14 October 2013

Freight by Water - Small Cargo Craft Making a Comeback in the USA  

From Thames Barges to Scows Off America's East Coast - There's Very Little New in Logistics

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US – It is over forty years since a Thames barge loaded up with a hundred tonnes of freight upriver at Tilbury and left to ply her way along the Essex and Suffolk coasts to the mouth of the River Orwell, finally to offload the last paying cargo aboard a type of vessel which had sailed the local waters for almost two centuries. Now preserved and raced annually in their home waters, 2013 saw the 150th anniversary of the first Thames Sailing Barge Match, part of this type of craft's unique design is now being utilised in a project across the Atlantic, in a bid to revive the small sailing vessel as a means of delivering goods to local communities.

Much smaller than her English predecessors, the Ceres, built and sailed by the Vermont Sail Freight Project may only be 39 feet overall, but with her flat bottom and use of leeboards she is capable, like the Thames barges, of travel in very shallow water, whilst her rigging is a further homage to the British craft’s design, a spritsail design which doubles as a derrick for hauling cargo and which can be lowered to pass under low bridges.

The Vermont project is designed to bring freight back onto the water, in small quantities it is to be admitted and no doubt will be viewed as a gimmick by some, but the principals have managed to get local farmers (ironically including some from Essex, New York state) to sign up and the vessel has a two man crew with an itinerary which sees her arriving in New York City Harbour before the end of October with thirteen scheduled ‘ports of call’ on her inaugural voyage.

Obviously with such a small payload (the last craft we wrote about with a smaller capacity was headed into space) this ship is not going to make a major impact on world trade. The point however is, like the brave (and ultimately) attempt undertaken by the Beluga ‘Sky Sails’ project the aim is to reduce the carbon footprint on a tiny part of the supply chain. The Ceres is taking finished goods at ambient temperatures to market, supplying small waterside local communities with produce along the banks of the Hudson River making locals aware that there is an alternative, albeit slower, to trucks on this small niche market.

The project was the brainchild of Erik Andrus who then enlisted assistance from the not-for-profit Willowell Foundation and is actually not the only such attempt at carbon reduced cargo carriage in the US, something which is still the standard in many ‘less civilised’ countries overseas. The Salish Sea Trading Cooperative, based in Ballard, Seattle sails the waters around the Puget Sound offering a similar service to the Vermont project taking items such as boxes of squash for local households and other projects such as Dragonfly Sail Transport on the shores of Lake Michigan are currently being established.

Photo: The Ceres at anchor after launching.

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