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With increasing fossil fuel scarcity and its accompanying inexorable price increases, it only stands to reason that sail will once again rule the waves of commerce.

For a quick primer and recap on peak oil and its implications read the remarkably prescient 1972 report by the Club of Rome “The limits to Growth”. Google it. They also published a newer revised edition which is worth reading, with refined projected trends.

More recently, the excellent hirsch report spells out the issue of peak and subsequently declining world fossil fuel energy and its implications.

Also this peak resources site has a good concise overview of peak everything.

I also wrote a quick primer on the issue here.


So i present a few present day sailing commercial ventures;

Tres Hombres hauled out

Notice the conspicuously absent propellor!

An oceanic schooner that has been operating for the last three years now under sail only and thus proving that it is economically feasible is “Tres Hombres” pictured above. From their site ;

«A load of organic products
She can carry a cargo load of 45 tonnes, which was unloaded the conventional way with pulleys and cargo boom by the ship’s colorful captain Arjen van der Veen, and the crew. He and his partners Andreas Lackner and Jorn Langelaan are behind this Dutch initiative, which is now realized with this ship, aptly named, “Tres Hombres”.»

and you can see their itinerary here; tres hombres  itinerary

Modern small Thames Barge

Ceres dockside.

Another sailboat that is proving to earn its way in a consistent way, altough on the inland waterways is the Ceres, a  Vermont sail freight project, a kind of miniature modern hard chine version of a Thames Barge called “Ceres”, which can transport up to 10 tons , if i remember right.

Another site encouraging putting sailboats to use moving freight is the sail transport network.

Project greenheart design

Proposed project greenheart design.

Then we have the green heart project;

«The Idea
is to create a new type of low-cost, zero-emissions small cargo ships that use environmentally clean and sustainable sail and solar power, to provide needy coastal communities around the world with an affordable means of transport. Such ships can help impoverished coastal and island regions improve their standards of living, while preserving their traditions and protecting the environment. In addition, we will use the publicity generated by such an inspiring enterprise, to promote Fair Trade, renewable energy and international cooperation»

Gaia's dream proa

Gaia’s dream, a modern cargo proa

Another brand new project is the 21.6 M proa “Gaia’s dream” meant for sail transport in the pacific.

Saveiros in Bahía.

Saveiros in Bahía.

In many areas of the world, working sail persists to this day albeit in diminished form. One of many worldwide examples is the Brazilian Saveiro, used for general cargo in the state of Bahía. In Bahia de todos os Santos, there used to be 1400 of them transporting produce, sugar, lumber etc. Now they number but twenty, but they still are gainfully employed. Once a year they gather for a spirited race. I found the Saveiro “È da Vida” is for sale for 80 000 R . That price tag suggests to me that they are still quite appreciated.

Saveiro o È da Vida

O “È da Vida” na venda.


I myself have been compiling data on the cost of transport by truck (which is notoriously inefficient) along the eastern Brazilian coast, by rate of ton mile. At the same time, i’m drawing up a design for a “fruit schooner” * for transporting produce & other items along this same coast and gradually putting together an estimate of its cost of construction as well as running costs, to see how it compares economically against transport by trucks. Any sources of data sent to me would be appreciated. When i am done with the report i will post my findings here.

Cargo schooner

Preliminary croquis of the 20 M fruit schooner intended for transporting up to 25 tons of produce.

Note that there are a few errors in the above crude rendering. It is just a preliminary version of the design to have something to refine the calculations with at this stage.


Global decline and sailboats brings us to the concept of sailboats as “survival pods” allowing hasty escape from areas that plunge into violent crisis. Long term though, all boats are dependant on the land for resources; food grown on the land, and maintenance materials for the boat. Barring those that have enough savings to live on for extended periods, this implies that the boat must be economically productive enough to pay its way.  A number of present day cruisers sustain themselves by writing, which is a line of work that is independant of location. Others offer portside itinerant services, most usually repair and maintenance of other boats, but which can be almost anything that uses a toolset that is small enough as to fit in the boat. Neither of these strictly require a boat though, meaning the boat is merely a mobile home, not fully realizing the potential inherent in it being a boat.

What you don’t see much of is cruisers running cargo, but it may well be a practical option for living on the water in an economically sustainable way, either on spec or as a tramper, but this does require a boat that can do this practically, and most yachts are hopelessly unsuitable for the task. Designs for cruising sailboats that can also easily transport merchandise may therefore be of value in coming decades.


* What i call it a fruit schooner is something like the ‘banana boats’ of the Caribbean of yesteryear with simple, practical, handy and fast small cargo boats for general transport. transporting perishables obviously implies consistent speed is an important design feature.


Regrettably i may be posting erratically for the next few weeks if at all as i have terminated my internet contract and am deep into getting the boat ready for turning over this last chapter. But in a couple of months or so i should be back to weekly postings. Those curious to find out if it was one leaky boat adventure too many or not can subscribe and get notified when the posts resume.

planet finite diameter

Non infinite planet

Enough with reminiscing for now, lets look instead at the present and the future. This post is not one I have been looking forward to since the topic invariably raises peoples intellectual defense mechanisms, so I’ll try to keep it short and straight to the point. Besides, there is an enormous amount of information on the subject of oil, energy and modern civilzation on the net already. The point of the post is more of a summary of the situation and its intersection with boats.

It’s no secret that modern civilization relies on petroleum, but it’s easy through habituation to forget at what point.

For instance; there’s a high chance that the clothes you’re wearing are at least partially made from synthetic fibres, made from petroleum. Even if you’re wearing all cotton or linen clothes, those crops were undoubtedly nourished with synthetically made nitrogen, sprayed with pesticides made from petroleum, the fields mechanically tilled by machinery that runs on petroleum. Then the fibres are irrigated, harvested, processed, transported, woven and sewn with yet more machinery all ultimately running on fossil fuel energy.

The computer you’re reading this on is made from metals mined with machinery running on petroleum and plastics made from petroleum. A comparable amount of energy goes into building the computer as it will use during its lifetime.

Cars are much the same except worse.

Of greatest concern of all, food has become extremely reliant on petroleum. Depending on which study you read, between 10 and 14 calories of fossil fuel energy goes into producing one calorie of food. This is a less than parity EroEI (energy returned on energy invested) which is clearly untenable, but which has permitted, temporarily, for us to vastly exceed the earth’s normal carrying capacity.

Indeed, there are very few things left in modern society that does not depend in some way on fossil fuels.

rate pop growth vs per capita oil

Rate of world population growth
upper graph aligned with
per capita world oil extraction rates
lower graph

A useful mental exercise is visualizing how far your car can go with just one litre of fuel. Then imagine you have to push the same car that same distance, up and downhill. There is a lot of energy in that litre of fuel!

Then think that we burn more than 70 million barrels every day to power our industrial society… This is a staggering amount of added energy. It is only because of this that we have an industrial society at all.

There is a tremendous amount of unrealistic wishful thinking that goes on in the attempt to believe otherwise; that we will be able to transition to alternative energy sources and carry on with all the energy hungry modern technological marvels, but this does not stand up to closer analysis. A typical reaction is “I’m sure they’ll think of something” which is about the least useful response possible. This not only downplays the gravity of the situation but also reveals humanity’s hubris and arrogance.

The main issue is that of exergy. Fossil fuels have remarkably high levels of exergy, as the mental exercise of pushing the car illustrates. There is ample total energy in renewable, but the exergy is nowhere near high enough to be a reasonable replacement for fossil fuels.

Simply put, the only energy that we can use sustainably in the long term, is a small fraction of the total solar energy throughput that falls on our orb. And fossil fuels are nothing other that stored solar energy accumulated through millions of years of minutely imbalanced biological energy flows. Energy that we are using in a blink of an eye compared to the time it took to accumulate. There we come to the crux of the matter; we have become accustomed to a situation which is by definition unsustainable, and no amount of denial will make that fact go away.

Energy can neither be created or destroyed, only transformed from one form to another form and this is crucial to understand. What happens instead is that as any process is performed by high exergy energy the energy gets transformed into different forms always of lower exergy. This is the conclusion of the second law of thermodynamics. In other words, the same amount (almost exactly) of energy shines onto the daylight side of the planet from Sol as our planet radiates away on the night side. The big difference though, is that the exergy of the outflowing energy is always lower than that of the inflowing energy.

Our planet is finite and thus contains finite amounts of every resource. The rate of usage of every non renewable resource (and even renewable resources whenever the rate of consumption is sufficiently greater than the rate of renewal) tends to follow a roughly bell shaped curve. Over half of the world’s oil producing countries have already peaked and have declining production rates. Conventional global crude peaked around 2005 which caused a persistent increase in the price of crude, allowing previously economically non-viable fields to be exploited. This then has created a certain plateau to world oil production, at the expense of future decline rates. Cantarell oil fields in Mexico is a good example of this process at work at smaller scale. They were able to extend the peak using unconventional means, but when the decline finally came it was precipitous.

The EIA and IEA Have been quietly revising their projected date of expected world peak oil for the last few years, reflecting the dawning realization that the day has come and it is us, rather than the not yet born that will have to deal with this.

Oil production vs price

Oil production vs price

The above plot should be reminder enough that economics is a subset of environment, not the other way around… No matter how high the price goes, physical laws refuse to concede to economic fanatsies.

When the predominant form of energy peaks it tends to put pressure on other sources of non renewables making them peak sooner in turn.

Nuclear power needs uranium or other unstable elements which itself will peak soon (uranium ores are already becoming very poor) and mining uranium itself requires petroleum. Additionally, nuclear power plants take over a decade to bring online and at enormous monetary and energy cost. In fact, the only way nuclear power is economically feasible is through government subsidies and by working symbiotically with the nuclear arms industry.

Besides, de we really want the next ~100 000 generations curse us for leaving behind impossible to dispose of toxic waste just for the sake of running AC units etc for ours and maybe one more generation?

Nuclear fusion I think can be safely relegated to the aptly named “vaporware” closet, after the better part of a century spent investing enormous resources into researching nuclear fusion, the solving of the immense technical difficulties remain perpetually over the horizon..

Coal will peak too in the not too distant future, and dirtily.

Gas the same but cleaner.

Tidal energy is interesting, although it also requires a large energy investment, and may well prove to be a false avenue once fossil energy subsides are no longer available or are being used on other more urgent applications.

Geothermal can also be useful, but only in places where the subsurface temperature gradient is steep enough for the energy investedto be a sufficiently small fraction of the energy payback over the lifetime of the heat well.

Biomass, wind energy, solar power, hydro and wave energy are all ultimately derived from the energy of the sun. As such, there are very definite limits to how much can be extracted, nevertheless, this is about our only viable long term strategy. Remember that biomass means without any fossil fuel inputs, otherwise it is just fossil energy transformed, and that usually at a loss! In practice, and for most applications, the most efficient use of cropland is to fuel humans with food. Solar panels are massively over rated. Their EroEI is quite poor and can really only be justified for specialized applications, such as boats where space and weight are very limited. Wherever weight and space are not at such a premium (industrial, residential rather than on board transport) it makes much more economical sense to use solar thermal rather than photovoltaic.

It is important not to be fooled by claims to the contrary; there is no way we can maintain present day energy use into the future.

That is why this is a predicament, not a problem. Problem implies solution.

However, that is not to say that there aren’t plenty of worthwhile mitigating strategies that one can apply, and despite the inevitable process of technological triage in the decades and centuries to come, there are useful and low energy technologies which can and ought to be preserved moving forward.


So what does all this have to do with boat design?

A lot actually.

There are a great many ‘modern’ boats which will be seen as curious relics of a by gone age within a generation or two. The first to go extinct will be the highest energy consuming boats, of course, but a lot of standard design and material choices which are commonplace nowadays will soon feel the squeeze too.

wake monster

Only with plenty of cheap fuel can something like this exist

Here is a short list of the embodied energies per mass of some common boat building materials in MJ/kg. The ranges represent the spread depnding on source of information and their method of calculation.


Titanium                                                       361 – 745

Aluminium sheet, virgin, sheet                 160 – 217

Aluminium sheet, recycled, sheet            14.8 – 27.8

Epoxy resin                                                         ~125

Fiberglass cloth                                                  ~55

GRP composite  approx                                  100

Bronze                                                                 77

Stainless Steel                                                    57

Lead                                                                  35.1

Steel , virgin                                                    25 – 35

Plywood                                                           10 – 14

Timber, softwood air dried, roughsawn    0.3 – 7.4

Timber, hardwood air dried, roughsawn   0.5 – 7.8


These numbers agree to a certain extent with the graph of per capita oil above, when one considers when the different materials became commonplace boat building materials.

The other side of energy use is energy used to operate during lifetime.

Here the first line of adaptation will be towards greater efficiency. Huge motors pushing motorboats that have more than a passing hydrodynamic resemblance to household appliances will get rarer with each passing decade. Most cargo ships are already very efficient, but yachts and most ferries can be tremendously improved in terms of efficiency. Another thing will be the trend towards slower speeds. Resistance is roughly proportional to speed squared, while passage time is inversely proportional to speed. Fuel consumption is proportional to power neededwhich is speed times resistance, so fuel consumption is proportional to speed cubed. Therefore a lot less fuel gets used when going slowly, despite spending more time powering. We can already see this trend with large commercial ships; the so called ‘slow steaming’ approach.

It’s pretty much a given that sailing will become more and more used as it’s comparative economic viability improves.

Eventually motors themselves will become rare, although this will take a long time still and potentially heat engines will never completely disappear evn if they are limited to special uses where the energy equations make sense despite there being no more fossilized sunlight to exploit.

Welcome to the new paradigm.

A bottom completely free of extraneous items.

A bottom completely free of extraneous items.

It is probably worth writing a post here early on to correct any misconceptions people might have about me or might start getting as they read further posts. It arises due to me sailing up till now in certain ways and on certain kinds of boats which are deeply unfashionable.

The misconception in question is that I am somehow a “purist” and possibly even smug about it. This, however is untrue; I sail without an engine for practical reasons, and am not at all opposed to engines. In fact, my next boat may very well be a motorboat, and I relish the thought of making passages without having to go and hand a sail on a spray lashed deck in the pitch black night.

First, I’ll elaborate on why I do not have an engine on my boat.

A sailboat with an auxiliary engine is under quite a severe performance handicap. The prop of course creates a considerable amount of resistance, especially if it is allowed to turn, as some captains do on purpose, believing the opposite to be true. Even the folding props, whilst clearly presenting far less resistance than a fixed blade propeller, still creates a certain amount of unnecessary resistance.

Then there is the weight issue. If an engine is fitted to a boat not conceived for one, the weight balance will be wrong, and even if ballast can be shifted and some removed, the overall distribution of mass will be negatively affected for sailing performance. On the other hand, if the engine is designed in, there will be certain design concessions made in terms of displacement and volume for the engine, which will also be deviations from the optimum for sailing performance.

Lastly, on full keel boats, there is the keel and/or rudder aperture for the propeller which has extremely detrimental effects on performance and handling.

All this is rarely appreciated nowadays since auxiliary engines have become the absolute default option. However, the difference is quite marked. In the twilight years of the old windjammers, many of those majestic ships were fitted with auxiliary engines, to rely less on tugs in tight quarters, to manage with less crew, and especially to push the boat through calms, which large sailing ships are particularly vulnerable to. The average passage times increased, however, despite the fact that they now could power through the calms.

It may be worth noting at this point, that auxiliaries in sailboats appeared first in working boats, which could justify the initial cost and running expenses, by reducing crew and supposed passage times in order to raise the overall profitability of the boat. The rise of the industrial age, powered by fossil fuels, gave birth to the era of the the steamship and this in turn put huge economic pressure on working sail.

It was not to be until after the second world war that pleasure boats started installing auxiliaries in earnest. This was therefore also when sailors’ proficiency started to plunge. Before then, it was very rare indeed. When my father was learning to sail, just before the war, there was just one yacht in the fjord which had recently installed one, much to the mirth of all the other sailors. They would watch it sail in and make endless fun of its plainly apparent compromised sailing performance.

Another downside to an auxiliary is cost. Engines are expensive pieces of machinery and being extremely complex require specific maintenance, without which they fail to work in short order. Even under an impeccable schedule of maintenance, they eventually break down due to ordinary wear and tear, requiring expensive replacement parts and specialized (read: expensive) knowledge. All this is before even considering the ongoing cost of fuel and oil which is only going to get more expensive as time goes on.

Then we have the lack of autonomy that the auxiliary entails; Replacement parts are not usually self buildable, forcing one to rely on complex supply lines, which may well be non existent in many of the world’s far flung places. Most of the repair work requires an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of marine engines, and unless one has spent the considerable time and effort to learn all of this, forces one to rely on expensive marine mechanics, which again, may not be available in many interesting places.

As if all that was not enough, there is yet another downside; the auxiliary takes up a lot of room. On the Oasis, for instance, the space that may have been used for a motor is our bunk, so the bunk does not have to take up more valuable space elsewhere. On the Melody (the boat I single-handed across the pond) the place where the motor was became a large storage area for water jugs and reserve food.

Lastly, though this is a minor point; no engine means no foul oil in the bilges!

As I hope can be seen, I have very valid reasons for not wanting an auxiliary on my sailboat.

However there are always counter arguments, and I will try to address the most commonly raised ones now.

One of the most common objections is the time I must waste in calms, not infrequently voiced, without a trace of irony, from people who have been waiting weeks and months for certain spare parts to arrive for their own motor!

To this I explain that a good sailing boat, with a proper amount of sail area, is very rarely becalmed. In point of fact, over the 70 000 plus sea miles I have covered, I have only been becalmed on a few occasions amounting to a total of less than twenty four hours. Note that becalmed means to have lost steerage-way. Sailing along softly in very light winds is far more common and of course these same conditions may well mean being becalmed for less well canvassed, propeller dragging sailboats.

The "Elf" all sail set.

The “Elf” all sail set.

These boats all have enough sail to not have a problem in light wind.

These boats all have enough sail to not have a problem in light wind.

Then there is the how do I manoeuvre into harbours question. First off, it is crucial to have a boat which is well mannered and easy to handle. Many modern yachts are so deficient in this regard that they do indeed require an auxiliary for manoeuvres. Common flaws are huge overlapping foresails which are awkward to tack and tiny mainsails on very short booms which are almost completely ineffective as an air rudder.

Secondly, there is the knowledge of the technique . One must know how to sail. Really know how to sail. Not only that, but have an good deal of experience so as to be be able to correctly anticipate the boat’s reaction in all different situations, how much way on is needed to make a desired point when rounding up with different wind and waves. All this takes time and effort of course, although I’m tempted to believe less time than that required for really understanding marine mechanics.

The crucial thing here is understanding how to operate your machine. If you have a sailboat, take the time to practice. Hire a sailing instructor to get valuable insight and correct flaws in your technique. Read books on sailing, especially the book from the Glenans sailing school. Practice some more. Learn other techniques, such as warping, kedging, sculling, drudging, leebowing the current etc.. And then practice some more.

I learnt all these techniques as a boy on L’ Artemis de Pytheas, which had no engine, and being 15 meters long plus the 4 meter bowsprit and overhanging boom (or bumpkin on later rigs) made for quite a lot of boat to manoeuvre in tight quarters.

On a commercial motorboat there is a full time mechanic who ensures there is never any downtime due to mechanical faults, so it only stands to reason that at least one person on a sailboat is fully competent.

Now you see here a curious phenomenon; people buy a sailboat fitted with an auxiliary to compensate for the fact that they do not in fact know how to sail properly. However, not many captains can really tear apart their auxiliary engines and be fully confident of being able to put it back together again in a better state than before, so we have a lack of knowledge at both ends while at the same time more expense (rig + engine) and dependency on specialized work (riggers + marine mechanics) as well as maximizing complexity, purportedly to facilitate boat handling but at the expense of greater vulnerability to systems breakdown .

This in turn has created a vicious circle; Captains never learn how to sail in tight quarters, since they take all sail down long before entering any harbour, losing all chance to gain that crucial experience. Designers, knowing that people do not bother trying to sail in light winds cut down the sail plans so it then becomes necessary to have and use the auxiliary in light airs. Furthermore, little thought is given to making the boat easy to handle, since again, the presumption is that the auxiliary will always be used in tricky situations.

Sometimes I hear that sailing into harbours at the turn of the century was easier then because there were fewer boats, but I disagree. Harbours back then were just as crowded, sometimes more so.

Sometimes I get accused of irresponsibility, that sailing a sailing boat without an engine is somehow dangerous. This last point comes inevitably from a serious deficit of comprehension of what sailing is about, but is also a more subtle concept to overstand. It must be remembered that boats have been sailing around for millennia without engines.

The basic principles of sailing cautiously are unfortunately abandoned with a sort of blind faith that the engine will be able to pull them out of difficulties.

A notable example comes to mind, although it is far from being an isolated case;

The wreck of the ‘Maria Assumpta‘ in 1995 on the north Cornish coast is a noteworthy case of how an auxiliary can actually encourage reckless behaviour. Here the Captain believed he could get away with poor seamanship as in sailing far too close to a lee shore because he could always turn on the motors and power out of difficulties, however, when he did start up the engines the engines quit on him at a critical moment and he had not allowed enough room for neither tacking nor wearing ship. Had he not had auxiliaries it would have been plainly apparent from the beginning that sailing that close to a lee shore was absolutely suicidal. Three out of the fourteen on board died due to this error of judgement.

All this tends to make people think I am rabidly anti engines, so let me now explain why this is not the case either.

There are situations in which an auxiliary engine in a sailboat is appropriate. Also, motorboats themselves have many worthwhile advantages over sailing boats.

Good reasons for having an auxiliary engine on a sailboat are not having enough manpower for the boat in question or a large sailing ship having to sail to ports which do not have any tug boat service.

It is a little known fact that here was actually a time when there were sailing tugboats. I remember seeing a painting of a dutch harbour scene where two sailing tugboats are pulling a sailing ship, itself under reduced sail, into harbour. Maybe someone can point me to a similar image?

Motor-yachts have a lot going for them too; as long as the engines are kept in good working order, motor boats involve very little effort to operate, contrary to sailing boats. There is no tending to the sails at all hours of day and night and in any sea and weather conditions. They have the capacity for fast passage times and can schedule arrival times almost irrespective of weather.

It ought to be mentioned here that for all the attempts at making sailing as effortless as possible with gadgets and new technology (a lot of which cause more problems than they solve) sailing continues to be an arduous undertaking, involving a great deal of physical effort and stress. This is not a popular notion, nowadays many seem convinced that sailing, through the miracle of modern technology, has somehow become sanitized, eliminating the often brutal business of sailing to the point where any-one can partake. The result is quite often crushed expectations, when newbies encounter their first bit of adverse conditions. More often than not, in practice though, most sailing is in fact confined to extremely small geographical areas, as well as very limited time frames – when the weather is optimum only.

Furthermore, I contend that a large proportion of sailyacht owners would have done much better obtaining an efficient motoryacht, which would have been far more appropriate for the actual end use of the boat. I cannot count how many times I have seen sailing yachts being motored over quite long distances with all sails furled. Not just upwind, but many, many times downwind, and that in absolutely perfect weather conditions. Clearly these people got the wrong boat. Rigs are expensive, sailboats need a lot of lead ballast, generally a fair bit of draft; none of which is helpful for motoring.

So bad has this become we even see the ongoing trend of “powering up”; putting larger and larger auxiliaries in sailing boats, when they were for all practical purposes already motorsailors.

The way I personally define a motorsailor is any boat which gets similar or better overall performance under power than under sail. Of course the ‘overall’ means there is a certain amount of subjectivity but it still serves as a rough guide to categorizing boats. It can be seen that nowadays, if my definition is used, most sailboats are in fact motorsailors. And so it makes sense why so many “sailboats” are being motored around; after all why go through all the effort of setting sail when you’ll only end up going slower?!

I know I sure would not bother setting sails on such a boat either.

The bottom line in all this is that good design is about honest and appropriate solutions to anticipated needs for specific applications.

If you are really into sailing, why would you want to ruin the sailing qualities of a good sailing boat with extra expense and headaches?

If you want to cruise in comfort why would you want to bother pretending otherwise with an expensive sailing rig, which will almost never get used anyways?

If you want to sail under optimal conditions, and otherwise motor, or motorsail to windward every beat, be honest with yourself and get a well designed motorsailer that does not pretend to be something else.

Having both motor and sails can be just as much “the worst of both worlds” as “the best of both worlds”. A configuration that I think is under represented nowadays, but which deserves greater promotion as an appropriate solution to the real end use of most cruising boats is the efficient motorboat with auxiliary sails. But i’ll leave that for a future post.


Whenever i'm in a harbour