When Magellan first set out to circumnavigate the globe, he had the stars to guide him and the wind to propel him. While Magellan was killed before he circled the globe, his second-in-command Juan Sebastian Elcano finished the journey after 3 years and 1 month. For the next three hundred years, world trade and travel was accomplished solely through wind power, until the advent of the steam engine, and subsequently the internal combustion engine. But one company hopes to reignite a second Age of Sail with a simple yet effective design that will cut down on shipping costs, toxic emissions, and fuel consumption. Enter the SkySail.
Little more than a giant towing kite attached to a telescoping mast via a synthetic rope, the SkySail claims fuel savings of between 10-35% depending on use. The SkySail hovers between 100 and 300 meters, where stronger and more stable winds are prevalent. A single SkySail can produce the equivalent propulsion of 600-1000 kw (about 800 to 1340 horsepower) under the right conditions. As the old saying goes, keep it simple, stupid, and that is exactly what the SkySail does. The wind is powerful, abundant, and best of all, free. While it isn’t likely to replace engine propulsion anytime soon, the SkySail system can be used in conjunction with the engine on a lower setting, while allowing the ship to maintain a higher rate of speed.
The SkySail is also much safer than standard mast-based sails, as there is a negligible amount of heeling (leaning caused by wind direction) compared to conventional sails. SkySail systems are currently being developed for cargo ships, cruise ships, fishing trawlers, and even sports yachts. The system is designed to be able to be retro-fitted to existing ships, saving money compared to purchasing expensive emissions scrubbing equipment, which can run well above $60,000 per 1,300 horsepower. Less fuel burned means lower costs, which means cleaner, higher quality fuels can be used and thus eliminating more harmful emissions. This is the kind of innovation that needs to be encouraged more often, offering simple solutions to global problems. Most of the investment thus far has come from private interests, though government subsidies could really put this technology on the right track. There are currently several test vessels testing the SkySail and so far the results are promising.
Imagine tethering a bunch of these to the biggest container ships in the world. While realistically, I can’t imagine this entirely replacing the 109,000 horsepower engines, its a big step in the right direction if it all comes to frution, and innovation begets innovation.