Main sail ships seem to go back in time, evoking a bygone era when merchants, admirals and pirates ruled the seas. Hugely evocative, with white sails billowing above and hulls pointed towards points unknown, their dynamic form captures not only the wind, but also the imagination.
The four-masted ship of the Star Clippers Star leaflet most certainly captured mine. Last summer, on a balmy August evening, I huddled on its deck with other novice sailors, ready to let the wind carry me. Aegean while we were sailing, really sailed, from the Greek port of Piraeus. As I watched the ship’s crew hoist the first of its 16 sails, I began to cycle through the helix of my Hellenic DNA, imagining how my paternal ancestors, originally from the Greek islands of Syros And Zante– must also have sailed these seas for centuries, praying for the favor of the Anemois, the wind gods of Greek mythology. With Vangelis’ moving “Conquest of Paradise” playing through the ship’s speakers, starlight piercing the night sky, the unfurling of some 36,000 square feet of sails was inspiring. It was romantic. It was transportation. But above all it was necessary.
As Greece is recovering from a series of devastating wildfires (some of which required mass evacuations of tourists from the beloved cruise port of Rhodes in July), and is recovering from its longest heatwave ever recorded, traveling to the country this summer came with a new call for responsibility. Is there a way to explore the Greek islands without worsening the impact of a growing climate crisis? I thought about how goods and people moved in the past: by sea and by sail. Indeed, sometimes, when it comes to sustainabilitywhat’s old is new again.
This adage is particularly true in Greece. With its string of jewel-like islands that lure travelers with its attractive beaches and ancient culture, it’s no wonder it’s cruise country. Nearly a third of the world’s population cruise ships carrying more than four million passengers who called on the Greek islands last year, which represents only a fraction of the more than 30 million cruise passengers who sail the seven seas each year. But the cruise industry has a dirty underbelly, linked to rampant waste production, port overtourism and carbon emissions generated by heavy fuel oil (HFO), or bunker fuel, that cruise ships primarily use.
“Bunker fuel is just about the dirtiest type of transportation fuel,” says Dr. Mark Jacobson, director of the Ambiance/Energy Program at Stanford University and author of No Miracles Needed: How Today’s Technology Can Save Our Climate and Clean Our Air.
Today, the maritime industry – including cruise ships and cargo ships – is responsible for almost 3% of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, strengthening maritime environmental regulations and cruise line commitments to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 have pushed the industry to explore and develop decarbonization technologies such as batteries and hydrogen electricity, as well as the millennial, cost-effective, plug-and-play technology of sails and wind power – an approach that, in turn, powers a small but growing segment of the industry cruises.
“It’s so nice to have this impression of how they navigated the past” Star leafletit’s affable Croatian Captain Ante Basisca tells me one afternoon as we chat in the ship’s piano bar. With only 166 passengers, Star leaflet, modeled on a 19th century clipper ship, is not a conventional cruise ship. There’s no Broadway-style entertainment or a noisy nightclub; it’s more of a relaxed nautical atmosphere, where teak decks, polished brass and clipper paintwork abound. Most of my waking hours on board are spent lounging by a small saltwater pool on deck, under the vast canvas awning, or sailing around the riggers, booms and reels of rope. In my more moments of adventure, I climb up to the bowsprit net at the bow of the ship, listening to the lapping waves as I hang above the sea below; another day I try my hand at slamming the rigging from the 50-foot-high mast to the crow’s nest. Swaying against bright blue skies and firm breezes, the rocky shores of dreamy islands giving way to fiery sunsets, it’s easy to live out the nautical fantasies of yesteryear.
And then of course there are the environmental benefits: “No broadcast. No gas. Nothing,” Basisca told me. During our week-long cruise, he says, we were able to sail alone about 30 percent of the time, citing obstacles such as headwinds and the need to reach port on time. While some smaller sailing companies rely more on a go-with-the-wind approach, with no set route or cruising speed, larger tall ship lines like Star Clippers have routes keep. For our trip, this resulted in sailing alone lasting approximately 19 hours until the first stopover, Rhodeswith much of the rest of the shipping powered by a combination of wind and motive power.
“We can sail on wind power up to 80% of the time on a given route, so from a sustainability point of view it significantly reduces the time we need to use the engine and burn fuel,” explains Terri Haas, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Star Clippers North America. Beyond the Sails, Haas Says, Star Clippers smaller capacity ships also translate into other notable sustainability benefits, such as minimized waste generation and “less overtourism, which is important for maintaining the integrity of the small ports visited by our ships.”
MonacoLondon-based Star Clippers is one of the few established tall ship companies, alongside the likes of Island Windjammers and Sea Cloud Cruises, who are building on the sustainability of these sailing ships, adding it to their attractions long-standing story of adventure and romance. A new generation of next-generation ships equipped with sails is now also in the works with cruise lines like Orient ExpressHurtigruten and Ponant.
In fact, experts like Jacobson view these hybrid models as the most practical application of wind power on ships, with the wind being ideally supported. emerging clean energy technologies based on batteries and hydrogen.
For a more entirely aeolian vacation, Captain Basisca tells me to consider sailing the Caribbean then, with its more reliable trade winds. But he notes that climate change has made it harder to track wind everywhere. “It used to be easier to predict wind and weather. Now everything has really changed,” he says. If I listen carefully to the murmurs of the people of Anemois, I hear it: we, as travelers, must also accept the winds of change in the way we travel.