Transatlantic Freight Companies Have the Wind in Their Sails

Every year since 2020, Breton company Grain de Sail has made two round-trip crossings between Saint-Malo and New York City using sailboats loaded with wine and chocolate. Just like a handful of other French start-ups, the business is using innovative vessels to reinvent “carbon-free” shipping.
The French sailboat Grain de Sail I, able to carry up to 50 tons of cargo across the Atlantic. © Grain de Sail

On a cold December morning, the piers of the Elizabeth Marine Terminal in New Jersey are covered in a fine layer of frost. The sun is barely up and a team of dockers are already hard at work unloading palettes of wine, craft beer, and chocolate bars. In the midst of the container ships and oil tankers in the Port of New York, the 72-foot vessel carrying this delicious cargo seems miniscule. And yet, Grain de Sail I is heralding a freight and environmental revolution through the return of transatlantic cargo sailboats. A century after the last merchant sailboats crossed the oceans, initiatives to reboot this means of transport are booming. Since it launched in late 2020, Grain de Sail I has made two round trips between Saint-Malo, New York City, and the Dominican Republic, carrying up to 50 tons of cargo in its hold. Its successor, Grain de Sail II, which is currently under construction, will be twice as long and capable of carrying 350 tons.

Other companies have even bigger ideas. Le Havre-based TOWT (TransOceanic Wind Transport) has commissioned two 266-foot cargo sailboats with a loading capacity of 1,100 tons, the first of which will be delivered in late 2023. Neoline, located in Nantes, is supported by French maritime transport giant CMA CGM. In early January, it launched the construction of Neoliner, a 289-foot ship with rigid sails capable of carrying 265 containers, 400 vehicles, or 5,000 tons of cargo. Another Nantes-based company, Zéphyr & Borée, is working on several projects including Canopée, a 397-foot cargo sailboat which is set to transport the next Ariane rocket from Europe to French Guiana.

Le Havre-based TOWT has ordered two 266-foot cargo sailboats with a loading capacity of 1,100 tons. © PIRIOU
Neoliner, the first sail-equipped roll-on/roll-off ship, will be sailing between Saint-Nazaire and Baltimore by 2024. © Neoline/Mauric

These pioneers from France’s Atlantic coast have a shared goal to decarbonize sea transport. This sector currently generates 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but this figure could grow to 17% by 2050 according to the International Maritime Organization. In an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, leading shipping companies are already turning to solutions such as replacing polluting heavy fuel oil with natural gas, biofuel, or hydrogen produced using renewable energy. Those promoting cargo sailboats want to go even further and achieve “carbon-free” freight by drawing on the cleanest and most tried-and-tested energy source there is. “There is so much wind offshore. We can now predict its patterns, and sails offer the best way to harness it while transporting heavy cargo across long distances,” says Guillaume Le Grand, cofounder and CEO of TOWT.

“There are two major differences with the sailboats from the last century,” says Jacques Barreau, CEO of Grain de Sail, which he founded in Morlaix, Brittany, in 2010 with his twin brother Olivier. “The first is technology, with better equipment design and more efficient, resilient materials. The second is the fact that navigation is now assisted by satellites and weather forecasts, which enables us to strike a better compromise between speed and safety.” This is why it is so important to build modern ships, backed by French know-how in offshore sailboat racing, but adapted to the freight sector. “Today, each vessel is a prototype because no one knows how to create modern sailboats for transporting cargo,” he adds. “This means we have to reinvent everything.”

Increasingly Large and Innovative Sailboats

To finance its first ship and acquire enough cargo to fill it, Grain de Sail (a pun on grain de sel, “grain of salt,” referencing Brittany’s iconic salt industry) started roasting coffee, making chocolate, and distributing its beans and bars in grocery stores in Western France. Construction of Grain de Sail I only began in 2018, and the ship made its transatlantic maiden voyage in November 2020. Since then, the same loop has been completed twice a year in the spring and early winter. The ship leaves Saint-Malo loaded with organic wine and Champagne, which is then sold in New York City. (The journey takes an average of 27 days, compared to less than ten by traditional freighters.) After a few days docked in Brooklyn to promote the brand and meet customers, it sets sail for the Dominican Republic carrying medical supplies from the humanitarian Afya Foundation. For the final leg of its voyage, it sails back to France with a hold full of cocoa beans.

Brothers Olivier (left) and Jacques Barreau, the founders of Grain de Sail. © Grain de Sail
In two years, Grain de Sail plans to transport all its chocolate using sailpower. © Grain de Sail
After a few days docked in Brooklyn, Grain de Sail I will set sail for the Dominican Republic. © Grain de Sail

Despite these innovations, less than half the chocolate produced by Grain de Sail is currently transported in this way. “The second ship, set for launch in early 2024, will enable us to achieve our final goal of transporting all our own coffee and chocolate,” says Jacques Barreau. The company will also be able to add olive oil and rum to its product line, ship more French wine to the United States, and start working with external clients looking to reduce their carbon footprint. “We want to continue with our Saint-Malo-New York route and, eventually, make weekly trips, which will require four or five ships.”

TOWT, which launched in 2011, says it has transported 1,500 tons of cargo using some 20 traditional vessels – often old sailing ships chartered for each journey. This has enabled the company to generate its first revenue and experiment with different means of sail-based transport. “We have shipped alcohol, coffee, cocoa, and salt, either to sell ourselves or on behalf of other importers,” says Guillaume Le Grand. His two cargo sailboats, the first of which is set for delivery in late 2023, will be docked in Le Havre. As for Neoline, their vessel – the first sail-equipped roll-on/roll-off ship capable of carrying vehicles, trucks, and freight cars – will be sailing from Saint-Nazaire to Baltimore in two years’ time, with stops in Saint Pierre and Miquelon and Halifax. Its shareholders include transporter CMA CGM, and the company has already signed agreements for shipping products from Renault, Michelin, Hennessy, and Longchamp. “We want to offer freight services on an industrial scale while remaining competitive,” says Jean Zanuttini, CEO of Neoline.

However, none of the trailblazers behind these cargo sailboats is planning on competing with the prices offered by giant container ships, which currently make up the majority of global sea traffic. “Costs will be higher because we will never be as efficient as the 1,000- or 1,300-foot freighters running on fuel oil,” says Jacques Barreau. “We can’t hide the fact that we will have to pay more for eco-friendly transportation. There’s no such thing as miracles – you can’t be cheaper and better for the planet at the same time.”

Article published in the March 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.