The idea of commercial sailing ships has never really gone away; the so-called oil crisis of the early 1970s saw the birth — and demise — of large sail-powered bulk-carrier designs, and there are plans most recently that respond to the popularity of interest in alternate fuel sources, such as the wind and the sun. With a crunch on the world’s oil supplies looming, there appears to be double interest in looking backward at the viability of sail power. One such plan, a modest proposal to create a sail-powered ship of under 500 tons that could carry a single 40-foot container in its hold, has emerged from the offices of an adventurous American voyager now based in Japan.
Pat Utley proposes that his ship, Greenheart, a steel ketch to be powered by wind and solar-powered batteries and built in China, circle the world promoting fair trade and at the same time securing private contracts to deliver relief supplies to third-world nations. The ship will also trade specialty goods from developing nations, according to Utley. Utley, who earns his living as a language teacher in Tokyo — he is fluent in Spanish and conversant in French, Japanese, Portuguese and Italian — appears to have the background to pull such a plan together. His résumé describes a mélange of unusual engineering feats and physical challenges. As an adventurer, he has bicycled and motorcycled throughout the Alps and North, Central and South America; he has single-handedly sailed from Japan to Canada as part of a mission to promote goodwill between sister cities; he has delivered sailboats throughout the Pacific and Caribbean; kayaked the Mississippi River; windsurfed through the Bahamas; and served as captain or crew of sail-only working vessels in Brazil, Maine and Florida. As a humanitarian and amateur engineer, he has developed alternative well-drilling technology for outposts in rural Bolivia and developed a solar-energy system in Spain, installing it in São Tomé, West Africa.
“In Japan there is a growing interest in the practice and image of environmental protection and sustainable development,” Utley said in an email interview. “References to ‘green’ products and services are all over the media now. This leaves me well positioned to attract donors. In fact, to my first trial inquiries, the response has been very positive, and I am relatively certain to receive enough funding to amplify the project and shorten the timeline — have the boat in the water in a year from now, and working within 18 months.”
While there have been few viable commercial sail projects to survive the first years of operation — Tole Mour, a three-masted schooner based in Hawaii, served briefly as a hospital ship for the Pacific islands before suffering financial breakdown; the schooner John F. Leavitt was lost off the New England coast on its maiden voyage in the late 1970s — there has never been a lack of interest in such plans. (The square-rigged ship Picton Castle has been circumnavigating the world for the past four years, with paying passengers who also take part in operating a modest cargo trade.) Whether Greenheart wets its keel by early 2005 — and subsequently survives — Utley is no traditional Jack Tar, longing for the return of the glory days of sail. Instead he is focusing on finding the magical (and elusive) combination between traditional propulsion and modern technology that will allow a chance at success.