Addressing the decline of American cities—and the greater decline yet to come in the wake of peak oil—James Howard Kunstler predicts the return of tall ships to the Great Lakes:
When people use the term “post-industrial” these days, they don’t really mean it, and, more mysteriously, they don’t know that they don’t mean it. They expect complex, organized, high-powered industry to still be here, only in a new form. They almost always seem to imply (or so I infer) that we can remain “modern” by moving beyond the old smoke and clanking machinery into a nirvana of computer-printed reality. I doubt that we can maintain the complex supply chains of our dwindling material resources and run all those computer operations — even if we can still manage to get some electricity from Niagara Falls.
In my forthcoming novel A History of the Future (third installment of the World Made By Hand series), two of my characters journey to Buffalo a couple of decades from now. They find a town with its back turned to abandoned monuments of the industrial age. All the action is on the Lake Erie waterfront where trade is conducted by sailing ships at the scale of Sixteenth century, but with an identifiable American gloss. I’d be surprised if one in a thousand educated people in this country (including the New Urbanists) can take that vision seriously.
The age of sail lasted into the early twentieth century with windjammers and clippers running trans-oceanic freight. As resource depletion and ecological crises imperil the oil-based economy, sail power seems like an obvious alternative for the future.
There have been small-scale efforts to revive wind-powered transport recently. In 2009 the BBC reported on a modern day brigantine, Tres Hombres:
On a warm summer’s day in August, Danish wine merchant Sune Rosforth took delivery of 8,000 bottles of wine that had arrived from France.
From the offices of financial institutions flanking the quay, workers looked out at something that had not been seen in central Copenhagen for many years.
The ship that had brought the wine from the Breton port of Brest was a 32m-long brigantine, a twin-masted sailing ship, called the Tres Hombres.
Mr Rosforth’s company, Rosforth and Rosforth, supplies restaurants in Denmark with organic and biodynamic wines.
Moving wine in a more eco-friendly fashion was something he had been talking about for some time with an Anjou wine producer who was also a skipper, but the plan had originally been to use canal barges.
In 2012 the Tres Hombres embarked on a more ambitious trade route, as reported by CNN:
This week, the 32-meter brigantine Tres Hombres set sail from the Netherlands to the Caribbean in an eight-month voyage transporting ale, wine, rum and chocolate — much the same way as merchant ships would have done 150 years ago.
Named in honor of the three friends who founded the ambitious scheme, the 35-ton carbon-neutral vessel has no motor and relies on solar-powered fridges to keep its cargo cool.
“A lot of shipping companies are going bankrupt because fuel is so expensive,” said one of the ship’s founders and co-captain, Arjen van der Veen.
“The model we have now of shipping is unsustainable — both for business and the environment. We chose a traditional rig because it’s a beautiful design and we wanted to show people sailing can still be effective.”
From its base in Den Helder in the Netherlands, Tres Hombres will head to Brixham in England where it will pick up 100,000 bottles of ale, delivering them to Douarnenez in France.
From there it will sail to ports across Europe and the Caribbean, transporting 500 liters of wine, 50,000 chocolate bars, 4,000 bottles of rum and 5-tons of cocoa beans in a round trip.
All the cargo is organic, making it eco-friendly from the moment it is produced to the moment it lands on the supermarket shelf, Van der Veen explained.
“The whole chain of production is sustainable,” he said.
“For companies, it makes their goods unique. It’s a little more expensive but people are willing to pay because it has no carbon footprint.”
The French maritime company Trans Oceanic Wind Transport (TOWT) operates Tres Hombres. Founded in 2009 by Guillaume Le Grand TOWT charters a fleet of a dozen sailing ships to carry freight between ports. Almost a decade later the company is still in business. I don’t know if there is enough business to make wind power profitable at this point. I wish the venture well. To paraphrase Kunstler, how many people today understand that companies like TOWT are ahead of their time, not behind?