Boats. Aside from the occasional exciting bath time taken as a child, I’d never really had much to do with the sea. I would always love a trip to the beach and the occasional freezing dip at Penbryn Sands near where I grew up on the coast of West Wales but I’d certainly never given sailing a thought. Until a few months ago... Now my Google feed is filled with exciting search terms: “sea trade route” “Mediterranean sailboat” “sea freight” “Greece to UK by boat”. The reason? This landlubber believes that wind powered sail boats are about to become the future, at least for the medium term and he wants to get on board. Let me explain a little about how we ended up at this point.
For the past few years I have been making Extra Virgin Olive Oil in the Peloponnese region of Greece with my good friend Ilias. The trees that make up Ilias’ family centuries old family holding looks more like a wood than a traditional grove. Ilias’ father had lived by himself in a tiny 2 room house in the centre for many years and being a proud, yet somewhat stubborn man had refused any help to in looking after it.
Upon his death nearly 3 years ago the grove was passed onto Ilias and it was during our trip down to visit the grove for the first time since his father’s passing that we realised what a special place it was.
Unlike the other working groves in the area Ilias’ grove was bright with colour. Plants, weeds, grasses, flowers and even muddy bogs where the local wild boar would wallow. Ironically, being left for such a time without human intervention had done the wildlife a world of good and it showed in the olive oil we made. There was work to do to rescue some of the trees from overgrowing weeds and the like but as our affection for the area grew and we decided to begin selling our extra virgin olive oil we knew we would have to keep the grove as wild as possible.
Bio diversity is an oft talked about but rarely practised art in the world of olive oil. Some of you may have read the shocking reports on how millions of birds each year are killed for our desire for the delicious golden liquid we pour onto our salads. We were doing as much as we could to support the biodiversity of our grove but as we began to export from Greece to the UK a few times a year I started to feel a sense of unease about the operation.
It was hypocritical to spend as much time as we did looking after the trees and harvesting by hand to then simply load up our bounty onto the back of a lorry and have that belch its fumes for almost 3000 km to our warehouse in London.
A quandary, then. But how could this be solved? Traditional sea freight burns extra toxic fuels at an astonishing rate and does untold damage to the marine environment. For similar reasons air travel was clearly not preferable. Electric vehicles are sadly barely available yet beyond a few ridiculously expensive options, the cost of which would make the entire delivery pointless. Feeling disheartened that in 2019 there was still no feasible fossil fuel free option I resorted to the age old tradition of having a moan with one’s mother.
“It’s a shame they don’t sail things anymore” she said. “Oh they still do” I replied “it’s just that it’s all done on those huge great liners that burn a gallon a second or something”. “No, I mean sailboats”.
“Oh, sailboats? Hmm, I hadn’t thought of that”
And I hadn’t. Within a few weeks I was in contact with a wonderful sea faring cooperative called the New Dawn Traders whose goal is to rekindle a once thriving wind powered sailboat industry, trading across the globe. A cooperative of captains and seafarers with ships of all sizes cleanly and quietly trading from port to port. The boats themselves range from catamarans to beautiful, graceful schooners with resplendent white sails.
The sailboat initiative is still very much in its infancy and currently it is simpler to transport from Mexico than it is from our nearest port of Kyparissia in Greece. But this is a growing and in many cases thriving new industry. Ships are being built in the Mediterranean that will be available from 2020 and hopefully this will be the beginning of a bright new future on the water.
My search for a ship to take our little cargo for 2019 continues then. My internet history becomes more and more niche, resembling something closer akin to a captain desperately looking for work at sea than an in work actor/olive oil producer sitting in his living room in Peckham. But as harvest time approaches once more I realise that what sailboat transport offers alongside its pollution free, community supporting shipping is its rational sense of timescale. Today, all too quickly our desires are sated at the expense of the planet. Half frozen avocados flown in within a day or two of picking, “extra virgin” olive oil available all year round even though this year’s European wide harvest has already been consumed.
A cargo sailed by boat may take months to arrive as opposed to days by lorry but how much more special is that delivery upon its docking? How much more exciting? How much cleaner and safer? If time really does equal money then any cargo embarking on its adventure across the sea is a rich one indeed and one that I will continue to pursue.
William Uden, along with his friend Ilias Panagiotakopoulos make extra virgin oil in Peloponnese, Greece. https://www.aeithalis.co.uk/