded in Roman times: simple essentials of a good life, where trade is necessary as local production isn’t possible.
It’s no surprise that the early products favoured for sail cargo have been food and drink, where the producer-consumer connection is made most easily and meaningfully, where the supply chain can be short, where consuming can be a shared and lived experience. In the case of New Dawn Traders’ recent olive oil shipment, for example, it was just the oil producers – the Reigado family of northern Portugal – and the consumers of the English south coast, linked by a broker/merchant, the ship – Nordlys – and some UK port organisation by Brighton based Sail Boat Project.
This charts us into questions about the social and economic conditions that connections in modern economies are made under, and how to achieve transition away from a model that cannot continue. How to do that? Where are the nooks and crannies in the transactional money-based economy that we can tease away at, eliding the distinction between relation and transaction, the sharing-economy and the cash-economy? And how does that bump up against regulation, standards, and government bureaucracies – how much freedom do we have to co-ordinate economic exchange between ourselves?
Take the myth of consumer primacy – that the consumer has a right to instant, always available produce, delivered at the utmost convenience – even of seasonal products delivered half way across the world. The myth tells us that no effort is expected of the consumer. But why shouldn’t we be willing participants in the supply chain, at least of some of what we buy? Why not be part of the journey? And if you help to distribute or collect or market a sail cargo product, maybe you get it a bit cheaper. Or maybe just being part of the story.
Merchants and brokers are as key to this scene as ships and sailors. These are the fixers and communicators of this nascent movement (much more my role – I’m no sailor). New Dawn Traders puts cost breakdowns on its imported olive oil, transparently showing the make-up of the retail price and the allocation to farmer, to shipper, to port authority, to tax. By definition, anything cheaper must have come at the cost of exploitation somewhere in that chain, of environment or people.
We see Raybel Charters having a role, as well, in helping re-connect riverside communities to the Thames, from our planned home mooring of Sittingbourne – a proud shipbuilding and sailing centre now literally cut-off from the river by a bridge that does little more than serve a local Tesco’s – to the new residential developments at Ebbsfleet New Town, Thamesmead and the Royal Docks.
All are places and people steeped in Estuary heritage, but where connections were severed as jobs disappeared. With employment patterns shifting in the fallout from automation, there are chances here to experiment and re-make our ideas of work and labour. Without wanting to romanticise the life of an early 20th Century bargeman, tough work for little more than starvation wages, we can start to provide employment of a kind that is disappearing today – that combines physical exertion with skilled knowledge and thinking, that depends on companionship and collaboration, that rewards working together, that distils pride in a job well done. That is fun. Some of it will be paid; some of it can be volunteered; perhaps some will be paid for?
Bigger questions spring to mind, about international trade, the terms of trade, of tariff protections and quotas; of the history of sailing ships, and the purpose of these vessels in the origins of European capitalism, of the East India and triangular Atlantic trades (other favoured early sail cargo producsts are coffee, chocolate and rum). And, coming right back to the present, Brexit, of course. There’s defiance in choosing to start up a cross European trading venture at just the time the isolationist genie in the referendum bottle has been released.
But our immediate concern is earlier-stage – we need investment. Investment to develop our ideas about using the current fleet of Thames barges to transport cargo on the estuary (a move, to be noted, supported by the latest Port of London Authority strategy), to find willing producers and makers, to bring our story to the consumers we’re sure are out there. Ideally, to restore our own vessel, the Raybel, and bring it back into sail cargo use.
Where might that investment come from – funders (will they get the commercial end use?); corporate CSR budgets (so long as it’s not greenwash?); social investment funds (if the social value can be demonstrated well enough)? Then there’s community shares and crowdfunding, used successfully by several of our European partners, and that we are looking to use too.
In short – sail cargo is about many of the ideas in in this blog since 2010, but put into practical application. Is it a business? Is it an art project? Is it a campaign? It’s an adventure. We get the chance to do these things rarely. When young, when risks are worth taking as there is little to lose and much to gain. Our older years – I’m edging closer to ‘radical elder’ than ‘idealistic millennial’ – should be another time. If we’ve been fortunate enough to have some security and the skills of a working life, there comes a time to end the ‘optionality’ of staying stock still, and to use those tools in risk-taking. The Story continues on the Raybel Charters blog – this one’s done.
” Throw off the bowlines. Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the wind in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain