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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

HE­LEN FRET­TER

Gray­hound, a replica of a 1776 rev­enue cut­ter, takes cargo and pas­sen­gers be­tween Bri­tain and France

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