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When Diesel Fails, Look to Sails

Dylan Gasperik

Posted December 9, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Green Enterprise, Living Sustainably, Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming

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Dawn Patrol.jpg


It was a blissful moment; with light wind and flat seas, the sunlight refracted through the waves like millions of tiny gemstones. My girlfriend was humming along to the local public radio station while I steered the course across the Catalina channel for the annual Microbrew Festival on the island. We were on our way to a weekend of friends and festivities, carrying a cargo of eight cases of handcrafted ales and stouts, and suddenly the reassuring throb of the engine sputtered and stopped.

Poking around, I quickly diagnosed a severed exhaust pipe. A generous application of tape would serve as a band-aid, but we still had about 15 miles to the island, and I couldn’t imagine that it would hold up the whole way. Just as the captain’s cursing was developing from annoyed to discouraged, and the first mate’s humming was going from musical accompaniment to slightly anxious, something happened. A westerly breeze russled our hair, and filled the limp mainsail, giving it a taut round belly. We sprang into action to engage the genoa and our tiny boat’s listless drifting became a purposeful glide towards our destination. Perfectly steady winds carried us for the rest of the afternoon, and we gratefully reached the island just after dark. Our precious cargo was delivered to the thirsty masses, completing our first wind-powered beer delivery.

The diesel engine and standardization of containers revolutionized shipping in the 20th century, but at a great cost to the climate and environment. As Rose George pointed out to OnEarth Magazine,

Shipping is not benign because there is so much of it. It emits a billion tons of carbon a year and nearly four percent of [all] greenhouse gases... more than all aviation and road transport… In Los Angeles, half of all smog from sulfur dioxide comes in from ships.

And that’s not the only pollution that comes from cargo ships. The heavy diesel engines of these behemoths are so loud and sound carries so far underwater that the entire aural environment of the world’s oceans has become transformed. This industrialized soundscape has a serious impact on marine ecosystems. Whales and dolphins are especially affected by noise pollution, which interferes with their ability to rest, communicate, and hunt with echolocation.

It’s enough to make me wonder – what role can shipping by sail play in the era of globalized trade? There must be a way to take advantage of the sailboat’s ancient wisdom. It moves silently and is never limited by fuel supply. Noise and air pollution are non-issues.


Image courtesy SkySails

Unfortunately, the modern global economy is dependent on fast and cheap trans-oceanic shipping and won’t revert to sail power as long as oil supplies last. But there are certainly strategic applications where this ancient technology could help, and innovators around the world are employing it at various scales. Independent operations like the Tres Hombres and the Vermont Sail Project bring unique cargo on a non-urgent timeframe. Mainstream shipping companies have begun rigging some of their cargo ships with kites that pull downwind, saving fuel. And designers from colleges and corporations are imagining futuristic vessels powered on nothing but wind and sun.

In thousands of years of maritime navigation, combustion engines are a recent innovation which has made great distances manageable, but we are only beginning to understand the environmental cost. Now that we have achieved “fast”, the new challenge becomes to do no harm. Every sailor loves the feeling of a favorable wind, and the rush of knowing that you could go forever on nature’s currents. If those same currents could carry our goods for us, wouldn’t that be a thrill?

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

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