I recently interviewed Dhara Thompson of the Sailboat Project for our new sailboats topic introduction. He told me that they are one of many new organisations that are working to bring back sailboats for cargo and passenger transport – using the power of the wind to move people and goods around the planet.
He explained that there were boats bringing chocolate, rum and coffee from the Caribbean and Latin America, and transporting people from the UK to the European mainland and even across the Atlantic. He also told me that they are involved with a project to help small organic family farms in Portugal, by bringing their olive oil by sailboat to Newhaven, and from there to collection points in the South-east.
Well, I decided straight away to be a customer. I ordered my 5-litre container from their website, and jumped on the 127 bus to collect it from Karen and Kepa in Croydon. When I was there, I talked with Karen about how it all works.
The boat that the Sailboat Project is using to collect the olive oil is the Nordlys, built on the Isle of Wight in 1873. It’s a complicated set-up, but the Nordlys is owned by Fairtransport, New Dawn Traders find the oil suppliers and organise the transport, and the Sailboat Project buy the oil in bulk and sell it on.
None of these businesses want to create an empire. What they’d prefer to do is to build networks of small boat-owners, farmers and locally-based sales outlets, including farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture. The whole approach is based on co-operation via non-hierarchical structures that keep money in local communities, instead of having it sucked out via corporate branches. There are many strands to this new approach, but collectively, it’s becoming known as the ‘Solidarity Economy’, as members show solidarity with one another, rather than cut-throat competition. It’s very refreshing and something that we’d like to support.
As an additional bit of fun, there’s an online tool for tracking your boat – you can see where your olive oil is at any moment, and follow its progress from Porto to Sussex.
This project is not just about low-carbon transport, however – it’s also about changing the food supply chain.
Marije Passos, of Passeite is a sommelier (an ‘olive hunter’ – although the word is usually used for wines) in Portugal, who found the Reigado family farm to take part in this project. The Reigado family produce 3000 litres of oil annually, and the Sailboat Project took 1000 litres – so a significant portion of their annual output.
The Reigado farm is on the edge of a nature reserve, and together with a couple of younger farmers in the same area, they’re producing oil that the Nordlys is also delivering to Cornwall (1000 litres) and Britanny (1000 litres). The farms are in the process of becoming worker co-operatives, and the Sailboat Project are helping them do so, as they themselves are organised as a workers’ co-op.
They pay the farmers up front, so that they can cover costs. They also pay the farmer 40% of the retail price, which is fair, but unheard of in the corporate world. In fact, on their website, they publish the complete price breakdown, and who in the chain gets what. This kind of transparency is not possible to find on corporate websites. The aim of the corporate sector is to pay the lowest price possible at the latest date possible, so that they can suck money from people who do useful work, to maximise returns to shareholders, who do no work.
The oil is extracted from the olives using mechanical means only. They’re squeezed, in other words. A lot of olive oil in the shops has been produced using chemical treatments that extract oil from the stones. This has a negative effect on taste and the environment. And of course, the Reigado family’s oil is organic and extra virgin. If your oil is neither of those things, it involves spraying poisons into the environment and will be made using old oil. Why not focus instead on producing and consuming quality, sustainable food?
Karen tore me off a piece of crusty bread and poured some oil into a saucer for me to dip the bread in. I’m not an artistic enough writer to describe taste in words, but let’s just say you can taste the love. Yum – really.
Back home, we decant the oil from the 5-litre container into sealable 1-litre bottles for use in the kitchen. We’ll wash these bottles and use them again and again, and when we go to collect more oil after we’ve run out, we’ll take the container back to be used again. Voila – no packaging to throw away. They even gave us special labels if we want to turn some 1-litre bottles into presents.
At the moment, let’s compare like with like. Each 5-litre container costs £55 collected from Brighton, or £59 collected from London (which reflects the added cost of transport to London, currently). That’s between £11 and £11.80 per litre. Here you can see similar quality oils that range from around £14 to over £30 per litre; and here you can see that Waitrose sell a range from £8.50 to £11 per litre. There are many sources of organic, extra-virgin olive oil online that charge well over £11 per litre.
The Sailboat Project hope to double the volume transported next time, and to reduce prices significantly. However, it’s not just about price. It’s about the kind of society we want to build. The trick is not to see yourself as just a consumer, whose aim is to find the lowest prices possible. Instead think of yourself as both producer and consumer (a ‘prosumer’, if you like). Paying decent prices to ‘solidarity’ businesses (which includes self-employed people) keeps money in your community, and in the hands of the kinds of people who will also be prepared to pay good prices for quality goods and services in their communities. This will give you the opportunity to set up your own business (or join an existing one) to supply those people. This is the stirrings of a virtuous, rather than a vicious circle – a rising tide that will raise all our boats. In other words, don’t complain about prices if no-one is becoming rich, they result in high-quality, sustainable products and the money stays in your community.
It’s really important not to write this trend off as just another namby-pamby, middle-class, expensive idea, but instead to see it as a way of changing your own life and your own work. Would you rather have a boring, pointless job in the corporate sector (maybe on zero-hours contracts and minimum wage for blue-collar work, shelf-stacking or telesales etc.), making money for already-wealthy people, and spending your money on cheap, low-quality food and other goods – or would you like to have a satisfying job, working with great people, in a way that keeps money in your community, so that everyone can afford quality food and goods?
What you can do
Become a customer. See here. Contact them directly to buy olive oil and to talk about various options for delivery.
Start a hub in your area. If you live in London, you can get as many people together as you can (including local shops if possible) who would like to pre-order 5 litres or more. The idea is that the Sailboat Project will bring oil up the Thames on a big, restored, flat-bottomed Thames barge called the Raybel, organised via the Sail Cargo Alliance.
I can see the shoots of the new economy pushing through. It’s going to be very difficult, but the quality is so good, and the businesses so sustainable and full of such good people, that I think it’s going to succeed in the end.
Help people like the Sailboat Project grow their business, and they’re exactly the kind of people who will help you when you start yours. It’s called the Solidarity Economy, and it’s the future.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
james bate January 7th, 2018
Ha, my favourite pipe dream / retirement plan, often dip into Pure Portugal for small holdings and this sailing houseboat build blog to get the produce back – http://quidnon.blogspot.co.uk/. Thanks for the post at least I’ll be able to buy the oil !
Dave Darby - repliedJanuary 7th, 2018
That’s a fantastic blog – I’ve added it to our sailboats links page. Dmitry Orlov writes some fascinating stuff.
Chris Gander January 7th, 2018
Hmmm, so how can I get the oil from my olive trees – 40km from Alicante – to the boats? We live in a great oil producing area, and our local bodega sells 5 liters of extra virgin – cold pressed – for about 18euros for 5 liters! We’re obviously missing the boat – if I’m allowed to make the pun! I suspect the boat problem is Gibralter, but I’m not a sailing person, but I’m sure the sailing people will enlighten me! Oh, and a small by-line, it’s not difficult here to get the small presses to extract the oil from very local producers, ie people with only a few trees. Seems to be the raisin d’être of this project.
Dave Darby - repliedJanuary 7th, 2018
I suggest you contact some of the companies linked to in the article to see what might be possible – New Dawn Traders, Sailboat Project, Fairtransport, Sail Cargo Alliance etc. They’re taking tentative first steps at the moment, but who knows?
Mike Eaton January 7th, 2018
The concept is brilliant but I fear the actual execution may need a little help. there is of course no reason why trading and carrying cargos to and from Europe over the Channel and the North Sea are not possible these days – it’s been goning on for many years, save one! Todays legislation covering commercial work, because like it or not once a cargo is carried (paid for of course) the work becomes commercial and the vessel involved becomes a commercial vessel, no matter how she is propelled!
There are various rules and regulations in force for the use of commercial vessels including vessel manning, training and qualifications (of the crew) safety, build of the vessel to contain certain safety features, crews accomodation etc. etc. It would appear that, at the moment certain companies have found a way to circumvent some of these problems at least thus there is hope for the future. Having spent some mere 37 years at sea of which 27 of them were in commercial vessels I of course have my views on this – to me I cannot see why it can’t be done, in small amounts as mentioned here – the biggest problems once a well found vessel has been commisioned into the trade is that of manning. There is a requirement for a qualified Master and Mate (at a minimum) plus other qualified hands as decided on by the MCA. To operate such a vessel on a full time basis, no matter what the crew may wish and think of the whole deal a certain amount of profit must be made to handle running costs (food etc for the crew), repairs and maintenance of the vessel, harbour dues and other port charges (no matter how small, to land your cargo you need to be able to get alongside and as a commerical vessel that costs). At a guess if the vessel is used on a casual basis – say two commerical trips a year with the crew getting a small cut of the cargo or as they wish – it would be a holiday to them. The problem here is how and when would the commercial voyage be indicated to the proper authorities? Sailing over to France on a “holiday weekend” and then casually bringing back a part cargo of say olive oil (need only be say a couple of bottles) would be great until the customs wandered onboard and decided to check!!! OH dear oh dear, won’t be in for work next week boss, I’m in jail for smuggling!
Another porblem sadly is the apparent lack of knowledge about the whole set up – they can’t just sail into port and land some cargo? Just wait a minute, by that standard the ASDA lorry can just bring a cargo into the local ASDA at 2 o/clock Sunday morning, why does he need a licence? Rather amazes me – like the comment above about how the “boat” problem must be in Gibralter surprises me – if he could spell the name of the place initially it might help.
Chris Gander January 7th, 2018
Perhaps I should have said ‘ Straits of Gibraltar’ and I was thinking of the negotiation of the sea lane rather than landing in Gib. After all, Alicante is quite a way up the East coast! Sorry about the spelling.
Mike Eaton - repliedJanuary 7th, 2018
Heck no Chris, we all make mistakes on these things – I’m brilliant at it! Mind you it does bring home something else – a lot of people’s geography is not of the best, to get from Portugal to England one sails North and not South (thus through the straits) unless you want to come up via canal through France – lovely trip but you’d need to take yer masts down and would certainly need an engine – long way to row! As for the French Barge Masters they’d rather sink you than give you right of way – nothing personal – they’d sink anyone, as a matter of principle!
Chris Gander January 7th, 2018
Tee hee! So, now we really need the sailing community to comment on – the legalities and – the logistics. From my point of view, being on the Med coast and not the Atlantic coast, and thus being part of the ancient Med trading routes (Phoenicians, Romans, Egyptians, etc), how will the costings work out? The Med side of Spain produces a LOT of ‘non perishables’ but getting them to London has been a problem for centuries – maybe even millennia !
Mike Eaton January 7th, 2018
Alicante! Oh dear, now who’s geography has gone astray? For some reason I was thinking about Portugal!! Dur the brains dead! Now that could turn out expensive, the Phoenicians had no problem of course (but slaves were a higly perishable and fairly expensive commodity), the Romans of course owned most of the route (mostly by conquest but they owned it, how they got it is besides the problem)! Most of the stuff we got from the Eygyptians was I believe stolen by us from them so I guess that was OUR problem! But Spain to England and back, cheaply and using as little carbon etc as possible – there is a problem?
At times that stretch of water can get a little choppy, especially whilst under sail alone! Across the Bay of Biscay especially (nobody goes through it unless they have too! – To many nasty currents in there!) Coming around the corner into the Channel can get interesting at times too! Pack Goats overland to Cherbourg and from there by sail leaving the goats in France (cuts the smell of goat from the decks of the boat!
Dave Darby January 7th, 2018
Just to be clear, all the organisations mentioned in the article operate completely within the law, employ professional, well-trained crew and generate profits not just from carrying cargo, but also from yacht charters, sailing courses and sailing trips.
Mike Eaton January 7th, 2018
Who said they didn’t? All I said was carrying cargoes makes the job commercial and this changes a lot of things! Yacht charters, sailing trips and course are a completly different kettle of fish however. They are of course legal because if they were not it would not be long before they were not operating – under the UK flag at least!
sailboatprojectblog - repliedJanuary 8th, 2018
Hi Mike, Anything that involves the exchange of money or services at sea is commercial as far as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is concerned, so yacht charter, sailing trips and RYA courses are all commercial activities and require our vessels to be safety coded and for skippers to be commercially endorsed. Within that we can carry ‘cargo’ to the equivalent weight of people. Specifically sail cargo, large hold vessels are in a different coding bracket, and also coded for Cat 0 which is open water. Our teaching activities are Cat 2 – up to 60 nautical miles from a safe haven.
sailboatprojectblog January 8th, 2018
Thanks for this blog Dave, always interesting to read what we’ve been doing from someone else’s perspective and you’ve captured all the threads!
To respond to Mike:
All the vessels operated by members of the Sail Cargo Alliance are commercial vessels withcommunity mercially endorsed skippers. There are certainly lots of regulations and costs that make the margins slim – rather than individual ownership many vessels are owned by groups of people who invest collectively to make the project happen. Nordlys, for example, was bought for €1 by Fairtransport and then a significant amount of volunteer labour and costs to bring her up to standard. There are several sail cargo vessel operating and more coming online, which is why we chose at Sail Boat Project to focus for now on increasing trade and building customer bases. It makes more sense if the vessels at least have their holds full of cargo! And Dave’s blog and his calls to action at the end are part of that process – thanks Dave!
So we took on the role of being a ‘port ally’ for Nordlys’ for her maiden visit to Newhaven. The Harbour Master was contacted from the beginning and his enthusiasm for the project was invaluable. There were significant port dues involved, although we did get a good deal. This is reflected in the breakdown of costs we have printed on the side of every 5 litre container and as we import larger quantities of oil (Nordlys has 10 ton capacity) and also having expended so many hours in the intial set up, we should be able to bring prices down. This then makes the oil more accessible, not just an elitist project. Further contributing to this is if people band together to place orders or 5-10 tubs and split smaller quantities between them, then the overall costs go down and everyone wins! And by placing pre-orders the finance is raised in advance to be able to pay the growers in advance (unheard of in the larger olive oil markets) and take the stress off individuals fronting the money. It also means the ships can plan their routes with more certainty about planned cargo. We call this model ‘community supported shipping’.
And to respond to Chris: Alicante is a bit of a further way round but a Mediterranean sail cargo route is being discussed in the Sail Cargo Alliance with various ideas in process. What quantity of olive oil do you produce? Get in touch if you want to discuss further.
Good to hear your comments,
Mike Eaton January 8th, 2018
Dhara, many thanks for your update on the commercial world of sail. Times have certainly changed, full circle in fact it would seem, when I first joined the Merchant Navy (from the Royal Navy) back in the early 70’s it was still, theoretically at least, possible yo obtain a Masters Under Sail Certificate (and if I remember rightly a Second Mates (sail) certificate) these of course soon faded for many reasons – mainly due to the lack of sail due to the advent of cheap petroleum related fuels etc. With the passing of the necessary certificates so too did the ability to carry any form of cargo by sail. Some few years later an attempt was made to carry such cargos from the UK to the Carribean Islands which partially worked but sadly for many reasons faded away. It is nice to see that slowly it would appear that these times are slowly returning, even if officialdom seems to sit heavily on the heads of those trying to bring it back (why do I think a lot of this sits in the courts of the commercial power driven shipowners who never have been nice to either their crews or others involved in those cargoes).
Talking of such cargoes and the commercial world in general I am of course aware that anything done for money is classed as commercial and not just at sea either. Also I might add that having done a small amount of ferry time the worst possible cargo is indeed the human one / passengers. But as like all old people I would appear to know nothing I’ll just sit in the corner with my memories and be the laughing stock of the whole house – you turn will come.
Dave Darby - repliedJanuary 8th, 2018
Mike – in many, many cases the old ways are very much the best ways, imho.
Mike Eaton January 8th, 2018
luzverde2017 January 24th, 2018
What a great project, we have lived in Portugal off and on for the last 20 years, so first harvested olives for oil back in 1998 – and we are still lucky to have a local olive press which has expanded it’s operations and so harvested our own olive oil last year, we have thought about bringing olive oil in our van when we drive back in greater quantities. I will have to look into this further and see if we can expand – Alentejo olive oil is the best of course! Look forward to finding out more and promoting this project.
David Lee Abbott January 24th, 2018
I am delighted to say that I live in central Portugal and have recently picked several hundred kilos of olives which are now pressed into delicious olive oil so I can see that your project will go from strength to strength. Many ex pat British who live around my area have a constant need for English products and many local people travel down to Gibraltar to purchase these items and sell them on at markets and by word of mouth. Now I am sure that there is little value in sailing a craft from UK to Portugal unladen but maybe filled with PG Tips Yorkshire Tea Marmite Branston etc etc could be of benefit both to your project and certainly to Brits here. Anyway good luck with your venture. Tell me the name of the craft and I will look out for her in Porto
Paul Head June 20th, 2020
I absolutely love this project. There should be more like this! Last year my partner and I moved to central portugal from Brighton. We were looking for ideas where we could sell the olives or oil and came across this. This will be our first year selling produce from our land as we lost all our olive harvest last year due to the floods. I really like the comment that David Lee Abbott made about also bringing things to Portugal. There are quite a few of us here and it’s funny the things you miss.