New age of sail?

Beluga SkySails, a 433-foot cargo ship propelled in part by windpower, was launched in December 2007 in Germany. Its maiden voyage from Europe to Venezuela in January 2008 will mark the first environmentally friendly design concept for commercial cargo vessels.

The design by SkySails of Hamburg employs an immense aerofoil kite system that will support normal diesel propulsion with a surface area almost the size of a football field. Controlled on board the vessel by computer and rigged to a mast at the bow, the giant kites are designed to catch wind currents 650 feet or more above the ship.

SkySails claims that the kites will bring down the fuel cost of shipping between 10 and 50 percent, depending on the route and the season. According to the company, “under optimal wind conditions, fuel consumption can temporarily be reduced by up to 50 percent.” SkySails also says that “even on a small 285-foot cargo ship, savings of up to $410,000 can be made annually.” Given a conservative 20 percent fuel reduction this translates into approximately $1,600 per day in savings. This fuel savings could also help to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from an industry that emits 800 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Carbon dioxide has been blamed for greenhouse warming and global climate change. Skeptics assert however, that the addition of extra wind energy will only be converted into extra speed as the vessels can also continue to run on full power, thus overriding any environmental benefits.

The development of kite technology for cargo shipping, with plans in place for super yachts and fish trawlers, has been lauded as the new age of sail. As a system that only operates downwind these cargo vessel kites are at best a hybrid technology. Whatever the outcome, Beluga Skysails could set a precedent for the return of ships working under wind power.

Susan Viets

By Ocean Navigator