Modern Cargo Ships Now Traveling Slower Than 19th Century Clippers

container ship photo

photo: Glen via flickr

Thinking about ways we can really start transitioning off oil has led me lately to thinking about how we're going to ship goods across oceans--which I'll delve into more in some future posts--but there's some interesting shipping information worth passing on (via Dot Earth and The Guardian) to start you thinking: As more container shipping companies try to reduce emissions and save fuel, some are adopting 'super-slow steaming'. The result is that it takes these ships longer to cross the Atlantic or Pacific than it took fast cargo ships some 120 years ago, under sail power alone.

A combination of the recession and growing awareness in the shipping industry about climate change emissions encouraged many ship owners to adopt "slow steaming" to save fuel two years ago. This lowered speeds from the standard 25 knots to 20 knots, but many major companies have now taken this a stage further by adopting "super-slow steaming" at speeds of 12 knots (about 14mph).

Travel times between the US and China, or between Australia and Europe, are now comparable to those of the great age of sail in the 19th century. American clippers reached 14 to 17 knots in the 1850s, with the fastest recording speeds of 22 knots or more.

Slowing Down 20% = 40% Less Fuel Consumption
A spokesperson for Maersk said reducing speeds by 20% means a savings in fuel consumption by 40% per nautical mile. "Slow steaming is here to stay. It's introduction has been the most important factor in reducing our CO2 emissions in recents years, and we have not yet realized the full potential. Our goal is to reduce CO2 emissions by 25%," Bo Cerup-Simonsen noted.

Read more: Modern cargo ships slow to the speed of the sailing clipppers

cutty sark photo

The Cutty Sark, pictured above in dry dock in Greenwich , England (before a fire nearly claimed her), was the last tea clipper ship to be built (in 1869) as a merchant vessel. With an speed of 17 knots and a capacity of 1700 tons, the 280-foot long ship could travel from China to London in 122 days. The trip from Australia to England, carrying wool, could be done in 67 days. She was crewed by 28-35 people. Photo: Rob Glover via flickr.
container ship in port photo

Today's largest container ships, top out at 1,305 feet long and have a capacity of over 151,000 gross tonnage. Crew on the largest is just 13 people, with a capacity for 30. Photo: Ana Ulin via flickr.
The Modern World Isn't Always As Fast As We Think
We've covered before the emissions and fuel benefits of slowing down container shipping. But the thing that continues to strike me when I read about the speed of modern shipping versus that in the age of sail is that the speed isn't that much different.

While there is a decided advantage to not being strictly at the mercy of wind and tide, as well as speed advantages in unloading and then shipping by land containerized cargo versus smaller parcels packed into the hold of the Cutty Sark or one of her kin, the fact that the actual speed once under way is little different than it was in the Victorian era still somehow seems symbolic.

It's similar to the realization that traffic speeds in London are roughly similar today under motor power as they were under literal horse power 150 years ago.

Though there's a feeling that the modern world thrives on speed--and in some cases this is undoubtedly true--in some, rather large, aspects of life the speed hasn't changed all that much even if the method of moving has. It's certainly a situation of change, but not necessarily progress as commonly perceived.

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More on Shipping:
Danish Cargo Ship Fleet Cuts Fuel 30% By Going Half Speed
Commercial Shipping Particle Air Pollution = Half of That From All The World's Cars
Cargo Ships With Kites: First Trans-Atlantic Trip a Success!

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