A timber cargo ship could sail entire oceans without fossil fuels

This company believes it can bring emissions-free shipping to reality.
Eric James Beyer
SailCargo's flagship vessel, the Ceiba.SailCargo INC.

The race to decarbonize transportation is on.

While the continued rise of electric vehicles (EVs) represents perhaps the most visible such effort in the public’s mind, automakers are far from alone in their plans to bring low or zero-emission transport options to market.

Aviation, for example, has long been seen as a particularly challenging industry to decarbonize, as current battery technology is both too heavy and not nearly energy-dense enough to meet the needs of planes that require them. 

Even so, some aviation groups have begun to commit themselves to net-zero emissions goals, with groups like the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announcing its intentions to decarbonize by 2050. Airlines are following suit. Just last fall, Alaska Air Group partnered with zero-emission aviation firm ZeroAvia to create hydrogen-electric powertrains to power a 76-seater passenger aircraft. 

The global shipping industry is another part of the emissions picture in transportation, and it’s a rather large one. Roughly 11 billion tons of goods are transported by ship every year, which amounts to approximately 1.4 tons per person on the planet. The shipping industry forms the base of much of the modern global economy, but we hear relatively little about efforts to decarbonize it. 

Enter SailCargo INC., an ambitious company whose goal is to make emission-free shipping a reality by building up a fleet of eco-friendly vessels that address the most egregious environmental offenses plaguing the industry.

The company is currently building its flagship vessel, the Ceiba, from locally sourced wood in the jungles of Punta Morales, Costa Rica, and expects it to be on the water and making shipments of coffee, cacao, and other value-added natural products sometime in the next year and a half, traveling between various points in North America and the Caribbean. 

SailCargo’s founder and CEO, Danielle Doggett, is one the key individuals putting the wind in the company's sails. Doggett believes that, by demonstrating the achievable practicality of zero-emission shipping, SailCargo can inspire other companies to help form environmentally sustainable, financially profitable, and socially conscious links in the global trade chain.  

Ceiba, under construction
The Ceiba sitting in the shipyard in Costa Rica. Source: SailCargo INC.

Danielle is a maritime professional whose life on the water began when she was barely a teenager. When she was 13, her parents sent her to a summer camp to sail for eight days on the St. Lawrence II, a 72-foot, two-masted sailing vessel built in the 1950s. Since then, her life has been, in one way or another, dedicated to traditional sailing ships. 

Interesting Engineering had the chance to catch up with Danielle via video interview while she sat overlooking the harbor in Nassau, having recently traveled to the Bahamas on a business mission to explore opportunities that could expand her company’s reach.

The conversation shed light on some misconceptions of the shipping industry itself, how the lawlessness of international waters results in environmental harm that is often swept under the rug, and on what SailCargo believes it can do to help decarbonize ocean transport. 

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

IE: Tell us a bit about how you got into the world of sailing and shipping.

Danielle Doggett: I began sailing tall ships at age 13. I’ve been so lucky to work and travel all over, from Iceland to across the Caribbean and all parts of the northern Atlantic.

In 2010, I sailed aboard the Tres Hombres. I boarded at the Dominican Republic, and we loaded 18,000 bottles of rum by hand and then sailed up to Calais, France. 

What exactly are you setting out to do with SailCargo INC.? 

Our mission is to prove the value of clean shipping, prove that it’s financially viable, and that clients and customers are going to line up for this service.

We hope that this will open the doors for any company, whether it's MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company) or Maersk, to at least say, ‘Hey, they have a market and they're making money.’ We want to show them that it's worth thinking about, and hopefully, we will inspire them to do better than us.

How do you respond to critics who would say it’s impossible to replace massive steel ships with eco-friendly wooden boats that can’t match those vessels’ carrying capacity?

A lot of people are not really thinking about the shipping industry or the maritime sector in an accurate way. Ceiba will be the largest emission-free cargo ship in the world. She'll be able to take a maximum of 10 TEU (standard, 20-foot containers). That's including one on deck. That's tiny. These other vessels are around 22,000 TEU. 

Workers work on a structure of wooden beams as they continue to build the Ceiba ship.
Workers construct the inside of the ship. Source: SailCargo INC.

People think about the largest ship they can possibly imagine and they say, ‘How can you compete with them?’ We can't — but the maritime logistics chain includes hundreds of types of vessels. I'm here sitting in Nassau looking out over the harbor, and there are about 10 roll-on/roll-off vessels that are only slightly bigger than Ceiba, and that's how they operate all across the Caribbean.  

[That criticism] is like going to a farmers’ market and talking to the grandma who grew and picked her carrots herself and saying she can't compete with Costco. Well, she’s not trying to. 

Let’s talk about the current state of the shipping industry. Just how environmentally unfriendly would you say it is? 

You can say what would sound like two contradictory statements about the modern shipping industry right now. One is that it's the most efficient way of transporting goods. If you were to put these goods on a truck or a plane, you would have significantly higher emissions per ton. 

If you spend days going through the Maersk website, as I have, you actually walk away feeling like they're super eco-friendly and that they do a pretty good job. At the same time, there are some basic factors that are unacceptable, like fuel types. 

The Ceiba shipyard peers through the Costa Rican jungle, covered in a teal tarp.
The Ceiba shipyard in the Costa Rican jungle. Source: SailCargo INC.

Most people can think about gasoline or diesel for their car and know that diesel is dirty and gasoline is cleaner. However, if you were to hold them up, they would both look essentially totally clear, you almost couldn't tell them apart. They are free of impurities to the eye, and so they're not really that different.

"The fact that they’re allowed to burn that fuel is an insult to everyone and everything."

The fuel that's used by these big ships is hard enough to walk on in colder temperatures. It’s this sludge, like black tar. So, these ships must have whole other engines that run on more refined fuel to heat up that fuel so they can actually use it.

The fact that they’re allowed to burn that fuel is an insult to everyone and everything. Most ships aren't allowed to burn that low quality of fuel within the territorial waters of most countries. So, within 12 nautical miles offshore, these ships have to switch to a different fuel. In the middle of the ocean, they're not within the territorial waters of any country, which means they can burn whatever they want.

When cleaning the fuel tanks and [retrieving] the stuff they can't use as fuel anymore, these vessels just burn them in barrels on the deck to get rid of them. There's nothing we can do about it because there's no international police. You have nations’ coastguards, but they don't extend past that 12-mile jurisdiction. 

These ships would be super-efficient if they would just burn even a little bit cleaner fuel. Unfortunately, these companies don't have any incentive to switch to a cleaner fuel, because the client at the end pays for it. If you shop for something, you're [the one] paying the price of fuel at that time. So, [these shipping companies] could switch to a cleaner fuel, but then the customer would see the prices go up.

A lot of these companies also have very close ties with or own offshore oil rigs. They are the ones drilling for that fuel and selling it. These ships are able to use the most [bottom-of-the-barrel material], so it's a way to use the entire fuel product.

The life-cycle of these ships is another aspect of the industry that seems to be out of sync with the environment and social justice. What exactly does that look like? 

This is connected to the container revolution, which was started in 1956 by a trucker named Malcom McLean. One of the most important container revolutions we've had is with pop cans, for example. 

One of the largest kinds of containers we have, which is part of this revolution, are these massive ships themselves. The pop can is interesting [as a comparison] — it's made of almost pure aluminum, and a single recycled can, can be back on the shelf, completely washed, melted down, and re-filled in something like one week. That’s a good system. 

This other container, the ship, that’s a bad system. 

Step one of this container’s lifespan is to be clear-cut somewhere in the Amazon, where most of the largest iron mines in the world are.

"They drive the ship up onto a beach somewhere where migrant workers and children cut it apart."

After they mine that out, they then ship it somewhere, likely Asia, where they pay low wages to build the vessel. It's launched, very likely owned by [some organization] in Europe, but they're often flagged as [if they are from] somewhere else, somewhere with much [less stringent] labor laws. 

A lot of the people [working these ships] are from Pakistan, Malaysia — they're working on what are literally called ‘slave contracts.’ That's how they are kept as crew. It's a really brutal cycle of [labor] entrapment.

After the 25-year lifespan of the ship, the company sells the vessel to a third party, reflags the boat, and renames it so you can’t identify it anymore. And now, [these companies] don’t have anything to do with it. Now, they’re no longer accountable. 

At which point, they literally drive the ship up onto a beach somewhere where migrant workers and children cut it apart, in what the International Labour Organization describes as one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. It’s called ‘ship breaking.’ 

So, if we go back to the pop can analogy, [this is equivalent to] a rich person buying a pop can, walking to a poor area, and throwing it in someone’s face and saying, ‘Clean up my mess.’ 

Your company has been building its flagship vessel, Ceiba, in the jungle in Costa Rica. How did Sailcargo get its start, and how did you choose Costa Rica as the place to build and launch your first ship? 

I've worked on ships for a long time, but I didn't really think about the shipping industry. I never thought about it until I stepped on board Tres Hombres. I worked in their office as well, and I attended a nautical college in the Netherlands in Dutch. During that study time, I also worked in an office of fair transport, and that taught me a lot. 

I was looking at the numbers and I saw that there was a lot of financial struggle [to do this kind of clean shipping]. And I just thought, ‘I don't think it has to be this way, I think we can make it financially viable.’ 

A worker with a ponytail using a tool to work on the wooden beams of the ship.
Source: SailCargo INC.

We identified that we wanted to be in a warmer country that would be close to the wood source. It was Lynx Guimond, my co-founder, who was living in Costa Rica at the time, who told me to come to check it out. So, I went for a two-week reconnaissance mission and never left.

Costa Rica is amazing. It’s a small country located right in the middle of North and South America, right in the middle of the Atlantic and Pacific, so it’s really at the center of everything in some ways.

It's extremely green. It’s covered with forests and is one of the only countries in the world where the national forest is increasing in volume every year. They have very strict forestry laws.

There are a lot of comparisons drawn between Norway and Costa Rica, which is so interesting because it's a very poor nation. But, in terms of green energy, green technology, and green business, those are the two countries really pushing things forward. 

What about the ship itself — Ceiba — what kinds of technology will be incorporated into its construction?

We like to imagine her as a platform for new technology. Because we have sails on the ship, we’re comfortable, we can afford a little bit more risk with trying other technologies, whether that's electric engines, regenerative propellers, or solar sails.

Right now, our design will have two, 150-kilowatt electric engines with two propellers. And both will also have the capability to regenerate energy. When we're sailing with sufficient wind, we can actually charge energy back using those variable pitch propellers. It’s similar to driving an electric car and switching to regenerative braking mode when you’re going down a hill or coming to a stop — you get that kinetic energy back with the ship as well. We would love to try something with solar sails, too.

We’ve also announced the build of a second ship, the sister ship to Ceiba. Her name is Pitaya, which means dragon fruit. We already have timber drying for that construction. 

What kinds of products will you be shipping and along what routes?

Value-added natural products like coffee, cacao, olive oil, and avocado oil get a lot of interest. Turmeric is also a big one, and textiles like cotton from Peru. 

"Clean shipping shouldn't be for the one percent."

The first route that we had in mind was from Costa Rica to British Columbia, but we've had significant interest from the Caribbean side, from Columbia up to New Jersey. And so that will be our first run.

We’re offering a premium service, but I want to get prices as low as possible. Clean shipping shouldn't be for the one percent. 

As someone working toward a greener world, what advice would you give to the younger generations who feel jaded and dismayed regarding climate change and the health of the planet? 

Turn off your phone, look within yourself and see what you want to do, because one person can make a huge difference. Don't worry about what other people are doing. You can't change everything. So, focus on one thing that you can do well. 

I get it — I want wars to stop, I want single-use plastic to stop, and I want everyone to have fair wages. But that's not my mission. My mission is to prove the value of clean shipping. 

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