Slow food, why not slow cargo? Can sustainable sail-powered transport ever hope to compete with ships? The Tres Hombres, a 32metre brigantine originally built as a fishing cutter which we have been reporting on for a couple of years, is still sailing between Europe and America carrying cargo successfully - and looking for trainees.
Mott Green and a couple of friends started their Grenada Chocolate Company in 1998 and have been transporting their chocolate to the markets with the Tres Hombres ever since.
For the previous couple of years, he’d already been transporting chocolate, stored in a small waterproof box and loaded onto his 13-foot catamaran, across 18 miles of open, rough seas to the nearby island of Carriacou, but in 2012, he decided to go to the next level; now it was time to go the distance.
'My dream of sailing chocolate bars across the Atlantic Ocean using wind power only—the first sustainable delivery of chocolate bars across the ocean—came true with no scary moments.'
In May 2012, the Grenada Chocolate Company had loaded 26,000 chocolate bars into the hull of Tres Hombres and set off for a two-month voyage to London, and then on to Amsterdam. The sailing delivery is part of an emerging slow-cargo movement, a natural next step for fair-trade companies that want to bring products to distant markets but care about the ecological impact of transport.
Tres Hombres - the loading process
Most of the bars were destined for the United Kingdom, but 3,000 bars went to the Dutch distributor, who organized a bicycle caravan to carry the chocolate bars the final 60 miles of the journey, from Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum, where the ship was docked, to the Dutch storage warehouse.
Right now, the quaint sailing vessel is in Barbados, causing passersby to ask many questions and take photographs.
The marriage between the Chocolate Company and the Dutch-owned Fairtransport company has been a fortuitous one.
Captain Arjen Vander Veen, 38, tells the story: 'We [he and his partners Jorne Langelaan and Andreas Lackner] found Tres Hombres abandoned in Holland in 2007 and we fell in love with her. Then, we built her up between 2007 and 2009 and since then she has been in the trade.'
Eight months of the year they transport cargo. This is their fourth Atlantic round trip, and Arjen is at the helm as captain for three months of the year.
The 32-metre-long ship with steel frames and wooden hull is propelled by pure sailing masts with a mast height of 24 metres. Three hundred and sixty square metres of sail make up about 20 sails when all sails are set.
They are proud of their chosen figurehead Serena, a woodcut figure standing out on the bow of the ship, 'the mermaid who lures sailors ashore'.
On this trip, there are 15 people on board 'from all wind directions' – Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, Canada – a 'nice international crew', as Arjen described them. The oldest is 67 and the youngest is 17-year-old Joel Martez, originally from Bonaire.
Joel was raised in Holland and Arjen explained: 'We have him on board as a youth-at-risk. We try to teach him manners and the trade. As a trainee, he has gone on board ‘through the hawsepipes’, the old saying for starting at the lowest ranks, and now after four months on board, he has settled into the routine with enthusiasm.'
The 15 on this trip comprise seven crew and eight passengers. Some people have paid for the experience and learning and they get sea time for the captain’s ticket qualification in return.
Trainees who want to join the Tres Hombres simply need 'good health and the right mentality'. They are advised that 'signing on means working hard and little or no privacy in exchange for a unique experience and adventure'.
'It is certainly a once in a lifetime experience for a person who wants to clear his brain and do a sabbatical on a ship,' Arjen said.
The current trainees have already had their share of adventure – the rescue of a 71-year-old yachtsman in the middle of the Atlantic.
Tres Hombres left Holland last October 10, and halfway across to the Caribbean, the ship received a call from the Coast Guard of Martinique advising there was a German yacht having trouble with its rudder. They were told theirs was the only ship in the vicinity that could help.
Arjen said they found the distressed yacht after 100 miles of changing course.
'We found the very small boat in the middle of the sea in two metres of waves. It was very hard to get to him. We threw him a tow line but he was so far gone he did not even know what to do with it.
'The poor man was 71 years old, skin over bone and he was not so strong anymore.'
He had been on a circumnavigation voyage, and when found, had been three weeks at sea alone, without a rudder.
Tres Hombres put two crew members on the yacht to attach the tow line and towed the yacht 900 miles over seven days to St Lucia.