Do sails still make sense for the future of cruising?

Design legend Vittorio Garroni questions whether sails still make sense for cruise ships of the future 

Do sails still make sense for the future of cruising?
Garroni’s concepts for lake ships employ sail masts for primary propulsion

By Vittorio Garroni |

Sails are the symbol of sailing and are important because they have been able to offer logical solutions in every era. Recently they have also been refined with technology, offering innovative perspectives not only for yachts, but also for cruise and commercial ships. Will sails once again suggest the roadmap for the future? 

To get out of the trouble we find ourselves in now we need to know how to innovate, with imagination and creativity; but what is the right direction to take? 

What is happening now already happened half a century ago: what seemed to be the end of an era, the end of the ocean liners, was, instead, the start of the prosperous development of cruise ships. As already happened then, let’s accompany common sense with a little imagination and, perhaps, we will be able to orient ourselves better. 

The Turtle Ship 

The development of air transport, as a result of the technological progress triggered by World War II, has penalised passenger maritime connections to the advantage of intercontinental flights. However, this phenomenon did not happen suddenly, but gradually. From the 1950s to the 1970s, aeronautical technology became reliable with the advent of the jet and the dimensional growth of aircraft: from the DC3 to the Jumbo. In the same years, ocean liners tried to counteract this by offering ever faster and more comfortable services like the QE2 and famous Italian liners. In the 1970s, all the splendid, almost new, transatlantic liners lay abandoned or underwent unlikely transformations aimed at cruises. 

Passenger shipping had entered a crisis. To get out of it, innovative solutions had to be found, both for the ship and for its operational system: a profound evolutionary process, respectful of the experience gained but enriched by the contribution of new skills and much imagination. 

The first important example, at the end of the 1960s, was offered by a ‘dream team’ of designers led by two great masters, Gio Ponti and Pierluigi Spadolini, and developed by an imaginative student of architecture, Bruna Moresco. 

Gio Ponti was the leader of Italian design, he was an expert in ocean liners and was looking for logical answers to the problems that afflicted them: the operational evolution (from liner to cruiser) could not ignore a profound rethinking of functionality and aesthetic form, that is of the ship’s urban planning. 

An interesting project emerged: the graduation thesis on the Turtle Ship, published by Gio Ponti in March 1969, in issue 472 of Domus, a prestigious architecture and design magazine he directed. 

The concept of the Turtle Ship was expressly conceived for cruises and not simply derived from an ocean liner. Wide and slow, it was not designed for the transfer journey from one port to another, but for the relaxation of life onboard and the pleasure of discovery. 

Since then, and for the duration of these last 50 years, everyone has followed the teaching, and there has been a proliferation of hundreds of cruise ships, beautiful or ugly, small or gigantic, but all successful, economical and public. 

The new transition 

Today history repeats itself. What should we learn from the past? About a year ago, an enemy as unexpected as it was small caught us by surprise, immobilising us. Confident in our scientific and technological capabilities, we trusted the Chinese model: a moment of patience and everything would be as it was before. 

But it did not go that way. Our reliable world has changed. For better, for worse? Probably for the better, for more aware human beings, but it will depend on how we deal with it. 

The lesson of the past tells us that, even if the event was brutal, the transition to something new, which we do not yet know, will be gradual. Whenever we believe we have overcome the worst, the enemy returns, more evil than before. We still have to learn to recognise it, the something new that awaits us. We must continue to work patiently, wisely and yet again, with much creative imagination. 

So, trying to have a positive vision of the future or, better, a proactive one, we might do the following: 

•  First, which all operators are already doing, is to recreate trust. How? With many small measures: sanitisation, distancing, reassuring itineraries, commercial promotions. In the collective imagination, the ship must go back to being the ‘happy island’, the best place for feeling safe and coming back to for relaxing. In the harsh reality, however, it means making ships work under an uneconomical regime, after a whole year of losses. 

•  Gradually transform the units in operation to make them more suitable for changing needs: fewer passengers in larger private spaces, with groupings of cabins in mini-residences. The lower turnover could be minimally offset by a reduction in crews and simpler services. 

•  Reassure with near-proximity itineraries, with lower fuel consumption, travel costs, supplies and more. 

However, these are transition phases, which are slow and costly. The real challenge is to know if, after the transition period, it will be possible to return to the status quo ante, a solution that everyone dreams of, of course. Or instead, new ‘Turtle Ships’: better, completely innovative ideas. 

So let us go back to sails and that is to the imagination, to see if they can offer us some good suggestions. 

NYK Line, SES 2030 concept 

About 10 years ago we had the privilege of being able to study a container ship concept for the near future for NYK Line. The aim of the project was the concentration of technologies aimed at improving operational efficiency and reducing energy consumption of fossil origin. The project, called SES 2030, was led by a team formed by MTI, Monohakobi Technology Institute of NYK, Elomatic and Garroni Progetti for the design. The results were encouraging because returns were likely to improve by 50 per cent. Many of the solutions proposed were taken up in subsequent projects and also tested in real life. 

Xiamen Cruise Vessel 

A few years later, in conjunction with a didactic collaboration with the Jimei University of Xiamen, the opportunity arose to resume and further study some concepts developed for the SES 2030, applying them to passenger cruise ships.  

China was taking the first concrete steps to develop its own design cruise ships, targeting Chinese customers, and not importing ships built elsewhere for the Chinese market. Contacts were active and involved many centres of competence, including Fincantieri and, obviously, the Chinese CSSC. 

The process was neither simple nor quick, but projects have multiplied, with interesting outcomes that could also be reconsidered in the light of recent events. 

One concerned a ship that, in some way, derived from some concepts expressed in the SES 2030: it was a medium-large cruise ship, very green-oriented, in terms of both respect for the environment and project theme. Plant nature was the leitmotif of the onboard environment because the ship was a destination in itself. Its purpose was not to reach an exotic place, but to be itself a happy green island on which to spend a few days of pleasant relaxation. 

A concept which, 10 years ago, was considered only as a ‘green and soft’ variant of ‘nowhere cruises’: cruises without a destination designed to offer a few days of unusual leisure just outside big cities, especially New York. Leisure that was generally very technological, above all culinary and frequently organised as an aggregative extension for corporate business meetings, with no escape routes. It also seemed ideal for China, just off the coasts of rapidly developing megalopolises. The code name, in fact, was Xiamen, a city that would like to establish itself as a cruise hub. 

The concept of a ‘garden ship’ could today constitute a source of complementary attraction for the promotion of proximity cruises, the first step towards normalisation.  

With two rows of telescopic masts and airfoil sails, the Xiamen ship, as well as the SES 2030, highlighted the environmental trend that characterised the project. 

An apparently new way of conceiving sail propulsion because we are normally used to boats or ships equipped with one or more sail masts positioned along the centre line, the longitudinal axis of symmetry. Instead, lateral masts arranged in parallel rows have very ancient origins because they were adopted by the Chinese many centuries ago to push their large and wide transport ships, suitable for navigating even in shallow waters. 

The Lake Ship 

The recent challenges of the America’s Cup, with boats capable of flying very fast on only one lateral winged leg, offer us a technologically innovative vision of sail propulsion. 

However, it does not necessarily mean that innovation should only be technological. Continuing to think about proximity itineraries, we realise that inland waters, navigable rivers, are meeting with great success, almost too much for the limited capacity of moorings. However, there are many beautiful inland waters, rich in cultural attractions, but still totally unexplored: I am referring to the great lakes of Central Europe and beyond, which are suitable for weekly proximity cruises, free from the constraints of width and height that afflict river navigation. 

I have tried to draw an example, covered by some patents, that is vaguely nostalgic and absolutely green. In this version, the Lake Ship is designed for 80 or more passengers accommodated in comfortable cabins, all with a veranda or balcony. The presence of restaurants, large lounges, lockable swimming pool, paddle tennis and more make it look like a real ship, but the presence of the double row of wing profile sail masts, totally automated and intended for primary propulsion, identify its green nature and constitute an attractive promotional element.  

Vittorio Garroni founded the Italian studio Garroni Design in 1971

This article was first published in the 2021 issue of Cruise & Ferry Interiors. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. 

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