Almost everything you consume, from your weekly supermarket trip to the presents you order online, arrives by cargo ship. Shipping is the engine of the world economy, transporting eleven billion tonnes of goods each year. Despite the clear environmental crisis, shipping emissions have doubled since 1990 to more than one billion tonnes of CO2 – more than aviation, more than all of Germany, or even France, Britain, and Italy combined. As the shipping industry is forecast to grow threefold by 2050, full decarbonisation is urgent to limit catastrophic climate change. To understand whether there are any realistic alternatives to the polluting status quo of the container shipping industry, in 2020, Christiaan De Beukelaer spent 150 days as part of a sailing crew aboard the Avontuur, a century-old two-masted schooner fitted for cargo. This book recounts both this personal odyssey and the journey the shipping industry is embarking on to cut its carbon emissions. It shows that the Avontuur’s mission remains as crucial as ever: the shipping industry needs to cut its use of fossil fuels as soon as possible. Otherwise, we will face excessive global warming and the dire outcomes that will bring. The book explores our path to an uncertain future. It argues that shipping symbolises the kind of economy we’ve built: a gargantuan global machine that delivers the goods at an enormous environmental cost. Merely eliminating carbon emissions or improving efficiency won’t solve the underlying issue. If we can’t make shipping truly sustainable, we can’t solve the climate crisis.
In early 2020, Christiaan De Beukelaer embarked on the Avontuur, a hundred-year-old schooner as part of his research into the revival of wind-propelled cargo vessels. He follows in the footsteps of Richard Henry Dana Jr, Eric Newby, and Alan Villiers, who sailed on ‘working ships’ when they still transported goods across the oceans. While at sea, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which left seafarers, including the crew of the Avontuur, stranded aboard their ships.
Christiaan De Beukelaer joins the schooner Avontuur in Tenerife as a researcher studying the potential of traditional wind-propelled ships to help decarbonise the shipping industry. He signs on as a trainee crew member, standing watch eight hours a day to sail the hundred-year old ship across the Atlantic Ocean to pick up cargo in the Caribbean and Central America.
The enormous cargo ships that ply the oceans to deliver some 90 percent of everything we trade are more efficient than trains, trucks, and especially cargo planes. But despite the relatively low emissions shipping generates per unit shipped, the total emissions of the shipping industry exceed one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. This is more than all of Germany. It even exceeds the emissions of all passenger aircraft combined. This raises the question of what can be done to tackle the enormous emissions of an industry that drives global trade.
The trade winds have barely changed since humans first set sail. Nor have the physical principles of wind propulsion changed. Even the organisation of shipboard life in the twenty-first century closely resembles the lives described by Richard Henry Dana Jr, Eric Newby, and Alan Villiers. What has changed is that we’re now in a race against climate change to transform the shipping industry more quickly than it ever has in history. As we sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, in an attempt to change the world, the world itself had changed due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the Avontuur called in at Honduras, Belize, and Mexico to load cargoes of green coffee and cacao beans, it became clear that we would not be allowed to disembark for shore leave, let along crew change. When in ports, the sheer scale of the global shipping industry became apparent. Would transporting a negligible amount of luxury products to well-meaning European consumers make a difference that’s worth the effort of spending months at sea?
Veracruz marked a turning point in the voyage. It was the furthest port where we loaded cargo, after which our return voyage started. Leaving the Gulf of Mexico wasn’t easy, on account of fickle winds. The changing weather and extended time at sea had changed the mood on board, but we had little choice other than to work together to bring the ship, her cargo, and her crew safely back to German shores.
The Gulf of Mexico is littered with oil platforms, bringing the scale of the extractive nature of the modern world into stark reality for us. And we, aboard the Avontuur, had great difficulty leaving the Gulf under sail as she does not sail well upwind. This left us sailing in seemingly endless circles, while the hurricane season was inching closer.
Ships are self-contained miniature worlds. Everything you need has to be on board, as one cannot simply run to the shops to get more. The sailor Ellen MacArthur has become a tireless advocate of the circular economy after retiring from her professional sailing career. We, too, realised just how finite shipboard resources are when confronted with rapidly diminishing food stores, which forced us to ration food.
After fifty days at sea since leaving Veracruz, we reached Horta where we were granted shore leave. Arriving on land amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, which seemed to have superseded the climate crisis, left me wondering: where exactly are we collectively headed? And will sailing goods across the ocean help us get there?