Cornelius Bockermann, the instigator of Timbercoast, is not to be dissuaded. Asked what he thinks needs to happen in order for sail cargo to expand he says “nothing.” We will build it and they will come. The problem with sail cargo is not the lack of demand, but the lack of tonnage.
So Timbercoast have found the Avontuur, a 1920 built steel gaff schooner with a cargo capacity of 120 tonnes. At the moment a crew of volunteers are rebuilding here. Volunteer welders, carpenters, plumbers, painters and all sorts have gathered in Elsfleth to bring Avontuur back to work. She was previously active in the Caribbean as a cargo ship as well as in the Baltic. More recently she was turned into a party boat filled with fridges and a kitchen with a bar filled with nautical kitsch in the deckhouse. In May she will set out with the goal of reforming clean cargo in the seas east of Australia, celebrating her centenary around the Great Barrier Reef.
The vessels currently plying the sail cargo routes suffer from a lack of tonnage. Avontuur can carry as much cargo as all the others combined (Tres Hombres 35 tonnes, Nordlys 10, Grayhound 5 and Undine 70). Asked whether it would not be more sensible to integrate the Avontuur into the north Atlantic trade, with their larger ship doing the main cycle with a single stop in Europe (Douarnenez in France), West Africa (Cape Verde or Canaries) and the Caribbean and smaller vessels acting as feeders, Cornelius replied that their goal is not to stay in Europe. The Timbercoast crew are aiming for Australia. They are here to go.
They are also here to spread. They do not want to build an empire. Rather, in the flavour of the Transition Town movement, they are desiring to grow by empowering people to emulate their process. The crew of Timbercoast do not strike us as the type who want to develop a fleet of ships that are guided around the world from a head office somewhere. Rather I see them as people who want to be working hard to make something good happen, to meet with and work with like minded equals, to have a long chat in harbour and to carry on with their work. This expansion was discussed in the kitchen of the volunteer house in Elsfleth as a spawning; rather than growing bigger, the company grows by supporting people going off on their own.
The process of developing many small businesses resonates well with the technique developed by the Fair Transport group, with an umbrella company, a shipping company, the rum company and the two companies that each run a ship, plus other companies that are using the Tres Hombres name for chocolate, for instance. An ecosystem of businesses, enterprises, small enough to be nimble, big enough to work, not too big to fail. The Fair Transport group helps crew members at the Sailing School EZS, encouraging the appearance of competent shippers who can expand the network. This counteracts comfortably with the current modality of commerce that we see around us: expansion for its own sake, profit as the only directive, growth at all costs. Perhaps these sail cargo companies are not only good for the oceans, but good for commerce and the way we trade as well. Trade, done properly and not as some kind of colonial extraction, is perhaps the most effective and long lasting social lubricant we have. Not the trade of market share and stock market perceptions, but exchange of value between equals.