I am writing from the good ship Irene, the last of a generation of trading ketches built in 1907. This voyage is a symbolic one, aiming to shine a light on the oil dependent world of shipping trade, through our own form of positive protest. We hope to engage in the human-scale trade of food and drink, to inspire a debate on where our tropical goods come from and how they get to us.

The idea of a slow food adventure under sail has been with me since 2005 and never strayed far from the imagination. Each time that I crossed paths with fellow collaborators the story was still waiting to be told. The more I explored it, the more unviable it seemed, surely shipping companies should take care of shipping cargo! But the more I thought about it, and the more I discovered about our silent reliance on the world of shipping, the more the idea fixed in my brain. Something didn’t feel right. I wanted to explore a way of looking into this world not as an onlooker but as a participant.

One bright morning, strolling along the harbourside in Bristol we saw the Irene. A beautiful ship in every sense, an elegant trader of a bygone age. I met the owner, Lesley Morrish and asked him if he would entertain the idea of a slow food voyage around the Atlantic. In principle he agreed, although the charter fee was the same cost as buying a house; something I couldn’t imagine being able to afford. I looked everywhere for an appropriate sponsor but to no avail. Three months later in November 2011, Lesley rang me up and announced that he and Captain Laurance Ottley would be sailing Irene with a cargo of extra virgin olive to Brazil, he then asked if I would mind arranging the return cargo. I was shocked and excited. We were on. The New Dawn Traders were born.

Spending three weeks in Plymouth preparing the ship made me feel grateful for my usual home of Bristol. We managed to source the lions share of our provisions from the Essential Trading Co-operative and Riverford Organic, as well as some local chandlers; we were set. On Valentines day, after a torrid relationship with various agents of bureaucracy, we headed out to sea with a few thousand bottles of organic Avocet Ale from Exeter Brewery, kindly arranged by Transoceanic Wind Transport (TOWT) – a french fledgling trading initiative inspired by the same ideology of exchange as us. The first leg of our trading voyage was to Brest, taking English ale to the French! After a short crossing to France, we swapped beer in the hold for a selection of fine wine and champagne. We were dangerously close to becoming an elaborate booze cruise! But standing along a steep pontoon, passing crates of wine along a long chain of trainee sailors, I stepped back in time. At once caught by the farcical nature of the whole operation, while also captured by a sense of a very human endeavour that might just get people thinking.

Over the last decade, greater public awareness around environmental issues has seen a return to consumers wanting to buy local produce. We have seen a massive increase in the number of farmers’ markets providing access to locally produced food. Similarly the expanding market share of ethically certified goods demonstrates that, given the option, consumers will often choose fair trade over other standard uncertified goods. However when it comes to goods that are by their nature impossible to source locally, what choices are there to limit the environmental impact of those goods reaching the marketplace? Apart from avoiding air-freighted fresh produce all together, there isn’t one.

In preparing for this voyage I have found some similar initiatives that want to help catalyse a new generation of innovation for the future of shipping. These include the B9 project in the UK, the eco-liner and fair-transport initiative in Holland and TOWT in France. Maybe like farmers’ markets, wind powered trade is due a renaissance, however let’s remember that the status quo is computer controlled supermarkets and diesel ships the size of moving factories. I might fantasise about commandeering all the underused and verbose yachts from the ‘too well off’ to create a coastal courier service for European foods, but even if we were to inspire a whole new generation of New Dawn Traders, there is simply no way that the current market in international food would be able to function through them.

The current system is a vast and ugly machine, virtually impenetrable, privately owned and highly incestuous. It does a remarkably good job of getting our favourites from A to B, but at what environmental cost? 15 of the world’s biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world’s 760m cars! It is a trade link that is entirely reliant on fossil fuels and is completely unprepared for any transition to renewable energy. The current designs on the table go some way to inspiring hope, but we cannot afford to wait for all the boats in the world to become redundant and require replacing before seeking to improve their efficiency. This is a huge challenge and one that currently is completely under-resourced.

So what can I do? I hear you cry. Seeking out what is in season and locally available is a good start; consuming less meat, understanding the labelling of certified foods, animal welfare standards and conditions for workers are all steps in the right direction, but when it comes to the carbon footprint of food… the only thing to know is that the further away it is produced the further it is likely to have travelled and the greater the likely environmental impact.

We know that what we are doing is just the tiniest drop in the ocean, but hopefully even our little drop can help to draw just a bit of attention towards this surprisingly silent issue.

If you would like to support the project, pre-order the ‘for sail’ products from our voyage or come and meet us when we return back to Bristol in June. In the meantime, follow our adventure here.

Sign up to our Newsletter

Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news