Beluga SkySails


Kite Sail At The Helm

New Form Of Sailing Ship Now On The High Seas


By James Donahue


The German freighter Beluga SkySails is at sea this week, on its maiden voyage from Germany to Venezuela, with an experimental flying sail giving wind-assistance for its diesel engines.


The vessel may be the first sail-driven commercial ship to put to sea in well over 100 years. And if the experiment proves successful, SkySails founder Stephan Wrage believes it will not be the last.


Equipped with a 160-square-meter flying sail, which was unfurled once the Beluga put to sea, the use of wind power is expected to reduce fuel costs by 10 to 35 percent, depending on wind conditions and the time the ship remains at sea. Under optical wind conditions, Wrage estimates that fuel consumption may be cut up to 50 percent.


As oil prices skyrocket, the SkySails propulsion could reduce the operating cost of a ship at sea by as much as a third the cost of a conventional diesel-powered vessel.


 Unlike the stately clipper ships of old, the sail unfurled over the forward deck of the Beluga looks like a paraglider sail tethered to the ship’s bow. A computer adjusts the height and angle of the sail, thus constantly taking advantage of changing wind conditions to maximize the sail’s propulsion power during its trans-Atlantic crossing.


The trip, which takes the Beluga in a southeasterly course that fights natural westerly trade winds while in the northern Atlantic, then falls into normally unstable and sometimes calming wind conditions near the equator, may not reveal the maximum assistance the sail might provide during this first trip. Better data is expected to be revealed on the return trip, while the wind is at the ship’s stern.


The 132-meter-long Beluga’s sail system is an advanced technology developed over a four-year period by the SkySails company of Hamburg, Germany. The ship is owned by the Beluga Shipping Company of Bremen, Germany, which operates vessels on trans-Atlantic routes..


Wrage said he spent months testing this new sail technology on a smaller vessel before outfitting the Beluga. Flying at a height that reaches up to 300 meters, the sail has the capability of adding a pulling force of up to three tons, allowing the ship’s engines to operate at a reduced power.


If the experiment proves successful, Wrage says he expects orders for another four to eight ships to be fitted with his new sail system by the end of the year.


Wrage is not thinking of stopping with a sail of this size. He says he envisions larger and perhaps more than one sail system installed on these massive cargo ships, dramatically reducing fuel costs and carbon emissions at the same time. He envisions an ambitious future for his product, with up to 1500 vessels, both freight haulers and luxury liners, equipped with his sails by 2015.


With fuel prices skyrocketing, it is not surprising that shipping companies are taking another serious look at sailing ships to carry freight at sea. But the old wind-jammers of yesteryear lacked the speed and reliability required for moving perishable freight, and passengers found the tilting decks of sail-driven ships somewhat uncomfortable.


The new SkySails concept appears to offer the perfect solution. Ships equipped with Wrage’s new sail system still maintain the engine power when the vessel becomes becalmed at sea, and because it works like a kite, the sail system does not cause the vessel to tilt while under wind power.


Anyone who has enjoyed the vibration-free comfort of a sailing yacht will recognize the advantages of traveling on a yacht fitted with a SkySails system. The theory is that such a vessel can glide soundlessly in motor yacht comfort.

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