Ferries That 'Fly' Could Make It Easy--and Fast--to Travel by Boat

Ferries That 'Fly' Could Make It Easy--and Fast--to Travel by Boat

A Belfast startup is using hydrofoil technology developed for America's Cup racing vessels to create faster, more eco-friendly maritime transportation

An oil-trading billionaire and an Olympic gold medalist who helped equip racing boats with underwater wings that make them fly above the waves--revolutionizing the sport of sailing--are now betting the same technology can reshape what it means to travel by water.

Torbjorn Tornqvist, co-founder of oil-trading powerhouse Gunvor Group Ltd., spent about a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars in a chase for the America's Cup, sailing's top prize.

The regatta centers around a design competition, and in 2017, Mr. Tornqvist's Artemis Racing produced one of the fastest sailboats on record. The key was hydrofoils, devices that lifts boats above the water, accelerating them to highway speeds. Sailors call it "flying."

The team, led by Iain Percy, a British two-time Olympic gold medalist, lost to eventual champion New Zealand. So the two men began to discuss moving beyond the sport, adapting the same technologies to the millions of other vessels plying the water.

The result was a spinoff called Artemis Technologies with Mr. Percy as chief executive. Their vision includes using the advances from their time chasing the Cup to slash emissions and fuel consumption, increasing speed and range on vessels including workboats and even large passenger ferries, save giant container or tanker ships.

Their opening efforts center around hydrofoils. Lifting boats from the water reduces drag and fuel usage, even for older vessels, so Artemis Tech started developing foils and complex control systems for many kinds of new and existing vessels. Turbines mounted on the hydrofoils will generate electricity from the boat's motion, storing it in batteries to power engines when the wind dies.

Last month, a Belfast consortium led by Artemis received a grant of 33 million British pounds ($41.4 million) from the U.K. government to develop zero-emissions ferries.

Their plans include even bigger things in the years ahead. Eventually, the team imagines combining all those elements into a wind-electric hybrid ferry carrying passengers between destinations at speeds around 60 miles an hour.

In concept drawings and videos, this boat is a sized-up version of the team's Cup racing boat--a twin-hulled, ultralight, flying catamaran, almost 150 feet long. In strong winds, sails would power the boat's flight over the surface. When the breeze falls, the stored electricity would drive propellers that move the boat faster than many boats travel today.

"Zero emissions and unlimited range," says Mr. Percy. "Per passenger mile, it would have less energy cost than a car or train and be quick enough in most places to be competitive in speed."

Wind offers endless, free power, used for millennia to move people and goods across the world's waterways. That has always come with catches: speed and reliability. Few passengers want to endure a multiweek sea voyage these days, much less wait out the doldrums. Clipper ships were fast for sailboats, but gave way to steamers, then to modern, diesel-powered vessels.

Globalization fueled growth, with maritime cargo volumes hitting 11 billion tons in 2018, according to a United Nations report on the industry last year.

That report also called fuel economy and environmental sustainability "burning issues" for the industry. Members of the U.N.'s International Maritime Organization have agreed to improve fuel efficiency by 30% by 2025 and slash greenhouse-gas emissions in half by 2050 from 2008 levels.

Mr. Tornqvist, who started out trading oil for BP in the 1980s and built Gunvor into a multinational commodities giant, said Artemis Technologies is in line with his company's own efforts to transition away from dirty sources of energy such as coal while expanding in other areas, including biofuels and renewables.

Gunvor has more than $1 billion in financing that depends on meeting sustainability goals.

"Artemis Racing developed a number of compelling technologies that have the potential to help decarbonize the maritime sector," Mr. Tornqvist said in an email. "Artemis Technologies aims to put these to work at a time when there's growing demand for low-carbon alternatives."

Artemis isn't the only company that sees a future in sailing.

Finland's Norsepower Oy Ltd. installs spinning "rotor sails" that help reduce fuel use and emissions on existing cargo vessels and ferries, saying on its website it is "bringing sailing back to shipping."

Saildrone Inc., which designs and builds autonomous wind- and solar-powered vessels, is targeting the market for ocean research and data collection.

Companies already offer emissions-free shipping using ordinary cargo-carrying sailboats which simply haul goods that don't need to get places in a particular hurry.

Getting Artemis to revamp your ferry is like getting a Formula One team to overhaul your city bus.

The pandemic stalled construction of the Belfast-based company's first demonstration vessel--a 40-foot motorboat used for offshore work--but design efforts continued on things like impact simulations and steering-system integration.

The company also sells control systems to Larry Ellison's new SailGP pro racing league, which competes in revamped versions of the Cup boats, and runs a simulator for training sailors on hydrofoils.

Many sailors say those have proven key to the sport's acceleration. Hydrofoils date to before 1919, when a cigar-shaped foiler built by telephone pioneer Alexander Graham Bell set the world speed record for watercraft at almost 71 miles an hour.

Jutting down below the boat and then extending to the sides, the blade-like hydrofoils lift boats from the water, sharply reducing drag and increasing speed. They have tended to be relatively expensive, technically complex and challenging to operate. Some have required deep water, lightweight materials, power from big engines or sails and vigilant operation.

Some operators have used comparatively crude hydrofoiling ferries in recent decades, analysts say, but twin-hulled catamarans generally proved simpler and cheaper to build and operate, if less efficient.

The Cup teams powered right through many of the hurdles, proving that hydrofoiling sailing craft could outpace speedboats while remaining maneuverable enough to race. Many of the resulting breakthroughs in fluid modeling, control systems, lightweight structure engineering, hydraulics and aero- and hydrodynamics are now available to boat designers and builders world-wide.

Challenges to widespread adoption have remained. The America's Cup boats required both exceptional seamanship and new, computerized control systems similar to those that help pilots land jumbo jets.

The boats needed cranes to launch and a fleet of support vessels to race. Sailors donned crash helmets and body armor. While sailors have started adding hydrofoils to everything from one-person dinghies to transoceanic racers, adapting sail-powered foil technology to passenger vessels or working boats is still ahead.

"So far, it's only pros with helmets," says Peter Melvin, of California-based Morrelli & Melvin Design and Engineering, who helped pioneer hydrofoiling Cup boats with Emirates Team New Zealand. "We need to move it into the mainstream so the guy off the street can go down to a boat dealer, buy a foiling boat and drive it away."

Several designers are concentrating on what they call "foil-assist" technology. Hydrofoils can increase the speed and fuel efficiency of many boats significantly even if they don't lift the boat entirely from the water, says Mr. Melvin, who estimates that half of his current projects have hydrofoils. The cost is equivalent to that of adding bigger engines, but it saves gas too.

Many also see opportunities combining foils and new, lightweight electric motors. Alain Thébault, the sailing pioneer behind Hydroptère, a hydrofoil that in 2009 hit a then-record 51 knots, combined the two in his Seabubbles, flying water taxis testing in France.

Artemis Tech is establishing a new headquarters in Belfast harbor, a shipbuilding-turned-aerospace hub. That is perfect for boats that spend most of their time flying, with hulls shaped to slice both water and air.

Mr. Percy expects to spend the next several years convincing people the long-term savings from the new systems make it worth investing in the upfront costs of retrofitting older boats.

That is an effort complicated by the pandemic, which spurred a crash in oil prices and hit shipping companies particularly hard.

One European trade association said almost three-quarters of its members expect the pandemic to force them to halt or slow investment in cleaner technologies.

By the time Artemis' technology rolls out to larger boats, in four or five years, that is unlikely to be a problem, says Mr. Percy.

In a world searching for renewable energy sources and low-carbon alternatives, the opportunities available remain too great to ignore.

"There are many different industries where saving 90% of fuel costs would be a benefit," Mr. Percy says.

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