Bringing together a small group of people to talk about imaging possible futures for things that seem so near and yet so far is fun, fascinating and pleasantly surprising. Today we had such a small group come together to talk about what sail cargo could look like in the Indian Ocean.
It can be claimed that India was the commercial center of the trading world until around the year 800. As the linchpin between the spices, silks and other products from the far east and the various products of eastern Africa, Egypt and the Mediterranean, India played a vital role. As then did the Indian Ocean. As European traders and colonialists spread out from the 16th century, the Indian ocean was the place upon which the routes from the home port of Amsterdam to the trading nexus of Batavia (now Jakarta) were played out.
We started off with a quick presentation around the questions as to why sail cargo can and should exist, contextualising it within the polluting practices of modern shipping and the excess transport that it enables. We then looked at the existing and emerging examples of sail cargo, from the groundbreaking Tres Hombres and Avontuur through to the recently laid keels of TOWT and Grain de Sail 2. The ecosystem of related organisations and undertakings, from IWSA to New Dawn Traders, rounded out the presentation.
The plethora of issues that emerge was the first stop, from biosecurity, customs and duties to ship design and finances. While these remained a theme, we then turned to the questions of what is worth transporting. The observation that transporting things between similar bioregions, which often lie east and west of one another, was greeted as a non-obvious no-brainer; the north-south routes that connect distinct bioregions with their varying products being useful and valuable; olives to the UK, wine to Bali.
Looking at the Indian ocean we find that the world’s best tea plantations, spice resources and coffee lie on the periphery of the Indian Ocean. Jen Murray of Ripple Effect Tea and Cathy Horan-Anderson of Seven Seas Tea and Spices brought insights around the sources of quality. Tanzanian, Kenyan and Ethiopian coffees trade at excessive premiums and are highly prized. As are the tea and spices of Sri Lanka, Darjeeling and Kerala, (all) the teas of China and the spices of the Malaysian – Indonesian Papua – New Guineau archipelago.
With the sailing practicalities brought to the table by mariner Paul Willison, the idea that it was more or less impossible to travel from Sri Lanka to Australia without heading way south indicated that, once one had gotten to the subcontinent, one may as well make a loop of the whole ocean.
This cycle, taking around 3-4 months (or more), probably plays the role of the north Atlantic cycle that follows the trade winds (and the so-called barefoot route) from Europe through the Canaries, across to the Caribbean, then back via south east USA to the Azores and to north-western Europe. Vessels like Avontuur are undertaking this route twice per year, outside the hurricane season.
So a vision arose of a relatively large vessel carrying goods in a cycle; wines and spirits, finished high end goods from Western Australia to Bali and Singapore, then collecting teas, spices, coffees and cacao (the seed rather than cocoa, the product) around the Indian Ocean before running back across the southern end of the world to start the process again. A vessel such as the Grain de Sail or its larger sister ship with its climate controlled holds would be the type of vessel for this. So far so good. With 11 million Euro this could be built, as the Grain de Sail II is now being built in Vietnam, and put to work pretty quickly.
This could be a nice job for some people, it would bring cleanly transported goods to places with a good story, and it feels almost like a flat pack future about the way things should be. As our friends at FoAM like to say, now we know what, let’s look at what else.
Sailing around the Indian Ocean into southern latitudes is terrifying. People do it to break records or test themselves, to take risks and possibly not survive. If the goal was to do something interesting and financially feasible, perhaps this would be it. What else?
The discussion around bioregions brought us back to the north-south axis between the south west of WA and the Indonesian archipelago. There is passable coffee grown on Bali and East Timor, there is a market for Australian luxury goods in Bali, Singapore and perhaps elsewhere nearby, there are the Kepuaulan Maluku, the Maluka islands, also known as the Spice Islands. The Vega travels through this region bringing school books, writing equipment, medical gear and repairs to the many small and isolated islands of the archipelago. So it would seem that a north-south route that took in Bali, East Timor, Singapore and a few other stops, taking aid for transfer to Vega along with wines, beers and other premium Australian goods northwards and bringing coffee beans and spices south could be a possibility. With a total roundtrip time measured in weeks, not months, such a route would be possible several times per year; a possibility that was also not impossible.
Both these scenarios feel a lot like problem solving, with the solution (clean sailing cargo) in hand, but the details of how to apply it unclear. Working out the details was interesting and made certain patterns arise. A slight detour to the Collapse Scenario emerged; we would like spices in the Dark Times to keep our food palatable. Discussions of cultural misunderstandings, the greasing of hands and the difficulties of working across income and resource divides were had. At some point the question of the vessel as the Bolt Hole or Noah’s Ark arose, strangely reminiscent of the writings of Dimitri Orlov or the ongoing cultural practices of Arka Kinari as they prehearse roaming cultural activities upon the seas after the fall. We also reflected upon the question of finances and whether the sums of money necessary to make this happen would entail the need to take the wealthy financier off for survival.
These imaginations so far were practical and useful, romantic, innovative and perhaps somewhat mechanistic. Good starts to get some ideas out there. We continued our reflections. We wondered about the outreach factor, as the appearance of a sailing vessel in Tanzania is not particularly new, with the Tanzanians still using sail for transport to this day, and in the Indonesian Archipelago, sailing ships might be tourists or local traders, also still operating under sail. For any kinds of “impact” visibility needs to be created, which is hard in the corner of the world where one of the world’s most isolated cities exists. The west coast of the Australian continent is not very visible.
So a vision of circumnavigating Australia was formulated. Arriving under sail in Sydney Harbour to deliver quality coffee shipped with zero emissions as a spectacle that should extend the recent massive discussion around a wind assist coal transport vessel that will shave merely 5 percent from that vessel’s fuel use. While exporting climate destroying coal. Words fail us. The idea of a polyincome for such a project, both to utilise the resources available and to avoid dependencies on one income, leads to the mixing of cargo, trading, appearances and training as the income streams for a sail cargo venture, following the examples of Tres Hombres and others. The following vision arose. Using training as the funder, with trainees undertaking 30 day on board sessions and emerging with Coxswain Grade 1, STCW or other qualifications, the income generated from the training would cover a significant proportion of the vessel’s running costs. With the option to reach out to Bali, East Timor, the Spice Islands or Papua New Guineau to collect wares, or to remain in Australian waters and transport wares that had been ferried to e.g. Darwin in order to minimise international clearance issues, such a journey could take several months and act as a very public show of what was possible. As an activist exercise, probably quite effective, but still needing a generous funder to get the vessel in place. Estimates were around one million AUD (around 600 thousand Euro) to obtain a vessel and about the same in annual running costs. The term Angel Investor was used, but also Sociopath, perhaps even psychopath. Would you want to work with these people?
So the whole question of sense was raised again. When do sail transport vessels begin to make sense? Looking at the four canonical futures schema, we could imagine the following.
The Business as Usual / Growth scenario would make sense if we were to find people who wanted to make a small, visible, but essentially useless change in their behaviour and do something slightly less damaging. Perhaps the sail based ocean aging similar to Linea Aquavit or water aging of Vermouth would add a certain quality value.
In a Discipline scenario, where in response, for instance, to energy issues it became harder to have access to fuel, then sail cargo would come into its own. The small efficiencies of Flettner rotors or slow steaming would not make significant differences, but the possibility to move at least something by sail would be vitally important. Whether it is insulin or pepper, these things make life possible or better and require only suitable, possibly slow, transport.
A Collapse scenario was touched upon above: a sailing vessel as an escape pod, to be able to have any access to distant shores, might be the only chance in collapse. It also ties in with Discipline, as the complete lack of readily available fuel would force non fossil fuel based transport of any non bioregional foodstuffs.
The Transformation scenario can often be a hard one. Transformation can take things so far away from what we know how to think about. Transformations might include radical simplifications of life, as discussed by Niko Paech and others, or the Transitions talked about at length by Bob Hopkins. On the other hand, a transformative technical development that gave us compact safe fusion reactors or ultra-capacitors that could enable trans oceanic shipping to be completely electrified would lead to sail cargo being less than a niche, becoming completely irrelevant.
For what if sail cargo is just an excuse to go sailing? The final imagination that we drew together worked around a lack of necessity for the two most pricey elements of the imaginations above: a ship and its crew. People sail for fun. They undertake travels for pleasure and experience, adventure and exploration. There is (or was before COVID) a regular race and rally from Fremantle to Bali. The race is competitive, the rally is a way for people to travel in a convoy of sorts and feel accompanied and safer. Each of the pleasure craft that undertakes this is small, but is not full. With 20 vessels agreeing to take on a cubic meter of wares, something could happen. A cubic meter is not too much to lose on a 12 meter boat, but 20 cubic meters of schoolbooks, medical equipment and vital spare parts could make an important difference in the way that Vega is able to do her work. Using the return leg to bring back e.g. green coffee beans from Bali, cleared into Australia and then sold as Balinese Sailed Coffee, could help further raise resources for ongoing Trade/Aid work.
This morning was not planned or designed as a futuring exercise. That some imaginations of how things could develop was probably natural, the interest that so many of us have for creating new and existing imaginations of what could and should be possible was present. That a group of interested and interesting people would take a peripatetic course through a wide variety of themes, whilst returning again and again to the core themes, is almost a given but a surprise every time. An enjoyable one.