Forum: New Zealand, it’s time to sail to the moon

New Zealand, perhaps more than any other country, needs to prove its green credentials

There’s been an idea creeping up on me over the last few months that it is now time to share. It may appear a bit off topic, even a bit crazy, but bear with me.

The cost of fuel is rising fast. We may be experiencing peak oil, the point where demand growth exceeds supply. Fuel will become even more expensive when a range of local and international sustainability measures kick in. Already our own government is contemplating a green tax on tourists while the EU is doing its best to ensure the concept of “food miles” gets up to protect its own inefficient production.

None of this is going to go away in a hurry and even if you don’t believe in human-induced climate change, you have to concede that New Zealand needs to manage the risk that all of this presents.

New Zealand needs to have a moment. It needs to “choose to go to the moon”. And, here comes that idea: we should make it our national mission to reintroduce sail as a means of transporting our produce around the world.

I’ve held back on trotting this one out because I know it sounds mad, but New Zealand, perhaps more than any other country, needs to prove its green credentials. Our exports could depend on this.

Sail is making a comeback in some small ways overseas. This year a “kite sail” was used as part of a hybrid motor/sail experiment in which a ship, MS Beluga, sailed from Bremen to Venezuela. The indication is this could save 20% on fuel, but the experiment is to be repeated with a kite twice as big.

An old tall ship is being used in Europe to transport wine to the UK and on Sydney Harbour a ferry called the “Solar Sailor” uses solar and wind power to transport passengers.

All of these are rather clunky and clearly experimental. The development of sail as a cargo transport technology effectively stopped early in the last century. We have no idea where it would be if development had continued.

New Zealand knows a thing or two about sailing. We’ve branded ourselves as sailors in the America’s Cup — to the tune of millions of dollars, much of it from taxpayers.

So why would the taxpayer not front up to a new sailing challenge, one that is far more core to our national interest than any sporting event? Why don’t we take the lead on this?

We don’t have to rush out and spend millions, but a million or two could go a long way towards getting the right people together to do some preliminary planning and scoping.

Now for the token IT connection. Any ship designed by this group would almost certainly be large, very lightly manned and controlled by a network of sensors and computers — just as Silicon Graphics and Netscape founder Jim Clark has done with his yacht Hyperion and its successor Athena.

New Zealand should take these experiments to a different level altogether.

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