Sailing into the Future

This is a guest post by Captain Michael Kellick. Captain Kellick has been serving in tall ships for fifteen years, sailing all along the west coast of North America, to Hawaii and across the Caribbean. He is presently working with the Los Angeles Maritime Institute and studies Art as Moral Action with American opera director Peter Sellars at UCLA. He attended the 2009 ASPO conference in Denver last October.

Photo Credit: Lady Washington at Sunset by venicewow on Flickr

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable
Like the past, to have no destination.

T.S. Elliot--The Dry Salvages

Hull. Masts. Rigging. Sails. Rudder. Ready...

From time to time sailing ships get mentioned as one technology that will serve in post petroleum scenarios but some readers may not know that there are already hundreds in service worldwide, maintaining a tradition of moving goods and people across water that goes back 400 centuries. By contrast, our recent epoch of fossil fueled ships stands out as a brief and brilliant blip in a continuum of what may turn out to be humankind’s most enduring form of transport.

Seen mostly as majestic relics of a bygone era today’s tall ships are nevertheless essential transitional platforms for change as we begin the move toward sustainable transportation over water. Since most Americans still happen to live near major water transportation routes it is likely that we will continue to use boats of some sort to move goods and people around. Building and sailing ships to meet our future needs will most likely involve examining our long unbroken maritime traditions which are alive and well around the world in today’s modern tall ships.

Worldwide, there are about three hundred sailing ships serving Europe, the Americas, Australia and Asia, many in the form of large academy ships training navies and future bridge officers of the world’s cruise ships, oil tankers and container ships. In North America there are 124 sailing vessels belonging to the American Sail Training Association , an umbrella organization which promotes sail training for youth, professional maritime advancement and international cooperation. Although character building is the avowed goal of ASTA, its 181 member vessels themselves make their livings conducting a wide range of activities: history and science education, Christian ministry, social services, ecotourism, booze cruises and battle sails, to name a few. Counting clockwise around the continent we have 18 in the Great Lakes fleet, 75 in the Atlantic, 5 in the Gulf and 29 in the Pacific.

Irving Johnson (sister ship of Exy Johnson)

Additionally, several of our most impressive ships are maintained by maritime museums although they sail much less frequently, if at all. Owing to their ages and fragility they are kept in service as static public attractions meanwhile serving as valuable training venues and great repositories of nautical knowledge. Many readers may be familiar with U.S.S. Constitution or Old Ironsides in Boston Harbor. The oldest commissioned warship in the world, she was launched in 1797. She can be sailed but is taken out annually with a tugboat. Star of India, on the other hand, can and does sail a few days each year from San Diego. This legacy ship of the clipper era is made of iron and was launched the same week that Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg.

Modern sailing ships defy easy taxonomy since their styles and construction methods span centuries of innovation. Wood, steel, iron, Ferro cement and new composite materials are variously used in their construction, as are fiberglass and laminates and many, many petro-chemical paints, solvents and adhesives. What they all have in common, however, is the ability to move people and their stuff without an engine, albeit slowly. With proper maintenance and safe operation they can last decades if not centuries as long as the supply of lumber, steel, polyester and other essential materials continues.

Know the Ropes

All but a very few tall ships nowadays have diesel engines. The extent to which these engines get used varies from vessel to vessel but it is worth noting that engines greatly increase safety. They also make maneuvering in narrow modern harbors – all designed for power boats - much easier. Additionally, they help ensure that our wind driven ship can keep her modern up-to-the-minute schedule. Two hundred years ago sailors kept their calendars to the nearest month, and then with steam that was refined to within a day or two and now we can be sure to arrive Wednesday at 2 pm if needed. Over the course of an entire season a modern sailing vessel is under engine power about 30% of the time, depending on the number of scheduled arrivals.

I suspect that throughout time there have always been a few who, by their nature, distrusted change and others’ notions of progress. Some of us, I believe, have also accepted technological complexity with a healthy dose of skepticism. Whether because of these or romantic sentimentalism - or perhaps some of each – the modern replicas of historical sailing ships were designed, funded and built starting in the late 1930’s even as commercial sailing vessels were still in use. While the great clippers themselves had been eclipsed by coal fired steamers which were, in turn, made obsolete by the diesel driven behemoths we see today, sailing never went away altogether. Some of those academy ships mentioned above as being used to train naval and merchant officers were built in the 20’s and 30’s and operated without engines for over fifty years.

To be clear, our operational sailing ships can do little to alleviate the passenger and freight loads of a post petroleum future. If every tall ship in North America were put to use in San Francisco Bay it would take about a week to ferry all the commuters to work who now make that trek daily in cars. And since they were built mostly to carry people there are considerable changes in construction and certification necessary to convert them to cargo carriers. Their strength is not in what these ships could do if converted but rather in what they are already doing. As tradition bearers they are helping people keep valuable design, maintenance, rigging and sailing skills alive which will be needed later. Additionally, they provide excellent models of ecological and communal living.

Those with an interest in learning how to sail on board a traditionally rigged historical or modern sailing ship may be pleased to know that there is ample opportunity to do so. Because the majority of the sail training ships in North America are owned and operated by non-profit educational institutions they are always in search of assistance, both financially and in the form of volunteer labor. Many offer formal training programs for a nominal fee while others welcome folks who complete their training gradually and at no cost. Either way it’s a great way to join another community and develop valuable skills, both past and future, while enjoying the ocean environment. There are things in nature that only sailors know.

Post Script:
The transition to cargo under sail is already underway, as evidenced by the excellent efforts of Jan Lundberg and the Sail Transport Network. Dimitry Orlov has also written at length on this subject and whose essay can be found here. Another great source of info is Low-tech Magazine, a website familiar to many.

Captain Kellick on board the Exy Johnson

American Sail Training Association – ASTA

Sail Training International

Sail Transport Network

Low-tech Magazine

Our favorite cruise line is Star Clippers. They have two four masted barquentines, Star Clipper & Star Flyer, and one five masted square rigger, the Royal Clipper. One of the smaller ships is in the background of the following picture, with the Royal Clipper in the foreground:

On weekly cruises, they don't do that much true sailing, but I understand that on the transatlantic legs they sail quite a bit. On my "To Do" list is a transatlantic crossing on the Royal Clipper.

Why go on a ship?! Go on a yacht. Everyone should do at least one passage across one of the big oceans on a small yacht. It is a defining experience. If you don't go on your own, go on someone else's. Most need crew. We sailed our 44' sloop across the Atlantic and were glad to be able to share the watch routine and have someone else to talk to. It was a great trip from Las Palmas to St Lucia with fast downwind sailing. We did the trip in 17 days. There are websites such as Crew Seekers that help match owners with crew.

On the broader question of the sustainability of sailing vessels I suspect we have lost not just the skills we need to go back to the old ways, but much of the attitude too. My high tech 44' Aluminium sloop had a diesel engine for sure, but it also had sophisticated electronics, modern sails made from oil, modern standing rigging made from stainless steel, and modern running rigging also made mainly from oil. I doubt that boat could exist without oil and coal. Even though I might have an accurate set of charts I would have to learn how to do celestial navigation for real! Arriving with pin-point accuracy between St Lucia and Martinique is not so easy after 3000 nautical miles without a GPS!

Despite all the gadgets one is still at sea, at the mercy of the sea; and surrounded by the vast ocean. It is almost sublime, on this crowded planet to be in a place where there are no other humans possibly for hundreds of miles. And it not just ocean. There are dolphin, Orca, whales, flying fish, huge fish to catch and eat, an endless array of fascinating birds. Plus there is the excitement of the sailing, of keeping 15 tons or so of your floating home in its delicate balance with the forces of wind and wave and to keep safe.

Why go by ship?!

But we haven't lost the skills or the attitude. The global tall ship fleet is ensuring that these traditions remain alive. GPS is just a back-up, after all. We teach dead reckoning and piloting on tall ships with an hour glass and an old fashioned chip log heaved over the stern with a spool of knots running out for fourteen seconds. It's as accurate as an electronic knot log plus or minus 10%. We can find land with a lead line and cannon instead of radar, and paper charts will be around much longer than electronic chart plotters will. "What yachtsmen do is for the amusement of life. What we do is life itself." Joseph Conrad

I am amazed and impressed that you maintain these skills. My log, a Raymarine creation that used a small impeller was horribly inaccurate. The minutest growth seriously impaired its accuracy. Its position on the hull is critical and one can only calibrate for the average. It is highly unlikely it can be mounted other than on one or other side of the boat and will give different readings when heeled one way or the other. In the Pacific it stopped working altogether with the build up of all the gooseneck barnacles (aluminium boat, no copper anti-foul, long story). Across an ocean you would be idiotic to rely on the thing. I routinely rely on a minimum of two pieces of information for position (including dead-reckoning) except when I know beyond all doubt I am in the middle of an ocean.

Also I would like to sail on a ship such as yours. I have sailed on some bigger boats (the old Challenge 72's) and always find the sheer power of a big sailboat intoxicating. Still, I stand by what I said: crossing an ocean on a small yacht is a defining experience.

We have also lost the trees. Your sloop is Aluminium and aluminium takes a lot of energy to process. In the past ships were all wood. Its not that we don't have trees any more but we don't have as much hardwood and old growth trees. On our property are some old outbuildings. At the base are heartwood pine boards about 8" by 8". While some deteriorated they are still after at least 80 years holding up the buildings. They were put down before modern treated wood was invented. When people used to make most everything from wood they prized different woods for different tasks and the woods were full of large trees of many varieties. How would we now recreate a large fleet of ships made from wood with much of the old growth woods gone, especially to service a vastly larger number of humans? Where is the knowledge to build such ships?

And that is just the body of the ship. How about making the sails without modern factories. Where are the looms for such a task?

Your "boards" are probably yellow pine heart wood framing timbers.This species is no longer commercially available except in miniscule quantities custom cut off somebodys farm in the deep south.

Each single piece may be worth serious money-don't let anybody haul them away in the trash if you ever demolish the old buildings.

People who specialize in top end construction will recycle such wood as flooring and paneling in a million dollar house-and yes, they are still building them.

"they are still building them."

"They" should be shot.


I know I have read where a guy built a houseboat from plywood. It was very light weight and worked very well. It even had a small outboard gasoline engine (25hp). I believe he ended up crossing the Gulf of Mexico in it. I think the problem is all the finishes needed for wood. I would think an aluminum boat would just be, long term a better investment of energy. I have an aluminum jon boat (riveted) that looks brand new still and i bought it 10 years ago. My buddy has one from the early 60's that still floats just fine (he has had to replace some rivets).

"aluminum boat would just be, long term a better investment of energy"

Perhaps, but I'd want to see the numbers on this. Isn't aluminum incredibly energy intensive to produce?

Not once it's extracted from the ore. Aluminum is incredibly easy to recycle, and quite low energy to recover -- this is why aluminum is effectively the only material which would be feasible to recycle without government intervention.

Also, I think that it is somewhat silly to say "oh, but without oil we can't make our sails and our boats, etc". How much oil goes into a sail? 100 gallons (vast overestimate)? The value of that sail is so much higher than the value of the oil that is used to make it that one could pay likely an order of magnitude more money for the oil for the purposes of making a sail than one could pay to simply burn it.

To describe another way -- the absolute lowest value that anything can have is the caloric value from burning it for heat. Thus, it will always be the case that if you take oil and convert it into a more useful material, the value will go up.

Maybe this still doesn't make sense, but hopefully it's clear upon thinking about it a bit. Basically, I could happily pay $200/barrel of oil if I'm manufacturing chemicals or goods with it and still make money while I could never afford to pay $200/barrel of oil just for the energy contained in the fuel. Burning oil is akin to burning a Picasso for warmth, I believe it is often put.

Wasn't hemp the traditional fiber used in sails? And in ropes, of course. George Washington was a hemp farmer. In fact, it was one of the major exports of the American colonies. Hemp was also a big player in manufacture of paper, and is a superior stock even now. Of course, we cannot farm hemp, even though it makes sense to do so, grows like a weed (which it is - ask the authorities who try to eliminate it).

Wood for planks is a bigger problem than sails, however. I have done a bit of fair weather sailing, mostly around San Francisco. Experienced a fun day in 25' - 30' seas off the Golden Gate in a 24 foot day sailer. Came "this close" to owning my own 48' ketch. Of course, it also had a marine diesel engine. IMO we could design a sail boat incorporating PV panels, and vertical wind turbines, using the power generated to keep batteries charged for in-port and cloudy / calm day sailing. The big fly in the ointment will always be the necessary wood, at least as long as there are so many people on the planet. Like everything else I can think of, sailing ships are sustainable only when and if population levels drop.

We have many times discussed this. In general it would seem there is agreement that voluntarily limiting our numbers will be problematic. Not until culled by starvation, plague and war will our numbers decrease, and then the fear is that we will experience 'overshoot' on the way down. And, when there are fewer than 750 Million of us remaining, forests will again grow, wood will become available, and trade may recommence using new old technology. The trick will be to retain the knowledge until that day.


There is still 1 hemp rope works on the Thames. I think the 'production line' is about 1/2 mile long..

There are other materials which are economically recyclable.Steel and platinum from scrapped cars for instance.
All the old cars that used to grace farmers fields and working class back yards vanished like smoke when steel prices peaked a couple of years ago.

Paper too , so long as it is gathered up efficiently, as at stores and factories.

There are lots of others I won't mention , not being sure about subsidies I may not have heard about.

All the old cars that used to grace farmers fields and working class back yards vanished like smoke when steel prices peaked a couple of years ago

No doubt but when the economy tanked big established recycling operations did not fare well. Steel always has its ups and downs and is sometimes not worth the haulage.

From personal experience back in the 70s I had a ready job--anytime my travels brought me home to the city I grew up in--at a paper recycling plant. When housing was booming we could bale newspaper six days a week and not meet the demand (it became blow in insulation), but when construction faltered we could barely give the stuff away. Used cardboard was always in high enough demand to make some money on as were end run and over run scrap high grade paper (essentially printer paper these days). We got most of our newspaper from roll off boxes (reworked shipping containers) placed at schools and churches when they had newspaper drives, though some locations had boxes permanently. The high end paper was picked up from the printers then sorted, baled and sold. Cardboard came from retail and warehouses. We would also rebale smaller cardboard bales into one ton units with our state of the art (at the time) press.

As an interesting aside back then some of the televangelists had a big anti pornography campaign going and got lots of donations to come their way. 'Hustler' magazine was a major target of the campaign. Every day for years two roll off boxes of shredded 'Hustler' would roll into that recycling plant first thing in the morning. What a sweet deal Larry Flynt had with those 'holy rollers.' They purchased two container loads a day of magazines that were just shredded and recycled. This was just gravy as Flynt never touched his distribution channels and just printed extra copy to be shredded. Can't imagine the kickback scheme involved in that one. I guess it was just another case of the sheppard shearing his flock. That clay magazine slick was just about the lowest grade of recycled paper and when prices were down it just went to the dump, but it was cheaper to dump it baled than right out of the roll off boxes some years. Talk about a waste of energy and resources.

Well you got me googling, and this seems like a good source:

Taking those figure totals from the first page, it seems that the figure amounts to about 17kWh/ton, for the smelting.

I must say that the number is does not frighten me. For example, it seems to suggest that a 200W PV solar panel could produce the electricity to smelt the material for its own frame in less than an hour on a sunny day.

To a large extent thats not the problem with aluminum its any attempt to do smaller scale electrolysis with molten salts.

Somehow I suspect the above number is not including the energy needed to get to and maintain molten salt temperatures.
Scale obviously is your friend for hot things.

Mini aluminum smelters from ore would be cool even if only marginally profitable or run at a slight loss.

Off hand one thing that might help is vacuum jacketing thats not feasible for larger solutions.

Most aluminum is not pure but and alloy so a source of pure aluminum for adjusting and alloy is not a bad thing and also something that a smaller operation could handle. Also of course many regions have periods where they produce excess electric power thats difficult to do something with. Say wind season, rain season, sunny season etc. Various micro metal refining smelting ops might prove to be a useful way to deal with this. And aluminum can for example be used to make hydrogen from a base other metals with acids. And of course various sorts of electrochemical batteries are possible using the reduced metals.

Heck perhaps in the future sodium metal might prove to be a popular energy storage mechanism or simply a source of clean hydrogen who knows.

In any case the more processes you can figure out how to distribute on a small scale the higher the chance that low capitol manufacturing is possible. Running a mini shipyard need aluminum and have ore and its cheaper than scrap or can work in conjunction with scrap well build a mini plant.

I agree Saildog,

We have an organisation in New Zealand.. where people can register and be considered for crew positions to sail from NZ to the islands of the South Pacific and beyond. Yachts leave NZ in April/May and return in October/November to avoid the South Pacific Cyclone season.

BTW my craft "Tristina" is a 34 year old, 38ft ferro motor sailer. We have wind generation and solar power to augment battery charging and allow us to sail for longer.

There is absolutely no lifestyle better than cruising the South Pacific in your own yacht :-)

kind regards

Ahoy, Captain Kellick, from Seattle and our efforts underway to utilize sail as a "trailing edge" technology and re-skill potential sailors. You may be interested to know both about Sail Transport Company, a CSA that is using pure sail to deliver local organic produce here in the Puget Sound, and also the larger Sail Transport Network, being envisioned for any town involved in SCALLOPS (Sustainable Communities ALL Over Puget Sound) that has water-based access.

We were lucky to receive a great Seattle Times article covering our goals, this summer: Saving The Planet, One Block At A Time

But Reid and his collaborators in the regional sustainability movement are dead serious about the idea of transporting goods by sailboat. It's an idea that's less about straight-from-the-farm spinach and arugula than it is about proving that just about anything can be moved from Point A to Point B without burning a drop of oil.

Thank you for the update and the link. I have been most impressed by Captain Reid's achievements there. The Puget Sound is a second home to me so efforts by successful CSA's and SCALLOPS and STN are always welcome news.

One thing I've always wondered about are the maintenance costs for sailing vessels. All the historical data seems to indicate that ships did not last long without significant maintenance. A few decades ? Question mark because lots of possible answers. Do modern materials significantly change this ? Certainly I guess the hulls last much longer but what about the rigging etc ?

To some extent lets forget about oil and think about sailing ships later on well post peak when saving oil is not the issue its moving the goods and sail is the answer. It seems to me that shipping will remain expensive as ships are simply expensive.

And alternative route is perhaps Aircraft carrier sized nuclear powered mondo transports. Perhaps they don't have to be huge but if you have a reactor might as well have a big ship why not.

Next of course solar powered zeppelins could perhaps compete with light but expensive cargoes.

What I'm wondering about is maintenance it seems to me that the transportation method that uses no oil and also is very low maintenance is the winner. It would be neat if very low maintenance robust sailing vessels where possible I simply don't know.

I love sailing ships or more correctly I love looking at them my experience in owning a small salt water fishing boat convinced me of the spontaneous appearance of micro blackholes that suck money at the heart of any boat. I have to imagine sailing ships have similar perhaps larger backholes.

Can you make a sail cloth that last 20 years ?
What boat the rest of the boat ?
Forget about money to some extent is it even doable ?
Perhaps say fiberglass cloth sails or some synthetic ?
Do we already have all this and its more and expense issue ?

Lots of good questions there. Modern tall ships use many petroleum based materials such as polyester for sails and lines, which last 5-10 years with proper care. Wooden hulls are heavy, labor intensive, fragile and expensive compared to steel. It would be interesting to study and contrast the carbon footprints of various shipbuilding techniques.

The Exy and Irving Johnson shown above were built with South American hardwoods and bronze fasteners. With routine maintenance they should last 150 years, keeping most of their original wood intact.

We know that humans will do whatever is economically achievable, be it steel or wood, natural fiber or polyester, or wind versus nuclear. We also might agree that no single approach will answer the myriad needs and so having many options, especially ones proven over time, would seem sensible.

Hi Memmel,

I don't own a boat, but up here in Seattle, our sail group saw this NY Times article that created some discussion last spring about offering to buy boats super-cheap from the state as they were junked, or gleaning new boats and/or supplies via abandoned boats. Salvaging, basically. That would be one approach to keeping costs low.

Excerpts follow from Boats Too Costly to Keep Are Littering Coastlines

"Some of those disposing of their boats are in the same bind as overstretched homeowners: they face steep payments on an asset that is diminishing in value and decide not to continue. They either default on the debt or take bolder measures.

Marina and maritime officials around the country say they believe, however, that most of the abandoned vessels cluttering their waters are fully paid for. They are expensive-to-maintain toys that have lost their appeal."

Well thats a interim issue the key is "expensive to maintain" thats my concern and its a generic problem with shipping as far as I know regardless of fuel. Eventually of course the supply of free and cheap boats will wane then what ?

We certainly don't have the wood supplies to go back to large scale fleets of wooden sailing ships and its not clear thats the right answer. Moving from wood was done well before we ran out of wood for ships. Globally plenty of forests that would have supplied a wooden shipping industry even if powered by engines existed up through the 1950's. I know they use a lot of different woods but laminates known at that time would have reduced the issues.

It would be interesting for example to consider if its viable to deconstruct suburbia to build ships. The main high tech material would be expoxies to create laminated beams etc. But perhaps our suburban structures can be recycled into very nice sailing vessels while our trees return. I'd have to imagine that a external fiber glass coating will solve a lot of problems or given my shipbuilding expertise maybe not :)

Longer term and eventual return to wooden ships seems to make the most sense however there is this gap between the end of oil and when a new age of sail can arrive if its going to simply because we don't have the trees.

One big reason I think wooden ships are the eventual answer is pretty simple. Eventually people will go back to using local materials even if alternatives are better the reason is simple it does not cost a lot of "cash" to build a wooden ship simply your labor and some hand tools. One reason I'm also a fan of steam engines and wood charcoal. All require reasonably low tech for the most part.

One really interesting problem is recreating high tech steels in a generally low tech society. Obviously smart recycling of existing steels makes sense but can you create a safe steam boiler in a society thats settled on basic technology closer to the start of the industrial revolution ?

Perhaps our real future lies not in our materials but in our analytical methods. Can I build a ICP starting with a stone axe ?

Perhaps chemical essays or even immuno based analysis makes a comeback so you have a society that primarly uses low tech with some simple for us biotech analysis methods.

Maybe people are looking in the wrong area and I'm right and quality control and analysis with very simple methods is the real problem.
Steel can be made with surprisingly simple technology its getting the mix right thats the issue.

Synthetic chemicals the same in the end its a boiling pot problem its the analytical part of high tech thats the real differentiator not the basic methods. Very advanced sythesis is readily doable its getting the catalytic metals and quality control thats the issue not the basic fabrication ( assuming you can make the steels and other requirements).

But surprisingly this leads you back to natural are semi-natural products and genetic engineering. Its a lot easier to manage a fermentation/extraction process even if its less productive than our current synthetic methods. Given the right bugs, yeasts and other natural or genetically altered starting starting materials one can take advantage of reproductive capacity of life and fairly simple natural product extraction to create some really sophisticated product with the "real" high tech concentrated in a few areas.

In many cases such as glues and resins existing natural products may well be superior we need only exploit them.

Mussel glue composite wood ships coated with some other magical substance may well prove to result in high/low tech ships of the future.

Heck perhaps a long long time ago the decision I made to get a degree in Chemistry simply because it ensured I'd always be the ultimate Robinson Crusoe assuming I was shipwrecked with a complete chemistry library full set of analytical equipment and plenty of time will pay off :)

Seriously though if there is one branch of man kinds knowledge that has almost infinite potential its chemistry our foray into industrial plastics and petrochemicals is but one perhaps eventually small and dead end approach possible in chemistry. Given the ability to tinker with the building blocks of life the possibilities both good and bad remain enormous and far from explored.

The possibilities assuming we keep our knowledge and a reasonable industrial base in even a small amount of the world are simple incredible. The combination of advanced chemical knowledge and simple labor and local materials is one the world has yet to really witness. Perhaps only a very small amount of innovative use of our knowledge base is needed to allow our children to transform renewable raw materials in ways that could well surpass what we have today.

On that know one of the single biggest failing of our age is that our materials are rarely composites plastics or almost always used in a uniform bulk material yet compositing a number of different materials together is probably the most powerful method of making things known.

Back to ships :)

Consider this when thinking about the possible futures. I may be talking about further out in time but once our industrial age passes and things actually become valuable again perhaps the world will be filled with beautiful natural composite ships that could well even be alive that make our current ones look ugly.

Thus there are other paths that we passed in our stupid rush to oil and I hope we get a chance to take them. Sailing with not on a living thinking ship would be and experience beyond any our current "high tech" world offers.

memmel, how many people have the skills today to build large wooden ships? Skills will be the issue, not materials. Over time, the ship building guilds could return, but not quickly. I see steel hulls being the likely choice. Lots of steel lying around.

You would be surprised at how many of the skills survive. Also of course there is no intrinsic reason to assume the Internet goes away.
Lots of people still build wooden boats esp of course in the poorer countries.

As far as how fast skill can be transfered at least to the point of being able to create serviceable boats well a class of 100 can be taught by one man these one hundred can teach 10,000 you get the picture. With the internet perhaps 1 to 100,000 thence to 1 100 direct etc. The point is rudimentary good enough skills can be passed on quickly. Expertise is a bit longer of course but people are smart esp understress.

Also note I'm very interested in steel if not obsessed :) All steels are not created equal and the science behind high quality steels is huge. We have been making steel for thousands of years but if you read your history our current steels really came into being in the 1980's. Remember how long engines lasted before then ? I'd argue the biggest advances in steel making and high tolerance manufacture has been in the last thirty years rivaling the history of the Iron age as a whole. Thats saying a lot and I'm not a big fan of modern stuff.
But for steel we truly have made enormous breakthroughs. The reason I bring this up is although there is a lot of steel lying around transforming it into new ships is non trivial. Its a huge energy intensive industry vs education and hand tools for wooden ships.

For us at first glance it looks obvious that all our "bling" will simply be used to build high tech sailing ships but this is why I asked about maintenance if they don't last then low tech wood is better with high tech where it makes sense. Perhaps what steel that does not simply rust is best used for making things that can be created in small forges and machine shops these are not ships.

And I have to bring this in I posted in another thread. Obviously as the economy shrinks regardless of the price of oil we will literally have way to many ships around. These are the current fleet. They can slow sail or be probably be outfitted with sail to at least work. Thats not the point the point is as the economy steadily declines we will have and over supply of ships for decades. We won't be building many more likely cutting them up for scrap and of course plenty of scrap so they probably will simply be scuttled.

By the time we actually really need new true sailing ships its not clear we will even have very many working shipyards and despite the vast heaps of steel lying around the cost of recreating a sailing ship using it will be high. If you think about it making steel for the ore vs melting it is not a tremendous energy difference thus the value embodied in the steel vs raw ore is not huge.

And also of course there is a real advantage to size for steel ships if ships get smaller then its not clear that steel is a huge advantage. Obviously I'm assuming labor is not a issue perhaps the skill level is problematic at first but the availability of labor to build wooden ships is not a problem. As far as the lack of timber well thats solved by laminates. A single tanker car of resins and glues to build five wooden ships using a lamination process vs a metal ship yard is a no brainer on the capitol cost side.

And now we get to the heart or meat of the problem capitol costs. What are the capitol costs for various approaches we are so used to cheap capitol and a practically infinite supply of money the concept of using earned capitol and bootstrapping a business is now a lost art. With wooden ships if your company hits on hard times you disband and go make whiskey barrels if the need for ships increases you simply get back together and start building again. A modern shipyard cannot be that flexible.

And of course I mentioned it briefly in another post piracy is a real problem we are seeing the tip of the iceberg today. Lose a wooden ship and it hurts loose a steel ship and its a disaster. One can expect piracy to once again be a real problem.
A smaller but well armed wooden ship is not near as tempting as a big "rich" mans metal ship.

In general in my opinion with all my research I continue to reach the same conclusion we probably will return to basic renewable solutions for a lot of things. Wooden ships, simpler steam engines, compressed air motors instead of electricity hand tools etc.
Anything that can readily be made with the technical level of a local machine shop foundry. Better than the blacksmiths forges of old but the same basic solution. Why becuse it works well there simply are to many synergies that result in a certain optimum for your daily technologies. Cost of capitol, labor, local renewable resource usage etc etc. The village/small town industry is a real sweet spot once your post oil.

Now that does not mean no high tech ! GPS and innovative replacements offer significant advantages in communication technology reigns supreme. Same for good old glue. My point is not that we will go anti tech but that we probably will use technology where it works best and certainly continue to refine it. Where other solutions work we will retrace and restart technical evolution/revolution. I suspect steel ships will go the way of the dinosaurs but composite wood/coatings will become increasingly important.

The Tenacious is a prime example.

Perhaps I should come clean I don't only look at oil :)
I've spent a lot of time researching this and I've also happened to have a chance to look at the Spruce Goose sure its and airplane but if you don't realize that wood laminates are not and exciting technology that was bypassed then your not a geek :)

Laminated wood construction is beyond impressive its phenomenal ! The only reason its not used now is its labor intensive and I suspect simply to expensive for our throw away ships of today. But we are talking about tomorrow and sailing ships here wood laminates are hard to beat.

Obviously a wood laminate construction yard can turn out a myriad of products with ships being just one. Rail cars and post peak even real cars i.e small reasonable EV's.

As always I could be wrong but given what I've seen its hard to believe that once the balance shifts away from cheap energy that wood laminate construction wont become viable.

Memmel: Composite bows (the traditional kind, not the fiberglass variety) are fascinating things. A traditional sinew-wood composite shoots as well as a modern fiberglass bow (not counting the variety with the cams on them) and a sinew-wood-horn bow exceeds it. Either way, you can make a bow suitable for hunting anything except an armored human from wood available almost everywhere people live.

I have made a few wood bows in the same power range used by most groups of native Americans for hunting - it is not very complicated and can mostly be described in dispassionate mechanical engineering terms. The trick is that you are working with a medium that has inconsistent mechanical properties which means that you must use your experience (I have not successfully turned any especially imperfect pieces of wood into useful bows yet, but I am getting close) to adapt straightforward mechanical engineering principles to the piece in front of you. The end result is a simple device that could not possibly be mass-produced - every bow, especially as you build more powerful ones must be built with the flaws properly accounted for or it will break.

However a sinew-wood composite bow or an all wood bow is quite a simple thing compared to a ship. Like I said earlier in this thread, I can make a bow that is powerful enough to hunt deer (except for the flint knapping for the points) from traditional materials; it is not very complicated. It is relatively telling that as far as I know there has been no modern reproductions of a sinew-wood-horn bow that performed nearly as well as their historical counterparts did. Building wooden ships is a far more complicated endeavor.

Actually thats the beauty of composites its not !

In fact you nailed it the problem is you need intelligence to lay up the materials. Someone with a rapidly increasing skill level to watch what they are doing. Other than the human skill requirement to manage to process its the same a bow a boat or a plane or even perhaps a zeppelin :)

The problem with composites is pretty simple it needs a reasonably skilled and diligent person will to develop the layers.
But thats it once you can do that then you have solved the problem.

Another route to try and explain.

The difference between a skilled craftsman laying a dry stone wall that will last for centuries with minor maintenance vis a bland poured concrete wall that might last fifty years and be difficult to maintain is surprisingly small especially if living costs are not driven by debt ! And if economies of scale and debt based financing are not possible.

The true efficiency gains over the old ways or more correctly the skilled ways vs the modern methods are surprisingly marginal.
It has very little to do with the actual technical advantages which are almost always weighted towards the old methods.
Again not always old but skilled methods. Almost any method that requires skill blows the doors off "cheaper" modern methods.

Its the combination of economies of scale and ready access to cheap debt that tilt the balance in favor of our throw away society.
Next of course the same ready debt works to increase the cost of living for the "cash" based craftsman. He has to earn a living to compete with the debt supported modern managers employing unskilled labor.

Obviously you can see it was a double squeeze play on both sides on the business side the titans of industry could crush him on the staying alive side given the steady cash flow and regular wages offered buy the titans of industry your unskilled laborer and new middle manager could take on huge amounts of debt based on their long term expectations of a pay check and crush him on purchasing a home where his unsteady cash flow hard money business was a poor bet for borrowing.

And to top it all off the switch to fiat currencies and steady inflation ensured that his hard money investments in the tools of the trade where devalued. Increasingly marginal throw away products even undermined his investments in tools that would last generations.

And to add insult to injury these new titans of industry could offer credit for their inferior goods while the craftsman required cash.

And to make matters worse insanely cheap energy made it even more lucrative.

But the actual true long term productivity measured in products who's lifetime spanned generations was not only not beat but not even close to being beaten.

Obviously you see the truth are you would not be making bows !

Btw arrow heads are not that hard bottle bottoms are fantastic esp those glass bricks the best or heavier liquor bottles.
But beating one out of a nail is the easiest. Dunno about broad heads for dear from metal best guess is spoons perhaps.
The only real problem is a good glass for arrow heads is thicker than most glasses so your looking for my glass blocks and
bottle bottoms etc. Chert is all over in Arkansas but I never had much luck with it supposedly you can fire it I tried but
no success. I never found a lot of flint in AR. Quartz is good stuff also but it has a lot of grain.
Its really funny because chert supposedly good for arrow heads but damned if I could get it to flake for me it crushed
and fractured as often as it would flake. But seriously are we going to run out of glass and metal soon ?

Before peak oil there was this saying that the stone age did not end because they ran out of stones after peak oil
the saying was they did not not start making stone arrow heads again because they never ran out of glass and steel.

But back to my tirade :)

You can see its almost all about cheap money and cheap energy and the steady paycheck take that away and the craftsman day will return.

Memmel - I am certainly not worried about lack of industrial materials in sufficient quantities for broadheads for generations to come. If flintknapping ever becomes more than a curiosity again, I doubt that it would be necessary for at least a century if everything crashed tomorrow. It's mostly a point of interest with me. Mostly I just want to fulfill the innate human urge to fling projectiles at stuff far away in a manner that is more interesting (and practical) than shooting a gun and more fun than throwing a ball. I don't really view it as a form of peak oil preparation, because with our present population densities, the stuff to hunt will run out before the ammunition does.

Also, finding rock with exactly the right mechanical properties is extremely important. Flint was among the first long-range trade goods in human history for a good reason.

I've got a keen interest in making crossbows from the detritus of 20th century life for similar reasons.
Bows are cool but crossbows are killer :)

One idea I'd like to explore is hydraulic cocking of a crossbow. Very similar to your air guns.

And also of course high powered air/hydraulic guns.

The theme is of course is alternatives.

I wonder if a air/hydraulic gun that shoots darts instead of bullets is possible.

Perhaps a dart of some sort shot using a case has ballistics that match and air powered rifle.
Might even simply be a smooth bore or barely rifled. Perhaps the cases can be made from wood and the darts made from a number of materials. Think advanced blowgun. Obviously not something particularly useful when you have ammo however perhaps something thats
reasonable to manufacture and has advantages over a bow.

Anyway there are all kinds of approaches to this that have not been taken which might be interesting in the future.

My "hydraulic/air" gun is not just for a weapon but a useful tool as it could simply be a machine for puncturing "stuff".

Maybe a stupid idea I don't know but I have to think that a reasonably high velocity ram has lots of interesting uses.

Same for that matter my "cross bow" Same principle and same utility a crossbow concept tool can do all kinds of interesting things
as a sort of ram or hammer chopper that is different from using heavy hammers. Of course you can always use a heavy weight but perhaps
a spring based mechanism either using a cross bow or hydraulic spring has more uses.

I don't know but at least in my research I've noticed we have not built all kinds of stuff that could be very useful in a sort of alternative technology setting. Once we came up with factories we never looked back.

Can you make a sail cloth that last 20 years ?
What boat the rest of the boat ?
Forget about money to some extent is it even doable ?
Perhaps say fiberglass cloth sails or some synthetic ?
Do we already have all this and its more and expense issue ?

I regularly sail a fiberglass sloop (Columbia 24) which was built in 1969. It still has the original mast, boom and standing rigging, as well as the original mainsail. There has been some hull maintenance, but mainly for appearance rather than necessity.

So yes, you can make sailcloth which lasts for 20 years, but probably not if the boat is used every day. Sailcloth would be a problem, but sails made from flax canvas were used for centuries before the industrial revolution. There is also the potential for making sailcloth from recycled plastics: it wouldn't be as good as the latest synthetics, but it would probably be at least as good as the sails used a hundred years ago (or as the sails used today in the third world, where the coarse material used in the west for cheap tarpaulins is used for sails).

The parts that wear out on the rest of the boat are mainly the running rigging, or at least the parts not made of stainless steel (those made of synthetic fiber), but it lasts close to 20 years. The fiberglass hull gives every appearance of lasting forever.

That boat is on at least its third outboard: they don't last long.

Many more recent fiberglass boats have a shorter life: manufacturers started to cut corners when they became comfortable with the material. But I would still expect there to be more old fiberglass hulls around a hundred years hence than our descendants can use, even if manufacture of them stopped today. The problem is, most of them are designed for traveling at high speed under power. Such hulls don't make a good sailing vessel. But they float, and put some ballast, a keel, and a mast on them, and you will have a workable sailboat.

A big problem with modern sailboats is inadequate sail area. Today, if there is little wind you start your motor. A century ago, boats were designed to sail in very light winds because the only alternative when the wind dropped was to anchor and wait for the wind, or to row.

My brother owns a steel schooner, built in 1975. It has mainly galvanized standing rigging, which is still in good shape. All the sails are still serviceable. The hull has some rust, but it still does not leak.

Steel was produced in large quantities before oil was, and I expect steel ships and boats will be produced long after oil production slows to a trickle. The technology to convert scrap steel to plate (which is the main component in ships and boats) is quite simple, though fairly energy intensive. In the future, that energy could be generated from coal, or from electricity produced by other means, such as hydro, wind, or nuclear.

Don't forget hemp.

Hemp is a very valuable commodity for rigging, and hemp lines work well and last a long time. If we do return to an "age of sail", we will have to rethink our hemp growing policies (which we should do anyways).

Thanks for your reply fiber glass seems to be one of the few materials which really beat the sea :)
Whats interesting of course is in a sense its obsidian i.e same stuff we used to make our best arrowheads :)

I'm not saying its not possible to produce fiberglass ships and steel ships but as you point out in third world countries they tend to stick with the old methods. For good reason the financial situation does not support modern ship manufacture be it steel or glass.

Is there a third way ?

Can we meld the methods used in modern boat manufacture and the old ways and invent new ones that allow the creation of new ships with a lot lower capitol costs ?

I suspect this third way will actually be the route taken at some point in the future. Certainly fiberglass hulls last forever but are they the right design ? If not then new "third way" boats will be viable sooner than later. Sure we will be what we do now in both the first and second worlds however that does not mean there are not another road that was not taken.

At first of course people won't care all that much about it but as capitol becomes unavailable and energy dear and your choice becomes retrofitting existing hulls and or more primitive solutions then this mixed approach becomes very relevant.

In the end in my opinion with ships you have to build the ones that match the conditions they sail under one size does not fit all and building the right kind of ship is important. Thus we can and will keep building boats. If you can figure out ways to do it with low capitol costs then I think your on to something.

If I could say take and investment of 30k and 10 hungry unemployed guys willing to work and learn and turn them into a small boat building operation that turns out good boats for half the cost or less of ones built using large scale factory methods and they are better than old wooden boats then I have a business. In fact I can put the old 20th century manufacture out of business with my third way. All I really need is knowledge and smart people willing and able to work. My opinion is that over the next several years the problem of finding smart people willing to work in a business that makes a small profit is not a problem. They are not going to demand 70k a year nor are they going to need it to live. Low capitol smart business's will thrive in this sort of environment.

And ships are not going away. These medium tech shipyards can be created in many parts of the world far more places than our current modern methods can. And of course in the age of sail they probably can profitably produce the best boats for the best price.

My obvious interest in the materials that go into making a long lasting boat since of course one of the key advantages you would have over simply building wooden ships the old way is a boat that can last.

"My obvious interest in the materials that go into making a long lasting boat since of course one of the key advantages you would have over simply building wooden ships the old way is a boat that can last."

No first hand experience, but it's said that a boat built of wood and covered/reinforced with some fiberglass and epoxy resin will essentially be as strong as and last as long as a full fiberglass-hulled boat, but less expensive in material expenditure.

As a recreational sailor, I admire the majesty and beauty of tall ships. They have, however, extrodinarily poor productivity as commercial vessels. They are both slow and labor intensive.

For post oil transportation, I would suggest that we look instead to the US Navy. The navy operates 11 vessels approximating the size of the biggest of the container ships. They can carry a crew and passengers of approximately 5000 people. They travel in excess of 30knots. They burn no oil. They are the nuclear powered aircraft carriers.


Thank you, Billy for that. Depending on which post petroleum trajectory you subscribe to, one may hold the belief that the most complex systems will be the first to be withdrawn, ie. NASA and commercial aviation. Nuclear energy is among the highest tech systems we have and therefore will likely disappear soonest. There are, of course, security issues in moving freight into U.S. ports aboard foreign flagged vessels with nuclear fuels. This may create more opportunities for U.S. shippers, however, to carry the freight so long as the government allows it. I don't see our navy shipping a million tennis shoes from Shanghai any time soon.

Depending on which post petroleum trajectory you subscribe to

The Bristol Bay salmon fishery may be the posterboy for petrolem trajectories past. Fed regulations outlawed anything but sail power in the fishery until 1952, so the trajectory was compressed.

new traditional double ender rolled out in 2001

Once the fed reg was changed small diesels were installed in the wooden double enders. By the 1970s fiberglass was pretty well ruling the seas with bigger diesels. Then in 1980s aluminum boats began to appear and by the 1990s they had probably were in the majority--some sporting twin V-8 diesels to get boats to season opennings across the district in a hurry. By then almost all skiffs were aluminum and they sported some sizeable outboards. Salmon prices crashed later in the 1990s and fishing boats of all sorts could be picked up for a song as we changed millenium.

Wow. Thank you Luke for that condensed account. Have you seen any developments in the reverse direction yet? Fishing and ecotourism are two industries which will provide transitional revenue for sail craft, I believe.

Thank you for the article Captain--I must learn to sail.

The photo came from here. The double-ender is a restoration, not new as I stated upthread. That boat may well be about the extent of the reverse direction for now, I've not been out west for years, so I'm not sure. I once bought a converted to diesel, beached double-ender sort of. I actually traded an old hat for it--R&R was involved. That was about twenty years ago--never pulled it together to try and restore it after fish prices dropped. Rumor has it the village burned the boat after its former skipper died. Old Norwegian/Danish/Aleut stock out west on the peninsula, lot of sea tradition.

There has always been some nostalgia for the sailboat fishery, but it is a lot easier to stay alive with engines (and radios). Wicked wind shifts and steep, fast tides exposing and covering miles of mud flats often made the sail boat fishery extremely treacherous. It is quite the coast, and the salmon runs can be incredible. Small boats do have long and great tradition in the region. Over on the Pacific side, Aleut hunters used to paddle kayaks from Unalaska to Fort Ross (near San Francisco) on two year otter hunts when the Russian flag flew over Sitka and Kodiak. Those weren't good days for the sea otter.

Earlier this week I just happened to meet a former Bristol Bay fisherman whose father fished from sailboats. It didn't sound too hopeful for a lot of the area right now. Villages are very oil dependent (for heat and power) and oil is very expensive out there. Red salmon prices remain weak. Smaller villages are becoming summer fish camps if that. Fishing itself may be in transition. But there is a lot of wind and it isn't being used for benefit. The people of that far west are tough, resourceful and resilient. They'll figure something out.

Or we can look to the Italian Navy...

Amerigo Vespucci

Or the US Navy:

USS Constitution is a wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate of the United States Navy. Named by President George Washington after the Constitution of the United States of America, she is the oldest commissioned naval vessel afloat in the world, launched in 1797....

At sea on her 200th birthday!

Currently undergoing a refit for the Bicentenial of the 1812 War:

Or the US Coast Guard's Eagle (still operational);

Sailing ships and (as mentioned above) lighter-than-air aircraft are both much more vulnerable to foul weather. If the climate change folks are right, the weather is becoming more extreme. This alone reduces their usefulness as commercial transport. Sailing vessels also require larger crews, something the shipping industry deplores. The trend in shipping, for decades, has been automation and smaller crews. Some of the modern designs combining aerofoil sails and conventional propulsion may provide a gain in efficiency. Sailing vessels may be viable for more localized transport, as in Puget Sound, but a return to sail for trans-oceanic commerce is a stretch, IMO, unless there is a total collapse in fossil fuel production. Seagoing civilian nuclear transport comes with it's own long list of problems.

"....unless there is a total collapse in fossil fuel production."

Even if there isn't a "total collapse" in FF production, the available supplies will eventually peter out. I suspect that in 100 years there won't be any fossil fuel production beyond (maybe) a few stripper wells, and that large sailing ships, whatever their currently perceived shortcomings, will, by default be the only game remaining for transoceanic trade.

Antoinetta III

This begs the question: how far will we fall and how fast? Will there be transoceanic trade or will economies become much more localized? Will there be goods worthy of such journeys, or the means to pay for these goods? People will no doubt revert to sail if it becomes neccessary, just to raid their neighbors, or seek the mythical golden fleece. One could go on, but it's clear to me that sailing ships, as primary vessels of commerce, will return only after our BAU has ended.

I agree. Moving goods by ship is more economical than trucking and so, therefore, may endure longer than other forms of motorized transport. On the other hand, we may have reached the furthest limits of large, fast trans-oceanic cargo carriers as evidenced by this timely article in the Financial Times:

We're not returning to sail, but continuing.

I hate to mention a return to the coal fired steamers but probably those foul beasts make a lot of economic sense at some point.

Suspended coal probably will work in our large diesel engines and of course oil can be part of the slurry.

Now with that said a charcoal/vegetable powered steamer/diesel coupled with wind might make things more bearable.

As far as foul weather goes for zeppelins well zeppelins where popular before we had pressurized compartments. And for a freighter only a small region need be pressurized. I don't know of any intrinsic reason why they can't stay well above any weather events aka like modern jet liners. In general they are most venerable when they land so perhaps simply never bringing them down except in specially selected repair zones makes sense. Certainly they can come down to a lower altitude but this does not mean close to land. We have advanced materials for making various ropes. Maybe use tethered balloons to transfer the cargos or even a line all the way down ?
Gliders for delivery smaller airships or other solutions for loading.

I guess I see a incredible range of possibilities. I think sailing ships will be part of the overall solution but whats really interesting and this is actually the "fun" part about peak oil if there is one is we sit on top of hundreds of years of technical innovation and advancements in knowledge. What we could do with that is unknown and exciting.

Just because I don't think technology is going to solve our energy problems does not mean it won't solve the problems we actually need to solve.

By this look at the original article sailing ships assured delivery within one month. Well whats wrong with that ? I mean why not that sort of constraint. Most articles can be stored to a level that a months variation is not a big deal its just a different delivery mechanism. Other solutions aka my flying ships could perhaps provide tighter schedules for a range of goods. The earth has large continents the need to actually ship something thats both heavy and on a tight schedule need not be large and rail can handle a lot of that. So you simply don't do it as a matter of course. A few nuclear powered monsters can do a lot. And last but not least my tramp biofueled sailing steamers fill a niche.

The world can readily give up tight schedule's for shipping stuff long distance thats probably the single easiest problem we face.

Predicting the mix of solutions when within a month is good enough and you have three months to get it here is hard !

And heck for a lot of stuff thats perishable thats shipped around the world today first and foremost localize next do without.
I would have no problem never having a single bland strawberry and simply having local ones in season same for tomatoes etc.
However for a bit of variety green houses work well in many climates right into Canada. Light becomes a issue at some point.

Sorry for the scattered post but my point is if we simply change our expectations and just the way we do certain things the number of possible solutions to the problem explodes. The strait jacket of assuming current conditions is really limiting. Just a simple one todays harbors are not designed for sailing ships well one can suspect tomorrows will be.

Of course I'm ignoring the ogre of population problems and the possibility that say piracy will explode for example you can bet the pirates will have high speed oil powered craft ! But even for me sometimes its nice to look farther out when the last echos of the oil based society are gone. I don't see a renewable powered society like todays but I also don't see cavemen running around. What I do see is a rich set of experiments rivaling the 1800's that the modern world really has not seen in a long time.

Once your forced to deal with a uncertainty of a month in delivery anything is possible.


> Just a simple one todays harbors are not designed for sailing ships

Dock access for sail cargo.

This is a really interesting one.

We spent and still do spend a lot of effort to ensure dock access for our very small fleet. Currently there is no commercial sail transport infrastructure so there are no facilities directly dedicated, however the existing infrastructure is not a complete loss. I think this may be more of a political issue than physical. There are indeed a lot more harbors now than ever though there are way less deep linear docks of the kind sailing craft prefer (ie no dead ends).

Re post oil dock infrastructure assumptions
I feel several assumptions are important. First global trade volume will certainly decrease but I expect sail transport will increase from the smaller end of the spectrum. Global trade can shrink a lot in its current form (less tonnage and reduced speeds). I do not expect sail will compete on the heavy tonnage end until much later. I expect sail will compete with freightliners before it competes with ocean liners. Ie sailing craft up to 100ton might become very busy locally in certain geographical areas. Even now you can build a 30ton sailing vessel for the same cost as an eighteen wheeler, then no fuel cost ever. Ie Pac NW, Carribbean, Indonesia etc. Where planes and roads simply become too expensive to satisfy the shorter local suppply chain that Panamax vessels never could supply. The gap is there are hardly any <300 ton cargo haulers anymore, thats all road/rail/air. Thats where I think sail transport will start to concentrate.

For <100 ton almost any modern marina can be used. Sure its more effort and currently most condo marinas dont want dirty commercial sailors with their naughty jokes and smelly clothes, but I think economic conditions will accomodate that shift. One of the largest problems with existing docks is docking tarrifs are all structured for large container ships, well economics will likely solve that too. Then we will just be left with physical limits of the infrastructure which isnt that far off.

In the Puget Sound we use pure sail craft and have never had any trouble docking or maneovering in modern marinas which have dead ends everywhere. Larger sail ships only need a tug or two to help them dock practically anywhere. Just like the container ships. After all fossil fuel was used first for military and tugs and will likely end that way. There is nothing fundamental about >1000ton sailing ship that means it cant dock at existing docks.

The scale we are working at is small but I see no reason to believe we are working on something unscaleable. Crew skills are the current issue. Hardly anyone regularly tries to dock anything larger than a race dingy under sail but its just practice and technique there is nothing fundamentally in the way.

I conclude at the transition to sail the main issues will be political use access to existing docks with crew training being hotly next in line, infrastructure last.


"suspended coal probably will work in our large diesel engines and of course oil can be part of the slurry."

There have been a few trials at this, which have had variable results, and show that major engine modification is required. hot ash in the engines is a major problem. A much easier way is to gasify the coal first, thus leaving the ash behind, and feed the gas to the engine.

I suspect the most likely application of sail to shipping is to use kitesails, see

These can be added to existing ships with minimal modification, and minimal manpower requirements.

So we will have sail assisted shipping rather than pure sail, much easier than building a whole new fleet and modifying ports.

keep in mind with ships that bigger is more efficient - a large ship uses 1/4 the HP per ton for the same speed than a ship half the size.
In fact, if current ships just halve their speed, fuel use goes down by half. Then add your sails and suddenly your fuel usage is 25% or even less.

There will be a place for new, sail ships, as the Puget Sound experience shows. It is much easier to make a coastal/protected water sailing ship than a transoceanic one. Coastal cargo ships cannot go too fast because of wake issues, so another advantage to sail there. And building these small sail ships is much easier than ocean going ones, and can be done with simple materials like construction plywood, or even OSB. It does not always require epoxy glues, though these are the most popular.

Finally, (traditional) square rigged is about the least efficient least safe most labour intensive sail plan you can have. The last generation of cargo ships, the coastal schooners, had fore and aft sails, much better. If not using kite sails, or wing sails, then fore and aft is still the way to go.

Best hopes for more sail power!

Finally, (traditional) square rigged is about the least efficient least safe most labour intensive sail plan you can have. The last generation of cargo ships, the coastal schooners, had fore and aft sails, much better. If not using kite sails, or wing sails, then fore and aft is still the way to go.

I'm can't agree with you there. The last generation of cargo ships was not the big schooners alone. As late as 1948 the Eriksons, based in Mariehamn, Aaland, operated square-riggers carrying grain from Australia to Europe. They weren't that labor-intensive, either. Alan Villiers describes in one of his books an Erikson ship sailing to windward out of the Bay of Biscay, in ballast. This was a 5000 ton barque, with a crew of 18.

On the other hand, the big schooners built with the idea of operating with small crews had a pretty poor record. The largest of them, the seven-masted Thomas W. Lawson, had a small crew of 18, but was almost impossible to tack, handled "like a beached whale", and was in service only five years before being lost with only two survivors on its first ocean voyage (across the Atlantic) in 1907.

Schooners make sense for coastal trade, where you need to sail to windward regularly, but the scaling of them to large sizes does not seem to work well. A large squaresail, approximately balanced with half of it on each side of the mast and lines to all four corners, is a lot easier to control than a much larger fore-and-aft sail with the end of the gaff uncontrolled, and with the end of the boom controlled only in one direction. The fore-and-aft sail has to be much larger because there is no practical way of stacking multiple sails one above the other the way square sails have been stacked for five centuries or more.

For ocean crossings, the majority of the distance, both directions, can be downwind. This makes square rig an obvious choice.


You are spot on in your observation about schooners for coastal trade, they mainly sailed across the wind rather than up/down. I would not build them like they were then - more like modern Ketch yachts, is what I had in mind.

I went on a tour of the Balclutha (300' square rigger on display at San Francisco), built around 1890, sailed into the 20's. The tour guide said that in the early 20th century, square riggers doing the west coast to Europe run (around Cape Horn) lost an average of two crew members a trip.

Then there was the capsize last week of the Canadian tall ship Concordia

If we are going to do square rig today, for cargo, I would expect it to be more like the Maltese Falcon's Dynarig, which also delivers good upwind performance. I just can't see commercial ships accepting anything that required people up the masts for sail handling.

The appeal of the kitesails is that they can be flown 2-300' high, where the winds are stronger but less gusty than at sea level. They can be "stacked" so you end up with something looking like a biplane or triplane wing. In a real emergency, you can always just cut the line and let it go.

We'll have to see what direction the commercial sailors go - but I'd place my money on masts for coastal and kitesails for oceanic

What I can add here isnt about what might be possible but what we know is possible, because we just did it.

Sail Transport Company has spent the last 1.5 years establishing commercial sail traffic routes in Washington Inland waters. We move agricultural produce (probably the hardest commodity, except livestock, due to perishability requiring fast time to market).

We have successfully completed 22 commercial deliveries to our small customer base in Seattle. There is a positive cash flow though it is low. When oil prices increase and food prices increase we have a viable model. In fact we can break even right now.

We do not compete with containerized shipping (which would be folley for a long time). We establish routes where the truck or small farmers market pickup takes the long way round and bulk cargo and panamax simply cant go.

We have dispelled a number of myths about sail transport from practical experience.

1. Its too slow (wrong we transported arugula and spinach in summer and retained customers, it was tough on schedules but we worked them out, roots and fall veggies were easy)
2. It cant pay for itself (wrong it is, just not a lot yet, more to do with business planning than fundamentals)
3. You need an engine as assist, (well we didnt, we used sailing skills and seamanship)
4. Boats are too expensive. (yes if you deck them out like a high tech Gin palace with more electronics than a modern destroyer but we dont do that)

All the best


I guess that the amount of goods (and garbage) we transport across the seas is a consequence of cheap container ships, not the other way around. Sailing ships will kill the habit of producing goods that are only good enough to throw away upon arrival (the trash goes back with the next ship). But I guess they will suffice to sustain the trade of essential goods (Amazon books!) if combined with more local producing economies.

I spent a lot of time on my family`s little sailboat when I was growing up. I used to spend hours watching the waves, watching the horizon, the sky, the stars....I think nature can truly put people into a trance that becomes more and more beneficial. I still can remember the waves.
I miss those things now that I live in a large town near a huge city. And it is sad that many children growing up today (including mine) can`t access nature very easily.

But as time goes by, maybe more and more people will be able to be alone together with nature again because that will be the only way.

I have never seen a tall ship except on TV or pictures on the computer. They are really beautiful. They excite me.

Interesting timing on this thread. I just yesterday picked out two superior specimen trees for harvest to produce a "voyaging douple hull canoe" fpr navigating in and around my island home of Kauai. Won't know until we cut them and rough shape, the length, but will be between 40 and 60 feet. I don't expect it will be used for ocean voyages but rather inter island and around our island.
We are planning some modifications to traditional approaches in order to utilize modern engineering, so we may achieve better performance and greater utility. Such as the installation of Hobie "Mirage" drives to allow easier wind free movement. Also a different approach to "dugout" allowing greater strength while maintaining adequate bouyancy.
On a more general note I think the efficiency of ocean transport and the limited applications for renewable energy solutions will mean that. like
agriculture, ocean shipping will be one of the last to lose fossil fuels.

I spent six weeks aboard the SSV Westward, a 125' ship (barquentine?). It remains one of the defining experiences of my life. We sailed from Cape Cod to the Virgin Islands, encountered force 10 winds, 35' waves, dolphins and many other creatures. Life on a ship truly is unique, and must be experienced to be understood. I highly encourage everyone who can to get out on a ship at some point in their life. If I can ever scrounge together $40,000 and a year of free time, I'd love to sail around the world on the Picton Castle, which makes circumnavigations every few years.

As far as post-peak, I think large scale shipping could be one of the last uses of oil to go, but I do think there could be a place for sail powered shipping, especially for passengers. Large modern sailboats including a biodiesel? motor could be very effective in a low-wage, high fuel cost environment where time was not of paramount importance.

One thing I haven't seen mentioned yet is the possibility of a world-circumnavigating railroad that could take some of the freight that would otherwise need to go by sea. I haven't read about this recently, but I know in the past there have been proposals to build a bridge across the Bering Straits for rail traffic. I don't know if this would ever be economically or technically feasible, but in theory you could take cargo from Africa, Europe and Asia to the Americas via electric (renewable powered) rail.

The SSV Westward:

The barque Picton Castle:

but I know in the past there have been proposals to build a bridge across the Bering Straits for rail traffic

Last time that came up at some future dreams summit it was an under Bering Straits tunnel that our former Gov. Hickel was pushing.

I wouldn't hold my breath. My little city is here because a steamer load of goods couldn't make it past the rapids on the Tanana in late summer. E. T. Barnette was on his way to set up a trading post at Tanana Crossing to hold down the site for when the railroad came through in a couple years...that was in 1902.

Even when the military pushes the current rail line another 100 miles southeast toward Canada to rail link a couple of bases it will still terminate the best part of a hundred miles this side of Tanacross. Alaska's girth will still fit in comfortably between Canadian and U.S. lines when the new spur is in. Of course to the west there is still near 600 miles of taiga, tundra and mountains from current rail to the Bering Straits. Then on the other side it looks a whole lot farther to the Siberian line. Maybe if we can just get that tunnel earmarked the rail will come ?- )

Wicked thread !

Thats all I have to say in this post :)

I lied :)

One more thing ships give people mobility oppressive regimes don't like ships. As goods and people can move through the borders on a ship.
So there is more to simply moving stuff around a ship can move people, guns, gold etc etc thus shipping itself has a powerful freedom component builtin. I think the role of America's vast wealth in timber and thus "freedom" ships is underestimated.

In the end ships favor the righting of wrongs and the addressing of imbalances thus there is a very deep meaning to keeping a viable shipping trade going.

On the other hand, the "middle passage"--bringing slaves from Africa to the new world--was entirely operated with ships.

Shipping can be a force for slavery and over-consumption as well as for freedom.

I think we have to consider scaling back on our drive to move all over the planet all the time. Ready movement of people across biological areas has lead to much of the mass extinction event we are now well into, as we often bring along invasive species, intentionally and unintentionally.

In general, the main task we have before us is not to facilitate human power over the world, but to limit it, before there is no world left.

This is a great post!!! My friend (a PhD candidate in Energy and Environmental Policy) were talking about this very thing at a bar last night.

I think you both have a valid point.

Sailing will make a raging comeback as FF use is diverted to maintaining industrial agriculture (IMHO the last thing to 'go' post peak). While there will be a net 'loss' of mobility, humans have been sailing the seven seas for centuries, and I see no reason why peak oil of AGW will stop that. We will simply have to deal with slower travel, not 'less' of it.

OTOH, climate refugees and political 'disruptions' will ultimately produce sailing marauders and, potentially, a return of slave trading. (which is, unfortunately, still alive and well as an 'industry')

I think one of the more odd disconnects that will happen post-peak will be revival of ocean going sailing, and the instant communication allowed by the internet (which I see people making every effort to save). People will be able to chat instantly with someone 15,000 miles away, but it might take them weeks or even months to actually sail there.

I agree that people will WANT the internet to persist, but I am not optimistic that it will.

As is alluded to in the keypost article here, it can be argued that sailing ships have been the single most sustainable transportation technology in the history of the human race other than feet.

In 1966, when I was 8 years, my parents purchased a complete set of World Book Encyclopias. This was the brand new edition, and showed the Apollo space mission as an artist rendering. No one really thought it would become history only 3 years later. The set became my window to the world. I was a compulsive reader, curious about EVERYTHING.

It struck me to look up "Sailing" in the encyclopedia, and I never forgot the opening sentence of the article: The opening sentence said that humankind had began sailing between "2 million years ago to 40,000 years ago". Well, that's leaving some historical wiggle room!

From the article I learned about the amazing and beautiful array of sailing ships, from the reed boats of the ancient Egyptians, to the warships of Greece, Rome and Carthage, to the great fighting vessels of European colonial powers, the packet ships of British commerce, the fast schooners of the pirates, the "Junks" of the Asian sailors, and the outrigger sailing canoes of the Pacific Islanders, the birth of the U.S. Navy and the great whaling ships and boats of the Yankee Americans only to name a few (the working fishing vessels alone could devour a lifetime of study, so beautiful in their variety and origins). Sailing it seems is one of those trans-cultural activities like music.

Discussions of the possibility of nuclear powered merchent ships brought back another childhood memory: The nuclear powered merchant ship built and operated by the United States, the first for the world and the only one for the United States, the N.S. Savannah.

As a 10 year old boy, I and many of my young friends found the ship absolutely fascinating and we were convinced we would grow up in a world full of nuclear powered merchent and passenger ships.

Alas, it was not to be. The technology was complex and expensive, and in a world of cheap fossil fuel, what was the advantage really of a nuclear powered commercial ship? After the Three Mile Island accident, you couldn't have given nuclear shipping to any business firm no matter how cheap you made it.

So now fuel is expensive (again) or if it's not, it's gonna be soon (we don't know exactly when, or maybe there won't even be any fuel (we don't exactly when, maybe longer) so some are now saying that we go with the nuclear option yet again. It is somewhat a consensus here on TOD that since oil based materials would probably be needed for a new generation of sailing ships, that probably wouldn't work, but of course, we can assume that the high technology materials needed for nuclear ships will be available(??)

Of course there has been no mention here of how much oil is consumed by world shipping as percent of world fuel supply. And recently an article indicated that if the world traffic in oil shipping were to stop that would reduce world shipping tonnage by over 30% right off the bat! That's right, a third of the oil used in shipping is used to ship oil! (somebody want to do an EROEI analysis on that one...)

And of course with no oil being shipped, we have to ask how many Toyotas, Hondas, Mitsubishis, Kias, Hyundais, etc., etc. will be shipped...oops, there goes another few tons of shipping...

So now post peak we are probably down to a small enough volume of tonnage in shipping it can be powered by worldwide excess cow dung.

Frankly, I have bigger things to worry about. But, I still would love to see a rebirth of wind powered's cleaner, it's prettier, it's more poetic, it has proven itself over oil or no oil, I hope it can happen. And maybe just a handful of nuclear ships like the Savannah, just for childhood memories sake...


The NS Savannah was an economic failure because it tried to be two types of ship at the same time, half freighter and half cruise ship. I believe it is still a technology which could pay off big time as a very large container ship. Able to cross the ocean in half the time or less means more containers shipped per year and more income per year.

The creative juices flow.




electric gliders

None is a Swiss Army knife.
But they sure beat pushing a barrow across the desert.

I don't believe in a big renaissance of traditional tall ships. The lack of speed and time precision is one thing, but it's also a very big cost in running it, particularly the manpower required to handle the sails.

I do believe that the price for oil and energy will rise rapidly during the next decades - using wind for propulsion makes good economical sense, but I believe in new technology, and I believe we will see a growing trend of wind being used as auxiliary propulsion in the shipping industry. One of the most promising is the kite concept, provided by SkySails. If one is to believe the marketing hype, the system can be installed on nearly any existing ship, it's a profitable investment with very few side effects, and it seems to overcome most of the disadvantages of traditional sails:

1) fully automatic, low running costs, little manpower needed

2) safer in case of sudden increase in wind speed (it doesn't cause significant keeling, and can go into "safe mode" in 30 seconds through the press of a button)

3) there is a limit for how fast one can travel and still gain power from the wind - but by using high-altitude winds, it's possible to gain power from the wind even while travelling at modern cargo speeds.

Theoretically the system can be used for primary propulsion as well.

I've also seen other concepts of automatic rigs meant to serve as auxiliary propulsion, including solar panel sails.

Of course, in case the increased energy cost will cause a full collapse of civilization as we know it, an outcome some readers here find likely, maintaining and building advanced technology may be difficult. Predicting the future is difficult.

That said, traditional rigs should not be underestimated, it's proven technology, refined over many centuries, including the last fifty years. I've recently bought myself a yacht ...

it's also a very big cost in running it, particularly the manpower required to handle the sails.

I wouldn't be too concerned with that. In five years you will have 30 people lined up for each job even if all it provides is food and board. The millions of unemployed in the U.S. are just the beginning. Just wait till it reaches 50 million...

The five master Pruessen was manned by around 40 to 45 crew. Made scheduled runs from Germany to Chile in the nitrate, i.e. bulk cargo trade.

A reading of "Two Years Before the Mast" will enlighten some on the difficulties of life on a sailing ship. "We use to have wooden ships and iron men, now we have iron ships and wooden men."

San Diego certainly has changed since that author saw it

It is a good read though. I do believe he put in a few characters he had heard of sort of to spice it up a little. Hard to say.

Of course, sail vs. mechanical power (coal/oil/nuclear) are not the only options. There is also muscle power.

(Posted with a certain amount of tongue in cheek)

I know you are joking but the interesting problem of muscle powered ships is range. Even with the boat full of food and water for the large crew (and thus without any space left for cargo), you won't get far.

In light of this post I must mention a local initiative here in my home town. 3 guys decided to go merchant shipping, by sail only. They build a "Schoener", with help of many volunteers from all over the world. They had the maidentrip to the Copenhagen climate summit, and are now en route to Haiti with the hold full of aid. The brroker they set up arranged for the ship to carry a load of Carribean rum back to Europe.
And they have plans for expansion, with more and bigger ships. The goal is stated to arrange transport without CO2 emissions but these guys are PO aware, so..

Anyway, here is the website, unfortunately in Dutch only, but if you really want to know more you may run some translation over the pages.

One thing about the old steam plants, the plants didn’t have a condenser much like the locomotive. So the exhaust from the steam engine exhausted to atmosphere. A very inefficient arrangement. The boilers were the scotch marine type like the pictures of the engine room of the Titanic. This made easier to stoke. The engines were recips and ran on wet steam. Forget superheat. This adds to more inefficiency. I don’t think the modern water tube boiler would be very good for coal or coal slurry. The space is too confining. Plus storing coal on a ship like this is not as convenient as bunker. I don’t think the coal powered ship will ever make a comeback.

I was on a tanker that sailed around the world. I was on that old rust bucket for 4 months. I was almost crazy by the time we got back. Long times a sea are hard to deal with. I don't think most people now are willing to stay away for 4,5, 6 months on a sailing ship. Also in the old days sailors were shanghaied and didn't hsve much choice in the matter except to jump overboard.

Coal can substitute for oil in a steam plant with few changes. The largest differences are that coal must be auger fed while oil can be pumped. Coal is fed from the bunkers, ground to a powder, and blown into the firebox with air. Where coal likes tall thin bunkers to allow gravity feed to the auger oil does not care what the shape of the bunker is. I don’t know of any modern ship that uses lump coal like used on the Titanic. It was very labor intensive, The titanic had 322 stokers. Another problem is that few ports have steam coal available pier side.
The only modern coal fired ships that I know of today are a fleet of Australian bulk coal freighters that take Australian coal to China.
With PO staring shipping companies in the face coal could be the lowest cost method of shipping. Coal at $100 a ton pier side would be in fuel cost parity with $17 a barrel oil.

I just noticed the post about the Savannah. The Savannah was the only nuclear powered merchant ship the US has ever had. I believe she sailed under the American Export Lines as first a passenger ship and then was converted to a cargo ship. Because of the uproar in the ‘60’s and 70’s about nuclear power, she was ban from drawing into port. She finally was tied up in Galveston at Todd shipyards for years. I worked at Todds when the Savannah was there. For a few dollars you could make a tour of the ship. She still had a crew and just lay there against the dock for years.

I have a story about the Savannah that was told to me by the Docking Master at Todds. I would talk to the Docking Master when he was getting ready to lift a ship. He stood at the front of the dock watching the ship enter. The Docking Master is in charge of a ship in dry dock. The captain of the ship is no longer in charge when the ship enters the dry dock. He told me that he set his keel blocks according to the drawings of the Savannah. When he started to lift the ship he broke his dock. Naturally, this was very embarrassing so he started an investigation into the matter. What he found was the Savannah had a bulge under the reactor. Apparently, the ships keel was not strong enough for the weight of the reactor and relieved the strain by bulging. The bulge was not shown on the drawing and the Docking Master set his blocks according to the drawings. When he made the lift the bulge cracked his dock. This is his story.

I have read where the ship actually made money but because of the political climate the merchant fleet was never allowed to go nuclear.


I am not an authority on the Savannah but, as another poster alluded, it was a hybrid between passenger and cargo. It was not optimized for either. It was too small for its cargo to support a capital intensive overhead and a highly paid crew (the reactor operators earned more than the captain). Its biggest problem, however, was $2/barrel oil.


Captain Michael's article and this thread are music to my ears, when lately I've wondered why interest in sail transport wasn't rising faster. Well, in good time; it's unstoppable.
I've learned a lot from Dave Reid and Dmitry Orlov and many others since the Sail Transport Network (STN) effort was resurrected and refined (thanks mostly to Dave and Dmitry) starting 2006. Efforts to get STN going in 1999 - 2000 suffered from really cheap oil.
I'm in Portland on a humble sloop, finding local enthusiasm for the movement of apples, malted grains, beer and more. Last year we provided food with a sail boat and bike carts for the popular Village Building Convergence in Portland.
Now that Transition Towns are making good headway, we're looking forward to helping with their linkages such as farms or gardens to customers via sail power and pedal power.
In addition to and, there's (part of We hope to establish the STN listserve soon, so please email me if you want to join it (jan "at"
I've never sailed on a tall ship, but hope to. I've sailed through the Panama Canal twice and foresee doing so again with some coffee or chocolate to trade. But the west coast of Central America will serve the Pacific and the east cost of Central America will serve the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic.
But first, perhaps we'll see San Francisco and its Bay regain sail transport roots by offering lovely water commuting for flexible-time professionals wishing to minimize their current petroleum use! Also watch for sail-freight movement of Napa and Sonoma wines for the region.
- Jan

A vertical airfoil with a servo flap could go a long way toward reducing operating costs since they could be set to the desired angle of attack by one person.

The problem of piracy could be reduced by the use of convoys with naval escorts. Dozens of ships in a tight formation with some serious firepower nearby would cause the pirates to keep their distance. Those choosing to sail alone would be left to fend off pirates on their own since naval resources are a small fraction of civilian ships. Perhaps a return to navy blimps would come about. The U-boats didn't even try to attack a convoy when they knew a blimp was nearby even though it is not known that a blimp ever successfully sunk a U-boat.

Might not need a sail. Didn't notice this story mentioned yet: 100' long solar powered boat ready to launch: It cost $24 million and can carry 50 passengers at 15 nts. Owner plans to make the first solar power only cruise around the globe. The weight capacity doesn't sound like it would be much of a challenge to commercial efforts though. Also doesn't sound like there would be enough space to bunk all 50 folks either.

LOL. Note the 15kts is max speed at the equator and likely during perfect daylight conditions. Good luck moving cargo in N America or Europe on Jan 4th with that puppy. Good luck heaving to in a multi day high lat winter storm. It loses the main advantage of powered vessels, to be able to do any great circle route. It certainly doesnt have a speed advantage over sail if 15kts is its max in best conditions, thats awfull.

Using the same model as Sail Transport Company I tried real hard to see what could be done with $24 million using now available sail infrastructure and technology scaling up from what we are already doing.

This is what I came up with.

Buying, retrofitting, crewing and running a fleet of 19 sailboats capable of delivering 900 tons of food per year, 100% petroleum free. Assuming the boats are running 6 months of the year and just moored, hauled out partying or sail training the other 6 months, (assuming they make zero money and are just sucking moorage fees during that time).

Building 13 electric and pedal powered full custom light cargo vehicles capable of delivering the above load, paying the riders.

Paying marketing and admin staff, business costs, dock fees, commercial insurance.

Running the whole thing for 5 years only came to $6 million. However the return was estimated making profit in 5 years on the original investment, so I guess it looked like the only way to really spend $24Million would be to party like crazy on all 19 boats for the 6 months off time blowing through something like 6000 gallons of beer in the first year. I know from experience I could get free crews if I did that so it just seems inconceivable that we could spend the money.

Isnt this just blowing money away on a toy that cant really carry anything in any reasonable commercial use model other than selling more solar modules. How is that a good example of what can be done???


Some notes on current sail high technology:

The BMW Oracle America's Cup Racer uses a vertical airfoil with 9 separate flaps for accurate trimming.

The yacht Maltese Falcon uses a highly evolved square rigged sail system known as the DynaRig or Falcon Rig.

water shipping can find substitutes for oil.

Substitutes for oil for water shipping? Pshaw, you say.

No, really. Substitutes include greater efficiency, wind, solar, battery power and renewably generated hydrogen.

Efficiency: Fuel consumption per mile is roughly the square of speed, so slowing down saves fuel: in 2008, with high fuel costs, most container shipping slowed down 20%, and reduced fuel consumption by roughly a third. For example, Kennebec Captain's ship carries 5,000 cars from Japan to Europe (12,000 miles) and burns 8.5 miles/ton of fuel at 18.5knots, for a total of about 1,400 tons of fuel. At a 10% lower speed of 16.6 kts, the ship burns 21% less fuel (about 300 tons).

Size brings efficiency: the Emma Maersk uses about 320 tons of fuel per day to carry 220,000 tons of cargo, while Kennebec Captain's ship uses about 60 tons to carry about 23,000 tons (see ), so the Emma Maersk uses roughly 60% as much fuel per ton.

Other substantial sources of savings include better hull (I've seen mention of "axe cleaver" designs) and engine design (very large (3 story!)marine diesels can get up to 50% thermodynamic efficiency), and low friction hull coatings (the Emma Mærsk saves about 1.3% with special paint, and bubbles work too).

Finally, reduction of oil consumption brings a kind of reverse-Jevons efficiency. Currently, some 34% of shipping tonnage worldwide is devoted to transporting oil [source , p.16]. If we reduce oil consumption, we reduce the need for shipping. Similarly, world coal trade was about 718Mt in 2003 [source , p2], at the same time as total world trade was 6,500Mt, so that coal was 11% of world seaborne trade by weight.

Wind: kites mounted on the ship's bow have been shown to provide 10-30% of ship's power - this is cost effective now. See and It's astonishing what can be done with modern materials, computer-aided design, and electronic control systems, to turn the old new again.

Solar: The first question is: is it cost effective? Sure - it's just straightforward calculations: PV can generate power for the equivalent of diesel at $3/gallon (40KWH per gallon @40% efficiency = 16 KWH/gallon; $3/16KWH = about $.20/KWH, or $4/Wp, which large I/C installations have already surpassed.

Let's look at the Emma Mærsk . With a length of 397 metres, and beam of 56 metres, it has a surface area of 22,400 sq m. At 20% efficiency we get about 4.5MW on the ship's deck at peak power. Now, as best I can tell it probably uses about 10MW at 12 knots (very roughly a minimum speed), 20MW at 15 knots, and 65MW (80% of engine rated power) at 25.5 knots (roughly a maximum). So, at minimum speed it could get about 45% of it's power for something close to 20% of the time, for a net of 9%. Now, if we want to increase that we'll need either higher efficiency PV, or more surface area from outriggers or something towed, perhaps using flexible PV.

Here' a fun example of a boat that's 100% PV powered:

Batteries: Large batteries could provide most of the remaining power needed, to be recharged at frequent port stops, as used to be done with coal (just as they picked up coal 60 years ago - that's why the US wanted the Philippines military bases, and why they're not needed in the oil era). Let's analyze li-ion batteries: assume 20MW engine power at a cruising speed a speed of 15 knots (17.25 mph) or 20MW auxiliary assistance to a higher speed, and a needed port-to-port range of 2,000 miles (a range that was considered extremely good in the era of coal ships - the average length of a full trip is about 4,500 miles (see chart 8 ). That's 116 hours of travel, and 2,310 MW hours needed. At 200whrs per kg, that's 11,594 metric tons. The Emma Maersk has a capacity of 172,990 metric tons, so we'd need about 7% of it's capacity (by weight) to add batteries.

So, li-ion would do. Now it would be more expensive than many alternatives that would be practical in a "captive" fleet like this - many high energy density, much less expensive batteries exist whose charging is very inconvenient, but could be swapped out in an application like this. These include Zinc-air, and others. It should be noted that research continues on batteries with much higher density still, as we see here and here, but existing batteries would suffice.

Hydrogen fuel cells: they can't compete with batteries in cars, but they'd work just fine in ships, where creation of a fleet fueling network would be far simpler, and where miniaturization of the fuel cell isn't essential. If batteries, the preferred solution for light surface vehicles, can't provide a complete solution, a hydrogen "range extender" would work quite well.

Hydrogen has more energy per unit mass than other fuels (61,100 BTUs per pound versus 20,900 BTUs per pound of gasoline), and fuel cells are perhaps 50% more efficient, so hydrogen would weigh less than 1/3 as much as diesel fuel.

Electricity storage using hydrogen will likely cost at least 2x as much as using batteries (due to inherent conversion inefficiency), but will still be much cheaper then current fuel prices. Fuel cells aren't especially heavy relative to this use: fuel cell mass 325 W/kg (FreedomCar goal) gives 32.5 MW = 100 metric tons, probably less than a 80MW diesel engine.

Hydrogen would have lower upfront costs versus batteries, and a lower weight penalty, but would have substantially higher operating costs. The optimal mix of batteries and hydrogen would depend on the relative future costs, but we can be confident that they would be affordable.

Here's a demonstration project on a small boat.

Are shipping lines working on this?

Yes. Here's an example:

"The Auriga Leader, operated by NYK Line, was launched in December 2008 and can transport up to 6200 vehicles. NYK Line has set a goal to reduce car carrier energy consumption by 50 percent by 2010 through solar power generation, ship operation improvement, redesigned hull form, propulsion systems energy savings and improved cargo handling."

I suspect that container shipping will be able to out-bid other uses for FF, like personal transportation, for quite some time. We'll see the gradual addition of direct wind propulsion, like the Skysails, along with engine electrification and the addition of PV.

What about nuclear propulsion?

It would work, though I would be skeptical that it could beat the alternatives on cost or speed of deployment.

Don't forget that commercial nuclear plants are built as large as possible to maximize cost-effectiveness. The US Navy doesn't have to worry about cost-effectiveness - it chooses nuclear not on a cost basis, but on an operational effectiveness basis (maximium range without refueling).

The US Navy maintains a rigorous, labor intensive, costly safety program. Per Wikipedia, "A typical nuclear submarine has a crew of over 80. Non-nuclear boats typically have fewer than half as many. " The Emma Maersk, the largest container ship in the world, sails with only 13 crewmembers!

My litmus test for nuclear proposals is their effect on weapons proliferation, especially relative to the complete fuel enrichment cycle. Per Wikipedia, "reactors used in submarines typically use highly enriched fuel (often greater than 20%) to enable them to deliver a large amount of energy from a smaller reactor." This doesn't seem encouraging.

What about the NS Savannah? It was designed as a show vessel, not a workhorse, but it was only a few years after it was decommissioned as "uneconomic" that oil prices shot well above its parity point.

That parity point compared operating cost (excluding 1950's era capital costs, maintenance and disposal, etc) of nuclear to conventional operating costs, including fuel oil at $80/ton in 1974 dollars. I was comparing nuclear to non-oil alternatives - they will be more competitive.

If you're going to go nuclear, may as well go submarine. Submarines are more efficient at moving through water than ships. No surface tension, waves or wind. Giant cargo subs, not designed for depth, could carry fuels, grains, minerals if nuke powered.

If you're gonna dream, dream big!

As far as I can tell,water friction is much more important than air friction: as the % of the vessel in the water falls, speeds rise. Think of boats that lift almost entirely out of the water. As a result, maximum speeds for surface vessels are much higher than for subs.

I'd expect the ratio of power consumption to cargo to be much higher for subs.

Seen any data on this?

Actually, the math was required when I was in sub school. Ships don't plane out like a speed boat. The relative efficiency of modern subs is the result of reduced turbulence, no water/air interaction, wave action on a surface vessel (think of the energy required to push a ship through waves and the up and down motion), wind (rarely from astern), and a ship's requirement to break the surface tension of water. The "cigar" shape of modern subs, and the the coatings used (semi-laminar flow) provide two advantages: reduced drag and stealth. With a lower power to displacement ratio modern attack subs can run circles around surface ships. Top speed is classified, but they are fast. Surface ships are constantly changing direction. Subs have the advantage of moving in a straight line until they turn or change depth. Also, one must remember that a surface ship displaces it's full mass in the water, same as a sub.


wind (rarely from astern)

Wouldn't wind from astern balance out with wind from the bow?

the coatings used (semi-laminar flow) provide...reduced drag

Some surface ships use them too - is there any difference between the two applications?

If subs are more efficient, why aren't they used outside of the military? Do you see any movement towards use of subs for freight?

Thats easy.

Nuclear ..

A non-nuclear sub is probably no nearly as reasonable to make. Also I might add cargo ships have to balance speed vs capacity.
The Clipper ships of old where fast but hand substantially reduced carrying capacity.
Next of course dock facilities are designed for ships not subs. How you going to load/unload it ?
And next a simple one the US's finest are not the predominate crews on ships I have to imagine that world pay scales and training levels are not all that great on many ships except for the top people and even that has to be questioned given some public events.

There are a huge number of variables that make absolute efficiency not the best answer.

And to be completely honest I don't agree with the modern engineering drive towards faster better more efficient and let economies of scale lower the cost. One has to think that the intrinsic moral hazard of this approach is finally starting to show up.

This hazard is because economies of scale are critical eventually of course true better solutions that diverge from the mainstream either fail or take forever to succeed. Microsoft is the classic example along with X86 architecture. But every single engineering field is full of novel solutions that are better in many ways cast aside because of the way we build things.

Sorry for the rant but if you read my posts once the fiat currency debt system and associated economies of scale fail I suspect that a lot of engineers are going to find out they don't actually know how to build stuff that has to balance a lot of competing factors.

This might well mean we eventually end up with nuclear powered subs moving a lot of stuff or not however the one thing I suspect is true is that the way we do it now won't survive and next what ever eventually dominates will be very different from what we have today.
And I have to think that variety will be the norm or at I least hope we figure out how to keep barriers of entry for new ideas low.

Sorry to rant but the point is all ideas need to both be brought to the table and stay on the table constantly reviewed and judged.

Monster trade ships reminiscent of the Spanish galleons might have a place subs or not or maybe they don't. Say you had one sailing every day to and from the US and China that would carry a heck of a lot of stuff. If a nuclear sub monster say twice the size of a modern aircraft carrier makes sense then build them if not don't.

Perhaps such monsters could concentrate trade that needs consistent times opening up wind for all the rest. Right now oil does both jobs but maybe the right answer is to split trade resulting in viable wind powered transport mixed with monster nuclear powered transport on the main routes.

Regardless trade is based on the economy which depends on the financial system so we also must wait to see how that evolves. But with uncertainty on the financial side and high oil prices wind is your friend.

Personally I think the days of monster tech are over. That does not mean high tech is over just that it will be increasingly focused on communication, sensors, anaylsis etc and less on mass produced "generic" goods including ships. I really think we will steadily revert back to simpler renewable solutions for 99% of daily life. Not necessarily a copy of the past but not high tech either.
Perhaps right technology is a better answer i.e the best all around solution for a given problem that does not use economies of scale except in a few cases where they make sense.

A right tech approach will seldom pick a economy of scale solution since this creates and artificial barrier to entry ensuring that future "right" tech cannot compete on its merits. By definition you reject economy of scale solutions out of hand unless no other solution is viable. And once one is you dismantle your economy of scale solution aggressively on purpose. In fact in and economy based on highly parellel distributed manufacturing were any town has the capacity to make anything the moment a right tech solution is available anyone depending on economy of scale is likely to go crashing down naturally. The new economy makes investment in large scale solutions very very risky in the first place making them highly unlikely to be chosen if the threat of a right tech approach exists. Obviously the intellectual property right laws are important because the patent process play a big role in creating artificial barriers that make large scale investments possible in the first place esp assignment of patents. Obviously there are a number of artificial man made structures that have been created that allow our current engineering approaches to work destroy these and its a different world.


On economies of scale, the largest oil tanker ever built was eventually parked. It was too big. See "Knock Nevis"


C'mon, Nick. This whole debate was purely hypothetical, as was the suggestion of using nuke plants on commercial surface vessels. Neither has been used due to costs ( and militaries don't need a bunch more subs to track).

As for your comment on wind, I can't see the sense in it. Ships have to deal with wind and related drag. Subs don't. I've driven both. A surface ship often has to be steered into the wind to counter its effects. Submerged subs never do. Ships bounce up and down in heavy seas (and sometimes all over the place). Submerged subs never do. They stay below heavy seas. Surface ships often change course to avoid conditions that subs stay under. Surface ships' power plants often have to deal with these conditions, preventing steady state operation. This reduces efficiency. We could compare tonnage, propulsion power and speed, except top speeds of Navy vessels are classified. Apples and oranges anyway.

I'm beat today. I'll look for some corroboration after I walk my dogs.

This whole debate was purely hypothetical

Yeah, occasionally I'm too serious. The thing is - I'm conscious of the many, many people lurking here, building a picture of their future which they'll use to make real life decisions. This can be recreation for us, but some people are actually deciding to give up on having a family, or make a miserable life at subsistence farming - it makes me crazy.

as was the suggestion of using nuke plants on commercial surface vessels

Nuke plants are pretty likely to get smaller and manufactured in modules, then shipped for off-the-shelf installation. In that environment, I think nuclear powered shipping will be seriously considered.

A surface ship often has to be steered into the wind to counter its effects...Ships bounce up and down in heavy seas (and sometimes all over the place)...often change course to avoid conditions that subs stay under.

Does this describe the very large container-ships (e.g., Panamax)?

Even these giants fear Neptune when he decides to throw one of his big fits. They prefer to steer clear, sometimes adding thousands of miles to their trip.

I hate to be picky but isn't HMS Victory the worlds oldest commissioned ship, although permenantly in dry dock than in the water?

USS Constitution.................. is the oldest commissioned naval vessel afloat in the world,

from the link above.

On a less oceanic scale, I'd like to bring your attention to the Lois McClure a replica of an 1862-class 88 foot sailing canal schooner. She was built by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and launched in 2004. See here:

The boat is 40 tons of oak, mostly, with pine decking and spruce masts and spars. The originals carried upwards of 120 tons of bulk and packaged cargo. They traveled a generally north-south route from the St. Lawrence River, down the Richelieu to Lake Champlain, through the Champlain Canal, and down the Hudson to New York City. They also went out the Erie Canal and up the Oswego Canal to Lake Ontario. Over the roughly 100 year history of the Champlain canal boat (1823-1923), about 4,000 were built, perhaps 250 of those having sails. The rest relied on steam tugs, and all relied on mules in the canals.

They weren't fast, but they were energy efficient. 2 mules pulled 120 tons of cargo at 2-3 mph. One steam tug would pull 40 or more canal boats stacked 4 abreast. We've hit 8.5 knots in a screamer with the Lois, but we aren't fully loaded.

On the subject of boatbuilding skills, the Lois was built almost entirely by volunteers, representing all skill levels, with 2 or 3 professionals in charge.

As for sailing, they were run by families, so the crew was a couple plus a teenaged son or a hired man. Some families lived on the boats year round. The canal boating trade is still followed by families with diesel powered boats in Europe.

Just as a f'rinstance, something like 90% of New York State residents live within 20 miles of a navigable waterway. There's a historical reason for that: Water transport was the best when the state was really being settled.

I was talking with a manager at the NY State Canal Company and asked him when canal boats would be competitive again. He answered "Diesel at $4.50 a gallon. We have container ship designs ready to go." I figured out that about half of the truck traffic on Rte. 90 (Albany to Buffalo) could go on the Erie Canal (Now the NYS Barge Canal). Here's my essay on it:

$4.50 a gallon is not far off. We lived there for a little while during the $140+ oil spike. A canal barge is a big steel box, or a smaller wooden box. It's doable.

But could canal boats compete with rail, which only uses 1/3 as much fuel per ton-mile?