Genoa - It took a moment for office workers at the port of Bremen to take it in when the ship first docked, back in the summer of 2015. Accustomed to containers and cranes, many had never witnessed barrels being unloaded from a 32-meter schooner. The scene has now become a regular one. Since 2009, the vessel Tres Hombres has been navigating the ocean currents between Europe, the Caribbean and America.
Starting in 2015, the schooner began sailing up the Atlantic coast from Portugal to Bremen, carrying a hold full of red, white and rosé wines from Portugal’s “Quinta do Romeu” winery, bound for bottling on the German market. “We only transport organic, fair trade products. Goods such as rum, wine, olives, salted fish, cocoa, legumes, coffee beans,”, says Saskia Poelman, Fairtransport’s spokesperson.
Fairtransport is a zero emissions sail transport company established in 2007 in Den Helder, north of Amsterdam, the brainchild of three friends, Andreas Lackner, Jorne Langelaan and Arjen van der Veen. The three friends took a page from 19th century marine technology and restored a remnant from the German Navy, originally named the Seeadler, or Eagle of the lake. The fixer-upper, that was to become the Tres Hombres, was part of a fleet of 800 Kriegs Fischerei Kutters in 1943, easy to manoeuvre patrollers that could also double up as fishing vessels.
After the war, and a stint clearing the Baltic of mines, and then as a fishing boat in Ireland, the Seeadler had languished in a state of disuse until the three Dutchmen, then students on a holiday, saw it and loved it, and clung to their project to restore it, transforming it into a sailing ship.
Today, in addition to the Tres Hombres, the Fairtransport fleet includes the Nordlys, a 150-year old vessel, which is “probably the oldest cargo ship still plying the seas,” says Poelman. ”We don’t harbour fantasies of competing with container carriers. But we do hope our work can raise a bit of societal awareness.”
The International Maritime Organization, the maritime branch of the United Nations, has set January 2020 as the beginning of a new era; Starting then, sulphur content emitted by ship exhausts will have to be reduced from 3.5% to 0.5%. Ships will then have three options: to use low sulphur diesel, which is more difficult to refine, and whose price, according to UN forecasts, in the beginning will be double that of normal fuel; or switch to LNG which requires new engines and a storage and distribution infrastructure which currently is still non-existent in most ports; or fit special “scrubbers”, a sort of super-filter that catch the sulphur oxides produced by exhaust gases, and disposes them directly at sea, but over which shipowners and the scientific community are still divided, owing to their high costs and their actual effectiveness.
In Norway, for instance, the government is considering laws that would prohibit the use of scrubbers in major fjords. The “tres hombres” from Holland that created Fairtransport use nineteenth century technology to solve twenty-first century problems. They sail from Europe to America, calling in at the Canaries, Cape Verde and the Caribbean. In terms of speed, their two sailing ships don’t compare too badly with the motorized juggernauts, reaching speeds of 8-10 knots, since in order to limit fuel consumption container-ship speeds have currently dropped from 25 to 15 knots.
In fact the three Dutch friends may have already triggered a trickle-down effect. in 2016 in Punta Morales, in Costa Rica’s Gulf of Nicoya, Sail Cargo has set up a new shipyard for the construction of sailing ships. “We plan to sail from Punta Morales along the West Coast, up to Alaska, with our loads of barley, cocoa and other agricultural products,” inform the entrepreneurs from Punta Morales.
The weak points of nineteenth-century technology are unreliable docking dates, as they depend too heavily on the wind factor, and their limited transport capacity, as well as the costs. “Last year,” says Poelman, “we took some aid to the Caribbean after Hurricane Irma. On our return we carried a load of coffee to Europe. But the capacity of the hold wasn’t enough, and we had to pack coffee even under our bunk-beds.”