Last month the British sailing ship Irene, a 1907 West Country trading ketch bought and restored by owner Dr Leslie Morrish in 1965 and restored again after a fire in 2003, set off from Plymouth on what may turn out to be an historic attempt to set the model for the return of sail power for cargo transport.
Irene: "She’ll be happier doing a proper job again"
Over the next four months or so, according to a report in the Guardian, Irene and its crew will carry organic beer from Devon to France, olive oil from Spain to Brazil and then – all being well – bring cocoa, coffee, Amazonian 'superfoods' and rum from South America and the Caribbean back to the UK.
Not that it will be rowed, as most such sailing vessels were in the past, into and out of harbours - the ship's diesel engine will be fired up to do that. But for the rest is will use merely the power of the trade winds to cross the Atlantic.
The hope is that, with this symbolic season of journeys, Irene – a lovely wooden sailing ship built to transport bricks and tiles – will blaze a trail for other wind-powered cargo ships.
The project, New Dawn Traders, was hatched by Jamie Pike, a Bristol environmentalist and champion of the slow food movement. He wanted to find a way of bringing goods back from South America under sail and approached Irene's owner, Leslie Morrish, a retired psychiatrist who spent years restoring the vessel and keeping it at sea.
The finances did not add up for a one-way journey, just as they don't for one-way aviation or road transport. It would have cost Pike £100,000 to charter the boat, a sum he simply did not have, but then Irene's captain, Laurance Ottley, met someone in the olive oil business and came up with the idea of sailing a consignment out to Brazil (which has a growing appetite for luxury goods thanks to a booming economy) and letting Pike fill the boat up with goods for the return trip.
Dropping off 2,500 bottles of organic ale from Devon for beer-loving Bretons was another wheeze designed to add profit to the enterprise.
A 10-strong international crew has been recruited, including a French paramedic and a Finnish shipwright. Morrish, now in his 70s, will be on board, as will Pike. Ottley, more used to dealing with the likes of Mick Jagger and Pierce Brosnan than a load of olive oil, will skipper the vessel.
For Pike, this trip, which began on Valentine's Day, is about romance but also about getting an important environmental message out. 'It's great to be doing this romantic trip on a lovely old ship,' he told the Guardian before the ship sailed. 'But there's a bigger debate to be had about shipping in general. Is there an alternative to huge polluting cargo ships? We want to help launch that debate.'
The Irene and her dedicated crew are not the only one seeking solutions to the great fuel dilemma.
As previously reported in Sail-World, there are some interesting schemes in the offing aimed at creating wind-powered cargo vessels. A British company called B9 Shipping, for example, is aiming to produce a fleet of Flagships of the Future – cargo ships using wind and renewable energy. Sailors in France and the Netherlands are hatching schemes similar to the New Dawn Traders. On a local level, there are examples in south-west England of goods being moved up river and along the coast by sail.
Another member of Irene's crew, Lucy Gilliam, a former government environmental scientist, said she hoped the voyage could help provide a 'narrative' for the story of trade by wind power.
'People aren't really aware of the damage these huge cargo ships are doing to the planet,' she told the Guardian. 'There needs to be a great story to get a popular movement going. People are inspired by tall ships. There's something magical in seeing a tall ship in a harbour or at sea.'
Up until recently, Irene has been used for charter trips around the Mediterranean for the rich and famous. The ship's captain Laurance Ottley, who has already spent seven years on these charters thinks Irene will be much happier in her new task.
'I believe it'll be happier doing what it's designed to do rather than pampering to the desires of billionaires. It will be doing proper work again.'