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Wind-assisted propulsion for the 21st century
15th October 2023
Rising oil prices have pushed cargo ships towards wing sails and giant kites. Could superyacht owners follow in their wake? Camper & Nicholsons explores the evolution of wind-assisted propulsion in shipping and how the next generation of sailing innovation might propel cargo ships and superyachts across oceans.

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BORKUMRIFF IV Luxury Sailing Yacht for Sale | C&N
50.58m | Royal Huisman | 2002
3 Cabins | 6 Guests | 9 Crew

Asking: € 9,950,000

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Wind-assisted propulsion for the 21st century

In response to the 1979 oil crisis, during which time a barrel of Brent Crude doubled to $38, the shipping industry looked to wind propulsion to mitigate the rise in costs. The Tokyo-flagged oil tanker Shin Aitoku Maru added gigantic rectangular sails to her 72m-long hull. The sails were regulated by a wardrobe-sized computer, allowing the tanker to reach 12 knots in a Pacific breeze.

From 2020 to 2022, the price of Brent Crude skyrocketed from $20 to $120. Althoughprices were affected by abnormal economic circumstances, cargo companies pressed fast forward on wind propulsion. As a result, a volley of breezy inventions will soon hit the seas, which may have a resulting impact on superyacht propulsion.

In 2023, Swedish start-up Oceanbird upgraded the Shin Aitoku Maru concept for the 21st century. Their shipyard built a full-scale 40m-high cargo ship sail, to be tested during the blustery Swedish winter. In 2024, their prototype will be fitted onto an existing carrier. Oceanbird’s aim isn’t to reinvent the sail, but to retrofit its wings onto 60,000 commercial vessels, potentially reducing fuel consumption across the world’s fleet by up to 10%.

In 2016, two Airbus aeronautical engineers dreamt up the Seawing concept – a giant kite that could haul cargo ships across the ocean. The key advantage of kites is that they fly at lofty altitudes where winds are double the speed. And due to their unique physics, the power generated by kites can be up to ten times that of a conventional sail. Meaning that a 100 square metre kite can deliver the same energy as a 1,000 square metre sail on a run.

In 2022, the testing of the full-sized Seawing validated the strategy of automatically launching kites from the swaying deck of a cargo vessel to 300m above sea level. While aloft, Seawing can shave up to 20% off fuel bills while gathering meteorological data. The French firm Airseas has signed a 20-year agreement with Japanese shipping giant K-Line, which operates ‘giga’ container ships. The Seawing factory opens in 2026.

Yacht owners have always been first to pioneer new tech: torqued engines, solar cells and kevlar sails were all tested to breaking point by sailors with a passion for autonomy, environmentalism or speed. Today, hydrogen batteries, kite wings and solar sails are also being woven into the next generation of superyachts.

Among the most novel concepts is Wingit’s kitesurf that hooks onto almost any vessel. In 2021, the WingCommander towing kite was tested by Portuguese surfer Francisco Lufinha, who piloted a lightweight catamaran that was towed from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean Island of Martinique in just 20 days. And this inexpensive kiteboard wing has already been strapped onto a superyacht: Wingit installed their nine square metre WingCommander on a Silent Yachts catamaran. With no sails, no engines and no propellers, the 18m test yacht touched five knots without effort. An app, control system and autopilot put the kite to work on an owner’s behalf.

Another new sail concept is Solar Cloth, based near Cannes. Their product is an unbreakable photovoltaic fabric that any sailmaker can weave into sails. It’s lightweight too. A sheet of Solar Cloth adds just half a kilo to each square metre of sail, while producing 170 watts from the same area. Ocean sailor Jean Le Cam added Solar Cloth to his sails duringthe Vendée Globe.

Camper & Nicholsons senior sales broker Arne Ploch has followed sailing innovations since he moved to Mallorca, aged 16, to live on a family-owned sailing yacht. Many new concepts are simply “old technology made modern,” advises Arne. Headline innovations include DynaRig sails like those used on 106m Black Pearl. The Oceanco sailing yacht can cross the Atlantic using a few litres of fuel, while electricity is generated by the spin of the propellers through the waves. “Tall ships use a similar array of square sails in their rig, although the newest DynaRigs can sail even closer to the wind,” adds Arne.

Furling systems have also improved over time. “This has allowed sailing yachts to become easier to handle and therefore larger in size,” explains Arne. Black Pearl, for example, can set her three giant sails in seven minutes flat. Multiple masts are key as ketch designs allow power to be spread over two masts rather than one tall one, making them more responsive and again easier to handle. “And, crucially, they can fit under the Bridge of the Americas in the Panama Canal,” adds Arne. “Because depending on the owner’s plans, to go all around Patagonia into the Pacific can be very annoying!”

Does Arne see sail combining with batteries, kites and solar on future yachts? “It can all happen,” he asserts, adding that everything depends on how willing an owner is to be first in line to test a new concept. “Solar panels and hybrid engines are becoming a reality right now,” Arne concludes. As is the unexpected sight of kites strapped to cargo ships!

Arne and his colleague Tommaso Bilotta, yacht sales advisor at Camper & Nicholsons, are currently representing a pedigree sailing yacht for sale in 50.5m Borkumriff IV. The final iteration of an experienced owner’s series of Borkumriff boats, she is a modern classic schooner that was built with the sole purpose of sailing around the world in absolute comfort and safety. “So the owner went again to Royal Huisman, which is arguably the highest quality shipyard for classic sailing yachts,” says Arne.

When launched in 2002, Borkumriff IV was an iconic union of talent: a combination of John Mumford’s classic interiors with an incredibly classic John G Alden design. “Add to this to the architecture from Dykstra and the build quality from Huisman,” continues Arne. “Borkumriff IV must be one of the best deals on the market, considering what these modern classic yachts cost to build new.”

To learn more about the wind-assisted propulsion, please contact our team.

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