Cargo Sailboats are a Wind-Powered Disruption to the Transatlantic Wine Trade

cargo sailboats wine
Loading cargo in Saint-Malo, France / Photo by Francois LeNaoures

Earlier this month, a 79-foot sailboat arrived in New York City, passing a landmark that has long heralded new beginnings: the Statue of Liberty. It had departed from the French port city of Saint-Malo 23 days earlier and was carrying 10,000 bottles of organic, biodynamic and natural French wines.

The boat, christened Grain de Sail, is one of a wave of cargo sailboats harnessing wind energy to decarbonize maritime transport.

“Our aluminum sailboat was purpose-built for the goal of exporting and importing across the Atlantic,” explains says Matthieu Riou, Grain de Sail’s U.S. wines and spirits director.

After unloading the wine in New York, the boat’s four-person crew will reload with 20 pallets of medical supplies to take to the Dominican Republic. The planned departure date is December 20. In the Dominican Republic, the crew will collect cocoa and coffee beans to take back to France.

This is the third sailing Grain de Sail has made since it launched in November 2020, and also its quickest, beating the previous record of 28 days set earlier this year.

Cargo sailboats wine
Grain de Sail at sea / Photo courtesy Château Maris

Château Maris, the first European vineyard to achieve B Corporation certification, is one of the 15 vineyards in France that Riou works with on these voyages. All were selected according to shared sustainability values.

“We have been taking steps to reduce our carbon footprint since we converted to organic in 2002,” says Robert Eden, vintner and co-owner, Château Maris. “The Grain de Sail partnership was ideal for us because it completes the circle from production to transport.”

At present, the environmental impact of these sailings is a drop in the ocean. A conventional cargo ship can carry 38,000 tons of goods, while Grain de Sail has a maximum capacity of 50 tons. But there are encouraging signs that change is on the horizon. Over the next few years, several companies plan to launch wind transport products.

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One such developer is Transoceanic Wind Transport (TOWT). In early 2022, TOWT will start construction of a 262-foot cargo sailboat scheduled to make its first transatlantic crossing 18 months later. Its load capacity will be 1,100 tons.

“To give you an idea of this evolution, we’ll be able to transport on one trip what we have transported in 10 years with our existing sailing cargo ships,” says TOWT Project Manager Louise Bigot.

She explains that the ship will emit two grams per ton per kilometer of carbon dioxide, compared to the 20.2 grams per ton per kilometer of a container ship. “We will use wind 98% of the time, but will need to rely on diesel engine propulsion to get in and out of port,” says Bigot.

The vessel is expected to make up to five journeys a year between France and the United States, and each crossing will take approximately 12 days. Three sister ships are expected to launch by the end of 2026.

Wind is a “poetic way to ship Champagne,” says Michel Drappier, Champagne Drappier

Martell Mumm Perrier-Jouët and Champagne Drappier are among the wine and spirits companies that have already signed letters of intent to ship their wares with TOWT.

“We are the first—and still the only—carbon-neutral Champagne house, and every step we make is sustainable when we can,” says Michel Drappier, owner, Champagne Drappier. Plus, he says, wind is a “poetic way to ship Champagne.”

Drappier plans to send all exports to the U.S. via wind-powered sailboats, and to continue to use regular cargo ships for the rest of the Americas. “But as soon as we can move to sail, we will do it,” he says.

Cargo sailboats wine
TOWT’s Grayhound Sailboat / Photo by Becky Treneer

Wind transport has certain challenges. It requires advanced planning, adaptability and patience. “The logistics are complicated and a lot slower,” says Drappier. “Orders must be placed long in advance.”

Eden agrees. “We cannot be sure of the exact date of arrival in New York,” he says. “It demands a certain flexibility in the supply chain, but it’s nothing impossible to deal with.”

There’s also the inevitable question of cost. Eden estimates that these sailings cost the company approximately 15% more than traditional cargo ships. But he also thinks the market can bear the price hike.

“We believe that our customers are willing to pay a bit more for transport that releases significantly less carbon dioxide emissions,” he says.

Eden is also betting that, as more sail cargo companies enter the market, costs will decrease.

“By supporting these initiatives, we will participate in making this kind of transport cheaper in the future,” he says. He hopes to be shipping all his wines, some five million bottles, to the U.S. by sail in 2030.

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Still, Riou says that Grain de Sail doesn’t intend to ever directly compete with the conventional cargo ship industry. Instead, he thinks “holistically,” and says the company’s aim is simply to “provide sustainable shipping for sustainably-produced products that come from far away, such as French wines in the USA.”

Bigot hopes that in 10 years, TOWT will have a fleet of at least 10 sail cargo boats.

“We think there is huge demand for decarbonized transport,” she says. “Especially for high value-added products such as wine.”

Published on December 14, 2021
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