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The Reintroduction of Sail for Marine Commerce

Bruce George Koltz, LCDR, USN
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Indiana 1980

"This is the meadow where we came upon those gay shepherdesses and gallant shepherds who were trying to revive and imitate the pastoral Arcadia there, an idea as novel as it was happy."

In 1980 several noted railroad technical experts met to form a new company, American Coal Enterprises, with the goal of designing and producing modern steam locomotives that could compete with diesel-electrics in power and economy. With the backing of the great coal hauling railroads CSX and Burlington Northern and the premiere producer of industrial boilers, Babcock & Wilcox, hopes were high that a technologically advanced steam locomotive could break the hegemony of the EMD GP-40.

A technology generally achieves it peak development just as it is being snuffed out by a succeeding technology. The great ocean liners of the postwar period, the Queen Elizabeth II, the France, the Andrea Doria, and many sisters, exceeded all earlier vessels in size, speed and luxury - and came on the scene just as the jet airliner was obsoleting every passenger liner on the oceans of the earth. The incredibly powerful, efficient and advanced steam locomotives of the Pocohantas coal carriers were not enough to stem the tide of dieselization on America's railroads. And earlier in the century, just now slipping out of living memory, steamships irrevocably supplanted the last and greatest of the cargo-carrying sailing ships - the windjammers.

Or did they?

Every few years it seems that a proposal comes up to return commercial sailing vessels to the sea. I recently had the pleasure of reading the Master's Thesis of Bruce George Koltz, submitted to the School of Architecture of Notre Dame University, in 1980. This interesting paper surveys the historical development of commercial sail through its last years in the early 20th century, and then touches on current developments of the day. It concludes with a section on weather routing, a topic in its infancy in 1980, that has come into its own in recent years - not for commercial sail, but for blue-water yachting. As far as commercial sail goes, we can look at the proposals of 1980 and see what has become of them in the 30 plus years that have passed - essentially, nothing. Koltz considers the case of the Berta of Ibiza, a three-masted schooner that made at least two commercial voyages in the late 1970s and then disappeared into the shades of time. He proceeds to the ill-fated John F. Leavitt, a two-masted schoner built new in 1979 at the reputed cost of a half million dollars by a quixotic owner caught up in the romance of the writer John F. Leavitt's book, In the Wake of the Coasters. The John F. Leavitt quite literally vanished, sinking about 300 miles off the coast of New York in the first days of it's first commercial voyage. The crew was taken off by helicopter at no loss of life. Writing in 1980, Koltz says "The loss of John F. Leavitt should not be considered a setback for modern attempts at commercial sail", but from the current vantage point it is clear that the whole affair did great damage to the movement to return sail to ocean shipping. Koltz next considers the efforts of Ocean Carriers Corporation, then planning to operate an existing three-masted schooner as a test bed for building a much larger vessel. He presents this as good as a done deal, but evidently nothing came of it, as a Google search yields nary a sign.

These three efforts constituted the traditionalist approach to return sail to the sea - they essentially attempted to turn back the clock and reinstitute the technology and methodology of the late 1800s. Koltz goes on to study what might be called "Windjammer Updated", a proposal by an English firm to build a huge five-masted barque, twice the size of the Laeisz Line's Pruessen, the largest and most technologically advanced sailing ship ever built. The new vessel would have auxiliary diesels to drive it when there was no wind and a host of modern gadgetry to minimize labor needs. Koltz notes "Finding a financial backer among the conservative shipowner community is apparently proving difficult." Not surprisingly, this proposal has gone nowhere.

Koltz gives considerable verbiage to Blondie Hasler's proposals for small junk-rigged coastal trading vessels. I would assume that all sailors would recognize the name of Hasler, the inventor of the first practical self-steering gear and one of the greats of the sailing community. Hasler was an engineer and problem-solver of the first order, and if anyone could develop a viable commercial sailing vessel it would have been him. The problem as I see it is there is simply little or no demand for small scale coastal shipping in modern economies.

That ends the section on traditional plans with technological embellishments. Next is a look at some very technologically advanced proposals. German engineer Wilhelm Proelss's concept ship incorporated rotating masts, inner mast furling, and aerofoil sails, ideas which have in recent years been enthusiastically adopted by racing yachts of the highest order. On the other hand, nobody has made much use of a design for a windmill-powered vessel proposed by a professor at the University of Southampton. The blades of the windmill towered 550 feet above the waterline, restricting the vessel from entering any bridged port in the world - even the Golden Gate clears just 230 feet This proposal is more on the order of a thought-experiment than a practical design. On the other end of the spectrum is a proposal for a small catamaran which could be used as fishing boat or for tourist excursions, but this, however practical, is getting out of the realm of commercial sailing ships. Koltz's paper quickly gets back to the bizarre, outlining the plans of a Massachusetts corporation to produce "Ocean Arks", "sailing with cargos of living plants and animals."

The next section discusses ideas for using sails as added free power on conventional vessels. Most of these ideas are in the academic stage, but evidently at least one oil rig was equipped with auxiliary sails to aid the tug in moving it to its position in the North Sea.

Next up are the tables, charts and diagrams to prove sail fully competitive with motor, just as inexpensive to build, and more economical to run. Koltz expects that adoptation of sail will allow for a renaissance of small ports and coastal trade. He notes that President Carter is receptive to construction subsidies for bulk carriers, just the kind of cargo that would be suited for sailing ships, and he calls on farsighted investors to build a fleet of windjammers to break our dependence on foreign oil.

And that brings us to the crux of the argument, either for wind-powered ships or coal powered steam engines. The first OPEC oil shock was in 1973. More were to follow. The President declared the quest for energy independence to be "the moral equivalent of war." By 1980, the Arcadians were proposing a new fleet of windjammers to sail the seas, and massive, computer-controlled steam locomotives to haul coal to the Newport News docks.

Over the years, we learned to cope with ever more expensive oil, but the anachronistic schemes of 1980 had no role to play. Coal is cheap and wind is free, but I don't expect to see commercial steam locomotives or windjammers in my lifetime.

Mr. Koltz's thesis can be accessed here.

Reviewed by Paul M. Clayton