In 2011, Gavin Allwright was living in a village outside Fukushima, Japan, with his wife and three children, when a powerful tsunami destroyed the coastline, splintering homes into debris, crashing a 150-foot fishing boat into the roof of his wife’s parents’ house and setting off a power-plant accident that became the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
Allwright had a background in sustainable development, especially as it relates to shipping. In his travels in East Africa and Bangladesh, he had watched traditional sails and masts replaced by outboard motors. The move locked people into a cycle of working to buy fuel, damaging their lives and the environment. In Japan, Allwright had been living a quiet life, running a sustainable farm and dabbling in consulting. Now, it seemed, environmental disaster had followed him there.
To escape the aftermath, the family moved to Allwright’s hometown on the outskirts of London. But Allwright couldn’t stop thinking about the Fukushima disaster. To him, it was a dramatic display of technology going wrong, further proof that the world we built is unsustainable.
He thought about shipping. It produces 2.9 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, almost as much as the entire continent of South America. With every country benefiting from global trade, it could be argued that shipping is everybody’s responsibility, but it is treated as if it is nobody’s. In the vast but liminal space of the ocean, cargo vessels — some of the largest machines on the planet — have generally operated in obscurity. The industry’s greenhouse-gas emissions have only grown as world trade has expanded, about 10 percent in the last six years. Shipowners, charterers and regulators have done little about the situation.
Allwright had previously spent 10 years working with a group that tried to build small cargo ships that would run on wind power to eliminate their carbon footprint. It underscored for him that sails aren’t a relic of the past. At the most fundamental level, the way modern sails work is similar to the way sails did a thousand years ago: As wind moves against their curves, it creates a high-pressure system on one side and a low-pressure system on the other, resulting in a forward thrust that pushes the ship along. But the design, materials and size of modern sails, along with the ships’ movements, allow them to harness significantly more power from the wind than the cloth sails of the past — enough so that they can move a huge cargo vessel. In conjunction with fuel, modern sails can power ships with something close to the speed and predictability to which the global economy is accustomed.
The group Allwright worked with never managed to get the ships built. Looking back on it, he believed it was a commercial failure, not a technical one. In 2014, he started the International Windship Association, a trade association, bringing together disparate groups of inventors, researchers and others who wanted to get modern wind propulsion on cargo vessels — not to replace fuel entirely but to require considerably […]