Flying Cloud - a response to the Gold Rush

Flying Cloud – a response to the Gold Rush

It was reported recently that Germany’s maritime policy coordinator, Norbert Brackmann, likened shipping’s drive to rapid decarbonisation to the gold rush. He was speaking at a press conference where the German government unveiled EUR45m ($51.1m) in funding for research into zero-emission ship engines.

The mention of the gold rush immediately brought to mind my favourite ship: Flying Cloud. Launched in 1851 as a direct response to urgent demand for supplies from the US East coast to accelerate the gold rush on the West coast Flying Cloud held the world sailing speed record for 136 years.

Yep, 136 years, you read that right.

In the early days of the California gold rush, it took more than 200 days for a ship to travel from New York to San Francisco, a voyage of more than 16,000 miles. 

Immediately after her launch Flying Cloud sailed from New York and made San Francisco in 89 days, 21 hours, better-than-halving the normal time. In 1853 she beat her own record by 13 hours, a record that stood until 1989 when the breakthrough-designed sloop Thursday's Child completed the passage in 80 days, 20 hours.

Flying Cloud was, of course, a zero-emission ship. Her ‘engine’ was her sails.

Continually seeking the silver bullet drop-in zero emission engine fuel replacement is a fool’s game. I saw that in my 2018 Crystal Ball and I still see it for 2019.

In 2019 we need to pan out and think about ‘propulsion solutions. We need to consider more than just the operational emissions, the emissions embedded in the whole life cycle of both assets and propulsion solutions impact the climate, even if we choose not to think about them.

There are multiple solutions for a zero-emission, heterogenous fleet.

The world’s largest container shipping company has pledged to cut net carbon emissions to zero by 2050 without buying offsets. It has laid down the marker for the industry whilst acknowledging that there are currently no clear solutions.

In 2019 we need to get creative.

In 2018 I learned about the Fulmar. A seabird that can fly 3000 miles for lunch and in doing so secures a net calorie gain. But, how? The bird is perfectly adapted to utilise wind energy. It uses fewer calories flying in storm force winds than sitting on its nest. Fulmars have extraordinary navigational abilities and can route-optimise to make sure it flies for free.

We humans assume we have all the answers, but we have to open our minds to learning from any and all sources. Nature has a lot to teach us.

What we learn from the fulmar is that wind is free energy, and it will always be free. It is abundantly and exclusively available to any asset – avian or nautical - equipped to use it. Its cost and availability will never be driven by markets.

Thinking about deploying wind propulsion in modern shipping means being aware of 21st century market demands. Today wind will need to work with another form of propulsion so modern logistics schedules can be met. In a zero-emission world that might be biofuel, or bio-gas, or hydrogen, or ammonia. All of these ‘drop-in’ options come with issues – lower energy density meaning larger fuel tanks; safety and handling concerns. If all suitable 21st century ships are equipped with wind-assist propulsion then whatever fuel a ship may have opted for, bio or fossil, ensures those fuel risks are somewhat mitigated. Wind-assist ships need to be bunkered less often and so can optimise routing to secure best fuel prices. Whatever fuels are used there is certainty that a significant element of the propulsion cost is known, and this allows hedging against future cost/availability risks.

 Wind is a really valuable propulsion solution. We need to get as much of it working on suitable ships as soon as possible.

Flying Cloud held her speed record for so long largely because the development of sailing ships was rudely interrupted by the introduction of the combustion engine in to global shipping. Now, in the new commercial environment in which we find ourselves, we’re ready to unleash all the latent potential of wind propulsion for 21st century ships by making use of big data analysis, sophisticated super-fast computing, new ultra-light and super-strong composite materials, better construction solutions and so on.

Just as the development of Flying Cloud was stimulated by urgent market need so is the development of 21st century sail solutions. It is indeed another gold rush.

Finally, when we’re thinking about new sources of learning it’s worth highlighting that Flying Cloud ‘s record was achieved when she was navigated by Eleanor Creasy. And that was no coincidence, encouraging more women, more diversity in to shipping in 2019 will mean more creativity, fresher viewpoints and more record-breaking achievements for the sector.