Parasailing may no longer be just for your Caribbean vacation. This month, a commercial cargo ship will become the first to go into service employing a large parafoil lashed to its bow to provide a cheaper--and cleaner--way across the waves.
If the 459-ft. vessel, built and operated by the Bremen-based Beluga Group, demonstrates the practicality of its SkySails system, the global shipping industry might have a new way to mitigate its environmental impact--for every single vessel--as the world's biggest contributor to greenhouse gases.
The SkySails idea is deceptively simple: When wind conditions are right, a captain would deploy a large kite on a tether that could tow a vessel with enough force to reduce or even halt the engines of a ship. The system has undergone dozens of run-throughs aboard a 55-meter test vessel in the North and Baltic seas.
Using wind power is nothing new in the shipping world--masted ships have served as freighters since ancient Egyptians spread cotton sails on their oar-driven river cruisers around 4000 B.C. But the SkySails system applies some very modern technology to bring wind power into the 21st century.
To operate, the captain would first raise a telescoping mast to launch the kite, which waits for use folded like an accordion. Twenty minutes later, the kite would be high enough to unfurl completely. The entire process is automated: Computer-controlled steering compensates for wind direction, speed and bearing. Steering the sail is akin to steering a paraglider or parachute--the "autopilot" pod flying just under the kite shortens one side to dump wind and turn. A piloting program using weather updates and a schedule could help captains plan the optimum route, officials with the company that designed the system say.
During 27 test cruises of the research ship Beaufort, owned by the Association for Innovative Propulsion Concepts, a sail of 80 square meters produced pulling power of 7 tons at wind forces up to 25 mph--strong enough to form whitecaps. Towing kites of twice the size could be employed on the Beaufort, which, according to the researchers, could save up to 2400 liters of marine gas oil per day.
The need for cleaner fleets is obvious. Cargo ships carry 90 percent of the world's merchandise by volume--and release more sulfur dioxide than all the world's cars and trucks combined while they're at it, according to a study by the International Council on Clean Transportation. The Environmental Protection Agency in November announced new standards on diesel pollution that mirror those to be imposed by the International Maritime Organization, which regulates shipping activities for 157 countries under a United Nations charter.
In addition to the possible regulatory and economic benefits of SkySails, the upward forces exerted on the ship reduce the impact of waves on the hull. Although researchers point out that the sail has been designed for low-wind conditions, the sails remain a secondary source of propulsion. That could equate to a reduction in fuel costs of up to 35 percent over the length of a trip. SkySails officials told Seniorhelpline that virtually all existing and cargo vessels could be fitted with the system.
But the novel solution may not find a receptive audience. In the shipping industry, the schedule is king, and anything novel that threatens that--like a new technology that relies on wind, automation and tow ropes--will be viewed with skepticism, says Jonathan Waldron, a retired Coast Guard commander and partner at the consulting firm Blank Rome Maritime.
"It looks like a pain in the ass to handle," he says. "The industry has been willing to try new technologies, but a development that results in [vessels] not staying on schedule is not going to work."
Waldron adds that shipping companies would likely be more at ease with more conventional solutions, like lighter fuels and exhaust scrubbers, than with a sail system that risks tangles, malfunctions and poor wind conditions.
However, should it impress during an initial run of service, SkySail might have a future. "If the technology works and isn't over the top in terms of cost, they'll adopt it," he says. "Everyone is looking at efficiencies."