Oceanbird Photo

Talk about a blue ocean strategy. More than 170 years after iron steamships signaled the end of the sail-powered commercial cargo era, a Swedish shipbuilder is daring to rock the boat. Wallenius Marine is partnering with Swedish research institute SSPA and KTH Royal Institute of Technology to develop Oceanbird, a massive vessel powered by five extendable wing sails designed to reduce emissions by as much as 90 percent compared to today’s diesel-fueled ships.

And that could help Sweden achieve its goal of being climate neutral by 2045.

“It’s incredibly inspiring to see these kinds of transformative ideas being developed,” said Sweden’s Minister for Financial Markets Per Bolund while touring the project site. “This is a prime example of innovations that we really need. I want to see an armada of wind ships that can transport our goods in the future. I really think that this is a concept that is right on time.”

The commercial shipping industry currently accounts for 2.5 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and as much as 30 percent of nitrous oxides released into the atmosphere, according to New Atlas. Oceanbird, which Wallenius unveiled in September, aligns with the International Maritime Organization’s industry mandate to halve annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in support of U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 13 on climate action.

“It is critical that shipping becomes sustainable,” said Per Tunell, COO, Wallenius Marine. And the company’s studies showed that wind was the way to go for ocean transport. 

To realize its vision, the team mounted sensors atop existing vessels crossing the Atlantic to collect data on changes in wind direction and velocity. Then it used the information to design a wing and hull system that could maximize wind power. The result: wing sails that tower 80 meters (260 feet) high and can rotate 360 degrees without touching each other. They can also be retracted to better clear bridges or withstand weather on stormy seas.

But the design sacrifices speed. Oceanbird, which will carry up to 7,000 vehicles, will take 12 days to complete transatlantic crossings—five more than conventional ships need. Plus, it will still need engines to power the ship within ports and in emergency situations.

As the company tweaks the ship’s final design to improve performance and aerodynamics, it plans to use data gathered from a 7-meter (22.9-foot) prototype slated to set sail in Stockholm’s archipelago later this year. 

If the team stays on track to complete a full-size version of Oceanbird in 2024, the SEK27 million project will deliver the world’s largest sailing vessel, spanning some 200 meters (656 feet) long and 40 meters (131 feet) wide.

But that won’t be its only claim to fame: “We are developing the ocean-going freighters of the future,” Tunell said.