The jungle ship showing shipping what can be done

Sailcargo’s flagship Ceiba will need to prove its ability to sail commercially on the high seas to demonstrate it is a world first carbon positive trail blazer

Fathom World’s Craig Eason talked to Danielle Doggett, Sailcargo CEO for a special episode of the Aronnax Show. The podcast can be found on Spotify, Apple and Google. Acast and here on the Fathom World website (with full transcript).

A small wooden ship, carrying the equivalent of only nine containers worth of cargo could soon set a record for being the only carbon positive and truly sustainable vessel built in the modern age of shipping. The vessel, Ceiba, as it will be named when launched, is being built in Costa Rica in a wooden shipyard built specifically for the job. It’s being built by a company called Sail-Cargo, which was founded by Canadian Danielle Doggett who wants to show the shipping industry what it can do if it starts from the right perspective.

Ceiba is certainly not going to be a containership, it will be a cargo sailing ship with a pair of electric engines, battery packs and the ability to recharge the batteries using the propellers as turbines when the ship is under sail.

Doggett has an open media-friendly earnestness about realising her dream that makes her pleasant and likeable. She talks freely, chuckling at questions, and has already appeared on various podcasts and online magazine sites about the novelty of building a wooden ship and the eco-friendly way the workers in the jungle are constructing their sustainable ship.

It is not surprising, therefore, that most focus on her and the wooden ship in the jungle, very few have looked at the commercial potential of meeting sustainable cargo demand and the challenge or benchmark such a vessel can therefore throw the shipping industry that is seeking a new way to exist.

While building a wooden vessel in a self-made wooden shipyard in a jungle, while continually seeking funding and investment, is impressive enough, this is not the most impressive aspect of what Sail Cargo offers. As part of her business plan Doggett and her team have already been securing letters of intent from cargo owners and shippers who have sustainable products that need their supply chains to also be as sustainable as their products.

For Doggett it is important to show that Sail Cargo is a serious for-profit shipping company, and not a charity with altruistic goals, even though the company does live by a lot of the values of a non-profit.

“We wanted to say (albeit in a small way) that we can hold up our numbers beside Maersk or any other for-profit shipping company, and say, look, we did it, we paid our taxes, we paid our investors, we paid our crew, and we did it, carbon negative,” she says adding that by having the same values of a non-profit Sail-Cargo aims for a triple bottom line.

“So, you care about the environment, you care about people and you care about financing. I do believe that the for-profit world is moving towards that. A lot of people disagree with me, but it’s the only way to make long term financial sense, and so those things are inherent in our business model.”

And it seems finding cargo owners willing to sign letters of intent has not been that hard. “They have come to us as far as I can tell,” says Doggett.

The coffee connection

One of Ceiba’s first main cargo contracts is to ship premium coffee from Costa Rica to Vancouver, Canada.

“Vancouver loves coffee,” says Canadian Doggett.

“They’re massive coffee drinkers and if I go to a high end roastery that has micro-lot biodynamic, Fairtrade, eco packaging, organic, they are still not carbon neutral, they are not carbon negative, not truly, they can offset it. But every single bean that’s brought into Canada has a carbon footprint associated with it. So, if the roaster in Vancouver can say: ‘We are the first and the only carbon neutral coffee in the entire province of British Columbia’, that’s going to add value to the product.”

According to Doggett, Ceiba can provide shipping services at the same price as the cargo owner currently has with its existing shipping contracts, and that is a compelling argument for retailers such as coffee makers that are transparent and honest about the need to have truly sustainable products and therefore sustainable transport.

“it’s simple. They recognize that by eliminating their carbon footprint, they add value to the product, and that’s just a simple mental shift. And people have begun to make that shift”.

Doggett claims that under her business model shipping goods on Ceiba will not cost any more than if sent on a regular freight route. But she asks then why they should try to compete fuel-subsidised shipping industry (referring to shipping’s tax-free global bunker fuels). She sees what Sail-Cargo will offer shippers as a premium service and will charge accordingly.

Proof in the sailing

However, Ceiba is not in the water yet, although despite the Pandemic it is still on schedule for launching next year. And buoyed on the success of ail Cargo’s relationship with sustainable shippers, Doggett is already talking about plans for a second ship to be built along the same designs to meet other cargo owners charter requirements.

This new vessel could have a fuel cell on board she says, in addition to the sails, taking a potential leaf out of the experience of another vessel – called Energy Observer – currently sailing around the world to demonstrate the potential of hydrogen.

Energy Observer is not a working cargo vessel, more of a high-tech demonstration catamaran, with a huge array of solar panels, wing sails and just like the Ceiba will have, and the technology to turn the propeller into a turbine when under sail, thus generating electricity.

However, the second Ceiba vessel could well emulate one additional trait of the Energy Explorer and use that electricity to electrolyse water and generate hydrogen which it then compresses and stores to power it’s fuel cell thus enabling the vessel to manoeuvre under its own power when the wind is not strong enough or it has to move through ports or narrow channels or fairways.

Given that Doggett and Sail Cargo started with barely a few thousand dollars when they launched the project, the company has come a long way in demonstrating the validity of what has become a $4m project and the need to look at all aspects of the business.

The company’s website seeks investors willing to put a minimum of $50,000 into the project, and already talks about new investment possibilities of a second vessel.

the shipyard in the jungle had to be built from scratch
Building a wooden ship like Ceiba requires some traditional skills. “The shipwrights came to us like bees to honey” says Doggett.

Doggett’s dream

While Doggett wants shipping to see Ceiba as a challenge or a demonstration that it can do better, she also recognizes the limitations it offers which is why Sail Cargo is also looking to go bigger, and for this she admits steel may be the only option, but even then, her sustainability objectives are not going to slip away.

She reveals she is in initial talks with yards and other companies about a steel sailing ship design, and if she was prepared to go to great lengths to secure sustainable materials and construction methods for Ceiba, she will likely do the same for these vessels if it becomes viable.

However even while recognizing the compromise in materials, she jokes that any steel cut sailing vessels would need to be built with the word “imperfect” on their hulls, a recognition that shipping in all its value to society can never be truly sustainable, despite the value it offers society through the volume of goods it carriers.

But Doggett’s dream is not that she should be the only one starting the journey from the point of view of sustainable shipping for sustainable cargo owners, the former tall-ship sailor wants to see others compete with her for what will undoubtedly be a growing market opportunity.

If a $30 bag of sustainable “came by wind” coffee beans in a coffee house has a 70c mark up because it has sailed slower and, in a carbon positive sustainable way, while Vancouverites and any other coffee lover does not care that it took a bit longer but are able pat themselves on their backs about the sustainable drinking habits, then perhaps industries can change just as mind sets do.

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