A Sailing Farmer Steers Toward a Post-Carbon Future

A Vermont farmer decides to reinvent how goods are shipped to market; will the shipping gods listen?

Published April 22, 2015

Congratulations to Lina Zeldovich on winning a silver award from the North American Travel Journalists Association for this article.

Wearing a chemical respirator, Vermont farmer Erik Andrus lay underneath his home-built sailboat painting layers of epoxy resin over a fresh fiberglass patch on the boat’s leaky bottom. The boat was perched atop a trailer centimeters above his face, offering him little space to maneuver. Another gooey fiberglass patch was stuck to one hand and glue dripped on his head. It was midsummer 2013 and Andrus was neglecting his rice crop, fixing the stubborn leaks instead. His Vermont Sail Freight Project—launched that spring and now months behind schedule—was in peril. But Andrus had a goal: to prove that he could economically deliver food to market by water and wind. So, for now, boat repairs trumped farming.

Andrus is the kind of guy who puzzles over why, in the face of tremendous evidence, people continue to do things they know are ultimately maladaptive. And once he learned about the dangers of pollution from the shipping industry, he envisioned a new way—while reviving an old one—of shipping cargo by water. A cultural shift in perspective, he thought, would preserve the future for a world drunk on oil. Perhaps his project could help people make this shift by giving them a greater appreciation for hard work, craftsmanship, and experience; and a greater awareness of the importance of local ties.

Wind and water, Andrus thought, could be a solution to the problem of transporting his organically grown crops to market. Non-perishable produce didn’t have to be rushed from his house just outside Vergennes, Vermont, to New York City—a six-hour drive by gas-powered trucks—to just sit in a warehouse. It could travel by the historic waterway route of Lake Champlain and then down the Hudson River.

“I wanted to grow 2,000 pounds [900 kilograms] of grain using draft horses for ploughing, planting, and harvesting, and raft it down the Hudson to prove the point that we can grow products and move them around the region without fossil fuels,” says Andrus, whose broad-shoulders and inviting smile radiate infectious vigor. His original raft idea mutated into a bigger operation: a 12-meter-long sailboat that functions as a cargo barge—named Ceres after the Roman goddess of agriculture—and capable of carrying over 100 other products, including potatoes, onions, squashes, and maple syrup. His fellow farmers loved the idea. “Everyone I talked to in my local community, they thought, ‘Let’s do it,’” he says.

Vermont farmer Erik Andrus on the deck of Ceres, the sailing barge he built and helped sail down the Hudson River to market in New York City. Photo by Jim Pepper

Several foundations agreed to support the project and Andrus’s Kickstarter campaign netted over $16,000. Andrus’s research showed that a sailboat would cost $100,000, but a boatbuilder specializing in small vessels suggested a cheaper method: a “stitch-and-glue” technique that would need only lumber and plywood, coated in fiberglass and sealed with resin, to build the hull. Andrus, who trained as a carpenter and had once spent a summer at boatbuilding school, converted his barn to a shipyard and set to work.

Naval architect, Geoff Uttmark, who looked over Andrus’s design describes him as a “visionary who is willing to work hard.” The perfect combination to get people excited. Word of Andrus’s plan spread, and volunteers—from high school students to skilled professionals—from near and far joined the project. Rig designers, a sailmaker, and another boatbuilder lent their expertise. For a captain, Andrus invited Steve Schwartz, a veteran sailor from the Beacon Sloop Club, a non-profit sailing organization and environmental advocacy group that focuses on the Hudson River.

Tending to crops on his 40.5-hectare farm, building a boat, and running a marketing campaign, while being a husband and a dad of two sons ages five and seven at the time, threw Andrus’s life into chaos. “[There were] a variety of people coming and going, some of them would stay on the farm, some would come for dinner,” says Andrus’s wife, Erica, a lecturer at the University of Vermont who holds a PhD in religious studies. She was both supportive and skeptical, and concerned that Andrus was stretching himself thin. “It’s not possible to do this project and be a successful rice farmer,” she recalls. But the two were used to playing each other’s foil. “Erica is the one who does the same thing day in and day out and I am the one who comes up with crazy ideas,” Andrus says.

But despite the help and Andrus’s best efforts, the project fell behind schedule. When Captain Schwartz arrived from Poughkeepsie, New York, in August, excited to take command, Ceres, a boxy, blue-hulled vessel that’s a quirky and appealing blend of yacht and barge, wasn’t shipshape. Sails were missing and Andrus was still fixing leaks. Schwartz and the crew were supposed to spend the month test-sailing Ceres before taking off in early September from Lake Champlain and sailing the almost 500 kilometers down the Hudson River to New York City, arriving about three weeks later. “When I first saw the boat I was a little freaked out because the boat didn’t look suitable enough to go into New York Harbor,” Schwartz recalls, comparing his first impression to online dating. “The picture you get is of a beautiful girl and then you meet this girl in a coffee shop and she doesn’t quite look as good.” The verdict he gave to Andrus was blunt. “You can’t take this boat on the water,” he said. “It’s not going to make it.”

Illustration by Mark Garrison

Determined, Andrus hauled the barge out of the water, and, in the summer heat, sweated under the hull, patching and polishing the fiberglass. He also added an outboard motor for backup. This meant that Ceres wouldn’t be 100 percent fossil fuel-free, but safety won over idealism. Repairs took days—causing a rescheduling with the New York City’s New Amsterdam Market where most of the produce was to be sold—but, in the end, the boat seemed seaworthy.

On October 3, Ceres hoisted its sails in Ferrisburgh, near Vergennes, and headed for its first port of call—Orwell, Vermont, 50 kilometers away, where it would pick up almost 11 tonnes of produce, grain, and maple syrup bound for New York City. On board was a crew of three: Andrus, Schwartz, and a college kid, Jordan Finkelstein. “The first night we sailed I slept with my arm hanging off the bed on the floor so I could feel the water coming up if we’d start to sink,” Schwartz recalls. But he was anxious to prove that a wind-powered boat could compete, even if on an infinitesimal scale, with the giant container ships that sailed the world over. “The idea of sailing, not motoring, had been reverberating with me like a tuning fork,” he says. “I decided I’m going to make it work or die trying.”

In studies from 2007 and 2009, James Corbett, from the University of Delaware, and his colleagues reported that pollution from ocean shipping resulted in the premature deaths of as many as 60,000 people worldwide in 2002. The problem lies in how ships’ engines work.

On one hand, large container ships are more efficient than trucks and planes—about 90 percent of consumer goods are transported by sea, yet the ships produce only about three percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The largest ships can carry almost 20,000 containers. The amount a single large container ship can carry is more than the total amount of cargo shipped globally by air on an average day, says Gavin Allwright, a sustainable transport consultant and a secretary of the International Windship Association in Great Britain. This efficiency tends to make people forget about the mortality and health impacts associated with shipping.

Ships run on bunker fuel, a toxic, tar-like by-product of oil refining, left behind after distilling products such as gasoline, kerosene, and lubricant oils. “It’s basically toxic waste,” Allwright says. “If you didn’t burn it in a ship you’d have to recycle it very expensively because it’s nasty stuff.”

The shipping industry is responsible for 15 percent of nitric oxide emissions and 13 percent of sulfur oxide emissions—the gasses that cause acid rains. Along with concerns about harmful health effects from gasses, there are also concerns about soot, the tiny black particles spewed from the ships’ diesel engines. “Ships’ engines are very amazing technologies,” says Corbett. “They achieve the complete combustion of hydrocarbons, burning fuel very efficiently. But the trade-off is human health. Some particles resulting from combustion are so small that our body can’t expel them, so they settle in our lungs contributing to cardiopulmonary diseases. As 70 percent of the shipping traffic occurs near the coastline, these emissions can impact the air quality and health of coastal communities.”

The cost of fuel and tightening emission regulations near coastlines are pushing shipping companies to experiment with new technologies. For example, Beluga Shipping, a major product carrier, tried adding towing kites to their ships in 2008. The experiment reduced fuel consumption, but kites are unstable and can crash into the sea, says Michael Vahs, a captain and a professor of ship operation and navigation at Hochschule Emden-Leer University in Germany. B9 Shipping uses an experimental hybrid model with gas engines and electronically controlled sails but masts and sails get in the way of the cranes that unload ships in ports. The Maritime Department of Hochschule Emden-Leer University is developing the Flettner Rotor, a rig-less wind propulsion system that uses spinning rotors to create an aerodynamic effect to pull ships forward. This leaves the deck clear and usable for cranes. “It’s quite promising,” says Vahs. But it’s not close to being mass-produced yet.

Andrus doesn’t think that adding kites and sky sails to big ships will save the planet. “You’re taking an industry that by its very nature is hugely wasteful and you are putting a sail on it to make it a little bit less wasteful,” he says. “It’s not enough for me. I don’t want to just decrease the diesel bill for container ships, I want to totally reinvent the way we get food to market.” To prove that a slow transport brand could compete with the status quo, Ceres’s maiden voyage had to be a success. A “noble failure,” Andrus says, was not an option.

Watching inexperienced volunteers loading Ceres with the produce, Schwartz grew alarmed. “No one who was handling the cargo had ever loaded a boat before!” he explains, adding that even weight distribution was critical. “If we hit harsh weather, the boat could sink from the cargo shifting.” He worried about the barge’s thin fiberglass skin that, in his opinion, could scratch, causing leaks. And he worried about its overall strength because it was built from plywood and lumber by a bunch of volunteers. “All of these things didn’t give me great confidence to go venturing in the world of big ships,” he says.

Lake Champlain’s fair winds put Schwartz temporarily at ease. Ceres was spacious and comfortable, and the wide lake had few obstacles. The tension returned as the lake narrowed into the canals leading to the Hudson River and Schwartz had to maneuver the 12-meter-long barge through 15-meter-wide canals with the “puny twenty-horsepower motor.” He managed to get Ceres through all 12 locks without incident; the crew was jubilant. The teeny motor certainly helped on this first voyage, but they were sailing. Their first sales were made in the markets of Newburgh, Beacon, Nyack, and other riverbank towns in New York where locals welcomed the barge and eagerly bought the potatoes, carrots, squashes, and maple syrup.

On its maiden voyage, Ceres stopped in Newburgh, Beacon, Nyack, and other riverbank towns in New York, selling potatoes, carrots, squashes, maple syrup, and other goods to locals. Photo by Jim Pepper

For Schwartz, however, the journey through the locks was the calm before the storm. Ceres was now approaching New York Harbor. From the George Washington Bridge to 79th Street, Schwartz would have to watch out for barges and small tankers. From 79th to 42nd streets, Weehawken ferries and ocean liners shared the waterway. And from 42nd Street down, all the water taxis and sightseeing vessels would join in, whizzing by Ceres in all directions. “When you go slow like the sailboat goes,” Schwartz says, “they get annoyed and they cut close.”

At dawn on Thursday, October 24, Ceres was gliding underneath the George Washington Bridge and into New York waters. The New Amsterdam Market was only a few kilometers away, in Lower Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard where Ceres would dock, was just a bit farther. In between, lay the perilous harbor, which the little boat had to cross to prove that it could indeed sail its way into a greener future.

For Peter Nuttall, research associate for sustainable sea transport at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, the greener future is more than abstract ideals. Climate change is a global issue, in Nuttall’s opinion, and to help keep the planet’s temperature from climbing even further, the shipping world has some serious work to do. “As the overall quantity of goods being shipped is dramatically increasing, so will the overall level of emissions,” he says. “We need to change how we ship things globally.”

Governed by its own regulatory body, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), commercial shipping is essentially a private industry, Nuttall says. When the world’s nations collectively agreed to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, international shipping was removed and responsibility for reducing its share of emissions passed to the IMO. “Shipping doesn’t like being regulated,” he says. “When foreign ministers go to New York or to Lima to negotiate on climate change, they do not negotiate on shipping.” And across the world, talk about renewable energy has become synonymous with renewable electricity generation. Wind is only talked about for power turbines, while sails are the oldest and most efficient wind devices we have. When people do discuss low-carbon technologies for transport, people think bikes, trains, and electric cars, he says. The world allocates development funding for cycling infrastructure and trains, but not for innovations in shipping.

Isabelle Rojon, a senior researcher at Fathom Shipping in Great Britain, explains the hurdles of commercializing wind propulsion for shipping in her paper co-written with Carel Dieperink, “Blowin’ in the wind?: Drivers and barriers for the uptake of wind propulsion in international shipping.” For example, there’s no common vision for wind propulsion technology, there are no institutions directly promoting the technology, and there’s little collaboration between technology providers and ship owners. And even if shipping companies innovated with sail technologies, existing port crane infrastructure is incompatible with masts and sails. With few incentives, financial or otherwise, for either ship owners or port authorities to change the status quo, it is no wonder that innovation in the industry is stalled.

But this void in innovation results in creative space for the little guys like Andrus to experiment with unconventional ideas. And there’s a resurging interest in wind propulsion around the world, from traditional wood-and-canvas schooners to novel high-tech vessels. “From Northern Ireland to Fiji, small players are building and sailing cargo ships,” Andrus says. Vahs and Nuttall expect the sustainable ship propulsion concepts to evolve from grassroots. “It’s a lot easier to try new things with a little boat than a big boat,” Nuttall says. “And the big boys are all watching what’s happening at the small scale,” he adds, so they may one day adopt the technology that proves to work. Andrus, however, has a different theory. “The status quo will eventually have some sort of a crisis,” he says. “And the smaller players will be adaptable, and the larger ones won’t.”

The harbor’s dangers came not from the big ships but from the wakes they created. A big wave could have swept over the motor—which Schwartz needed to maneuver safely in the harbor—and shut it off for good. “It would be embarrassing to have to call the Coast Guard and say ‘come save us we don’t have our engine and we’ve lost control,’” Schwartz says. Worse, ordering a new motor could take a couple of weeks. By then the upstate canals would have closed for the winter and Ceres would be stuck in New York. That would ruin Andrus’s proof of concept, Schwartz says. “It’s not what I promised to Erik.”

So Schwartz improvised. Sometimes he’d shut off the motor before a wave and restart it when it passed. Sometimes he’d face the waves with the boat’s bow, rolling over them to smooth the impact using the cargo’s weight. Sometimes he had to steer the boat in weird circles to get through the chop. A few times the motor cut out altogether, leaving the sailors floating against the soaring Manhattan skyline in nerve-wracking silence. But they were lucky. “The sailing gods and the marketing gods and the harbor gods were looking out for us,” Schwartz says. By 2:00 p.m., Ceres docked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Within the next few days, Andrus sold all of Ceres’s remaining cargo at the New Amsterdam Market, beating the local prices. The farmers made a normal profit on their goods, which Andrus had bought wholesale, and Andrus—on this maiden voyage—broke even.

On October 31, Ceres crossed the harbor again on its way back to Vermont, passing through the canals in time for winter. “After we got out of New York alive, I thought Erik is a genius and he built a great boat, and he knew what he was doing,” Schwartz recalls. “And I learned that the boat is stronger than I thought,” he adds. Ceres will sail again this summer.

As a proof of concept, the Vermont Sail Freight Project was successful. But as a feasible commercial operation it still has many hurdles to overcome. To build his slow transport fleet, Andrus’s boats will have to be assembled in shipyards by professional contractors, manned by professional sailors, and promoted by professional marketers, all while he tends to his crops. To scale up, he needs investors and money. “The project exists because of my unwillingness to give up,” he admits, but a viable business needs more. “I need to get paid and I need the ability to pay other people.” So can wind energy successfully deliver food or other cargo to customers? Is Andrus’s Vermont Sail Freight Project fashion, folly, or the future?

Lincoln Paine, a maritime historian and the author of The Sea & Civilization, wouldn’t categorize the project as any of the three. He doesn’t think the world will go back to delivering produce under sail exclusively, but he salutes the idea as a symbol of a green economy. A. Steven Toby, a naval architect with Alion Science and Technology, views it as a fashion statement perhaps with a grain of folly thrown in. “They did a brave thing,” he admits. “They demonstrated the value of the so-called ‘short-sea shipping’ over on-land transport.” It makes a lot of sense to ship non-perishable cargo over the Hudson River, Toby says, but he sees no future in wooden sailboats with old-fashioned rigs. He thinks scaling a 12-tonne sailboat to 150 tonnes and sending it from London to Australia is impractical. “The world has moved on. I don’t think it’ll go back to this technology,” he says. “I wouldn’t buy stock in their company, I don’t think it’s a good investment.”

But Andrus points out that he chose wood and canvas for practical reasons. The materials were cheap. They were available. Parts were easy to rebuild in case of mistakes. And there are ships around the world proving that sail is a viable way to move cargo. Since 2006, Kwai, a 43-meter-long sailing ship with an eight to 11-person crew and a cargo capacity of 225 tonnes, has been sailing regularly between Hawaii and the Cook Islands—an almost 10,000 kilometer round trip. And TransOceanic Wind Transport is a sailing freight transport company with a growing fleet of chartered windships. One of these, a Netherlands-based 32-meter-long ship Tres Hombres, has been sailing rum, chocolate, coffee, and other products between European markets and Brazil and the Caribbean since 2009. Another of their boats, a 35-meter-ketch, Irene of Bridgwater, carries cargo from European ports of call to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

For Captain Michael Vahs, Ceres’s tour de force is an optimistic realism. “It’s definitely the future, but I can’t answer how far that future is,” he says. Oil is cheap and ship operators don’t pay for the use of the environment, he explains, so it’s hard for wind propulsion to compete on a large scale. But one point where the experts, the skeptics, and the believers all concur is that successful wind propulsion methods will evolve from small innovative efforts into niche markets, like inter-island traffic and shipping in remote areas where fuel is expensive. But institutional help and funding can eventually lead to the adoption of wind propulsion technologies on a larger scale. And as Uttmark points out, “marine transportation becomes very compelling when you scale up.” The initial investment in wind technologies may be high, but the long-term benefits will pay off in reduced fuel and environmental costs. After all, as legendary sailor, author, and photographer Alan Villiers, who documented the voyages of the world’s last commercial sailing ships, noted—God’s good wind is free.