KINGSTON, NY—The Hudson River Maritime Museum is celebrating the past, present and future of sailing freight with a new exhibit opening in May and by co-sponsoring the Northeast Great Grain, also slated to take place in May.
The race spans eight northeastern states, including all of the New England states as well as New York and New Jersey. It will feature competitors in four capacity categories vying for the highest score by moving grain shipments from growers to growers to users like brewers and maltsters during the month of May.
Steven Woods, the museum’s director of education, said the race is not about who can get to the destination fastest, but rather is about energy efficiency. Each tonne-mile of cargo moved earns one point, but five points are lost for each liter of fuel burned or 10 kilowatts of power taken from the grid, the race’s online rules show. Fuel consumption will be tracked throughout the trip, according to Woods.
The race is reminiscent of the great grain races from Australia to Britain which lasted until the late 1950s. Informally “raced” another German ship, the Pamir, which eventually sank due to improper loading in 1957, ending the race, Woods says.
Sailing freight once ruled the trade on the Hudson River with countless sloops and schooners plying the river filled with all kinds of cargo and often passengers as well. For more than 100 years after Robert Fulton’s famous Clermont steamer successfully navigated the river, sailing freight carried on, mainly because it was so cheap for heavy cargo compared to ships steamers who had to pay for the fuel, said Sarah Wassberg-Johnson. , the museum’s director of exhibitions and outreach.
In the ocean trade, sailing ships remained in service well into the 20th century. They included a fleet that transported highly explosive nitrate made from bat guano to Chile to be used for ammunition and fertilizer in Europe, Woods said.
Wassberg-Johnson said the exhibit seeks to broaden the interpretation of a museum founded by steamship enthusiasts to include more stories about the age of sail and how a 5,000-year-old mode of transport years can contribute to a more sustainable future.
Sailing freight has made a comeback in recent years on the Hudson River in the form of the 64-foot schooner Apollonia, which will compete with the Solar Sal battery-powered boat based in the Capital Region on the Hudson River in the race. Another larger schooner is expected to sail between Bath, Maine and Boston as part of the event.
Woods said Apollonia sailed for its first full season in 2021, carrying around 27 tons of cargo including malted grain for half a dozen breweries, Poor Devil Hot Sauce, mushrooms from Brooklyn and even French wine transshipped from another sailboat that sailed to New York from France. In addition to the museum, the Apollonia partners with the Northeast Grainshed Alliance and the Center for Post Carbon Logistics for the race.
Woods said Apollonia could carry about 10 tons in total at a time, which is significantly less than the old Hudson River sloops which carried 60 to 100 tons. Ocean-going sailing vessels were several times larger, some being able to carry up to 6,000 tons of grain.
Beyond racing and exhibiting, Woods has a much broader vision of a future where sail freight, which is 25% more energy efficient than freight trains and far more efficient than trucks, could be used to move large scale goods again. Sea freight could be particularly useful for non-perishable goods like grain that don’t need to be pressed, as well as on rivers and coastal trade, he said. He even completed a master’s thesis studying such a business in college.
“If you’re shipping fresh tomatoes from California, you don’t want to use ocean freight because they’ll be mush by the time they get to you,” he said.
Besides speed, another big drawback to sailing freight and that is an inability to operate during winter due to ice in the Hudson River despite the Coast Guard cutter fleet now keeping the river open at navigation, according to Woods. But he said that could be solved with dockside warehouses where non-perishable goods could be shipped during the warmer months and stored for the winter.
Regarding dock infrastructure, he said the main needs are a place to tie up and bulkheads to help keep the craft secure while unloading.
Woods said sailboats have advantages over electric boats that use large arrays of lithium-ion batteries. A large freighter might need 1,100 tonnes of batteries, which would reduce cargo capacity, consume as much electricity as 67 households, require chargers that are not very energy efficient and only go 5 knots or 6 mph , did he declare. That’s half the speed a 250-year-old wind jammer could achieve, Woods added.
A sailboat could be fitted with a smaller engine and solar panels for use when the winds are calm or cruising in port, with the engine acting as a generator when the ship is under sail, he said.
“We still have 50 years of oil that we can use our technology to get out of the ground and with other energy sources we can’t sustain our current energy consumption, you can’t produce that much,” said he declared.
Woods admitted it would take some time to train new crews, but he said it was not impossible. Unlike recreational sailing which focuses on speed, he said, commercial sailing requires attention to detail on loading, setting the sails the right way and patience.
“You couldn’t move for days and go a long time without moving quickly,” he said.
Photos: Exhibit on the history and future of sea freight on the Hudson arrives at the Hudson River Maritime Museum