The World’s First Commercial Sailing Freighter to Transport Space Rocket Components

In a groundbreaking move toward sustainable transport, the world’s first commercial sailing cargo ship, Canopée, has embarked on a mission to transport critical components of the Ariane 6 rocket to French Guiana. Moored gracefully in Bordeaux for its christening, the Canopée promises to revolutionize freight transport while significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Canopée, a marvel of maritime innovation, boasts wings that soar high, resembling those of an airplane, yet it glides gracefully across the water. This unprecedented vessel is set to transport the fairing and stages of the Ariane 6 launcher from Bremen, Rotterdam, and Le Havre to the European Spaceport in French Guiana, where the European launcher takes flight.

The challenge of transporting Ariane 6 rocket components prompted this extraordinary endeavor. Christophe Caralp, Ariane’s Chief Procurement Officer, described it as a “rocket in kit form, like a lego.”

Nils Joyeux, a former merchant navy officer and founder of a Brittany-based company specializing in sail-powered maritime transport, said, “Putting up sails is one of the levers for decarbonizing the sector, which is responsible for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It may sound archaic, but it really works.” The Canopée is poised to make a significant impact, reducing fuel consumption by approximately ten tonnes of fuel oil per day—equivalent to a remarkable 15 to 35% less fuel compared to conventional cargo ships, depending on its speed.

The key to the Canopée’s remarkable energy efficiency lies in its four towering wings, each standing at an impressive height of 37 meters and boasting a surface area of 360 square meters. These vertical wings, similar in concept to airplane wings, harness the power of the wind to propel the vessel forward, drastically reducing the need for engine power. Romain Grandsart, director of Caen-based company Ayro, which designed and manufactured the wings, emphasized their efficiency, stating, “They are comparable to airplane wings but vertical, and enable the wind to be used to push the ship and reduce engine power.”

Ayro, initially beginning as a small team, has grown exponentially from just four employees to a workforce of 54. Their journey began with a prototype in 2016 on a trimaran, and they have since made significant strides in revolutionizing maritime transport. Their work on the Energy Observer, an eco-friendly vessel dedicated to scientific expeditions, laid the foundation for the Canopée project, which was officially signed in 2020.

The Canopée’s journey is not just about innovation but also international collaboration. The Bordeaux metropolis, home to several Ariane group factories, plays a pivotal role in supplying the boosters that enable the rocket to leave Earth’s gravity. As the launcher transitioned to Ariane 6, the question of transportation arose. “No boat met Ariane’s specifications: it had to be big enough to carry the launcher in a single trip, and small enough to sail up the river to the Kourou launch base in French Guiana,” recounted Nils Joyeux.

Looking ahead, Ayro is actively exploring projects aimed at retrofitting existing vessels with similar wind propulsion technology. With a global fleet of 50,000 to 90,000 ships, the potential for transforming the maritime sector’s environmental impact is substantial. Nils Joyeux, on the other hand, is planning a “shippers’ coalition,” envisioning a fleet of sailing container ships to serve French companies, adding a new dimension to the age-old sailor’s motto: “bon vent,” which means “good wind” in French.

The Canopée’s inaugural mission marks a significant step forward in sustainable transportation and sets a precedent for the shipping industry. As it gracefully sails the seas, harnessing the power of the wind to carry the future of space exploration, it sends a clear message: innovation, sustainability, and environmental responsibility can coexist, propelling us toward a greener future for global logistics. The Canopée is not just a vessel; it’s a symbol of hope for a more sustainable planet.

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