The 21st century: Age of Sail

Imagine this: you are on a ship sailing around the world trading goods from faraway places—the open sea glimmers as the sun skitters across its surface, all the way to the horizon. A powerful gust of wind sweeps through the mainsail, ballooning it like a cloud. It is your only source of power, and you are entirely at its mercy.

When one thinks of the Age of Sail, one does not think of large commercial vessels in the 21st century. Instead, one tends to think of the 18th or 19th centuries, before the mechanical age of steam—romantic, windswept times when gallant adventurers carrying broadswords roamed the seas.

At one point in time, mastering the winds was the height of maritime technology, the fastest means of travel, trade and transportation.

However, what we think of as a bygone era of exploration might happen again, though the sails might look drastically different.

The 21st century holds many new possibilities as the maritime industry moves towards decarbonization. Alongside the discoveries of AI technology, alternate fuels and solar power has been the rediscovery of wind assist power.

The Age of Sail in the 21st century does not resemble what it did in the past. Instead, today’s ships (or tomorrow’s) might have a mixture of innovative sails, mounted wings and futuristic-looking hull designs. Several projects that involve powering ships with wind assist are underway.

“With Orca” – Powered by Nature, is the world’s first zero-emission cargo ship, powered exclusively by wind and hydrogen. It will use two large rotor sails to harvest the wind. The vessel is designed to sail mostly in open waters in the North Sea, where wind conditions are optimal, using a hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engine to assist wind energy. The design team, led by Norwegian Ship Design, is also developing other features that will help the ship increase energy efficiency, such as a hull that prevents drifting and a specially developed keel. The project’s design is expected to be completed by the end of this year to enter service in 2024.

Another project that will feature heavy reliance on wind propulsion is the “Oceanbird,” set to be the world’s largest cargo ship driven by wind power. The Swedish firm Wallenius Marine AB designed the carrier to 90 percent of carbon emissions compared to a conventional ship. The Oceanbird will have engines as a backup but uses futuristic-looking wing sails, likely to be built from aluminum, steel and composite materials that will rise 345 feet above sea level.

In November, Cargill and BAR Technologies came together to design WindWings, tall, solid wing sails fitted to the deck of bulk cargo ships that can even be tailored to the vessel’s size and route. The project plans to reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 30 percent. Though the project is currently in the design phase, it is expected to be operable by 2022. Cargill and BAR Technologies will bring together a team of companies to deliver the project’s first vessels, emphasizing the ever-growing necessity of collaboration within and across sectors.

Though wind power looks to be an excellent solution for the industry as it races to cut down on emissions, it is not without its drawbacks. One problem with vessels designed with wind power in mind is that they are more expensive than their more-traditional counterparts, making shipowners hesitant to invest in them. Ports also operate on strict deadlines, meaning that unexpected delays at sea can be arduous and costly. However, they may prove to be more economical in the long run as wind assist and propulsions systems cut fuel consumption significantly.

The 21st century is a time that sees the dangerous effects of climate change and will prove to be crucial in how humanity responds to it. The shipping industry contributes about three percent of global carbon emissions. In response, the IMO declared that average CO2 emissions be reduced by 40 percent by 2030 and 70 percent by 2050 and GHG emissions be reduced by 50 percent by 2050.

The Age of Sail in the 21st century is both a throwback and a leap forward in time. Wind power––crucial in centuries past––may prove to be crucial now, as the maritime industry races towards its goals.

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