Peace Boat's Ecoship is a transformational programme to construct the planet's most environmentally sustainable cruise ship. Credit: Peace Boat

Winds of change: how big cruise ships could use futuristic sails to save fuel

Author: Dave Monk

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A major change in the cruise industry is in the air. Wind propulsion – once confined to sailing ships – could soon be harnessed to help large vessels carrying thousands of passengers to cross the oceans

Pioneering shipyard Chantiers de l’Atlantique, which has built icons such as Queen Mary 2, Wonder of the Seas and Celebrity Beyond, is attracting buyers for its Solid Sail technology including Orient Express, which is planning to launch the world's largest sailing ship in 2026.

Ponant has announced it aims to build an emission-free ship using wind propulsion by 2025. And researchers working on fitting devices such as hard sails, suction wings and rotating cylinders to cargo ships report increased interest from cruise lines.

If all this sounds like dreamy designers simply flying a kite, well, flying kites is yet another proposal.

With potentially millions of pounds of savings and the urgency of a net-zero goal, what might look now like science fiction could soon become science fact.

Of course, lines such as Star Clippers, Windstar and Sea Cloud have been using wind power for years. But, with increasing pressure to cut fossil fuels and costs, large ships could soon be built to harness the free energy source alongside other alternatives such as biofuels, battery cells, solar power and hydrogen.

Advocates of wind power say it could provide more than half the energy of a new ship and up to 20 per cent when retrofitted. Some tankers, ferries and fishing vessels already use the technology and well-known names such as Airbus, Renault and Michelin are involved in research.

The technique most likely to be applied to cruise ships is the Solid Sail being developed by Chantiers de l’Atlantique in Saint-Nazaire, France. Like other models being researched, it works on the same principle as plane wings, except it is vertical providing propulsion rather than lift.

Rigs of the hard sails being tested at the port can spin through 360 degrees, stand as high as 230ft, tilt to go under bridges, and concertina down when not in use. The automated system could be controlled by one person on the bridge.

An early version of the design was tested by Ponant on its sailing ship Le Ponant in 2018. Chantiers de l’Atlantique has also worked on a prototype called Silenseas, a 623ft-long ‘ship of the future’ that would carry 300 passengers at speeds of up to 17 knots using sails made from sturdy composite materials to supplement dual-fuel engines.

Nicolas Abiven, Solid Sail project manager at Chantiers de l’Atlantique, said: “The first stage of development has finished and Solid Sail is now ready for market. We have several very serious contacts both for cruising and commercial ships markets.

“We’re very proud to be one of the first companies to supply very large rigs to modern hybrid-propelled ships in order to reduce environmental impact. The market for wind-power technologies is huge and Solid Sail should be one of the key players.”

The technology has been certified by the international body Bureau Veritas, whose technology leader, Aude Leblanc, said: “Solid Sail is exciting as it provides a simple and safe solution to reduce emissions on cruise ships.”

French shipyard Chantiers de l’Atlantique has tested its Solid Sail system. Credit: Chantiers de l’Atlantique

Orient Express's 54-suite ship, Orient Express Silenseas, will be 220 metres long and feature two pools, two restaurants and a speakeasy bar when it launches in 2026. A sister vessel is already on the order books.

Ponant is also drawing up plans for its emission-free ship using several green energy sources, including wind propulsion. CEO Hervé Gastinel said: “After launching the first ever hybrid-electric LNG ship, Le Commandant Charcot, investigating wind power was the next logical step. We have the best people working on creating the best of the best, a ship that will help us achieve and continue to work towards our sustainability goal.”

Three years ago, MSC Cruises signed a memorandum of understanding with Chantiers de l’Atlantique to develop prototype vessels by 2050 which would “explore opportunities that wind power and other advanced technologies could bring to passenger shipping.”

Linden Coppell, the cruise line’s vice president of sustainability, said: “We are totally committed to investigate all potential solutions thoroughly to get us to net zero carbon emissions and wind power is one aspect that we will continue to evaluate.”

Orient Express will launch a stunning 721ft cruise ship called Silenseas in 2026. Credit: Orient Express

The MSC Group is part of a EU-backed research consortium looking at alternative fuels. Ms Coppell said: “As part of the project, fixed sails will be fitted to a bulk carrier and we will be able to better understand how this could possibly be applied to the cruise industry and integrated with other zero-emissions technologies.”

Costa Cruises, part of Carnival Corporation, has set up a unit to help achieve zero emissions of its fleet by 2050. Christoph Schladör, vice president of decarbonisation, said: “While on their own, solar and wind energy cannot power a medium or large cruise ship, they can cover a good share of the electricity demand or the propulsion power. All these systems will develop further and take a more significant role in the energy supply of ships.”

One project aiming to use the technology is Ecoship, being designed by Peace Boat, based in Japan. Fitted with 10 hard sails, it aims to carry 6,000 people a year on three or four world voyages spreading awareness on climate change.

Swedish supergroup, Abba, is also getting on board with the environmental message. Its London concert venue Abba Voyage, featuring avatars of the band, has partnered with Oceanbird, a Stockholm-based company backed by shipping group Wallenius that aims to build its first wind-assisted car carrier by 2026.

Oceanbird has revealed the next phase of its rigid wind sail development. Credit: Oceanbird

Niclas Dahl, managing director of Oceanbird, says the main challenges with using wind power for cruise ships would be stability and the loss of deck space. But, with fuel costs rising, there is a business argument for using a free energy source.

He’s already had talks with cruise executives attracted by the need to save money on long journeys a single fixed vertical wing can save 3,000 barrels of diesel a year.

Mr Dahl said: “Wind can deliver substantial savings. If you are going to change the world it must make sense from a business perspective too. However, cruise ships very much use the deck area. They don’t want to get rid of the pool, for example, but I’m sure we can find solutions.

“Wind is an opportunity we must seize now. There’s simply no time to waste in phasing out fossil fuels.”

As well as hard sails, other technologies being studied are suction wings first developed by Jacques Cousteau - and rotation cylinders, also called Flettner rotors, that are spun by a motor to create lift and propulsion as the wind blows across them.

But of all the solutions the most pioneering is the Skytug a 230ft catamaran fitted with 10 huge kites to haul ships across the oceans with wind power.

James McGarley, the managing director of Bluewater Engineering which is developing the technology, said: “I’ve had conversations with cruise operators about Skytug. One big opportunity would be in repositioning transits, moving ships across oceans. On longer offshore legs of certain cruises, it could also be useful, for example to and from Atlantic islands or in similarly windy regions. Cruise will be an interesting area of expansion for us in future.”

The International Windship Association, set up in 2014, has more than 150 members, including some of the biggest shipping companies in the world.

Secretary general Gavin Allwright said Chantiers de l’Atlantique’s work on Solid Sail was showing promise. “If you had £100million and you walked into Chantiers today you could order Silenseas although their order books are full. You’d get about 70 per cent of power from the wind there.

“With wind, to do a vessel with 500 or 1,000 passengers isn’t such a big ask. The Peace Boat Ecoship is around 2,000 passengers a fair-sized vessel. If you have a 5,000-passenger ship doing short hops between Mediterranean ports, then wind can be a component but it’s not going to be your primary power.

TransOceanic Wind Transport (TOWT) will launch the first of two cargo vessels this year. Credit: TOWT

“One of the big USPs of wind is that, because it’s a free energy source, it pays for itself. I think it’s absolutely practical for the cruise industry, especially if it’s incorporated in that new-build design stage.”

About the new Ponant ship, Mr Allwright said: “I met their head of sustainability and said the momentum’s there right now, if you want to be one of the first movers, go for it! I’ve seen a couple of presentations and been impressed with the way they’re moving forward.”

He believes the impulse for change might come from increased regulation by the European Union or International Maritime Organization. “I also think there’s going to be pressure from certain groups of passengers, especially young eco-aware travellers and older people who want to go on an environmentally friendly cruise.”

The UK’s Clean Maritime Plan predicts that, by 2050, 40 to 45 per cent of the world’s shipping will have some sort of wind assistance. “We think that’s conservative it could be a lot quicker and a lot higher,” said Mr Allwright. “We can see 100 per cent of the world fleet outfitted in some form if we make the decision to go that way. We could see an entire rethinking of how we do shipping in the future.”

Passengers will have a chance to experience new sail technology when French company TransOceanic Wind Transport launches the first of two cargo vessels this year. As well as delivering goods in an environmental way, the ships will be able to carry up to 12 passengers each on odysseys from Le Havre, including a 13-day crossing to New York, two-week sailing to the Ivory Coast or a 55-day epic journey to Shanghai. Fares are expected to be between 160 and 290 euros per person per day.

Company president Guillame Le Grand said: “We have had a very strong demand for our sailings, which will be ‘passages’ more than cruises. We think the level of environmental interest is going up rapidly, as well as the search for authenticity.”