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With Airbus and Ariane Group the shipping future is sailing

Ariane Group and Airbus. The first to transport the parts of the Ariane carrier-rocket from France to the launch site in Kourou, French Guiana. The second to transport the sections of Airbus and also of the new Airbus A321XLR, the latest version of the most famous European commercial aircraft. To do so, both have chosed the sail-powered ships. (Here all our posts about Airbus)

Canopée, the Ariane Group’s sail-propelled ship.

Target within 1.5°C

A rescovered that attracts more and more large groups and shipping companies determined to reduce the consumption of increasingly expensive fossil fuels

but also that want to contribute to respecting the dictates of the 2016 Paris Agreement. An agreement that commits governments to containing the increase in global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and limit it to 1.5°C. Added to this is the commitment of the Countries of the European Union which have set themselves the objective of reducing air pollution by 55% before 2030.

The Countries that have ratified the Paris Agreement (in dark green) and those that have signed it (light green).

An Airbus project born by the America’s Cup

To do this, the path lies in the rediscovery of sailing propulsion and Ariane Group relied on the studio of Marc Van Petheghem and Vincent Lauriot Prévost who developed Oceanwings and applied it to the Canopée, a 121 meter cargo ship launched in 2022. Oceanwings is a system which derives directly from the 68 meter high mainsail of USA 17, the VPLP trimaran designed for Larry Ellison and winner of the America’s Cup in Valencia in 2010 against Alinghi’s mega-cat.

USA17 Oracle Racing the trimaran designed by Marc Van Peteghem and Vincent Lauriot Prévost winner of the 2010 America’s Cup in Valencia.

The VPLP’s Oceanwings

Transferring technology from the America’s Cup to “civilian” uses, van Petheghem and Lauriot Prévost developed the Oceanwings and in 2018 responded to Ariane Group’s request for a sustainable solution for its transport. Canopée is equipped with four 363 m2 Oceanwings combined with two diesel-electric units powered by low-emission fuels such as e-ethanol which allow a reduction in CO2 emissions in the order of 35% at each crossing from France to French Guiana.

Canopée in Bordeaux (France) during the sea trials.

Airbus chooses Flettner rotors

Different choice for Airbus which has commissioned the French maritime shipowner Louis Dreyfus Armateurs to start the construction of a fleet of ships with wind propulsion to be used for the transport of Airbus components to the Group’s offices scattered across Europe (France, Germany, Spain, United Kingdom) and USA. Each ship will be moved by six Flettner rotors, a system invented at the beginning of the 20th century by the German engineer Anton Flettner. Flettner rotors are vertical cylinders that rotate thanks to the wind, generating lift and therefore propulsive force for the ship. Flettner, after a series of experiments, first installed two of his 15 meter high and 3 meter diameter rotors on the German ship Buckau. The system also included a 50 HP electric motor to “start” the rotors. In February 1925, the Buckau made its first voyage from Danzig to Scotland via the North Sea and the following year, reached New York, after a stopover in South America.

The Buckau ship equipped with two Flettner rotors “started” by electric motors.

Flettner rotors and biofuels for Airbus ships

The Flettner rotors on board ships in service for Airbus will be combined with two dual-fuel combustion engines, marine diesel and e-methanol. All managed by routing software which will optimize sailing propulsion during the journey, avoiding situations which could create resistance due to adverse weather conditions.

The rendering of a ship equipped with Flettner rotors used by Airbus.

The example of E-Ship 1

In the development of the ships in the Airbus fleet, the designers can count on the experience of E-Ship 1, a 130-metre German cargo launched in 2010 and used for the transport of components for wind farms. E-Ship 1 owned by the German Enercom (wind turbines) features four Flettner rotors 27 meters high and 4 meters in diameter, assisted by a series of turbines powered by diesel exhaust gases. E-Ship 1, launched in 2008, made its first trip from Germany to Ireland in 2010. In 2015 it made a transport from Germany to Uruguay and Enercom will report savings of 25% on fuel.

E-Ship 1, first wind-powered cargo ship equipped with Flettner rotors.

Sweden bets on Oceanbirds Wings

Similar to the Oceanwings are wing masts called Oceanbird Wings from the Swedish project led by Wallenius Marine in joint venture with the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, RISE – SSPA Maritime Centre, an independent research institute, and the Swedish Ministry of Transport. The project involves the construction of a 220 meter long, 40 meter wide ship capable of transporting 7,000 cars, but also bulk materials and equipment, equipped with six Oceanbird Wings. The goal is to have the ship operational by early 2027. The Oceanbird Wings masts consist of a sail equipped with flaps, and the masts can be cut down onto the ship’s deck in case of too strong winds or when not in use.

The project of the Swedish ship equipped with Oceanbird Wings.

The WindWings of Pyxis Ocean

Confirmation of the interest in wind-powered ships also comes from Mitsubishi Corporation and its Pyxis Ocean, a bulk carrier (it has a loading capacity of 81 thousand tons) on which three 37.5 meter high wing sails have been installed, made up of a fixed central element and two adjustable side elements.


The sails, called WindWings, made of steel and fiberglass, can rotate and allow Pyxis Ocean to save up to 1.5 tons of fuel for each day of use of the WindWings.

Emilio Martinelli

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