Sea freight. François Gabart bets on transporting goods 100% by sail

VELA is the project that François Gabart has just embarked on. The start-up, which brings together four other entrepreneurs, intends to give a new impetus to the maritime transport of goods, thanks to its freighters that will connect Europe to the United States. From transporting goods to wind power alone, which will be based on offshore racing technologies.

As always, projects are born thanks to a meeting. The one by Pierre-Arnaud Vallon and François Gabart has a passion for the ocean as a common object. They embarked on small inter-company regattas together. At the time when the captain of the Finistère was still racing under the colors of Macif and when the businessman was running the start-up DRUST, an automotive intelligence platform that caught the attention of the insurance group, mainly on the issue of road risk prevention for young people.

So much for the genesis. Since then, the start-up has passed into other hands. But Pierre-Arnaud Vallon had a project in mind to build sailboats to transport goods. He’s been thinking about it for a long time.

We choose to act positively on the planet, offering a low-carbon and responsible alternative to conventional freight”

Pierre-Arnaud Vallon

Co-founder of VELA

With the two co-founders of DRUST, Michaël Fernandez-Ferri and Pascal Galacteros, he created VELA, to design and equip cargo sailboats. He embarked on the adventure François Gabart and his offshore racing team, MerConcept, based in Concarneau, Finistère.

More environmentally friendly maritime mobility is another theme that brings the two men together. “The climate emergency is a reality, explains Pierre-Arnaud Vallon. Cargo transport is responsible for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With 90% of goods passing through the oceans, we are choosing to act positively on the planet by offering a responsible, low-carbon alternative to conventional shipping.”.

At a rate of 7 to 9 rotations per year, VELA’s freighters initially intend to give priority to the Europe-United States transatlantic axis. They will be able to transport between 300 and 500 tons of goods, relying on secondary ports and as close as possible to the warehouses.

Decarbonized transport, “100% sailing and without commitmentemphasizes François Gabart. It’s not easy, it’s a challenge, but there will be no hybridization. We will only use the engine to leave a port, as is already done in offshore races. So let’s sail forward”.

A first routing test was carried out in late 2022 aboard the Grain de Sail freighter between Dunkirk and New York.

Breakthroughs in ocean racing are opening up the field of possibilities

Francois Gabart

Skipper and Founder of MerConcept

The question of deadlines obviously arises, in a world where everything has to be fast, even very fast. “We will be faster than conventional freight, guarantees Pierre-Arnaud Vallon. Taking into account loading, crossing, unloading, we expect less than 15 days. While conventional transport oscillates between 15 and 18 days because upstream and downstream waiting times are longer”.

François Gabart breaks the record for crossing the Atlantic with a crew, between New York and Cape Lizard. “3 days 15 hours and 25 minutes! A number that makes you dream, smiled the navigator. Advances in ocean racing are opening up the field of possibilities and we are working on these technology transfers with VELA.”.

On board the freighters, no containers, but pallets, which makes the loading and unloading infrastructure lighter. And so it saves time. “We are inspired by what exists in air freight and we will look for the best elsewhere to build the project”.

And the weather factor, which left more than one docked at the start of a race? Pierre-Arnaud Vallon remains a philosopher. “Hoping to come out better, he said. Just because we wait a day or two in port doesn’t mean we’ll be a day or two late.”.

Especially because VELA will be able to rely on MerConcept’s expertise in weather routing, a procedure used in particular in offshore races, which allows finding the optimal route taking into account weather forecasts and currents.

According to François Gabart, the transport of goods by sail, “It’s not that complicated on a technical level. The principle really is as old as the world. What needs to change are mindsets. That’s the challenge. What we propose is a new approach to maritime transport and the reduction of its environmental impact. as much as possible”.

Agile and easy to maneuver, according to its designers, VELA’s first vessel should be launched by 2025. The crew, from the merchant navy, will be trained in navigation by François Gabart and MerConcept.

Pierre-Arnaud Vallon relies on French know-how to build this future cargo sailboat. The contest will be launched next spring during the official presentation of the project.

The company already has, on both sides of the Atlantic, the commitment of customers ready to sail “its high added value products” but waiting for others “finish filling the holds”. It remains to convince investors.

Leave a Comment