This 60-year-old startup founder is bringing a wingsail to cargo ships – for real

"It was now or never for me (laughs)"

Patrick Englebert (60) started his career building nuclear power plants, but switched to the maritime and offshore industry in the early eighties. He built offshore vessels and cargo ships for almost three decades, before deciding four years ago to bet big on wind propulsion for large cargo ships. “I’m sixty now, I was in my mid fifties back then. It was now or never.”

Patrick Englebert wingsail cargo

Patrick Englebert, CEO of Propelwind

Basically, his plan with Propelwind is to fit huge meter wingsails on cargo ships – in other words, a sail of about 80 meters, or 20 floors. Englebert thought he could improve on existing wind propulsion ideas by using techniques from sports sailing – specifically, the innovations in solid wingsails like those that Larry Ellison’s America’s Cup use. The advantages of wingsails don’t just work for sports boats, Englebert thought: they would also make it economically feasible to use them on large, seagoing ships.

The last few years Englebert has been living the startup rollercoaster. His ideas are disruptive and feasible, he says. But while his colleagues at software startups can launch a minimum viable product, test it and refine it, Englebert is faced with a trifecta of obstacles: a conservative industry, a field populated with “dreamers” who create credibility problems, and prototype costs that run well into the hundreds of thousands and even millions of euros.

As Propelwind states on its website:

“Backed by some of the world’s leading boat designers, racing skippers, shipbuilding engineers, aerodynamics and routing experts, Propelwind is applying sailboat racing technology to the propulsion of merchant ships (cargo and cruise).”

Patrick Englebert: “The idea of a wind propulsion revival was first explored during the first oil crisis of the seventies. There was a wave of panic, caused in part by the report of the Club of Rome of 1972 called “Limits to Growth”. According to those projections, we would all be riding bicycles today (grins).

It was essentially driven by the fear that the human population would just grow so large that the planet’s resources would just no longer suffice to sustain us. It was a time when many “post oil” concepts saw the light, and there were a fair number of projects looking into sails as a viable way to power ships.

dynarigs sail ships

A Dynarig in action: old school sails but automated rigs

One of the furthest advanced concepts was thought up at Cockeril Yards in Belgium: they were looking at rigging bulk carriers with masts – so called Dynarigs, just like in the old days, only automated, because of the cost and scarcity of personnel. But then the oil prices dropped again and all those concepts were forgotten.

But I was still fascinated by the idea, and to me it became a lot more relevant again with the rise of the multihulls in ocean sailing competitions. They were a lot faster, and they didn’t heel as much as monohulls – which is not only uncomfortable, but also very unsafe – there have been a few spectacular accidents with ships that heel, where the cargo just shifts and capsizes the ship. The Pamir comes to mind.

All these years, thinking of sailing technology for cargo ships became a bit of a hobby of mine, that I kept up next to my day job at the shipping company where I was in charge of offshore projects and innovations.”

It was about 4 years ago that Englebert finally decided to take his hobby to the next level, he says.

Patrick Englebert: “I decided to pursue the idea seriously in 2008, and after a year or two of preliminary calculations I asked input from sailing competition experts, to get a feel for the answer to the question: does it make sense, economically. The answer was: probably yes, but with some limitations.

The problem is wind, which is not constant, but which is easy to predict today. So I was very conscious from the beginning that this isn’t a universal solution. But still, it’s nice enough and it would have enough of an impact to try it anyway. Two years ago, I took the phone and called some friends: do you want to put some money into this idea? They are all established entrepreneurs, university professors, bank executives, lawyers. We got enough seed capital to put into a holding company based in Brussels, and went operational in june 2011 with a french company based in Lorient (Brittany), close to the sailing competition experts.”

On your site, you say you have seed backing from about 16 investors. Can you tell us how much seed money you put into the idea?

Patrick Englebert: “No I can’t. We’re currently talking to large investors to raise more money, so the issue is delicate. I can tell you that it’s definitely not a hobby project, the company’s valuation is in the half million to one million range, and we’re working with five potential industrial partners. That’s actually a big deal, because the maritime industry is very weary of dreamy projects: if something doesn’t feel “real” enough for them, they walk instantly.

But the industrial partners I’m talking to are not fleeing, on the contrary: I e-mail almost every day with one of them.”

The additional money will be spent to build a prototype, presumably?

Patrick Englebert: “Yes. With the seed money and substantial subsidies from teh Brittany region in France, we completed a consistent feasibility study program and the results are better than expected. Our next steps are: pour another half million euros into studies, then a million in a pre-prototype and a few million in a full scale prototype.

That’s a process that’s typical for the development of large offshore wind turbines, which is not a coincidence – we’re also at sea and we also catch wind. The difference is that we can move around and look for the places where the wind is. Also, we’re 2D whereas they are 3D – we catch wind with only one wing, they usually have three blades. The rest is very similar, in terms of rules and regulations, the sequence of the research and development from small scale model to prototype.”

Your goal is explicitly to build a product, not a concept.

Patrick Englebert: “That’s right. That’s one of the roadblocks for us to approach potential customers: their first impression is that we’re another one of the starry eyed dreamers who is trying to turn his hobby into his day job. It’s incredible how wind power fascinates people.

I don’t think I know anyone who says: a sail ship is ugly. Ships are already pretty, but if you put a mast on it, that really increases the attraction. So there’s a lot of dreamers out there with wild ideas that will never become reality.

Propelwind is in phase two of development, and we’re quite certain that we have an economically interesting solution. I made a list of all existing projects worldwide, and I can say that we’re probably in the top five, or even top three with everything that we’ve done – the simulations, the calculations, the planning and design, the market appraisal and all our discussions with ship owners and operational and technical people.

Of course we still have technical hurdles to clear, but at this stage I’m not ashamed to go in front of oil execs and explain them what exactly we’re building and how. I know a lot of projects that promise a lot – and that got a lot of subsidies to do so. I won’t name names, but a large shipping company introduced a concept about three years ago with all the bells and whistles and buzz words – zero emission, wind sails, fuel cells. It was very spectacular, but they had to admit that it was never their intention to build a ship like that. That’s greenwashing. A larg shipyard has a similar project, but if you enquire about it, they say it’s currently “on hold”. They called it a “projet de vitrine” – a showcase project.

I think it’s a pity so much tax money goes to those projects that were never intended to go to sea. So our first hurdle everywhere is usually to convince people that we’re actually serious, and that yes, we REALLY want to put a sail on your ship. With two other real project promotors, we started a worldwide wind ship association in September. Because our solutions are all different, but we do face the same credibility problem, which is easier to solve when you come out as a sector.”

What is the difference between your project and similar projects? Why do you think you’ll succeed where they failed?

Patrick Englebert: “Our starting point is the idea that offshore sailing and America’s Cup have seen huge innovations in the last two decades. Trimarans can cross the ocean at a speed of thirty knots. The boats in the America’s Cup achieve speeds of up to three times wind speed. That’s no improvisation, that’s the effect of innovations, very advanced project management and great weather forecasting. In a word: that’s the result of some very high tech. We want to use that hi tech for cargo ships. Competition sailing is our laboratory, and we work only with the winners.

The second difference is our access to senior and competent poeple in the shipping industry from three key disciplines: technical, operational and commercial. That’s essential for the credibility of the concept and its chances to become reality.

There’s more wind at sea than anywhere else. The only difficulty is that it’s not constant, and not everywhere. Of course, if there were no limitations, every ship in the world would have a sail on deck (laughs). Where we’re different is that we use techniques from competition sports, and the fact that we admit to these limitations. We don’t claim that we’re the be all end all.

But we promise that our solution will be useful at the largest possible spectrum, thanks to our wingsail technology – to be precise: an articulated wingsail, like those used in the America’s Cup 2010, and to be used again in 2013.”

See the BMW/Oracle wingsail in action:

(Propelwind is not affiliated with BMW and/or Oracle, the video is merely an illustration of the technology)

Patrick Englebert: “For our project, we worked with Van Peteghem Lauriot Prévost, the company who helped develop the wingsail for the winning America’s Cup team and designed their boat. They are real innovators behind the technology used on the Oracle boat. They’re yacht designers and sail makers, and they’re constantly looking for the bleeding edge in technology to make sailboats go faster.

They have no experience in building cargo ships  - they design large yachts and winning ocean racing sailboats, but their technology, their experience, ideas: it’s a real pleasure to work with these pros.”

You say wingsails have been around since the sixties: why did the shipping industry wait until today to start thinking about using them on bigger vessels?

wingsail VPLP

A wingsail being assembled. Courtesy Voiles et Voiliers / Gilles Martin-Raget

Patrick Englebert: “I think the main problem is that wingsails were used in sports. The shipping industry considers itself to be a very, let’s say, serious business. “We work, we don’t play.” I remember when I was working at a shipping company in the eighties, and in my department we had an Apple computer. They considered that toy stuff. I mean, it had icons, it didn’t look as stern and businesslike as an MS DOS computer. How can you work on that? I remember them calling us the toy department. Until everybody had a toy like it, of course (grins).

Another reason is that fuel was just very cheap – until recently. Fuel prices kept rising until March 2011. Now they’re going up and down, but around such a high price point that it makes fuel a very important cost for shipping companies.

And I guess they never took wind really seriously. There’s a very brave German firm called Skysails who have been promoting wind power for ten years – founded by a passionate kitesurfer, but they had a very rough time of it, and they’re still not out of the woods.”

Can you talk a bit about the technical challenges of fitting a large cargo ship with a sail? I suppose it’s not a matter of just rigging a mast to the deck?

Patrick Englebert: “No, absolutely not. You should think of a mast and a sail as a risk factor, really, especially in very strong winds. In sports, you can avoid irresponsible risk by reefing your sails. Or by just not going out on the water if the wind is too strong.

In an industrial setting, when you’re moving cargo, you don’t have that luxury. So we had to find a concept that would be able to keep going in any weather conditions. We do have a few ideas about that, but I will admit that we still need to solve a part of that puzzle. We will solve it, I don’t doubt it, but it’s a lot of work.

And we absolutely need to crack that nut, because otherwise, we won’t get the certifications we need to deploy. One of the ways we think we can solve it is by just adapting the dimensions. Some sports boats have 40 meter wingsails – that’s HUGE, and to simply scale those sails up to the dimensions of a cargo ship would be irresponsible and too expensive.

But I don’t doubt that we’ll find a solution. I mean: airplanes travel at 600 knots. If we can engineer wings to withstand those conditions, I’m sure we can find something that’s capable of resisting wind speeds up to 90 knots.”

How many masts are you going to put on these ships?

Propelwind: a cargo ship with two wingsail masts on it.

Propelwind: a cargo ship with two wingsail masts on it.

Patrick Englebert: “We think: one to three masts, of a reasonable height, say between 60 and 80 meters. Some of our partners don’t consider that very high – they’re used to working on offshore structures which can be very high. But of course, crews will have to work with these sails at sea, so you have to take that into account. Their perception and opinion is very important to us.”

What’s the worst thing that can happen to a mast of that height?

Patrick Englebert: “In the most extreme case, if the sail can’t turn anymore, and there’s too much stress on the structure, the mast could break. It’s one of the main differences with a sailboat – on a sailboat the mast is held up with rigging. We can’t use rigging, our mast has to be able to turn 360 degrees freely for safety reasons. It’s actually more like an offshore wind turbine.”

The wingsails in the America’s cup are made of layers of carbon, I believe. Is that what you’re using too?

Patrick Englebert: “No no, in the America’s cup the weight is very important. For us it’s less of an issue, we’re using steel and composite materials.”

Let’s say we go from Amsterdam to New York using a Propelwind system: how much money would I save?

Patrick Englebert: “(laughs) Unfortunately you picked the wrong direction – the better route would be from west to east, let’s say New York to Amsterdam. There’s basically two ways to use the Propelwind system: either you use it as the main propulsion with mechanical propulsion as a stand-by, or you use it to lower fuel consumption on a vessel that’s propulsed by an engine.

The first option is the most interesting. You would be able to sail close to the average speed of the wind, which is 15 knots. And we estimate your fuel savings at at least 90 percent, meaning you would only use a tenth of the fuel that you would normally use.

In the second option, where you use the wingsail on an existing ship to supplement the power of the engines, we think we can save you on average 20 to 30 percent of the fuel consumption.”

Of course, the wingsail would cost a few million to install too?

Patrick Englebert: “Yes. The yardstick we use is the payback period. We know from other industries that an innovation needs to be cheap enough to be widely adopted.

Payback times should ideally be around four or five years. It’s no coincidence that this is also the average stay of a manager in a company: managers love to see their decisions bear fruit, you know. We’re currently, at today’s fuel costs, at a payback period of six or seven years – this is for a one off build, so not factoring in the cost efficiencies we can create through mass production.

If we build thirty, forty wings a year, that cost should go down drastically – like solar panels from China, right? And if fuel costs rise again, of course our break even point moves up in time.”

You spoke about the competition a moment ago. How do you stack up at this moment?

Patrick Englebert: “I’d say SkySail is the furthest advanced at this time. They currently have kites fitted on three ships worldwide, and more coming online soon. But they don’t engender a lot of enthusiasm in the industry. The other competitors use Flettner rotors and Dynarigs – there’s currently one yacht rigged with a Dynarig, but no cargo vessels yet. Flettner rotors are fitted on a special cargo ship.

So in all I would put us in the top five, based on progress and substance. We could be further along thanks to three million in research grants that we could apply for, but I don’t want to spend that money now, because I want to use it when I can get commitment from industrial partners.”

I admire your entrepreneurial drive – it’s one thing to start an internet company, but a hardware solution where you need to line up so many different stakeholders, in a small and conservative market like the shipping industry. Did you never feel like just giving up?

Patrick Englebert: “No, I mostly thought: I should do it now, because it’s my last chance. The challenges just keep me going. I did hesitate a bit before I gave up my job and asked friends to invest in the idea. I carried out a consistent prefeasibility program at my own cost, asked for advice. But at some point I just decided to make this project my focus. It’s just something I wanted to do because it makes sense. There is no such thing as certainty in life, you know. And also, going to a job you don’t like every single day is certain to give you heart trouble and depression after a few years (laughs).”

Photo: The Vestas “sailrocket” breaks speed record on water using a wingsail

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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