Age of Sail 2.0


Wind power is free, which is why German engineers have been experimenting with a device they termed SkySails. They’ve proved that inflatable kites can actually haul freighters across the ocean. This mirrors research conducted over 20 years ago by a Japanese firm. Those who say that sails aren’t a new emerging technology should be careful, since the efforts are actually becoming popular with scientists.

Ships were never inexpensive to run in the glorious Age of Sail. They were under constant threat of attack, and crews were paid handsomely. As engines won out over sailing technology, crews received lower wages. Many ship crews are paid very poorly today. This means that shipping companies are actually spending a great deal more on fuel than on labor in many cases. Even if one were to take humanitarian concerns out of the equation, it doesn’t seem like internal combustion technology is sustainable.

Many of the new concepts don’t focus merely on pulling a ship by wind alone. Conventional diesel propulsion will still be quite useful. However, some researchers have suggested that sails could end up cutting the amount of fuel a ship uses in half. Even if wind never replaced internal combustion technology, these high-tech sails would do a lot to cut down on fuel consumption.

As shipping costs are decreased, consumers can enjoy lower prices for various goods. Shipping is one of the most expensive parts of the production chain, and global economics have made it that much more vital. State-of-the-art sailing ships could cut costs as well as reduce the need to import energy. Tug-kites also solve the problem of finding streams of wind, since they soar high above an actual vessel.

Interestingly enough, some of the research isn’t just being aimed at the industrial markets. Some people feel that these futuristic kites will be useful for yachters as well. Individuals would naturally want to keep their own costs down as well.

As well as tug-kites, other ship designs are being discussed. Large rotary sails could generate electrical power, which would then be used to turn a ship’s screw. While this doesn’t seem to be a tested technology as of yet, it’s based on off the shelf components that shipyards can use immediately.

Windjammers were used in some parts of the world well into the 20th century. In fact, some of the fastest sailing vessels were constructed relatively late in time. A few clippers have even been built in the last few years. These designs all relied on tested engineering. New emerging shipbuilding techniques could blow even the fastest windjammers out of the water, in a manner of speaking.


M. Canale, L. Fagiano, M. Milanese, & V. Razza (2010). Control of tethered airfoils for sustainable marine transportation IEEE Conference on Control Applications – CCA IEEE Conference on Control Applications – CCA , 1904-1909 DOI: 10.1109/CCA.2010.5611085

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