NY - The sail freight movement charts a course beyond the Hudson - A centuries-old form of logistics is back but it must navigate modern challenges to grow.
The schooner Apollonia is the only working sail freighter in the U.S. Over its first three seasons shipping up and down the Hudson River, it has moved around 110,000 pounds of cargo and burned fewer than 10 gallons of diesel fuel.
Over the last three years, mechanic-turned-ship-captain Sam Merrett has made a successful business out of a seemingly impossible idea. With the schooner Apollonia, he and a team of true believers have sought to revive sail freight as a viable, sustainable and even preferable way to transport commercial goods up and down the Hudson River.
The Apollonia is a 64-foot merchant schooner originally built in Baltimore in 1946. She spent three decades out of use in a Boston backyard before Merrett came along with a small crew of crafty friends and restored the boat over a five-year span. Since its first voyage in May of 2020, the Apollonia has kept a full manifest through 11 round trips and more than a dozen stops between Troy and Brooklyn, its steel-sided belly filled with grains en route to breweries, coffee beans for roasters, shiitake-inoculated logs for urban farms, alongside maple syrup, cider, pumpkins, salt, cider, “sail mail” and loot crates of local goods.
“As a business model, we’re doing remarkably well, almost breaking-even for the cargo and the crew,” said Tianna Kennedy, a farmer in the Catskills who is also an original member of the Apollonia’s crew.
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What they have pulled off might be compared to running a trucking company a century after paved highways became obsolete and decayed. Until the age of steam ships, sloops and other sailing vessels were once a common sight on the Hudson. Today, the Apollonia is the only working sail freighter in the country, but that may soon change. A global sail freight movement is growing, and there is now a push to advance and scale up efforts in the United States.
Fellowships and sailing ships
On a gray November morning at the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston, the first annual Conference on Small Scale Inland and Coastal Sail Freight convened. A couple dozen people in a side room plus others attending virtually discussed the challenges facing sail freight in the United States: neglected port infrastructure, obstacles to funding, problematic regulations, the aging population of people who have the relevant skills and knowledge of how sail freight works.
“We are really just one or two generations away from people who still know how to do this stuff,” said Andrew Willner, a Kingston-based former shipwright and executive director of the Center for Post Carbon Logistics, an advocacy organization dedicated to reviving carbon-free maritime and last-mile transportation and a close partner of the Apollonia.
In March, the two organizations collaborated to crowdfund a coordinator role, the Andrus Sustainability Fellow, named after Erik Andrus of the Vermont Sail Freight Project, a short-lived experiment that inspired many involved in the Apollonia. Starting in June, the Fellow will take on building and coordinating the various companies, municipalities and eventually other wind shipping concerns with the goal of revitalizing sail freight along the Hudson, Erie Canal and beyond.