Long before anyone sailed for leisure, sailing was primarily a method of transporting goods. Right after exploration and alongside war, it was the reason ships were built. After landing at each new territory, everyone from the earliest explorers in dug-out canoes to the Ancient Egyptians, Vikings to colonial invaders, asked two questions: “Will the people in the new land fight us?” And, “Can we sell them anything?”
Shipping is still the major method of transportation for 90% of goods. Medical supplies, cuddly toys, French beans, socks… almost everything has been shipped at some point, albeit these days in an 8x40ft metal box stacked on of a massive diesel-powered ship.
But the modern container ship is a huge, lumbering investment, its profitability vulnerable to fuel prices and trade tariffs.
There was a trend for building ever-bigger ships, peaking with the so-called Ultra Large Container Vessels, mega-ships capable of carrying 18,000 containers. But the global recession hit shipping hard and industry growth has slowed. With countries like the US and China edging towards trade wars, who knows what the implications will be?
But an area that is growing is that of shipping goods by sail. By definition on a much slower, smaller scale than the world-girdling shipping lines, using wind power to transport goods has synergies with improved sustainability, and the shop local and slow food movements. It’s enjoying something of a renaissance. But could sail trading ever compete against road haulage, conventional shipping and air freight?
There are a number of different models. One of the most engaging is individuals and small cooperatives sailing luggers, barges and tall ships to transport small volumes of goods. Many open their crews up to guests and paying customers, giving people the chance to experience traditional life on the ocean in a working holiday.
Such operators tend to ship items like wine and olive oil, often from organic or artisan producers who see a benefit to using a lowcarbon method of distributing their wares, and can sell that to their customers as part of their brand’s appeal.
At its simplest, sail trading can be a straightforward way of transporting goods across the Channel, while avoiding the lorry
Grayhound, a replica of a 1776 revenue cutter, takes cargo and passengers between Britain and France