Jorge Chapa

Using Kites to Pull Cargo Ships Across the Seas

by , 01/29/08

mv beluga, kite, sail, wind power, sail ship, cargo ship

A few months ago we reported on future attempts to use a kite to move a cargo ship across the ocean. But just last week, the MS Beluga set sail on its maiden voyage from Bremerhaven to Venezuela where it showed, quite successfully, that wind power might just be the future of nautical transportation.


The MS Beluga is a 140 meter long cargo ship. It uses a 160 square meter sky-sail which is set to fly at a height between 100 and 300 meters above the ocean. While it is not the main mode of propulsion, the kite is able to reduce fuel consumption by about 10% to 35% depending on wind conditions. The Skysail is the creation of Stephan Wrage who believes these kites could be used on almost 60% of all cargo ships. It is attached to the ship by a single line that is controlled by a computer, and works precisely as you’d expect, like a giant version of a small kite.

The maiden voyage started just last week, and already the sail has been deployed. It will cross the Atlantic Ocean using the traditional windjammer route south of the Azores. Its full travelling time is expected to be a total of 15 days. If successful, the company expects to deploy this system on other cargo ships.

+ Kite to pull ship across Atlantic @ BBC

+ Beluga Group

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48 Comments

  1. Tafline Laylin Tafline Laylin April 28, 2014 at 11:02 am

    Hi, this is a design/news blog – you’d be better off contacting the designers directly. Thanks, Inhabitat editors.

  2. catmanlee April 25, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    could you please send me a rough plan on how your traction kite was put together, i have a 42foot sailing catamaran and want to use a traction kite to pull it across the ocean if you could send a just crude idea on how i could make my own kite, i just bought at a yard sale 275 foot of 2 inch wide by about a 1/16 of an inch thick brand new nylon strapping also a friend of mine sold me a whole roll of sail cloth(that i believe is also nylon) the roll is 4foot high and must have 150 foot on it, my mother has a vary heavy duty sewing machine made for sewing leather, i own a 44foot sailing catamaran and now all i need is a plan for putting together a traction kite able to tow a 1996 18 ton sailing cat if you could email me a large plan of a kite that i could scale down or a small kite that i could scale up i would be vary thankful my email address is findinglees777@yahoo.com my name is ron wood thank you so much for your time, if you should email me title the email traction kite(so that i dont delete it like everyone i get a lot of trash in my email folder) thank you once agian….R.W.

  3. Ships « Green Lib... March 20, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    [...] first article came out awhile ago but, has since been in the news again, Using Kites to Pull Cargo Ships Across the Seas by Jorge Chapa courtesy of [...]

  4. PAUL SIEVENSKIE March 4, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    WELL WELL, TIS IT TRUE, HISTORY DOES REPEAT ITS SELF. BACK TO OUR ROOTS WITH A BIG TWIST. NICE I LIKEY. NOW HOW BOUT WE PUT SOME SCRUBBERS OF BETTER EFFICIENCY ON THOSE STACKS AND TAKE SOME OF THOSE HIGH PRO. FUEL SYSTEMS THT THE HUGE OIL COMPANIES DONT WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT, ON THESE MASSIVE SHIPS. MAYBE EVEN ADD A CATALYTIC CRACKER TO THE FUEL LINES. THINK ABOUT HOW MUCH THT COULD SAVE MINUS THE SAIL. THEN ADD THE SAIL ON AN HECK O TOODLE MAYBE WE COULD GET MORE OUR OF IT LESS POLLUTION AND SAVE A FEW BUCKS. SHEESH THERES AN IDEA. HOW BOUT WE ALL TELL THESE OIL PRODUCERS WHERE THEY CAN STICK IT AND MAKE THEM RELEASE THE PATENTS ON HIGH FUEL SAVEING FUEL DELIVERY SYSTEM AND ENGINES. NOW THT WOULD BE A BREAK THROUGH. WE ALL KNOW THE OIL CONGLAMERANTS RUN THE WORLD. EVERYTHING IS TIED TO OIL. BUT YAY THIS IS A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION. PIP PIP AND A BOWL OF CHERRIO’S

  5. lena February 3, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    I don´t know how well it functions. What I do know is that there are some brilliant minds launching these fabulous ‘knew ideas. Why not? wind is powerful, is free of income taxes, is free of political targets and best of all it actually may work.
    kEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!

  6. tim February 1, 2008 at 8:01 pm

    gCaptain has an excellent post on this topic as well as other green ship propulsion ideas:

    http://gcaptain.com/maritime/blog/ocean-kites-top-10-green-ship-designs/

    I think this is the future, not only for transporting goods between continents but also to help eliminate the enormous environmental damage caused by trucks transporting goods along both coasts.

    -Tim

  7. Christopher P. February 1, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    Mike G, et al,
    Quite likely that Neanderthals succumbed to Homo Sapiens Sapiens, in part due to trade. The evolved ability to foresee and manipulate complex patterns of social behavior for communal survival (what we have come to call “political economics”) subsumes technology. We went beyond merely making flint tools to cut and skin prey, and harvest seasonal vegetation we followed in migratory patterns. We established settlements to store and trade goods from these seasonal migrations, and eventually artificially to produce the goods “locally”. We stored the information from our past and return to it for inspiration, as we come upon new challenges raised by this complex, now global, social behavior. These sails are not the old sails, nor our demands our old demands.

  8. Mike G January 31, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    I’ve been thinking of this more. With the inconsistencies of the wind would other methods be suitable? Vertical wind turbines, for one, would catch the wind regardless of direction and harness the power. But the wind velocity at the level of the ship may limit this.

    Solar panels, getting thinner by the day (year), would generate a good amount of power as well. Where to put them? On top of the containers? As a large fabric covering? There are cranes on the ship to mobilize such devices. If effectively designed, a few ship hands could have these systems up and running quickly.

    I also wonder about the energy outside the boundaries of the ship. The ports could begin installing eco-friendly feuling stations… biodiesel, solar electric, etc. to supplement the ship-produced power.

    This is all crazy ecotopia thinking though. We could also stop buying all this junk that is shipped to us, reducing the number of ships needed to transport said junk.

  9. K January 31, 2008 at 11:30 am

    The point is to use the wind whilst its there not following trade routes!
    If you drive at 110km/h you will use 25% more fuel than if you were driving at 90km/h so therefore if you had a force that reduced some of the drag on the vessel (by pulling it forward) the diesel engines have to work far less and thus is the saving. I can see the gains they speak of I cannot see multiple kites….

    And for all you fools that either don’t read the comments or you do and still post the same thing that every other bastard has the point is that the idea is new because it is being coupled with a diesel engine so that it helps reduce the amount of fuel burnt. Do you think that sails are being proposed as a new propulsion method??? Of course they are not!!! They are being used to help reduce the amount of fuel used by providing another method of propulsion if that’s such a crime whilst saving millions of litres of fuel per year then they should be drawn and quartered for thinking about saving money and the environment! Shame on them!!!

  10. Jared Lorz January 31, 2008 at 8:12 am

    Hmm an interesting point but I’m not sure if I agree with you.

    Jared Lorz

  11. Will G January 30, 2008 at 10:49 pm

    The reason why they’re only using a small sail has mostly to do with the cable, not the sail. those ships are huge, and while the sail is fairly small in proportion, it’s still pretty large. staggered sails on a single cable would require massively stronger ( and thus expensive) cables; as well as stronger anchor points. Modern ships are designed to ‘push’ into the water from behind, not be ‘pulled’ from the front – and if anyone studies the old concrete liberty ships of WWII – an undesigned for stress can sometimes bite you hard in the seating spot.

    If this ship succeeds and shows that the sail really can be managed effectively at sea and generates a real cost savings ; then future systems will likely be designed with multiple sails. This is still a test project though, and no company will risk a ship of that size on untested gear easily. What happens, after all, if the wind drops suddenly and the sails hits the water? at best, it’s useless until it dries – wet stuff is heavy after all. At worst, if it drops in front of the ship and they cant clear it in time, it could foul the props and then the ship – with perhaps $100million in time sensitive cargo – is stranded for possibly days.

    As to why we stopped using sail power ? theres reason’s we gave it up, and they start with
    A) Ships full of dead sailors as the became becalmed too far out to row, or caught in the sargossa seas and starved.
    B) Speed. The fastest of the old world sailing ships couldn’t outrace a supercargo carrier these days, let alone a speedboat.
    C)Reliability. Could you imagine UPS saying ‘Depending on ocean winds, your package will be here in 2-20 weeks’

    It’s good to see less polluting ideas get tested; and hopefully it will prove to outdo it’s design expectations and provide so few issues that they DO develop bigger systems and deploy them more and more. even if it’s only an overall 5% saving in fuels.. that’s still 5%.
    35% does seem high, but i am not a sailor, idont knowwhat mid ocean currents are like, and if they can find a steady 50km/h wind from the stern.. yea, i can see 35%, possibly.

  12. travel globally January 30, 2008 at 9:49 pm

    Its amazing how there is nothing new under the sun
    Somehow the power boats were considered “more modern” and sail ” primitive ” and “obsolete”
    Guess it all comes down to travel ,costs and the pocket book in the end

  13. D-BO January 30, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    Kind of a weird request, but is there anyway to find out where the first picture was taken?

    I think that paddle wheel ship in the background is one of my company’s.

    Just curious.

  14. Richie January 30, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    Nice. What about multiple kites per ship ? Interesting. What if these kites stayed aloft because they were attached to gas filled bladders ? Just imagine how that would look… and work ? Multiple SAILS (kites) but no MASTS ! You could have a bunch of them, all non-interfering, because they’re at different heights !

  15. wflan January 30, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    a 10-35% reduction in transportation related fuel use on major sea routes is a BIG deal. COntainer shipping is already highly engineered for efficiency (including minute adjustments in load distribution, fuel levels, etc) and this sort of (effectively) free boos is a big deal. I too see the irony that sailing is seen as the next big thing but the boost is a BIG deal. I might lookup some figures on potential impact and get back here but a lot of traffic occurs on these channels

  16. Aaron January 30, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    It’s a neat idea, especially if it can be easily retrofitted to existing ships. But I agree with others that the concept of using wind to power ships as some kind of hot new thing is pretty silly. Also, this thing will only work if the wind is blowing the right way. Sailing ships have to zigzag in crazy patterns to make progress if the wind is blowing the wrong way. A big cargo ship, with a deadline to meet, probably doesn’t have that option. Also, these things should scale fairly linearly I would imagine. If one sail can provide x amount of force, then 2 should provide 2x and so on. So if it’s cost effective to put one on there then it would seem you might as well just load the ship with them and reduce it’s fuel costs to some minimal amount.

    Oh and if this does happen to lower shipping costs don’t expect the costs of consumer goods to drop by much, shipping is generally a very small percentage of the overall cost.

  17. Paul January 30, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    Mike, good question.

    Mainly if you have more sails, you’ll require sailors with sail and wind expertise. More sales than one kite means setting up ship masts and sailors climbing rigging during rough weather, etc. possible injury from falls, etc. Due to petroleum’s historically low price, it’s been easier to just turn on an engine and press “Go”.

  18. Craig Fairhurst January 30, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    “where it showed, quite successfully, that wind power might just be the future of nautical transportation.”

    Columbus might have something to say about that….

    …then again he’s dead!!!

    Mind you, could always ask Ellen Macarthur if she thinks this is a viable discovery…..

    ??????????

  19. Capt Kidd January 30, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    If course A is ‘normal’ for a container ship on diesel with no kite, and course B is same ship with kite but forced to follow the tradewind route, I wonder how much of that supposed 10-35% savings gets sucked up in extra mileage traveled? Think it’s a wash, or should I say, awash? Aarrargh, matie.

  20. thepierce January 30, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    I believe that this was the same thing that Kevin Cosner used in Water World on his Sail Boat!

  21. Robert W January 30, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    Most of the comments to this article inply that the writers have not seen any other articles on this technology / company / device. I have seen other articles that say that this size sail / kite is only for testing purposes and is being used to prove the technology. The company is already planning on doubling the size of the kite, then doubling it again as time passes. This will increase the power generated!

    Also, those of you making fun of the “innovative” tag by comparing this technology to that of sails need to look up the term “innovative” in the dictionary. By taking the “Sail” off the ship and raising it into the stronger wind above it does become innovative. The reason why shipping went away from sails is because the winds at sea level are not strong enough to effeciently power the large vessels we now build. It is only by using new technologies in sail design, materials, and computing that this company has been able to make a economically viable new tool.

    I will not make fun of ANY technology that saves on resources of this planet while at the same time actually making something better so that a company does not have to choose between ecology and profit.

  22. Matt January 30, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    Wind power is proportional to the cube of the wind speed. Wind speeds are much higher at these altitudes of a few hundred meters than at the water level. I trained with one of these kites in the past, there’s a sweet spot they have to be kept in. I guess this is computer controlled.

  23. Chris January 30, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    This is a prototype. If successful the creator will be trying a much larger size sail, to get that 35% or more.

    “cutting diesel consumption by up to 20 per cent and saving £800 a day in fuel costs. He believes an even bigger kite, up to 5,000 square metres, could result in fuel savings of up to 35 per cent”

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/main.jhtml?view=DETAILS&grid=&xml=/earth/2008/01/20/eakite120.xml

  24. paul January 30, 2008 at 11:56 am

    wind, oars, kicking legs at the back of the boat… that’s the future of nautical transportation on a planet that’s wasted all of it’s oil.

  25. Zohaib January 30, 2008 at 11:49 am

    Now thats Interesting.

  26. ileshy January 30, 2008 at 11:46 am

    What a wonderful new technology.. ? Technology always circulates over millenia. ..

  27. Jasper January 30, 2008 at 11:38 am

    What an original idea to use a piece of fabric and the wind to move a ship through water.
    http://www.spymac.com/details/?2338448

  28. kiteboarder January 30, 2008 at 11:18 am

    dude, strap me to that kite…. i show ya how we roll

  29. GeologJoe January 30, 2008 at 11:03 am

    The kite idea is a good one. Especially to assist in reducing fuel consumption for modern ships.
    However thou the statement “that wind power might just be the future of nautical transportation” is laughable in the sense that wind power has been the ‘engine’ for sailing vessels for 100′s if not 1000′s of years.

  30. Yiorgos January 30, 2008 at 10:17 am

    I am a bit sceptical for the 35% argument.

  31. yomama January 30, 2008 at 10:11 am

    if the wind fails let’s get the rowers in!

  32. Mike G January 30, 2008 at 10:01 am

    I was struck by the “future of nautical transportation” myself. It shows how far we are removed from ecological thinking in some aspects. I constantly stumble across ideas that either too boisterous for reality or have not gone far enough. This is one example. The sail reduces the fuel used by 10-35% – 35% only in those fleeting perfect winds. That is one puny sail. Why not have more sails, staggered, to catch more air and reduce the fuel consumption to zero? The extra sails can’t cost that much.

  33. Adriaan January 30, 2008 at 9:29 am

    “wind power might just be the future of nautical transportation” – hmmmmm, what was the history of nautical transportation? Great stuff though, tankers are seriously inefficient and that 10-35% will certainly make a great impact.

  34. Chris Heath January 30, 2008 at 7:36 am

    Very well put Eric

  35. ric martin January 30, 2008 at 5:37 am

    nice one stick one on the front of a 747

  36. Adam January 30, 2008 at 2:29 am

    its good to see that wind power are finally being used on these large cargo ships. its just silly to think that it takes the $100 per barrel of oil for us to come up with these ideas….

  37. gaston monescu January 29, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    yes yes YES!

  38. Eric January 29, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Ships used to circle the globe all the time, 100% carbon-free. So, by “wind power might just be the future of nautical transportation” you really mean we’re returning to a sustainable technique developed in 3500 BC.

  39. david January 29, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    oh come on, “wind power might just be the future of nautical transportation.”

    Sailing? anybody? Wind power has been powering ships for over five thousand years.

    - David

  40. native pangean January 29, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    woah, ships…. using sails…. not nearly big enough to make a dramtic effect on gas consumption?
    thanks but I’ll stick to the sludge tankers.

  41. Jeremiah Johnson January 29, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    It is amazing to think of the idea of using wind to propel (even if only partially) cargo ships across the ocean as some innovative and fresh when it had been the method of choice for tens of thousands of years. I’m not saying that this isn’t great, because it is, but it is another example of turning to the past to help solve the problems we have managed to create for ourselves today. Sustainable construction, mass transit, and energy conservation were all things that had once been part of everyday life. It seems with, the rapid evolution of technology, industry, and life itself, humankind has somehow forgotten the reason why we did certain things and lived certain ways. Thankfully we are starting to remember.

  42. ryan January 29, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Not groundbreaking ships have sailed the seven seas since the beginning of sailing, the armadas and pirates did not have diesel. Amazing we learn so fast, but forget even faster. It is good, necessary, needs to be the norm, and will save the shippers mountains of cash – that might or might not roll on to you and me. than

  43. Warren Brooke January 29, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    Great idea since the majority of goods are transported by ship. Every percent of fuel efficiency gained in the shipping industry translates into an enormous amount of fuel not burned, and greenhouse gases not released.

    I wonder if they could put more than one sail on the line…stack them up so that you harvest more wind.

  44. patti January 29, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Wind and ships? What a completely and totally new idea!

    oh wait.

  45. ELMANCO / Stefano Ricci January 29, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    I have seen in TV: very interesting concept!

  46. Kat January 29, 2008 at 11:21 am

    it’s so simply clever, kind of a “duh” moment. is it better to have the sail so high up, as opposed to mounted to a mast old-school style, so it can take advantage of stronger winds, or something? i don’t really know how that stuff works.

  47. Jeff January 29, 2008 at 6:35 am

    Well this is pretty incredible. I read about this in a sailing book a year ago, but that was about small sailing boats. It is amazing that these huge ships can benefit from this as well. Though wind power is not often a reliable source of energy in conventional windmills I think it is very cool that Inhabitat is showing these groundbreaking new applications (I also love the maglev turbine!) to us.

  48. Nick Simpson January 29, 2008 at 6:20 am

    Every little helps!

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