Cargo under Sail: The zero-emission experiment

in Decarbonization, Trends by

In early 23 July, Germany’s last commercial sailing cargo vessel in service AVONTUUR moored in the port of Hamburg, returning from her 5th journey across the Atlantic maritime traffic route. The captain and 15 crew members had been sailing for over seven months.

“After over 200 days on the high seas without being able to go on shore leaves and with the constant uncertainty in mind caused by the coronavirus, the crew is now looking forward to finally arriving”,

reports owner, shipping operator, and captain Cornelius Bockermann.
Vessel photo by ship spotter Lotse1967

In January, the Dutch schooner Avontuur started her journey off to the Caribbean to load and unload fair-trade luxury goods for European customers. Bockermann and his crew sailed from Germany to Madeira, to the Canary Islands, then to the Caribbean Island Marie-Galante, to Honduras, Mexico, and back to Germany via the USA and the Azores – a journey of more than 18.000 nautical miles. They returned to Hamburg carrying 60 tons of fair-trade products like coffee, rum, spices, and tea from overseas, their hearts being filled with lots of adventurous memories. In February 2020, e.g., the Avontuur saved 16 shipwrecked people from a boat south of the Canary Islands. Read more about the incident in FleetMon’s Maritime News section.

The history of Avontuur

The Avontuur, which is Dutch for Adventure, was built in 1920 by the Otto Smith shipyard as a freighter with one auxiliary engine. The 100-year-old vessel first was used as a light cargo ship for traffic at sea, mostly along the North Sea coast and on inland waters. When cargo sailing was no longer profitable after the Second World War, Avontuur served to transport passengers between the West Frisian Islands and the Dutch mainland.

In its history, the owners changed several times, and a large number of refurbishments, e.g., reducing the rig and increasing the engine power, took place. The name of the ship and its purpose also changed: First, the Avontuur operated as freighter CATHARINA. Later it was registered by the Dutch captain P. Wahlen 1977 in Panama and used as a cargo schooner again. Until 2001, Avontuur brought zero-emission cargo to small ports on the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. On Vlieland, the vessel was equipped to become a sailing ship for passenger day trips.

In 2014, Cornelius Bockermann of Timbercoast GmbH became the owner of the Avontuur. In the same year, with great commitment and 160 volunteers, he began converting the vessel to a modern, emission-free cargo ship, initially in the Netherlands and soon after in the homeport Elsfleth, to transport fair-trade products across the transatlantic maritime traffic route. In 2016, Germany’s last commercial sailing cargo vessel was finished and went on her first trip across the Atlantic Ocean to transport fair-trade products goods like coffee, chocolate, rum, tea, and salt between the Caribbean and Europe.

Mission: Zero-emission

Efficient container vessels are carrying around 90 percent of global freight. According to forecasts, the CO² emissions of worldwide ocean freight traffic will more than triple by 2050. Timbercoast’s fair-trade products crossed the Atlantic Ocean while producing zero emissions, merely moving by wind and manpower. 

“With a lifting capacity of 114 tons, the two-master is only a dwarf compared to container giants, but David was only a tiny guy compared to Goliath,”

states captain Bockermann.

The project’s aim, which started in 2014, is to promote zero-emission alternatives to commercial cargo shipping. Idealist and maritime enthusiast Bockermann wants to raise awareness for the shipping industry’s environmental destruction and proves that zero-emission cargo shipping is possible – although only within a small niche.

According to Timbercoast’s website, many local and international companies offering exclusively sustainable and fair-trade products of the luxury goods segment commissioned the company behind Avontuur to sail their products across the Atlantic Ocean.

“We are the missing link between the producer of fair-trade products and the responsible consumer”,

explains Bockermann.

Cargo under sail is en vogue

In Europe, truly sailed products seem to be a bestseller recently and the demand is growing. Bockermann’s Avontuur is one of several sailing vessels in Europe used as freighters. The need for climate-friendly goods transport is increasing rapidly, so that it can no longer be covered by Avontuur alone. Since 2019, the crew around Captain Bockermann has been converting the three-masted ANNY VON HAMBURG (built in 1914) into a second freighter.

Another example is the Dutch company Tres Hombres operates the sailing vessels TRES HOMBRES and NORDLYS to transport sustainable products across the Atlantic. Especially in France, the demand for sailed products seems to be en vogue in recent times. Leading is the French company Schiffsmakler TOWT assigning up to ten traditional freighters to transport cargo throughout the year. Whether criticism of capitalism, climate protection, or the romance of ancient shipping are the driving force of ordering consumers – The demand for alternative, responsible, and sustainable means of transport is growing – although being less efficient.