Friday, July 17, 2015

Freight by Water Survives as Another Wind Powered Project Gets Under Way

Another Seminal Route Opens for Green Enthusiasts
Shipping News Feature

US – This weekend sees the arrival of the Tall Ships in Portland, Maine, with a host of celebratory events to suit all tastes, and additionally, a chance to visit the 131 foot schooner Harvey Gamage, due to sail on the inaugural voyage for the Maine Sail Freight Project, another bid to reintroduce wind power as a viable source of transporting commerce on American waterways. The Harvey Gamage, with her cargo of agricultural produce will head south toward the Long Wharf at Boston Harbor hopefully arriving on schedule on 29 August.

Behind the project is Greenhorns, a not for profit young farmers organisation which has worked previously with another green transport by water initiative, the Vermont Sail Freight Project which has been mentioned here previously. These laudable attempts to reintroduce environmentally sound shipping to US domestic waters face a raft of problems however and one can only wish them every success.

When the Vermont initiative settled on a design for the barge Ceres (based loosely on the Thames barges of a previous era) to carry goods there were initial design flaws following the necessity to settle for a newbuild to avoid the constricts of the Jones Act and the complexities of reregistering a pleasure vessel to become a commercial one, but the latest report from the operation speaks hopefully of future regular trips to New York city and even perhaps the Caribbean. As usual though with these schemes so much depends on the goodwill of sponsors and volunteers – not the best way to run a commercial enterprise, non-profit or not.

For these projects need more than a bunch of altruistic enthusiast to have the legs for the course. The Maine expedition hopes to enthuse anyone they meet en route with a ‘summer-long pageant‘, to celebrate the regional produce the ship carries. Meanwhile, 3,000 or so miles to the west, the Salish Sea Trading Cooperative works on a different principle, signing up private vessels to carry boxes of organic, seasonal vegetables between Ballard (Seattle) and Port Ludlow across the Puget Sound and charging individual customers per box delivered.

As environmental matters become even more crucial what is certain is that these projects each deserve the support of anyone who can afford it. And there may lie the problem, when an economy is strong and individuals comparatively well off, it is easy to take the honourable route. Unfortunately when one’s customers become cash strapped, support can vanish overnight as buyers settle for cheapness rather than the greener alternative.

The ship which the Maine Sail project is using is a case in point. Built at the Gamage yard in 1973 she was owned by the sadly now extinct Ocean Classroom foundation for 18 years until the project folded in 2014. A failed sale at auction saw her picked up by creditor and supporter Phineas Sprague Jr of Portland Yacht Services where restoration works were undertaken. She had previously schooled hundreds of students on semester, most of whom fondly remember her, but the economic realities of running a large sailing schooner finally came home to roost.

So while there is undoubtedly a place for wind powered freight by water, the speed of delivery, particularly when carrying perishable products, and the consequent increase in overheads, with faster transits offering more voyages in shorter times and less labour intensity, still means powered transport, whether overland or on the water, may be a better bet. It seems where wind driven craft projects are concerned small will continue to be beautiful in niche markets and wherever else this particular transport method manages to survive.

Photo: The Harvey Gamage under way.