Greenheart Origins: Cruisers and Sailors

I was interviewed earlier this year by David Anderson from thesailingpodcast.com.  I felt right at home explaining the concept of a Greenheart industrial ship, because David’s audience – cruising sailors – are my people.

Cruising sailors are people who live aboard sailboats, not only for racing in regattas or throwing dinner parties, but as mobile homes, for adventure vacations, sometimes for years, sometimes right around the world.

I often say that I retired at the age of 24, because it was then that I bought my first sailboat. It was a well-used, but tough little fiberglass sloop with a little Seagull-brand outboard motor and a plastic sextant. (The motor I sold off after a few weeks, but the sextant I still have as an extra for a lifeboat.) She was built well in a factory for the USA recreational sailing market in the 1960s. The purchase left me broke, so I moved aboard the same day, with only a single backpack to my name. I quit paying for a slip on the dock and instead anchored out in sheltered water, which was free of charge, and a far more interesting neighborhood.

Surrounding me were sailboats from all around the world with crews of one, or a few people aboard. These were cruising sailors. I learned from them how I might travel freely to the islands and to distant shores. They knew the ropes and were happy to show me.

One thing I learned was that a solar panel and a few deep-cycle batteries would be enough to run my boat’s electrical system – power the navigation lights, the cabin lights, the car stereo for my cassettes, and the little electric fan that made cooking much cooler. I had enough sails, ropes, and anchors to sail away. There was a little toilet, a big desk, a few beds and plenty of storage below. I copied and collected charts of faraway ports, worked a few jobs ashore to earn a cache of cash, and practiced my sailing skills with day trips and excursions along the coast. It wasn’t long before I sailed away, not expecting to return.

That boat was my home and magic carpet for seven years while I gained experience with sail & navigation, grew less dependent on any one country, and became more of a seaman. I had been an internationalist already when I bought the boat, but now I became even more comfortable out beyond nationalities, in the blue-black spaces between continents.

That is where I began to feel ‘retired’, in that I had a dizzyingly wide range of freedom of movement with my tiny windship, and I needed so very little money to afford to live comfortably, that I felt undeservedly well-off and something like a man of leisure.

I certainly had plenty of time to read, write letters, and plan my next voyages. I rarely thought about getting a job to earn money, since I had so few expenses.

I visited some of the most remote and beautiful places along my route, places with no other access than by sea.

The native peoples of those coasts and islands, were also sailors — in fact, almost always better sailors than myself.

Venturing out in precarious boats with little or no safety equipment, radio, charts, or hope of rescue in emergencies, these men and boys had all the skills and gumption necessary to seek their fortunes over the horizon, and far more pressing incentives than my mere wanderlust.

However, those sailors were also poor and their options few.  Even with all their hard work, expertise, and temerity, they could not hope to ply the sea further than their frail boats would allow.

They could not even fish out to the extent of their national waters, much less deliver their goods and products to distant, more lucrative markets. They lived, and continue to live, on a sea that connects them to limitless opportunity, but where they cannot get over the horizon.

Wikimedia Commons, Kiribati, "Orona from Sea"

Wikimedia Commons, Kiribati, “Orona from Sea”

Far away from the commercial and economic arteries of globalization, deep-sea access and long-route transport by way of conventional oil-fueled boats are too expensive for the local people, and commercial volumes are too low for the big, international shippers to come in to make a profit. The unfortunate result is that tens of millions of people along remote coasts do not have access to the globalized economic commons.

I thought that the same simple and cheap technologies that empowered myself and so many other cruising sailors to enjoy a “retired” lifestyle of low-cost leisure travel, if scaled appropriately, could empower needy people with a way to earn more for their efforts through fuel-free, long-range industrial ships.

I wasn’t the only one with such thoughts. It was and is a recurring theme at marinas, remote anchorages, tropical beaches and pristine archipelagos where cruising sailors meet for coffee and cocktails. This idea has been discussed for decades,  by ‘cruisers’ anonymous and famous (Tristan Jones, Jacques Cousteau, Bob Dylan….)   Possible business models, many interesting socio-economic and political ramifications, and obvious advantages for poor coastal populations, their ecosystems (low-impact), and our environment (low-carbon), are all topics that have been examined from the perspective of relatively affluent people aboard safe, renewable energy craft, traveling among seasoned but poor seafarers that need more range and capacity.

Success seems to hinge upon the scale. What size sail vessel could be designed for commercial use in that marginal context? On poor and remote coasts, many men and boys, regularly risk their lives with boats no bigger then the average cruising sailboat (12 ~ 18 meters), offering no more of a payload than a few tons.   Now, 30, 40, or 50 tons of carrying capacity, plus the ability to connect with distant fisheries and markets, would leave a lot of room for profit at the rates entrepreneurs in repressed economies expect.

At those volumes, it makes sense to design around a 40-foot shipping container (lovingly called a ‘box’ in the trade), since that is already the accepted standard among the people who can afford long-route shipping. Using a laden container as a core design element, and thinking outside that box, leads to about a 30 m industrial sailboat that can carry enough solar panel array (100 m²), and enough battery storage (600 kWh) to provide for lights, electronics and fans, plus power electric motors fitted with propellers to complement the sails for propulsion.

At least, this is our working hypothesis. We have received a lot of support and assessment from the industrial shipping sector. Now, we at Greenheart are reaching out to the global community of cruising sailors, for your opinions. The plans are here. Please take a look, and let us know how we can improve upon them, or adjust our plans to make this recurring good idea a useful reality.

[Featured image by Ippei & Janine Naoi – Aka Island, Okinawa, Japan]