Back To The Future – Lessons From The Past

Globally there is increasing interest in the use of wind energy in shipping with successful large scale trials of Flettner Rotors and fixed wing sails on ships up to 50,000 tonnes. Soft sails are entering the market in Europe now targeting commercial ships smaller than 5000 tonnes.
19 Feb 2020 12:21
Back To The Future – Lessons From The Past


In the build-up to the Madrid Climate Summit last year, Fiji leaders, alongside other Pacific states, announced new high ambition targets for its domestic shipping sector.

100 per cent carbon-free by 2050 with a milestone of 40 per cent reduction by 2030.

Ambitious, challenging, even daunting.

But just like winning gold at Rio, it is achievable.

100-odd years ago shipping underwent a fundamental technology revolution, from thousands of years of primary wind and paddle propulsion to fossil-fuel-powered underwater propellers.

Burnt coal

First, we burnt coal to make steam and then we invented the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) to burn heavy oil and then diesel.

Finally, we could drive a ship against the forces of nature and get to market faster. More recently we have added LNG to this mix.

Such fuels are in plentiful supply, relatively cheap (although this is kept artificially low though various subsidies) and, until recently, no-one was overly worried by the harm it was doing our environment or our health.

Now shipping must undergo an even more fundamental shift, from carbon to non-carbon fuels and means of propulsion.

Our colleagues at University College London estimate the shift to fuels such as ammonia, advanced biofuels, hydrogen, etc will require an investment in excess of $1trillion by 2050.

The most progressive elements in international shipping have now pledged to have zero-emissions vessels commercially viable by 2030.

The first beneficiary will be large scale shipping serving the large and developed trading economies. For industry and research majors in Europe, Norway, United Kingdom, Korea, Japan and China the race is on to capture this emerging market.

But where will this leave our Pacific shipping operators?  Fuel is already one of the major operational costs but the costs of transitioning to new generation vessels is well beyond the reach of most Pacific ship owners and operators, already working on marginal profit lines.

If new fuels are bought to market in the northern hemisphere, will we ever be able to afford to install the necessary bunkering infrastructure to support this here?

If the fuel is ammonia it may be that we can have a drop-in transition to existing bunkering networks. If its methane, then we would probably have to build a whole new system.

The point is, the solutions being currently developed to service the large trading economies do not necessarily provide affordable or sustainable solutions for remote island states.

We must develop a bespoke Pacific solution tailored to the unique shipping scenario that exists in Fiji and the Pacific.


The only alternative is to maintain a business as usual approach to our fossil fuel dependency using conventional ships and pay ever increasing fuel and carbon penalty costs for doing so.

Of course, alternative fuels are only one solution. We can be more efficient with what we have, improving operational practices and increasing maintenance to minimise fuel use.

Globally there is now large-scale research and trials into bringing back wind as an energy source for both propulsion and auxiliary power, massive advances in electric motors and batteries, new propeller designs and use of PV, etc.

There are multiple options and we need to choose wisely based on sound evidence. We will explore these in more depth in subsequent articles.

In the Pacific wind has to be a major source of propulsion for ships and this is clearly evident from both Pacific history and from the various trials that occurred here in Fiji in the oil crisis of the 1980s.

Wind Energy

Globally there is increasing interest in the use of wind energy in shipping with successful large scale trials of Flettner Rotors and fixed wing sails on ships up to 50,000 tonnes. Soft sails are entering the market in Europe now targeting commercial ships smaller than 5000 tonnes.

Colleagues from Germany are working on similar technologies for ships of 500-tonne in the Marshall Islands currently and Swire and University of the South Pacific (USP) are working on a 200-tonne design.

All of these have common elements. Wind is being seen as a hybrid fuel.

In other words the ship has two engines, one is a wind engine using some form of sail or rotor to propel the vessel, the other is mechanical engine driving a propeller, using either diesel or electricity or an alternative fuel.

Think of it like a Prius, you use the petrol motor to go up hill and recharge the batteries coming down hill.  Such technology produces a vessel that is demonstrably faster, safer, cheaper to maintain, more stable, more comfortable and needs much less fuel.

How do we know that it works? Well it’s already been well proven in Fiji.

The late Professor A.D. Couper wrote extensively about the sail auxiliary schooners, the “Adi” class, that were still working in all Fiji waters in the 1960s.

Fuel Crisis

When the fuel crisis bit in the 1980s (fuel prices rose by 15 times in 3 years), the Government shipping service cargo passenger ship, the 274-tonne Na Mataisau was retrofitted with a ketch rig and soft sails.

Monitored trials by Southampton University funded by ADB clearly show this experiment, using a Colin Philp snr designed rig, all built and fitted in Walu Bay, and Colin Philp jnr built sails, Na Mataisau was averaging 23 per cent fuel savings across Fijian routes.

The ship was lost in a cyclone on Moala, but not before delivering the then (late) Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and half his cabinet safely ashore under canvas alone when the main engine failed.

The rig was refitted on the larger Cagidonu where it achieved better than 30 per cent savings.

We are grateful to the foresight of having a major university involved in recording this experiment because it means we still have the data to use today.

Each of the trials USP is involved with currently also have such partnerships with specialist colleagues in Germany, Holland, UK and Australia.

If 30 per cent could be achieved with a retrofit option in 1984, what can be achieved today given advances in technology and materials available to us?

The current science is that these figures can now be substantially improved.  Na Mataisau and Cagidonu are only two examples to illustrate the savings possible using local intervention and innovation, there are many others.

And of course, if Fiji goes back a little further into its history, it comes quickly to the most efficiently designed blue water ship in the world in its day – the drua.

I am not advocating here that we now go back to shipping goods to market in dugout logs made without metal.

I am strongly suggesting we learn the lessons from past generations of mata-i-sau that designed and built huge fleets of sailing ships powered by an indigenous sail design more efficient than any other in the world at that time.

When we launched i Vola Siga Vou in Navua in 2016, it easily topped 15 knots under a tarpaulin sail.

What is the lesson to be learnt here as we plan for a carbon-free future for Pacific shipping?

  • Peter Nuttall is the University of the South Pacific Scientific and Technical Advisor at the Micronesian Center for Sustainable Transport.

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