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Imagining the Changing Weathers – The experience behind Turnton (Part II)

Time's Up

In the transiencies journeys we aim to collect and amalgamate ideas, experiences and dreams, from those who are involved and/or influenced in alternative practices of transporting goods.


Transiencies – Intro / general

We have chosen "transiencies" as our tool for investigations - a residency in motion. In common with the residency, transiencies should offer a concentrated and immersive engagement with the field and environment in which it takes place, without being stuck in one physical location.

Fair transport is the buzzword, slowly becoming more relevant as climate change gets closer to our everyday life, the destruction of the oceans becomes more obvious and the façade that "business as usual" can continue crumbles.
 Away from the distractions of everyday life, embedded into other everyday lives, the transiency will help us explore the manifold whys and wherefores of cargo, the ocean, biology, ships and the various kinds of weathers that influence these things.

This section aims to bring together the experiences of the transiencies. The text is based upon various blog posts that were made through the transiencies, enriched with further investigations.



The initial stages of our research had led us to be interested in the ocean and the ways that current changes in the way things are working will play out in various ways upon the ocean. The two main threads that we were following were the use of the ocean's surface as a transport field and the abuse of the volume of the ocean with fisheries and toxic effects. To this end we visited a collection of groups in northwestern Europe, mainly focussed around transport and trade issues and a number of ocean research groups in the Canary Islands.

As we expected, the shortest summary of the situation could be reduced to “it's complicated” with all the simplification that that phrase entails. The initial interest in ocean plastics lead to the variations in plankton, coastal dead zones, the “rise of the slime” and fisheries collapse, taking in byways through climate change, sea level rise, acidification and a few more disaster scenarios. Meanwhile the investigations into sail transport led to discussions about small and regional production, farming, corporate takeovers, volunteering, social security, regulatory systems and sustainable fisheries.



We spent the initial three weeks visiting specialists and practitioners involved in a myriad of activities. We had been in contact with many of them, others arose in conversation and exploration. Working with people, visits and discussions, serendipity and plain good luck helped us find interesting and compelling story elements.  This group expanded as we went and was then extended by the second round of transiencies in July. In order to reduce name fatigue, we introduce the main names here so that there is less distraction in the text.

Ben, Klaus, Charlotte, Cornelius and the rest of the Timbercoast group, at that time in Elsfleth, Germany, now at sea. The Timbercoast project has started as a reaction to the destruction of reef systems by the effects of climate change. Cornelius Bockermann has initiated the project, having invested something like 700,000 Euro and two years into it. The vessel was still being refurbished when we visited it. It undertook sea trials in July 2016 and made its first public appearance at Hanse Sail in Rostock in August, 2016.

Arjen van der Veen from Tres Hombres and Lucy Gilliam from New Dawn Traders in Workum, Netherlands. Arjen, along with Jorne Langelaan and Andreas Lackner, all working on the tall ship Europe at the time, started the Fair Transport group as a way to attempt a detoxification of the transport industry. Lucy has been a soil scientist before leaving academia, had been involved with a discontinued sail transport project with a smaller group and has since also been part of New Dawn Traders as well as the eXXpeditions dealing with ocean poisoning and women in science.

Javier Arístegui at IOCAG in Las Palmas, Canary Islands. The Oceanography and Global Change Institute (IOCAG) is part of the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria . IOCAG has been created to structure and coordinate a number of consolidated and interdisciplinary research groups at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, and it is intended to assess the ocean's role in the Climate Change, while investigating how this change affects the planet in the singular marine and coastal ecosystems.

Madadh Maclaine at Fair Winds Trading in Oban, Scotland. She is also tied in with the International Wind ships Association and their project looking at small harbours around the North Sea region.

Freya and Marcus Pomeroy-Rowden, co-skippers of Grayhound lugger, Cornwall. The Grayhound is a replica of a 1784 privateer, built new, transporting organic produce between Brittany and southern UK.

Alex Geldenhuys and Fluffy from New Dawn Traders, Bristol. The New Dawn Traders are a group that works closely with the Fair Transport group to bring rums over from the Caribbean, which they then market themselves, as well as sourcing cocoa beans and coffee beans.

Kate Rich, artist dealing with trade, value and other issues under the name Feral Transport. Kate's interests revolve around trade and commerce from a cultural perspective, where she was part of a group that reverse engineered and then published an open source version of Coca Cola, called Cube Cola. Kate has worked closely with New Dawn Traders, for instance presenting presenting Cube Libre at the V&A in London.

Gavin Allwright at the International Windship Association, Kent. The IWSA is a industry lobby group for the sail transport and wind transport areas. The IWSA aims to bring sail and wind based transport out of the romance of tall ships to the modern practicalities of high tech solutions.

Guilliame De Grande and Diana Mesa have run Trans Oceanic Wind Transport (TOWT) for several years, building a base of regional transporters of goods between Portugal, northern Spain, France and the southern UK.

FoAM Kernow is a studio in the FoAM network, run by Dave and Amber Griffiths, based in Falmouth, Cornwall.

Anton Mann runs Xisto Wines, bringing wines directly from the Porto region of Portugal into Bristol as fairly, cleanly and effectively as possible.

Robbert van Hasselt ran the North Sea Region (NSR) SAIL project together with Fair Transport and other partners, developing the Ecoliner together with Dijkstra naval architects.

Tim Dennis and the crew at the Quetzal Shipping Company, an arts and cultural community based in southern Scotland.


This is merely a list of some of the people and groups with which we had a significant conversation. There were many more, some of which have infiltrated themselves into this text, the scenario and world building for the exhibition or the exhibition itself. But they help give us a few standing points with which to navigate the following ride through the rugged terrain of several weeks of intense conversations.


Romance and tradition

The sail cargo movement is, in general, filled with images of traditional vessels, complete with archaic looking rigs, wooden hulls and some degree of disdain for motorisation, alongside renderings of modern, high tech naval architects plans that would be built if only someone could get the funding together. It is clear from the branding of most of the products transported by ship that this traditional image is part of the entire marketing ploy. Classic ships and piracy resonate well with rum drinkers, coffee, whisky and chocolate are also open to some maritime marketing.


Many of the sail cargo vessels use traditional rigs for a simple reason; traditional rigs were developed over centuries for power and reliability. Contemporary sailing rigs, as seen on pleasure and racing vessels, are designed primarily for speed, ease of use and the ability to sail close to the wind. This is not the qualities that a sail cargo vessel needs. Powerful gaff or lug rigs are used in coastal transport, where contrary winds are likely. For trans-oceanic sailing, ships use the regular trade winds, following courses that keep the winds mostly astern.  Square-rigged vessels remain useful for precisely this type of sailing. Thus the interest in the Dynarig, developed by Wilhelm Prölls in the 1960s. This modernisation of the square rig, with curved spars and remote controlled furling, melds classic practicality with contemporary efficiencies. The rig has been implemented on the millionaire's yacht Maltese Falcon to acclaim. The Ecoliner has been developed by Dijkstra naval architects, the B9 by B9 Energy in order to use this rig for larger transport capacities in the thousands of tonnes. Currently, the most high profile ship in the fair transport circuit is the Tres Hombres, a 32-meter ex minesweeper, rebuilt to a brigantine between 2007 and 2009, sporting a brigantine rig with four square sails on the forward mast. Tres Hombres and her sistership the Nordlys are both engineless, in order to emphasize the cleanliness of their transport, as well as making more space for cargo. As a result, they cannot be registered in a European country, even though they operate out of Den Helder. Initially running under a Sierre Leone flag, they now operate under a Vanuatu flag. The use of these “flags of convenience” is widespread in the shipping industry. Usually they are used to optimise (i.e. avoid) taxation, have lower safety standards avoid liability payouts and for other convenient profit maximisation strategies. For Tres Hombres and Nordlys, the Vanuatu flag allows them to operate without a motor, underlining their intentions, rather than indulging in some financial foul play.

Chatting with Marcus and Freya from the Grayhound has been inspiring and surprising. Their boat, or probably one should say ship, looks like it fell through a hole in time straight from the 18th century. It is, however, a new build and meets the most stringent requirements for UK registered global passenger travel.

While some vessels might take advantage of the lack of strictness that might be given them by resorting to “maritime heritage,” the Grayhound is built with only the most elementary of technology above deck, but is high tech below. Watertight bulkheads, stability calculations, 12 tonnes of lead ballast, all necessary requirements for Category Zero. This is the standard to which a UK flagged vessel below 22m waterline length needs to be kept to be allowed to take paying passengers on travel to any oceans. To my surprise, this was not the most expensive thing to do either. While they do not calculate their own cost of time, they have a build cost of 300,000 GBP over one year. They were able to fund this by selling their own small boats, a house and taking on 18 months of paid cruises. With this gargantuan effort, they paid for the entire vessel and were debt free. Not to say they were cost free. Ships, especially traditionally rigged ones, must be permanently maintained, with daily salt water deck washing to keep the wood moist and rot away. The Bessie Ellen calculates around a thousand pounds per day that is necessary to keep her operating year round. As Marcus says, if the vessel isn’t earning money, it’s costing money. And they cannot afford that.

Strangely enough for me, the bilges were to be dusted, not pumped. Expectations are that wooden boats are, if not wet, at least damp. That need not be the case and can be traced back to the building of the ship. The most mind numbing job on a wooden boat build is probably caulking, but that is what keeps her dry. So it is not the job for a rank amateur, unpopular as it is. The repetitive and mind numbing job of hammering loose cotton rope into the gaps between planks and covering them with tar to keep water out is one of the most important jobs of all.

A strange inversion of approaches. An old boat style built new to the highest standards, no flag of convenience, the most irritating job carried out by the skipper: and for it they have a low cost vessel that is paid for already and is carrying on supplying home and livelihood for the whole family, with paying passengers and 6-weekly cargo voyages to Brittany. That sounds future proof.

Perhaps this is a perfect example of how we can move forward, with simple living, with economics that are sustainable, with old technologies married to new, with safety a priority but without making everything banal. Neither flags of convenience nor hard hats on deck are necessary and sometimes the most important job is the most annoying, or vice versa.

Clean shipping is not just sail cargo. There are many other projects such as the speculative use of waves as propulsion or the obvious introduction of natural gas as a fuel, which is e.g. becoming mandatory in Chinese waterways. A middle road emerging technology are electric motors combined with effective battery systems, alone or as auxiliary power for wind powered vessels, piggy backing on the developments of better and better motors and batteries for electric cars and other applications. This combination of technologies and approaches, from traditions to high tech, can also be found in the third stage developments being planned by the Fair Winds Trading Company with their imports from the Casamance in Senegal. Because the Casamance is a shallow, ever changing river delta system with villages often accessible only by scrappy dirt roads or water, the export project will stick with the water approach. Thus the cargo vessel needs to be able to navigate shallow waters and be manoeuvrable without another ship. Their plan is to take the Pacific island tradition of a Proa, the use of twin assymetric hulls with the driving sail on the main hull, the mast doubling as a loading crane. The test construction of a 12-meter version in 2015 showed that the design works, the full version should be around 60 meters. This construction is using fibre-reinforced plastics, high technology materials for sails and a regenerative power system to use the motion of the hulls to maximise power available for the electric drive systems.


Trade and ways

In Bristol, I enjoyed a frenzied series of conversations with Kate Rich and Anton Mann. Both are strongly interested in the way that businesses and trade are built and expand, social connections emerge, individuals and groups create niches, build relationships and carry on doing interesting things.

There was much discussion of the middleman, the person between, the maker of connections. Anton related the anecdote of a Sail Cargo Alliance meeting where one of those present called loudly to “eradicate the middle man” as a way to deal with some of the inequities of trade. “But that’s me!” replied Anton. He is taking on that role as the purchaser, the freight arranger, the distributor. As are, it must be seen, the freight carriers. The middleman, whilst possibly being the person who profits from trade in a strange way, being neither the producer nor the consumer, is nevertheless necessary. We conjectured that the middleman might be a necessary evil. Portugese wine will not be delivered by the producer to Bristol wine bars. If we remove the middleman, then we will only trade food with the crusty farmers at a local market and never see a book from further away than we can walk.

One possible counterexample to this claim are the Onion Johnnies. Before lorries became ubiquitous, French farmers, after the season, would load fishing boats with Roscoff onions and bicycles, then head off to visit the harbour towns of England, selling strings of onions directly to consumers. The trade has existed for well over a century, but became almost nonexistent in the 1970s until recently. There has been a small revival of the Onions Johnnies recently, with groups using the way of life as a working holiday of sorts.



The discussion then turned to the type of middleman that is most common today: the supermarket, whose short supply chains made the long lived Roscoff onions from Brittany irrelevant. Many primary producers, whether it be carrots or wines, are approached by the supermarket purchasers in order to find new and interesting products for the supermarket shelves. Anton related this process, based upon his experiences, as follows. A producer develops a good product, selling enough to get by to some local markets. A supermarket or other large distributor finds out about it and develops a plan for much larger production, offering lower prices per unit but a much larger volume of sales, so that the deal is great for the producer. The producer needs to ramp up production, expanding their infrastructure in order to “make it big.” A few debts later, the supermarket starts pushing the price down further as well as introducing extra costs from the fine print, which the producer needs to accept in order to keep repaying their debt, and the spiral continues. Quality is probably not the result of this pressure.

The explanation reminds us strongly of an article written by Steve Albini, producer, engineer and musician, written at the height of the early 90s independent rock music boom. The article, originally under the line “Some of your friends are already this fucked” but renamed “The Problem with Music,” was a detailed description of the way that a “record deal” or “signing with a major” actually played out for most musicians. Moving from a small label, decent sales and a continuing live music career, the process was pretty much the same: expansion, debt and desperation. The functioning ecosystem of the small musicians was being plundered by the big players, burning people out, breaking trust, incentivising and capitalising until the system was broken. This used to be called “selling out” and was regarded as problematic. These days it has been re-titled as having an “exit strategy” and is expected of all start-ups. This seems to ignore the idea that, perhaps, just perhaps, the reason you are doing something is because you like it, because you think it is valuable. It is something of value to people and society and really, it should be possible to keep on doing it.

The conclusion that Kate and Anton espoused was not the elimination of the middleman, but “befriending the middleman” – make them one of us. If you know the string of connections, if you know that they are all okay, then it is okay that they are all making a cut, living from the process. Feral Transport lists every stage of the delivery chain, as well as the costs involved in the production of each bag of coffee, on the bag. You do not need to dominate the people in the chain, to exert price pressure on them, rather to exist with them. Instead of expanding, the process of emulation as reproduction was again raised: ways of living and working can be copied, adapted and expanded, generating an ecosystem of multiple small enterprises, people doing things and living from it, developing a community of practice and working out more ways to do it better. As Kate comes from an arts context, she related it to arts practice. Rather than developing large works under one name, she was more in favour of the ecology of practitioners, each developing their own pieces, but engaged in a continual process of discussion and reflection, taking ideas, techniques, approaches and methods from one another and extending them to develop new pieces. This community is perhaps as large as the studio of a single name artist, producing as much work, but with so much more diversity and development than a monolithic studio will have. Studies have shown that cultural homogeneity produces bad decisions (Phillips). We need diversity, not quantifiably optimal monolithic production.


Or at least this is the idea that was supported by Amber Griffiths from FoAM Kernow in Falmouth. Amber is a former ecosystems scientist who left academia a few years ago to develop new projects with FoAM and elsewhere. We talked at length about models of ecosystems and the value of diversity in times of change. Interestingly she also underlined the need for caution in the application of scientific knowledge, for instance in population and ecosystem science, to human society. However she had no doubt about the applicability of diversity and liminal zones as valuable in human social structures.

Ecosystems build complexity, taking advantage of their substrate, modifying it to suit their needs to create a better niche. Perhaps movements like sail transport are doing the same. Cornelius Bockermann, the instigator of Timbercoast, is not to be dissuaded from their approach. Asked what he thinks needs to happen in order for sail cargo to expand he says “nothing.” We will build it and they will come. He says that the problem with sail cargo is not the lack of demand, but the lack of tonnage. By creating the possibility of transport, cargoes will make their way to the available ships because people want to.

Timbercoast have found the Avontuur, a 1920 steel gaff schooner with a cargo capacity of 70 tonnes. Since 2015 a crew of volunteers have been rebuilding her. Volunteer welders, carpenters, plumbers, painters and all sorts gathered in Elsfleth to bring Avontuur back to work. She was active in the Caribbean, the northern Atlantic as well as in the Baltic as a cargo ship under Paul Wahlen until 2005. More recently she was turned into a party boat filled with fridges and a kitchen with a bar filled with nautical kitsch in the deckhouse. In August 2016 she set out with the goal of reforming clean cargo in the seas east of Australia, celebrating her centenary around the Great Barrier Reef.

The vessels currently plying the sail cargo routes suffer from a lack of tonnage. Avontuur can carry as much cargo as all three of the main ships combined (Tres Hombres 35 tonnes, Nordlys 30, Grayhound 5) and as much as the Undine 70, which operated only between Hamburg and the island of Sylt until bankruptcy hit in April 2016. Asked whether it would not be more sensible to integrate the Avontuur into the north Atlantic trade, with their larger ship doing the main cycle with a single stop in Europe (Douarnenez in France), West Africa (Cape Verde or Canaries) and the Caribbean and smaller vessels acting as feeders, Cornelius replied that their goal is not to stay in Europe. The Timbercoast crew are aiming for Australia. They are here to go.

They are also here to spread. They do not want to build an empire. Rather, in the flavour of the Transition Town movement, they are desiring to grow by empowering people to emulate their process. The crew of Timbercoast do not strike us as the type that wants to develop a fleet of ships that are guided around the world from a head office somewhere. Rather we see them as people who want to be working hard to make something good happen, to meet with and work with like-minded equals, to have a long chat in harbour and to carry on with their work. This expansion was discussed in the kitchen of the volunteer house in Elsfleth as a spawning; rather than growing bigger, the company grows by supporting people going off on their own.

The process of developing many small businesses resonates well with the technique developed by the Fair Transport group, with an umbrella company, a shipping company, the rum company and the two companies that each run a ship, plus other companies that are using the Tres Hombres name for chocolate, for instance. An ecosystem of businesses, enterprises, small enough to be nimble, big enough to work, not too big to fail. The Fair Transport group helps crew members at the Sailing School EZS, encouraging the appearance of competent shippers who can expand the network. This counteracts comfortably with the current modality of commerce that we see around us: expansion for its own sake, profit as the only directive, growth at all costs. Perhaps these sail cargo companies are not only good for the oceans, but good for commerce and the way we trade as well. Trade, done properly and not as some kind of colonial extraction, is perhaps the most effective and long lasting social lubricant we have. Not the trade of market share and stock market perceptions, but exchange of value between equals.

The multistage plan of the Fair Winds Trading Company fits precisely in this idea of a network of trading partners. Madadh has developed the personal network of connections within the communities in the Casamance and 2016 was the year that several larger companies took notice and several dozen kilogrammes of Touloucouma oil were delivered to their labs in Western Europe. The next stages have several tonnes of oil being delivered, the proceeds of which should be used to provide oil presses in the Casamance region so that the production can be controlled by the communities rather than the remote powers in Dakar.

It is worth noting that not all of the players in this ecosystem are ships. There are lobbyists and organisers such as Kevin Alwright at IWSA and Robbert van Hasselt, pushing for changes and drumming up support. Perhaps more immediately important, there are the providers of infrastructure and logistics support such as TOWT. After a maritime festival in Brest, France, I had the pleasure of crewing on the Grayhound for a day as we sailed to the small city of Douarnenez. Travelling from Brest to Douarnenez were the two initiators of TOWT, Guilliame Le Grand and Diana Mesa. They were using this opportunity to move the centre of their lives from the hubbub of Brest, a town with a venerable maritime tradition and a huge naval harbour, to the smaller town of Douarnenez on the south side of the same bay where Brest lies. They have spent the past few years using a small warehouse in Douarnenez as the nexus for their expanding network of Wind Transport, serving a number of French vessels as well as the Tres Hombres, Grayhound, Lun II and the Nordlys. It has recently become clear that the continued growth of their organisation requires systematic support, which was not forthcoming in the large city of Brest, but was to be found in Doaurnenez.  So the entire business, with office, shop and warehouse, but also their home, was moving to the smaller town.

It is interesting that the peripheries are the places that such ideas can get a grip most effectively. With Fair Transport based in Den Helder, Timbercoast in Elsfleth, Grayhound in Plymouth and the other emerging groups equally scattered around the peripheries, it would seem that the smaller centers are offering the necessary infrastructure for these developments. Such niches, Amber would contend, emerge best in these Randzonen, the edge habitats between one environment and another, the liminal zones of cross pollination, far from the normalising effects of the centers. There is talk of ecovillages to supply and offer infrastructure to the emerging sail cargo fleet, with agroforestry, permaculture, clean transport, fair trade and equitable communities forming a network of practice that provides a basis for more. Douarenez, Den Helder, Palnackie and the emerging community around the Ceiba ship in Monteverde, Costa Rica.



Travelling through and talking extensively with the practitioners of Sail Cargo, one recurrent theme is the existence, necessity, impossibility and flexibility of regulations. The word ‘regulations’ is used here explicitly as it is not just about legalities, there is not just one law, or even set of laws, to abide by. At minimum, there are regulations dealing with ship building and licensing, employment, liabilities, crew competencies, import, stowage, immigration and food laws. These vary from one jurisdiction to another, from one import type to another, from one business model to another. It might be interesting to look at some of them to get an idea what is going on.

It is probably worth saying that no one has even murmured the idea of complete liberalisation. It is clear that regulations are necessary, that all the developments in safety and technology, from the Plimsoll line to EPIRBs, are not to be dismissed and a return to scurvy suffering behaviour condoned. So the consensus is generally agreeing upon the necessity of regulatory frameworks, other than some small detours into discussions about smuggling.

There is also much talk about laws and legality, some of which is not entirely accurate. The various codes for building ships are not so much laws as guidelines. What are regarded as good building practices, what are bad? How strong must something be, what are the bulkhead requirements? These are thankfully not always written in law, but are rather ensconced in sets of guidelines that are then checked by certification agencies. Because shipbuilding is not a science, but rather a mixture of engineering, systems and survival; discussions arise. Certain guidelines will, in any given build, contradict one another. Cornelius from Timbercoast reported that, in order to get Germanisches Lloyd certification, they would need to spend in the order of 140,000 Euros on having plans drawn, with about the same costs again for checking, with no guarantee that the ship would be accepted, even if it apparently met all the requirements. Marcus from Grayhound talked about discussions with the certification authority that wanted bilge stringers installed (for structural integrity) that would interfere with the bulkheads so that it would be impossible to make them watertight. After much discussion, the surveyor and Marcus were able to find a solution involving thicker planking that solved the internal contradictions. This was not guaranteed: it could well have been that the contradictory requirements were insisted upon and the ship would have ended up compromised as a result: abiding by certain regulations and thus unsafe.


Similar comments have been made about life jackets and other “obvious” safety gear. If you do go overboard, it might save your life. If it makes you act unsafely, then it is endangering you. Many people with whom I have had the pleasure of speaking have reiterated the concept that it is much better to have good seamanship rather than good regulations. As was recently seen in Hamburg, where the container ship CSCL Indian Ocean ran aground because of a failure in the steering system, a motor is no guarantee of manoeuvrability. A sailing vessel has redundancy: a motor or two, two or more sails, anchors and a competent crew able to use them all. Unfortunately, too many of the regulations are based upon non sail vessels. Thus the guidelines become ridiculous. It is not feasible to have the exhausts of the ship's motor 4.5 meters above deck, as required by Germanischer Lloyd, with a boom sweeping each way. While that would be important for a vessel running under motor for weeks at a time in order to protect the crew, for the few hours the motor runs on a sail cargo vessel, the requirement creates more problems than it solves, and thus more danger.

There has also been the observation that many of the commercial ship regulations are based upon a size of ship that is far larger than any reasonable small cargo sailing vessel. In the same way that many organic farms cannot afford the certification that they are organic, but happily sell their produce at farmer's markets, there is an expressed need for smaller trader / cargo certification that is less costly. The UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) requires their graduates to have hours on board vessels in order to gain experience and hands on expertise. For some reason, the regulators decided that the minimum size for a training vessel is 300 tonnes. Vessels such as Grayhound has 60 tonnes, Tres Hombres has 128, so the graduates are finding that they have to gain experience doing menial work chipping rust on a large cargo vessel rather than actually running a smaller ship such as one of these. Thus the smaller ships are starved of competent internees and the graduates are starved of valuable experience, a lose-lose situation caused by some unfortunate tonnage line in the sand.

Fortunately, these are not problems that are in danger of killing off the industry. However they are creating all sorts of issues. There are massive fixed costs in order to be active, so there in a strong necessity to be large enough that these costs can be met. There are few regulations that seem to be let out for smaller vessels, it almost seems as if there is only one solution. This led to Kate Rich suggesting that it would be of immense value to have a ship based peddler's certification in order to support the trades. In fact it might be argued that, as long as the ship is not the place of trading, but only the means of moving, while trade is undertaken on foot, then perhaps this is already covered by current UK legislation, perhaps similar to the Onion Johnny practices. There is value in allowing many small flowers to flourish.

For those not interested in direct sales, but rather in trans-oceanic transportation, the growth of the sail cargo network is making may things easier. Whereas Tres Hombres has to deal with duties on every importation, trade within the EU is being looked after by TOWT in Brest. They have warehousing facility in Douarnenez and, more importantly, they have set up arrangements with various duties organisation so that cargo vessels can deliver directly to their clients without having to go through bonded warehouses and similar complications. There have been few problems with such things, but difficulties such as a narrow “escape” by one boat when they anchored temporarily off the Irish coast and a more serious situation when another vessel had some apparent importation issues and the ship was nearly impounded. However it seems that such bureaucratic details need to be dealt with and by having a central office dealing with the details on a consistent basis, there is the simplicity of repetition and the trust built up that allows things to happen faster, simpler and with less complication. There is a somewhat interesting temporal issue that the ongoing discussion about a British exit from the EU has been met with a pretty solid statement that Brexit will kill off sail cargo, or at least make the process overly complex, with an important and strong border right off the European mainland coast. As Brexit has come to pass, or at least the vote has happened, there is quite some speculation about what can and should happen.

Talking with these practitioners, it rapidly becomes clear that the paradise of the Schengen countries is very local. This degree of legal correctness that is necessary for cargo professionals dealing in sea trade seems to be the reality. After Cornwall's history of smuggling, we had a long discussion about VAT cheats and other trickeries. It seems that this sort of behaviour is almost impossible these days. In fact, it is perhaps the opposite. Skippers are so wary of any possibility that there might be something illegal happening, leading to a possible impounding of their ship and thus not only their, but the whole crew's home and livelihood, that they are extremely correct. There is a strong desire for sail cargo to be part of the system, not to be underground or part of a drop-out culture. However there is an equally strong desire, at least in those practitioners who I have met, not to give in to big business, to avoid the Tesco-isation of sail cargo.

This quandary, this tension between two strong, valid and internally consistent desires, is one of the core themes re-encountered throughout the journeys. The Sail Cargo Alliance as well as the other organisations and partnering arrangements between activists and groups seems to help find and share solutions, building structures to avoid work duplication, to avoid unnecessary effort and frustration. They want to work within the regulations, but to do something that is commonly regarded as backward and no longer safe. As if poisoning the air and the ocean would be safe.


How to start a Shipping Company

Discussing the pros and cons of clean shipping, a question arose early about starting a shipping company on the Danube, which we thought was a preposterous idea and promptly forgot about it. But one thing led to another, discussions were had and we found that, at least in principle, a sustainable shipping company on the Danube is not to be regarded as impossible. How does one make it happen?


  • Option 1: Do it anyway. Find a boat, register it as a sport boat and start carrying things. If it works for smugglers, why not?
  • Option 2: Do it “properly” with all the documentation. This is strangely interesting.


The first thing that is needed is a Konzession, i.e. the permission to operate a transport company. Under 200 tonnes freight, it is not necessary to provide evidence of expertise (fachliche Eignung) or financial backing (finanzielle Leistungsfähigkeit). This means that you only need to show citizenship, of any EU or EWR country or Switzerland, as well as your dependability (Verlässlichkeit) with a current police report (Strafregisterauszug).  In order to reduce costs, the forms to show that you are starting a new company (Neugründung) are of value, if you have never been self-employed. You will get a Konzession für Güterbeförderung mit Fahrzeugen mit einer Tragfähigkeit von nicht mehr als  200 metrischen Tonnen bei höchstzulässigem Tiefgang auf österreichischen Wasserstrassen, ausgenommen in die Landesvollzeihung fallende, einschliesslich des grenzüberschreitenden Verkehrs. That means, in wonderfully bureaucratic German, permission for freight transport with vessels with not more than 200 tonnes loading at the maximal draft on Austrian waterways except those controlled by the states, including international transport.

Once the Konzession has been given, you can register your vessel. For small vessels, it seems that the restrictions are the same as for sport vessels. Once the vessel has been registered, you need to inform the BMVIT which vessel is being used. If you have a motor over 50HP, this vessel also needs to be registered in the österreichischen Schiffsregister.

So far we have obtained the Konzession. It was remarkably painless, the administrators responsible for it are remarkably helpful. The sum of 272 Euros is not cheap, but not awful. The next step is to get two things happening: things to transport and something to transport them in. We managed to get the second of these processes one step further.

A clean shipping company, sustainable in all ways, will have to take various factors in to account: emissions, social issues, energy issues. Based upon Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” book and the strangely phrased ideas within there, the smallest (and thus most beautiful) business is a person or two.  So our transport vessel must be small, to be handled by one or two people. We have taken an early 1960s sailing vessel, weighing in at 500 kg, and adapted it for freight. The floor and the floor beams have been made more solid, the sail replaced with a powerful gaff rig. But more importantly, we need back up power for negotiating small corners and adverse currents. The Tres Hombres and the Nordlys fight through with no motor of their own, Grayhound and Avontuur have motors on board to be used when needed. Each has their advantages. We have chosen, because we are not crossing oceans, to go with a very simple solution: electric propulsion.

As has been claimed by many, sometimes the best way to save money is to spend some, we have taken on a 4kW Torqeedo system with four huge batteries. Just shy of 200 kg of high quality deep cycle battery is embedded in the bilges of the boat. Interestingly enough, this is pretty much exactly the same amount of ballast bolted to the keel. The motor brings around 9 HP of power on the propellor, far in excess of what is recommended for this type of boat. But this is a safety issue: on the Danube there is a shoreline within 100m on each side, with barges underway incessantly. There is no room for faffing about with some underpowered solution.

The next stage in this propulsion issue will be finding clean energy sources to re-charge the batteries. But for now we are happy and the engineer who surveyed the vessel has given it a clear thumbs up. This process of getting certification is also not uncomplicated. There are only three ship engineers in Austria entitled to certify vessels, so one must take the effort to find one and get the necessary approvals. Then the appropriate documents are sent to the state government, a wait of several weeks ensues and finally the papers arrive. Not too late for test sails but too late for any cargo transport. As it turns out, there are several more layers of freighter law that could be applied in order to make the process of sail cargo on the Danube more or less difficult. It remains to see what parts of these laws will be applied.

The last, and probably the most difficult, stage of getting a shipping company running is to have something to ship. This is perhaps the central question of fair transport. What is worth transporting? By emphasising the value, complexity and thus the cost of transport, the whole question of local production arises. While the Fair Transport and other sail cargo people are trying to find better ways of doing what we are doing and perhaps working out what we might be able to not do, there is the more extreme streak. A few of them have been known to say, “It's not fair transport. It's fuck transport.” Transport has brought us colonialism, over fishing, global slavery and ocean pollution. Maybe we don't need that. Maybe we do not need strawberries in the midst of winter or roses flown in from Ghana on a daily basis. Do we in Europe even need sugar from cane rather than from sugar beets? There are less extreme views here too. One figure that has been tossed around is 80/10/10. Meaning 80 percent of our consumption should be local, 10 percent regional and 10 percent outside that. Translating to transport, where 90 percent of what we consume comes by ship, it would mean that we would only need around one ninth of the currently operating ships. Strangely enough, according to Gavin Allright from IWSA, this corresponds to the level of shipping that could easily be converted to wind assisted.

We are looking into our own possibilities and have had conversations with a local publisher to deliver comics, a local brewery to deliver a ginger beer and have a few other avenues open. Another conversation looked into the framework that would make the ship based cellaring of drinks more widespread. Several barrels of good French wine were transported on the Tres Hombres in 2015, making a complete loop of the northern Atlantic. The wine makers were amazed at the improvements in the wine over the five-month journey. This is possibly also one of the reasons for the quality of the various Tres Hombres rums. Linie Aquavit sells itself based upon the process of cask aging on a journey across oceans, often to the south Pacific. When will we be able to obtain an amazing sail-travelled cask Aquavit, Genever, Obstler or Whiskey being created? As we speak, a barrel of Black Mountain whisky is being seasoned on the deck of the Grayhound. Perhaps, even if it does not objectively improve the spirit, it may still give it a better story. And stories are what make a lot of the world go around.


Volunteers, adventurers, exit strategy

The oldest organisation we visited is the Enkhuizen Zeevaarschool (EZS) in the Netherlands, one of the few places globally to offer professional sailing competency certification. They offer two main courses, running larger and smaller sailing ships, the Grote Zeilvaart and the Kleine Zeilvaart (also in English) which run off-season, from October through March. In addition, they offer a Bosun's Course, a short course (6 weeks) intended to impart the skills needed to run the innards of a sailing vessel, the one who knows everything without being the skipper. Rope, rigging, safety; repeat. It is noteworthy that a considerable number of the Zeilvaart courses (running in parallel) were women, women made up precisely 50% of the bosun’s course.

Unsurprisingly, a considerable part of the first day’s effort was an introduction to rope work. Traditional vessels are nothing if not a rat’s nest of lines and more modern vessels are only slightly less ropey. It is interesting that, no matter how long one does this stuff, there are always new things to learn, from a new, simple whipping technique to a sailor’s short splice and the best grommet that has ever left my fingers and fid. One of the interesting things about this process of making things from rope is the creation of value from a combination of time, skills and some simple hardware, in stark contrast to the ever present spectre of expensive, stainless, industrial, irreparable, invisibly deteriorating boat hardware.

After lunch, I had the pleasure of having a longer conversation with Cosmo Wassenaar, the head of the school. Interestingly, the school is run more egalitarian than a pirate ship; everybody gets paid the same. It is not a money-spinner, but it is independent and has run for over three decades. Over that time, it has continued to be a place of learning for intended skippers and mates on commercial sailing vessels. As such, it has a possibly unique perspective on the state of the field.

The presence of sail cargo as a theme in students’ thinking has been increasing, from nonexistence about five years ago to being relevant for around a quarter of all students this year. As the Dutch have a vastly larger classic sailing fleet, it should be no surprise that this school exists in the Netherlands, and as the Tres Hombres is situated in the Netherlands, there might be a connection. Talking about certification and regulation, it was claimed that many of the vessels operating in France and the UK are using the “classic ship” exception to be able to do what they do. Cosmo claims that these and other countries could do this, as they deal with perhaps a few dozen commercial classical sailing vessels. The Dutch, in comparison, have hundreds of commercially operated classic sailing vessels and as such there is a strong need for regulatory systems for these vessels. It is perhaps to be expected that, with the current expansion of sail cargo projects, these regulations will start to be used in other countries, which may or may not be a good thing. Regulations are, as we mentioned above, no substitute for good seamanship. But even the best seamanship cannot replace life jackets and fire extinguishers. Sail cargo is in a fragile state. If a single vessel were to flounder in this early stage, the regulatory backlash might be strong enough to sink the whole industry before it even got beyond the startup stage.

The early stage is matched by the spectrum of ways that groups are finding to maintain their operations. Every one has its own mixture of freight, working charters, grants, volunteers, festival charters and direct sales in order to make ends meet. People, as with most businesses, are the most expensive part. With many members of the crew being paying guests, this alleviates much of the pressure on the crew, but most are being paid little more than room and board. For most, the payoff is the adventure, the experience and the learning that goes with the job. Timbercoast and Fair Transport are volunteer based commercial enterprises, a strange collision of approaches. Volunteers find themselves locked into positions, or desperately holding on to them, as a way to give structure to their lives. There were small murmurings that sometimes it is easier, and even cheaper, to pay for work to be done rather than use a volunteer.

There is a groundswell of development within the community, building from the idealistic and volunteer run building of various vessels and the ongoing desire to build high tech modern sail freighters such as the B9 or Ecoliner. The other side of the coin is the temptation for more vessels to join the movement, without jumping through the appropriate regulatory hoops. Within the sail cargo community, there is a significant fear of the “threat of unlicensed ships” which cut corners, minimise costs and take advantage of the sail cargo buzz. However, if something goes wrong, all will be tarred with the same brush. It is widely regarded that the Pamir disaster in 1957, with 80 lives lost as a result of a unsecured cargo shifting in a storm, is part of the background for the regulatory corset that makes European sail cargo so difficult.

The world of sail cargo is, of course, also a world of adventure and image. Participants, whether volunteer carpenters or sailors, rum drinkers or cartoonists, enjoy the romance and adventure. In an event organised in April 2016, we didn’t get to see those perfect, polished or heroic images. Neither we heard the thrilling, impressive adventure stories. All this, according to Stefano Plank, can be found on-line anyway. Instead we got to listen to anecdotes, these nice, sympathetic stories between the lines of the “big stories”. Tales, authentically and unagitatedly covering all sorts of smaller pleasures, complications, successes, challenges, flaws and treats. Reports on everyday life experiences with which one grows, without big fuss. And pictures conveying the joy of doing and crafting, images showing the daily routines of people, making the Tres Hombres possible.

Stefano was involved in Tres Hombres for several years as a volunteer builder and as a cook and is still in close contact with the operators and supporting their initial ideas as well as further projects such as Ceiba, which he was able to announce during his talk. It was a real pleasure following him, his way of introducing his very personal experiences, his impressions and his following considerations. Full of joy and energy one could feel his faith in projects shipping cargo between Europe, the Macaronesian Islands in the Atlantic, the Caribbean and America, driven by wind power only. Fair Transport, a term developed during the developments with the Pierus Magnus for such undertakings, with its prime intention to sail cargo emission free, was nothing a wide public, ten years ago, would have been aware of (at least not in the industrialized world). Trading goods and freight navigation around the world was and still is clearly associated with, dominated and operated by an enormous machinery based on an economic system only aligned to the maximization of profits and cost-efficiency. Nevertheless there is a growing community establishing and probing alternatives – and fair transport is slowly becoming more relevant as climate change gets closer to our everyday life, the destruction of the oceans becomes more obvious and the façade that “business as usual” can continue, crumbles.

Obviously, neither this single schooner, nor similar projects like Grayhound, Avontuur, etc., will turn around the cargo shipping system on a grand scale. These projects will not perceptibly lower the horrendous emissions spat out by the approximately 60,000 cargo-ships running on heavy oil, transporting 90% of all goods traded worldwide, enabling the way of luxurious consumption we are used to and playing a major role in destroying our planet.

Nevertheless – as Stefano puts it: “it might work at least some people as food for thought, as well as it gives these people, taking part in the undertaking a chance of great learning- and life experiences. And maybe the thought will grow into becoming a movement, similar to Greenpeace and start bigger scale communities”.


Continued in Part III: Imagining the Changing Weathers – Climate and system changed world


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