Climate Change

Cargo by Sail: Ideology and Practicality

Explore Cargo Voyages


Amy Bullock @amsbullock
Amy Bullock @amsbullock

On the weekend of the 14th October, Classic Sailing attended a conference of the burgeoning Sail Cargo Alliance, held in windswept West Cornwall.

Organised by the team from New Dawn Traders (brokers of sail-shipped goods into the UK) the conference was a fascinating event, touching on every aspect of the industry from legislation, communication, crew management, and all the way through to some revolutionary economic models. In attendance were ship owners, agents, traders, surveyors, economists, tech wizards, coffee roasters, cooks, ecologists, think tanks, representatives from maritime charities and more. There were a huge variety of talks and workshops, as well as some all-important informal chats over dinner.

We’ve come away from the weekend feeling heartened, inspired (and full! Thanks to fantastic catering from @lolas_cornwall, using a mix of home grown and sail-shipped produce).

Here are some of our take-away highlights:

Radical Economic Thinking

We all have our moments of utopian ideology, but Kate Rich of Feral Trade instilled the importance of working with what we already have. We can’t rip up the system and start again, but if we look at how we assign value, and what we count as part of our economic model, we can make amazing things happen. Valuing time, community, cooperation, non-financial favours and the productiveness of the natural world (to name but a few) gives a much more realistic and holistic picture of ‘profit and loss’.

Food as a Revolutionary Tool

The goal of those involved in Sail Cargo is not only to make a statement about the environmental impact of the shipping industry. It goes further; it’s about instilling good practice in every stage from ‘farm to fork’:

  • Championing producers who look after the land and their workers (and who’s operations are often too small to get a foot in the door of the standard export market).
  • Importing and transporting only what cannot be grown or made locally.
  • Asking questions about how much ‘stuff’ we really need to be buying (and therefore transporting).
  • Telling the story of every product; where it’s from, who produced it, how it travelled.
  • Showing how an understanding of this story increases enjoyment of the product enormously.
  • Demonstrating that care about the production and journey of what we consume needn’t be aspirational, it is achievable.

Shani Meintjes who, along with partner Giulia Cosi, is working on the creation of a ‘Fair Winds Food Network’, spoke about this from another angle: that of the ship’s cook. Many of us who have spent time catering at sea have met the problem she described: that budgets and time constraints in port make it very difficult to provision a ship ethically. Even if producers are there who could provide what we need, the time taken to forge those relationships is prohibitive. Shani and Giulia’s vision is to create a provisioning network that does this for you, and breaks down some of the barriers to ethical food shopping in unfamiliar places. They are certainly one to watch (@fairwinds_food_network).

Practical Sail Cargo Voyage Planning

New Dawn Traders have been working with Kirsten Gibbs of ‘The Disappearing Boss‘ to create a tool kit for those wishing to ship goods by sail (including the various roles, responsibilities and ‘to do lists’ for each person or organisation in the process). Still in development, we were inspired by how an incredibly complex process had already been broken down into understandable, manageable tasks.

The end goal of this project is to make the ‘Tool Kit’ open source, providing Sail Cargo projects all over the world with a head start, and awareness of common pitfalls, problems and solutions. We were particularly struck by this approach across the weekend, the desire for cooperation rather than competition, and the sharing of resources.

Legislation & Certification for Sail Cargo

There was a great discussion of the possibilities and limitations of current maritime legislation (both in the UK and worldwide) in regard to sailing ships wishing to sail cargo. These boats often fall into a grey area, stuck between various kinds of certification system. It’s understandable: within the overall shipping industry these vessels make up a tiny proportion, and are easily overlooked by legislators.

Sailing ships that were often designed and built to carry goods around our coasts can rarely now get a licence to do so, but practical steps towards solving this problem were talked about. While smuggling might seem a romantic notion, everyone in the discussion was vocal about the need for high safety standards, rules and regulation. This is not only to protect crew and customers, but also to enable the Sail Cargo industry to grow as a legitimate enterprise, not just an amusing and thought provoking stunt.

Flexibility for Smaller Vessels

There are some really exciting, cargo-dedicated, large-scale sailing ships in development, build or refit at the moment. Ceiba, Hawila and EcoClipper are all fantastic projects. However there also needs to be a space for the smaller sailing vessels to get involved. It is not viable for the large ships to travel right round the coast of a country, carrying progressively smaller and smaller loads in their cargo holds. The most efficient means of connecting communities to sail cargo is for the big ocean voyages to be conducted by the larger vessels, carrying anything from 20 to 150 tons at a time, and for smaller sailing boats to ‘connect the dots’ around the coastline, carrying a ton or two.

What can make this viable for the smaller ships is to carry cargo along a route on which they would be running a charter anyway, and thereby combine their cargo runs with provision of low-emission adventure holidays.

Where Classic Sailing Comes In…

This was where we pricked up our ears! Lots of people in the Classic Sailing community are keen on active breaks, getting involved and taking holidays in an environmentally conscious way. While some might love to purchase sail cargo produce, they might not feel up to the extra graft a cargo voyage could entail. Those that are willing, however, can have a great value sailing adventure whilst also being part of a vital movement for change.

We’ve created a short quiz to help you consider whether a sail cargo voyage could be right for you, and you can also sign up to our ‘Voyages with Purpose’ mailing list. This will focus on exciting news from the Sail Cargo industry, as well as letting you know about upcoming opportunities to sail along.

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