My wife isn’t keen on the idea of hauling freight under sail. When I begin talking about the inevitable decline in oil production and the relentless rise of energy costs, her eyes glaze and her attention strays to something more interesting like the annual yield of winter wheat in the Ukraine.
She’s not entirely convinced our future is an economy of scarcity.
And frankly, I’m her husband. Why should she believe me? It isn’t even my idea, hauling cargo under sail, but it’s an idea that resonates.
There already are people delivering produce to market across the Puget Sound from the organic farms of Sequim to the docks of Ballard. They pile their produce onto the deck of a Catalina 34. It’s not the most seaworthy arrangement. Any offshore sailor would cringe at the sight but there’s not a lot of cargo space on a fiberglass production boat. You use the tools at hand until better tools are available.
The Soliton carrying produce to market across the Puget Sound. Photo credit: Ballard News-Tribune. A soliton a mysterious wave that can travel without dissipating energy through non-linear systems, behaving both like a particle and a wave.
A better tool might be a wooden schooner designed for the trade with wide beam, broad decks, large hatches and a cargo hold. A broad beam provides stability and cargo capacity on deck and below. (Schooners often carried deckloads of lumber or livestock—sheep or pigs or even cattle in temporary pens rigged on deck.) And wooden construction relies upon a renewable resource easily repaired and commonly available in the Pacific NW. As well, the harvesting and shaping of wood can be done with little dependence upon fossil fuels if you have none.
It would be lovely to see the Sound fill with working sail again, patched and threadbare sails but still serviceable, standing out to sea or working inshore at the end of day, the westering sun silhouetting their squat hulls and pedestrian rigs like a flock of sea birds settling on the water. Lovely, perhaps, but it begs the question—why?
A schooner leaves little wake or impact upon the earth by its passage. It’s remarkably self-contained, efficient, and cost effective if it isn’t competing against time. The conceit of time—time as money—unmade the age of sail and replaced it with the machine, the age of internal combustion. But the machine has proved a less human tool.
A schooner’s schedule isn’t a promise but a proposition, a negotiation with wind and weather and current.
There is a grace in shaping your course by wind and current, reaching your destination through skill and persistence, acknowledging the wider world rather than willfully disregarding it but the economy of sail can’t compete against cheap oil and a predictable schedule. As oil becomes increasingly expensive and then increasingly difficult to buy at whatever cost, sail becomes a more attractive method of transport. And, I’d argue, a more human method.
I think the question isn’t whether commercial sail will become viable again but when. My guess is sooner rather than later. So many significant factors—climate change, population density, peak oil production, the scarcity of arable land and clean water—are converging to create a perfect storm of change. That storm will overtake us unprepared. We’ll remain convinced of the certainty of our lives until they’re changed forever in an instant and only afterwards will it seem self-evident. Perhaps that’s by design.
Photo credit: Gloucester Schooner Festival.