A ship with a vision – but is it practical?


I was interested to read about a new sail- and electric-powered wooden cargo vessel, the Ceiba, currently under construction in Costa Rica.

Here’s a CGI rendering of how she’ll look when she’s complete.

Ceiba is tiny by commercial standards, carrying only 250 tons of cargo, but is designed to be ecologically friendly, creating no carbon pollution at all.  (You can read and see more details of her design here.)

The ship’s backers are certainly enthusiastic, and appear to be “true believers” in their ecological vision, but whether or not it’s a practical idea has yet to be seen.  The BBC reports:

Ceiba is the first vessel built by Sail Cargo, a company trying to prove that zero-carbon shipping is possible, and commercially viable. Made largely of timber, Ceiba combines both very old and very new technology: sailing masts stand alongside solar panels, a uniquely designed electric engine and batteries. Once on the water, she will be capable of crossing oceans entirely without the use of fossil fuels.

“The thing that sets Ceiba apart is the fact that she’ll have one of the largest marine electric engines of her kind in the world,” Danielle Doggett, managing director and cofounder of Sail Cargo, tells me as we shelter from the hot sun below her treehouse office at the shipyard. The system also has the means to capture energy from underwater propellers as well as solar power, so electricity will be available for the engine when needed. “Really, the only restrictions on how long she can stay at sea is water and food on board for the crew.”

. . .

Ceiba is small for a cargo ship – tiny in fact. She will carry around nine standard shipping containers. The largest conventional container ships today carry more than 20,000 containers.

She is also relatively slow. Large container ships typically travel at between 16 and 22 knots (18-25 mph/30-41 kph), according to Gilliam. Ceiba is expected to be able to reach 16 knots at her fastest, says Doggett, and easily attain 12 knots, although the team has conservatively estimated an average of 4 knots for trips until they can test her on the water. She will likely be significantly faster than existing smaller sail cargo ships that don’t have the added benefit of an electric engine.

But Doggett is emphatic that the company is not trying to directly compete with mainstream container ships. “In many ways it’s a completely different service offering,” she says. “But at the same time, we’re trying to prove the value of what we’re doing, so that we can inspire those other large for-profit companies to pick up their game.”

And while Ceiba is small compared to most container ships, she is still around 10 times larger than the most established fossil-free sailing cargo vessel currently in service, the Tres Hombres. Sail Cargo hopes this means she can help bridge the gap between these smaller ships and even larger emissions-free ships in the future. Sail Cargo is already planning a second similar vessel, and is also in the initial stages of plans to build a much larger, more  modern design. “In five years, we would hopefully be laying the keel of a very large, commercially viable competitive vessel,” says Doggett.

There’s more at the link.

Here’s the latest video from the project, discussing the design and manufacture of her deck beams.  Carpenters, and those interested in exotic hardwoods, will find it fascinating – they’re using woods of which I’d never heard, and employing some unique home-grown methods to do so.  (How about a large home-made circular saw on a mobile chassis, driven by a 12-horsepower four-stroke engine?)

You’ll find this and more videos at Sail Cargo’s YouTube channel.

As I said earlier, it’s clearly a labor of love.  Whether or not it can be commercially viable outside narrow ecological interest groups is another matter, but I wish its supporters well.  It’s fascinating to see ancient and time-honored technologies being brought into the 21st century.



  1. I had been watching Sail Cargo over one year. I surmise their trips will likely be food items to the U.S. from Centro Am. and machinery from the U.S. Of the food items, they will likely be coffee beans. Sold at a premium because they were transported by 'sustainable' means.

    They will, of course, have to self insure. Danielle is not exactly forthcoming on who their investors are, how their business model works, or how they will insure compliance with various government entities. It is not too soon for them to have those things ready for release to the public. I would very much like them to succeed but am not optimistic.

    But Sail Cargo has developed a fail back position; they are instructing the locals how to build better boats. And how to forge.

  2. It sure appears to be an effort to prove what has already been proved. That, and a money pit for those willing to part with their money without considering how it's spent.

  3. Too, coming north to the U.S. will require them to stand off shore a goodly bit. It's quite a bash sailing north into the current, wind, and the wave. Either they lay for Hawaii – as most sailors do – or they will be motoring full time. Reaching to Hawaii may suit them as it may fit their market.

    However, doing so adds months to their round trip. If there were a roasting house in Hawaii, that would partner well with Sail Cargo.

  4. @Peter,
    Regarding the home-made ginormous circular saw … if you ever watch the folks who put up timber-framed barns and other large structures, they have similarly-sized power tools.

  5. Calling that place they are working a "ship yard" is a disparaging remark to all ship yards I have ever worked at. That is more like some environmentalist boat builders in a lot. Not much "ship yard".

    I am not knocking the work they are doing, it is amazing but a ship yard? I think not.

  6. we’re trying to prove the value of what we're doing, so that we can inspire those other large for-profit companies to pick up their game.”

    So we can harass and demand they get in line.

  7. It would take 2,500 of these vessels to match the carrying capability of one container ship. If each boat could operate with a crew of around 12 (just a guess), it would mean that it would take 30,000 crew to man them all. If each grew member was making minimum wage, the cost of freight would be astounding.

    Forget it. Somebody conned some investors into paying for his pipe dream.

  8. Thanks, Bob. I needed to read that dose of reality.

    People love silly dreams like this.

    And as Rick said, it will probably be used to carry "sustainable" coffee or some such nonsense for people with more money than sense.

  9. I suspect the economic sustainability of sailing vessels was answered 100 years ago. Otherwise this is like replacing trucks with electric bicycles.

  10. Last time I checked wood is made up of carbon compounds, such as cellulose.
    So they are several tons in the hole before the ship hits the water.


  11. 1. The ship is uneconomical. Sail and sail/secondary power ships just take too large a crew of even cheap semi-slave/semi-indentured servitude to work the sails.

    2. The crew is… untrained. When we did have large clipper ships sailing, we also had a constant source of already trained blow-boat sailors from the local packet trade to stand by the unskilled sailors shanghaied or just signing on. Like when a squall blows up and the ship needs to reef her sails, who's climbing up the rat lines and reefing them? On a large sail, only so much can be done with machines only.

    3. The officers and senior deck hands are missing. One of the things that makes a large blow-boat work is, well, trained officers and deck hands, master sailors with years of experience in local and international sailing, with the knowledge of how to work the sails efficiently and correctly.

    4. Wood? In the tropics? Seriously? Even well seasoned and treated (with tar and pitch) oak rots in the tropical seas at a fantastic rate. There's a reason that even around the turn of the 20th Century that most commercial sailing ship construction was transitioned to either steel frame and plating or wood frame and steel plating.

    5. Wood, pt 2? What the heck? One of the reasons large sections of Scotland and England, France, Spain, the Eastern Americas were denuded in the first place was the insatiable demand for timbers for sailing ships. A dense wood for a frame takes a 100-200 year old tree, at least. USS Constitution and her sisters took up a good portion of available Live Oak trees to make, and that was 4… 1../ 2.. 3.. 4 ships.

    6. Solar and electric? Stupid and insane. Would be easier to re-engine an old coastie with a hybrid plant and solar sales, but then you'd have problems with keeping the solar panels clear of salt spray and all the host of environmental hazards that come with large solar plants, now at sea, in an unstable environment

    It would be better just to go with nuclear powered cargo ships…

  12. And, seriously, I cannot state hard enough that big sailing ships only work when you have a trained senior crew with lots and lots and lots and lots of knowledge about all the conditions that sailing ships exist in.

    Just the weather knowledge of a large blow-boat senior sailor is so far above even small blow-boat sailors, and that's a knowledge-set that cannot be taught, it has to be experienced and learned over a long period of time.

    Stupid publicity stunt.

    And, again, wood? The ship is going to be a floating cockroach and other insect hotel. Yech.

  13. Wind and solar…cool.
    Lack of press gangs to supply crew…ouch.
    Lack of able-bodied actual sail seamen to press, or hire, for love or money…double-ouch.
    In the tropics…triple-ouch.

    If they wanted to build it with roller-furling sails, with a concrete or fiberglass hull, for lazy but quiet and moderately luxe cruises in the Caribbean and Med for 10-20 persons, I'd like to see them succeed wildly, and expand to 100 vessels. Bonus points if half the service staff are bikini-clad women from 18-35.

    This is a hobbyist level of endeavor, like a 1-acre farm, for people with more time and money than brains or financial sense.

    But if they want to go for the three-fer, and elect to use a fleet of them to ship all the African Americans who whine about where they ended up, from N. and Central America, and the Caribbean, back to Africa, permanently, I'll buy 10,000 shares of their IPO.

    The IQ and economies on all three continents would increase.

    They can start with the incestuous bint in Congress, and everyone associated with BLM.

  14. Bob, those are the wrong metrics. This is about Gaia and green and sustainability. It is incredibly patronizing patriarchal to dismiss such grand gestures as virtue signaling. That you are not willing to bear the fair share of whatever the costs is evidence of your close kinship with troglodytes. Gosh.

  15. Fascinating and neat to keep those old sailing skill alive.

    Though the pedantic in me wants to ask what's the carbon emission calculation of the ship's construction? That's what often ends up biting a lot of these "green" efforts.

  16. Man they aren't even planning on using MODERN sail features like you might see on current racers like the america's cup. There was a reason crews were fairly huge on the whalers and clippers of the 19th century (let alone warships, but there you need gun crew and damage control in addition to rigging and such like). Also a weird thought is there any piracy along the west coast of the americas? Given it can only carry a handful of containers whatever it carries has to be of high value. And is it using containers on deck or actually placing stuff in the hold. Modern ports (e.g. Long Beach) are totally focused on containers that they haul from ship deck to the back of a truck to move the goods. Trying to get a modern crane into that
    mess of sail will be more than a challenge. It's a pipe dream pure and simple I wonder what idiot is financing it.

  17. Beans

    1. All that is necessary is to find the right metrics which show such an endeavor is economical. If the primary goal is, say charitable tax shelter, than such proposition can be highly 'economical'. That cargo arrives with minimal spoilage, and it be profitable to market as '$$u$$tainable', of which scads of self-described do gooders will flock to purchase, then it is economical.

    2. Prit near every training module shows all that is required is a Master and Boatswain to handle a gang of willing galley slaves. In this day when entire generations consider the city park as the deep woods, how many wouldn't jump at the chance to instagram when watching dolphins off the bow let alone facing an icy gale for the first time? The USCG Eagle and the training tallships of other nations prove this. Then there are the for profit sailing classes held throughout the world where young and old pay $thousands to attend a one week class onboard.

    A coastal trip (within 200 nm of the coast) was broken into multiple legs, paying crew can rotate in for as many legs as they can afford. The Round The World Clipper races currently do this.

    3. Green Peace, in their days of interfering with whaling, showed that a USCG certified skipper, 2nd Mate, and a machinist were all that was necessary as far as professional crew. Other than the currency of the USCG certification, the posts were manned by retired mariners at reduced pay. I use GP as an example to show there was a cause to which people would literally fling themselves for the 'prestige' to be crew. Sail Cargo has marketed a similar cause, one of 'sustainability'. People will pop out of the woodwork to be part of that. Look at their construction gang, the majority of which are unpaid volunteers living a meager existence.

    4. Yes, that presents an enormous problem. IIRC, they haven't solved the problem because effective treatment involves toxic coatings which is contrary to their model. Another problem is not so much of finding the ways large enough for that vessel but those which would actually allow a volunteer built, self-insured vessel of that size to utilize the ways. I asked them some time ago about that but so far no answer. The mast height must also be accounted.
    There is also the potential of Port Authorities refusing such a vessel. In that case, lightering would be required.
    (Earlier I said here I had watched Sail Cargo for about one year. I just checked, it was nearly 4 years ago that I started. My, how time flies.)

    5. All the wood used in the project is from windfall or bargained from area land owners. The Costa Rican government has also played a minor role in procuring materials for the build. Sail Cargo is working to improve their liason with the government.

    6. These subjects are beyond my knowledge. I will say that given the windage of this vessel, it will take large amounts of power to even maneuver inside a port. I am eager to see how they proceed.

    I am not optimistic of this project as a stand alone commercial endeavor. But that is not all of what they are doing. They are also active providing expertise to locals in improving their economy but through sustainable practices. (As if you need to teach a native with one boat in a one donkey town about that.)
    But they are also involved in bringing in machinery to allow for blacksmithing and forging and modern architecture. Apparently, there are some deep pocket investors. That leads me to believe there is the aspect of tax shelter as part of their model. I see this current project as proof of concept (even though it looks like reinventing the wheel) so they may branch out into surrounding communities on a scalable basis.

  18. Addendum:

    4. The wood species they use in construction are exotic. The various species are far more durable than any species of Oak I have encountered. These woods will dull even carbide tools or HSS in short time. Sharpening or replacement is a maximum effort.
    The natural oils in the wood are toxic and just all around bad for human contact. Serious medical conditions can and do result from contact.

  19. @rick

    To your point 4: they could always do it the old fashioned way and copper the hull. Don't want to think about the expense of that much copper and that many bronze fasteners, but it worked for hundreds of years, it'd work for these idjits.

    They are idjits, undoubtedly. But I love tallships, so I wish it wasn't as stupid an idea as it is.

    W/ regards to the pennant flying the wrong way, per usual with artists unfamiliar with sailing ships: Obviously the artist is depicting a stress test of the electric motors with every scrap of sail set. Right? (Ignore the fact that some of the sails are obviously catching wind from the opposite direction of the pennant)

  20. There are a couple guys that are building a 40+ ft boat from local wood in the North East, with a youtube channel: Acorn to Arabella. Last year they solicited tools and equipment to be sent to Sail Cargo. They ended up filling a cargo container and shipped it early this year, and one of the principals went down to see the ship being worked on.

    Sail Cargo is lacking funds, or they don't understand how things work in most ports, since that container of donated tools ended up sitting in storage for months, and I would expect that some of the contents disappeared due to this. If you don't pay the bribes necessary to get things done in third world ports, you will end up paying a price anyway.

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