The new commercial sailing ships will be 60% wind driven, aided by an engine run on bio-fuels or liquid natural gas. So, it's not one hundred percent sail, but it's a start. The ships will carry 9,000 tons of cargo, which is about five times more than the biggest merchant vessels plying the oceans in the era of the Yankee clipper. You can read about the new ships here and here.
They will look like this:
B9 Energy's clipper ship
Not terribly elegant by the standards of the tall ships in the days of old. But it's a start. Dreams and plans are afoot for many more such vessels. Low Tech Magazine has one article describing them, as does Peak Oil blogger Dmitri Orlov.
With oil production peaking and the other fossil fuels certain to eventually follow, the return of sailing fleets in some form seems inevitable to me. Human societies five hundred years from now will trade across the ocean with ships driven by wind, by solar steam power, by biofuels, and all of the above at the same time, I'm sure. With the shift in the Earth's climate, the home ports for many of the great ships of the future will lie on the shores of northern Canada, Siberia, and Antarctica.White wilderness turned green, with cities and harbors and stories.
Just thinking about it gives me hope, for some dumb reason. Probably because I'm a shameless, hopeless goddamn romantic when it comes to sailing ships. As a kid, one of the first books I ever read was about John Paul Jones standing on the ruined deck of U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard, refusing to surrender to HMS Serapis. I used to read about American kids in the first few decades of the old Republic, running off to the docks of Boston or New York to join up with a merchant ship or the indomitable frigates of the American navy. I somehow missed the parts about "rum, sodomy, and the lash." Or told myself that only the British Navy was like that. Uh huh.
U.S.S. Constitution in Boston harbor, October 2010
Whatever the realities, I grew up dreaming of a romantic life aboard ships like Old Ironsides, the U.S.S. Constitution, launched on October 21, 1797. She fought the French, the Barbary Pirates of North Africa, and the British, never lost a battle, and was never decommissioned, either. Constitution remains in active service today, 213 years later.
With any luck, this humble relic of the first Age of Sail will be around for the second. There may not be a United States five hundred years from now, but I hope Constitution is still afloat. 700 years after first touching the water. Maybe the descendants of today's Americans will sail her across the Arctic to countries yet to be born. I hope it's a goodwill tour.
There are days when the future doesn't seem so bad.
* * * * *
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.
John Masefield, 1916