Will Container Ships Be Replaced by Sailing Cargo Ships?

Mar 24, 2023 · 9 mins read ·

Maritime Industry, Shipping & Vessels
a sail boat at sea

In March 2021, one of the world’s largest cargo ships, measuring 400 meters long, 265,000 tons in weight, and carrying 20,000 shipping containers, became stranded in the Suez canal

Little tugs tried to push the Ever Given off a sandbar for six days. 

More than 300 cargo ships and tankers carrying items including gasoline, semiconductors, microchips, pet food, shoes, novelty socks, and whatever it is in your eCommerce cart were waiting (and very much stuck) at either end of the canal.

We became aware that most of the items in our houses, including clothes, appliances, and food, have been transported by the sea at some point as the global supply chain came to a standstill.

The days after the blockade led to such a disturbance, people began to wonder, would it have been better if we utilized sailing cargo vessels instead of container ships?

Let’s find out in this blog post.

But first, what are container ships?

A vessel designed expressly to hold large amounts of cargo packed into various containers is known as a container vessel, as the name suggests. Containerization is the technique of transporting shipments in unique containers.

Container ships are one of the most effective means of moving cargo. These ships have effectively revolutionized global trade by making it possible to transfer large amounts of cargo at once.

Most seagoing non-bulk commodities are transported by container ships. In the modern era, container ships carry almost all non-bulk cargo. 

Container vessels are one of the primary means of transporting ready commodities around the globe. These containers are standardized in size to make it simple to move them between different modes of transportation. 

A containership is capable of transporting anything.

The market demand has grown steadily, cargo carrying capacity has increased, operational efficiency has increased, environmental processes have improved, and container vessel operation in liner service, thus the size of container ships has continued to grow.

And what are sailing cargo ships?

Sailing cargo ships are precisely what they sound like—they are vessels used to deliver cargo. But instead of gas, sails assist these ships.

Sailing and alternatively powered ships are poised to replace fossil fuel-powered shipping as fossil fuels become more expensive and scarce. 

The new ideas are seemingly endless: hemp and other cellulose-based plastics can replace fiberglass and other synthetic hull and sail materials; ships will ride above the waves on hydrofoils, possibly replacing airline high-speed passenger service. 

Many more small rivers, estuaries, and ocean ports will be renovated and updated to create an “in-between” port environment.

New vessels will also need a different port: first- and last-mile logistics powered by electricity and people, with traditional maritime, ship-keeping, and shipbuilding capabilities retained, updated, and blended with 21st-century know-how.

The era of sail, battery, and hydrogen is quickly approaching, and cargo shipping is beyond carbon.

Will sailing cargo ships replace container ships?

Although there are discussions about utilizing sailing cargo ships instead of container ships, some maritime experts think this will happen in phases or in the distant future. 

There are practical considerations

Zero-emission vessels shouldn’t increase prices by more than 10%, according to Lloyds Register’s Zero-Emission Vessels 2030 shipowner study, and technological dependability and scalability are more crucial than cost. 

The same factors are probably relevant to sail technology.

In cargo ships, sail technology must overcome a number of practical obstacles, such as cranes, restrictions on the direction of the wind, crew training, stability, and maintenance.

Most sail technology testing is conducted on passenger or ro-ro ships because masts, aerofoils, or rotors on deck will obstruct cranes. Sail innovations must circumvent this for broad acceptance across ship types.

Modern cargo ships are expected to maintain a schedule regardless of the weather, unlike traditional sailing ships that cannot sail directly into the wind. 

Therefore, technologies for sails that operate in any direction of the wind have an advantage over those that can only be used at specific places of sail.

Currently, most merchant mariners lack sailing experience, and most of those with sailing experience lack the requirements for working aboard cargo ships. 

Although it is always possible to train merchant crew to sail, training makes it more challenging to embrace new technologies. Automated solutions offer an edge over alternatives that require a lot of crew involved in this situation.

Sail-assisted cargo ships must comply with the stability criteria, just like all other ships. Depending on the sail system certainIn addition, certain sail-assisted ships may need to consider the wind heeling criteria outlined in the IS Code.

Mechanical systems require upkeep. Systems that are easy to maintain and use common, inexpensive parts have a clear advantage over more sophisticated strategies.

Insurance and classification concerns

Hull and Machinery (H&M) and Protection and Indemnity are the two types of maritime insurance (P&I). 

Whereas P&I insurance is a cooperative insurance fund where shipowners mutually cover each other’s losses, H&M insurance, as the name implies, covers the hull and machinery.

Insurance typically depends on adherence to pertinent Conventions and Class regulations, even though insurers are free to perform their surveys. 

Sail propulsion systems have received approval from or instructions from a number of the major classification societies, including DNV-GL, ABS, and ClassNK. This opens the door for sail-assisted vessel insurance.

It’s a “new” technology

The reluctance to change must be considered by shipowners and designers when implementing new technologies.

Sail systems cause several worries for the crew. Some think there are more straightforward ways to cut carbon emissions, while some anticipate that sail systems will add extra work that doesn’t directly benefit. 

In addition, officers may worry about the repercussions if they make a mistake or cause the ship to delay if the system is complicated. If shipowners and designers take these issues seriously, seafarers will be more inclined to embrace sail propulsion technology.

Crew members are more likely to embrace systems willingly if they are low-maintenance, employ AI to adjust the sails, or offer a direct advantage to the crew.

In the long run, sailing cargo ships aren’t sustainable yet

There is indeed an environmental concern when it comes to container ships.

Nevertheless, the economics of it created a challenge. Economics of scale plays a major role in shipping prices. 

The cargo capacity and, hence, the cost per tonne of a boat increases with its size. Therefore, despite the fuel savings, shipping cargo on a small sailing boat would be more expensive.

To summarize

The ability of shipping to provide affordable and effective long-distance transportation places it at the global economy’s center.

At present, there are already alternatives to how we do shipping, in consideration of the environmental factors, of course.

But we will still see a lot of container ships—it’s the most cost-effective and efficient way to continue how the maritime industry does shipping.

Is a career in the shipping industry something you’re looking for? At Martide, we can help you get started or land your next big assignment!

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Tricia Tan

Tricia Tan

Former content writer at Martide.

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