Welcome to The Sail Trader, a global supply chain project from Alan Macmillan Orr
I have always been concerned with the provenance of goods, the supply chain, corporate ethics,, and whether the environmental and human cost of producing the product outweighed its benefit.
For the last five years as I have been sailing offshore with Ariana Sailing team, we have constantly been avoiding huge (300m plus container ships, bulk carriers, and oil tankers) but it was only at the end of 2021 that I realised that instead of complaining about the global maritime trade using millions of litres of heavy bunker fuel, polluting the seas, and carrying goods thousands of miles to their destination, as it was cheaper to make and ship the goods from a country like china to the uk, than it was to make them in the uk.
I don’t want to share hundreds of statistics here, but here’s a quick overview. For more information go to statista.com or a reputable source.
- 80 percent of all goods are transported by sea
- 11 Billion tons of goods were transported in 2021
- 1.83 billion tons of crude oil was transported in 2021
- the global marine fuel market was valued at 148 billion dollars in 2019 and is projected to grow
- Very large container ships like the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin can carry 4.5 million gallons of fuel.
- A panamax vessel (so called as it can go through the panama canal can transport 5000 TEU containers and uses pprovimately 63,000 gallons of fuel per day
- 5500 container ships transporting goods around the world in 2022
- 310 container ships have been total losses since 2013
- Approximately 226 million containers are transported every year, and about 800 containers are lost at sea every year
I couldn´t believe the statistics I was reading. So much for think global buy local!
At that moment I knew that I had to take action. If people were going to still import and export via seaborne routes, why not do what we have been doing for hundreds of years, and use the power of sail to transport it? After all, sailing ships were the start of the global maritime trading routes, centuries before any one had heard of bunker fuel.
Ariana is a classic swan 55 racer/ cruiser and could only safely carry about 2 tons ( I predicted) of goods, and I wasn’t even sure we could carry that as a balanced load, and I was sure that we would not be able to insure the boat for cargo, needless to say, I carried on!
Economists will tell you that ultra large container ships are the most efficient way of carrying up to 18,000 containers per voyage, and I’m sure some clever people have worked out that emissions per container is actually still very low, but they are still using the fuel, they still have to build ships, and container losses pollute the oceans, and HGV vehicles still need to transport the containers to and from the ships. All in all, not a very ‘environmentally friendly’ solution – but a fantastic economic one.
I thought that if I could make a small contribution and also educate people about the global shipping trade I would be making a difference, if not a profit.
I did recognise that this would be very difficult, but nonetheless started to decide what route I would take and what goods I would carry back to the UK.
In the western world especially, we are used to going into a supermarket and having massive choice of fresh produce, and fruits that are out of season at home.
My father likes to buy organic but doesn’t care where the products are from, and that’s his choice. One thing he does like is strawberries and blueberries evey day of the year, which means these products have to be imported, some by sea and some by air.
I began to do some analysis of the typical shopping basket in the uk, and work out if it was possible to sail at least some of these goods back to the UK.
I asked the crew to pick three popular products to ascertain how long it would take to sail these from remote locations to the UK.
- Grapes from South Africa
- Coffee from Colombia
- Asparagus from Peru
When you go into the local supermarket they are just there on the shelf, and there is no detail on how they got there! As long as you’ve got money you can buy them!
I got out my charts and started to plan the voyage.
Our first stop would be cartagena in colombia to pick up coffee. It is 4300 nautical miles from portsmouth and would take 30 days. I would have to leave in about october to take advantage of the trade winds across the atlantic, but it would be quite an easy sail via the Canary Islands, and we would arrive in Cartagena around Christmas.
We would then load up with coffee and sail through the panama canal to the port of Callao in Peru which is 1655 nautical miles and would take us 14 days which would take us up to the last week in January.
We would then load up with fresh asparagus and set sail for Cape Town to pick up our grapes.
The voyage is 12924 nautical miles and will take us via the notorious Cape horn and will take us at least 3 months, with an arrival date approximately 1st May.
We will pick up our delicious grapes , but unfortunately asparagus has a shelf life of 7 days so all our produce will have to be thrown away, at least the coffee is OK!
We set sail on the 2nd week of May which is autumn in the southern hemisphere southern weather will be getting a bit rough!
The voyage is 5947 nautical miles and will take 50 days, meaning we will arrive back in Portsmouth aound the end of June, giving us a sum total of 24825 nautical miles sailed and taking approximately 8 months.
Unfortunately, as grapes have a shelf life of approximately 5 to 10 days in a refrigerator they are spoiled when we reach portsmouth.
We offload our coffee, our ownly product to show for 8 months of sailing but as we chose not to have it picked up by an HGV as we wanted zero emissions, we not have to set up by the dock and hope people buy it.
All in all, not a very successful voyage. Do you agree?
And that’s just a few products.
In the UK food is imported from all over the world, and is constantly available on the shelfs for people like my dad who happily purchase their grapes, and asparagus, and coffee, and never give a second thought to how it got there, the people who gre it, the ethics of the companies producing it, or the politics of the originating country.
We humans have to give ourselves a big pat on the back though, as we have made it possible for people like my dad to have hs strawberries, or asparagus, or grapes or coffee, fresh, every day. A modern miracle!
But for me, and others like me, trying to make a real difference in the world, it seems that we are doomed to failure!
What I did not factor into my equations was the weather, and that the winds may not play ball, so our 8 months might have turned into a year, we might have broken things on the the boat, which would have needed repair, crew may have got sick or jumped ship, and these delays may have put us in the heart of winter storms in the southern ocean!
That we arrived at all would indeed be a miracle!
LET THE VOYAGE BEGIN
Having decided that we needed to undertake shorter voyages and not carry fresh fruit and vegetables, we set out from Lagos in Portugal in January 2022 with 4 crew, including Alan, with the intention of visiting the Canary Islands, Madeira, and the Azores before returning to the UK.
The thought behind this was that we would have favourable weather for the most part, and would corss the bay of biscay in May when the chance of storms was minimal.
We decided on products that would have a long shelf life, and would be unique in the United Kingdom, and that they should all be bought from local artisan producers who had a clear ethics policy, paid their staff well, and could provide organic, in season products (no small task then!).
We took salt on board in Lanzarote, and bought local herbs and chillies which we dried in our solar oven to make chilli and oregano salt.
We took Palm honey on board in La Gomera
We bought local carrots in Tenerife and fermented them. We also bought local papaya, tamarillo, and pineapple to create jams and chutneys (as this was a good way to preserve fresh produce).
We then sailed to madeira and bought organic cane honey in Madeira, and it was at this time that crew tensions finally came to a head and 2 crew departed, leaving Alan and his first mate mike to decide if they could sail the boat double handed back to the UK without any extra crew…
It was decided that this was possible, and for the next week we battled storms back to the Portuguese mainland (Lagos) to regroup and take on supplies before crossing to the Azores, to take on tea from the only european plantation, a passage of 900 miles.
Of course, being early spring, the storms were still raging out in the atlantic and we were hot by storm after storm, spending two hours on and two hours off on watch for just over 9 days.
We began to wonder if it was all worth it! But at least the cargo was intact.
We finally arrived at Terceira, home of the Gorreana tea plantation and managed to buy a few boxes of organic tea, and waited for a weather window to set sail back to the UK.
The voyage was uneventful until we were becalmed in Biscay, and realised we didn’t have enough fuel to motor, which meant bobbing around in the bay for 5 days before the winds picked up again and we managed to sail direct into falmouth…
We had planned a grand entrance into London, but were just glad to have made landfall. So decided to call it quits after 5 months of sailing.
This meant that Alan was left alone with 2 tons of products and no way to distribute them, given the no driving the products commitment.
We did sell a few products, but as we had no publicity, and everyone used supermarkets, and couldn’t care less if the products were sailed, shipped or flown, the sail trader project was designated a failure by everyone (except alan).
The remaining products were either put into storage or thrown away as they had passed their used by dates.
What a waste.
We live in a world where we do not question the provenance of goods, where we do not think about the people who produced them, whether they were paid a fair price for their labour and products, we are just happy to live in a world where things are available 24/7, where we do not need to worry if people who produced the products we consume are living in poverty, or the country they live in is a totalitarian regime, or the true cost of the products outweighs the benefits.
But we did realise that there was no way to compete with the global machine, especially not in a little 55 foot sail boat.
A project like The Sail Trader is sailing against the global system, and the wind, and most people would just give up , after an unsuccessful trial run, but The Ariana Project is all about evlution, about doing things which 99.9 percent of people don’t do and we will continue to educate and inspire, despite losing all the money!
The thing is, the products we were sailing were of the highest quality, created by companies with high ethics, and if only we had gone through the traditional route of importing them by container ships, and conforming, all would have been well, but what’s the point of that?
The first voyage was test run, and we know that a classic cruiser racer is not a cargo ship, but it doesn’t mean that the idea was flawed.
In every marina I sail into, I see a forest of masts, beautiful sail boats going nowhere…
It is my intention to encourage people to get out and sail again, and join the sail trader project, using their small sail boats to start contributing to the global maritime trade, but with next to zero emissions.
Most people who own sailboats are doing it for recreational purposes, but it would give their voyages purpose, knowing that they were contributing to creating a better world… I know most people will think this is just some crazy idea, but it can be done!
This is the idea. We create a race where the concept is that not only do you have to sail the fastest, but you also have to buy a specific number of products, that must also fulfil an ethical criteria, when you arrive at port, sail them back, and sell them. The boat which sails the fastest, and sells the most amount of products shall be the winner.
Good idea ?
I know. It’s all too difficult, and anyway you can get coffee, grapes, and aspargus fresh at the supermarket every day.
why do something different?
and as for my father, he continues to buy products from countries where he disagrees with their politics… bit he wants the products so he buys them.