Raising the sails: Holland's engineless shipping company

HOW I BEAT THE ODDS: Jorne Langelaan, co-founder of sustainable cargo firm Fairtransport, found that not everyone appreciated the romance of transporting goods by sailing ship.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 29 Jun 2015

The world's 16 biggest ships emit as much sulphur as all its cars. I should know, I used to be a sailor in my family's cargo business. One day, I was reading how the Industrial Revolution had been built on sail power. I realised that if it worked then, it could work now.

In 2007, I started a sustainable cargo company with my friends Andreas Lackner and Arjen van der Veen, where economics wasn't the only factor. Yes, a business has to make money, but it should also take into account ecology and romance and beauty, following wisdom instead of just intelligence.

We didn't have any money and going to a bank wasn't really an option, so we raised EUR500,000 of capital the old-fashioned way, by issuing shares to friends and family. We found a 1940s hull rotting away in a creek, and set about making it seaworthy.

We expected it to take a year, but it took two and a half. We used a lot of volunteers and had to pay our staff partly in equity.

In 2009, our ship, the Tres Hombres, was ready, but we didn't have any cargo. I sent a lot of emails and visited a lot of offices to get business. It was like trying to plant apple trees when you only have figs. The Tres Hombres carries 40 tonnes of cargo; a small motor ship carries 3,000. There was a lot of interest, but it didn't fit into the thinking of big companies.

Our maiden voyage was to the Copenhagen climate change conference. We had to buy our own cargo of ecological products, wool and wine from Britanny, shipped at EUR1 a bottle. From a business standpoint, the trip wasn't much of a success. Then came the earthquake in Haiti. Ships and sailors rot in port, so we advertised for donations of aid. Two weeks later, the Tres Hombres became the first aid ship to arrive direct from Europe. Lots of motor ships had to wait at anchor because the cranes were damaged, but we had no such problem.

While we were there, we decided to pick up some Dominican rum for the journey back, but we didn't have any customers or money to pay for it. I desperately called up our backers, asking if they'd invest in a one-off cargo. It was a success and within a year we'd paid them all back with a handsome profit.

Our customers are buying more than transport. They're buying a story. On the Tres Hombres we really live with the weather, from Atlantic storms to the sunny Caribbean, where you can feel your bare feet on the hot teak deck. Our eyes are constantly in the clouds, like a form of meditation. Life on a sailing ship is purposeful and fascinating, compared with a motor ship with its poisons and little buttons.

In the old days, sailors sometimes had to guess their location using dead reckoning. Sometimes business is like that, but it's worked out. By last year we were turning a profit and had refitted our second ship, but more importantly we'd sailed so many sustainable cargos. We'd changed the world a little bit.

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