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Hurtigruten's eco-friendly "Sea Zero" concept ship could be a near-term reality (Rendering: Hurtigruten)

This is What the Cruise Ship of the Future Could Look Like

Hurtigruten's eco-friendly "Sea Zero" concept ship could be a near-term reality (Rendering: Hurtigruten)
Jorge Oliver
Executive Editor, U.S.
Chris Gray Faust

Last updated
Sep 27, 2023

Read time
4 min read

Cruise ships with sails? The winds of change may be blowing in that direction.

As the cruise industry continues to search for alternatives to reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions in the near future, one of the answers to cleaner cruising may lie in wind-powered technology.

Several cruise companies are exploring wind-powered sail assist technology as an option for their ships.

First, Norwegian coastal cruise and expedition company Hurtigruten has recently unveiled early-concept plans for what they hope can become the world's most energy-efficient cruise ship. The French line Ponant has followed, announcing that they are also working on a net neutral carbon emissions cruise ship.

Is it reality, or science-fiction? In truth, greener cruising could be closer than we think.

Hurtigruten's 'Sea Zero' Provides a Possible Blueprint for Emission-Free Marine Travel

Hurtigruten's "Sea Zero" concept uses sail-assist technology to reduce emissions and fuel consumption. (Rendering: Hurtigruten)

Hurtigruten's plan for its first zero-emission ship -- currently dubbed "Sea Zero" -- began in March 2022. After a year of research, the Norwegian cruise company has shared its progress. 

Equipped with batteries that charge while the vessel is in port, the future ships will be largely electric, combining 60-megawatt hour battery solutions with wind-powered technology. The Sea Zero ships would feature retractable sails with solar panels, artificial intelligence maneuvering, contra-rotating propellers, and multiple retractable thrusters. Additional technologies include air lubrication, advanced hull coatings, and proactive hull cleaning to reduce drag and toxicity.

According to Hurtigruten, the three retractable, autonomous wing rigs will comprise 16,146 square feet of solar panels and a total wind surface of 8,073 square feet. When fully extended, the rigs would reach a maximum height of 164 ft.

Current models of Hurtigruten's zero-emission ship call for a vessel that's 443 feet long, with 270 cabins that can accommodate roughly 500 guests. The new ship is also expected to have significant cargo space and be able to transport cars -- a necessity on the line's coastal voyages, which still function as a sort of pseudo cruise-ferry service for locals. The plan also includes developing new technology to reduce the energy consumption of onboard hotel operations by 50%.

Hurtigruten's "Sea Zero" plan is still very much in the early concept stage. No ship has yet been ordered by the Norwegian cruise company, and renderings of the futuristic-looking vessel remain just that: a concept.

Ponant Unveils its Swap Zero Project

Rendering of Ponant's SwapZero project (Photo/Chris Gray Faust)

The French line Ponant is also looking at incorporating sails and wind power, along with other technologies, into what it is calling the cruise industry's first zero emission ship.

The Swap Zero project is an acronym that stands for Sustainable Wind Assisted Propulsion Zero Emission Ready. It's being led up by Mathieu Petiteau, the line's new builds and R&D director who brought Ponant's innovative icebreaker Le Commandant Charcot to life.

At a September 2023 event at the Explorers Club in New York, Petiteau said the line has ambitious plans to have an as-yet-unnamed 190-passenger ship built by 2030. A rendering of the ship showed six sails on a 611-foot vessel with 95 cabins, 3 restaurants, a detox bar, a wellness cafe and a spa.

A variety of sustainable fuel initiatives would operate the ship, Petiteau said. While the idea is to have the ship run on wind power at least 50% of the time, the vessel would also have liquid hydrogen fuel cells and solar power, and also batteries that could be recharged at shore.

The goal of the company is to have a ship that can be autonomous for an entire month at zero carbon emissions, Petiteau said.

Building such a ship costs 30% more than a regular cruise ship, but Ponant is playing the long game when it comes to costs, Petiteau said, as he outlined a future with skyrocking fossil fuel expenses.

Plotting where a ship that relies on wind power alone is also tricky, as itineraries have to be centered on destinations with reliable trade winds.

But neither Ponant or Hurtigruten's projects are that far-fetched. In fact, cargo and ferry operators are already exploring wind power as a way to move the maritime industry forward.

Cargo Lines Have Been Developing Similar Technology

Other marine transportation companies have developed and introduced similar systems.

Japanese shipping company Mitsui O.S.K Lines (MOL) introduced a hard sail wind power propulsion system in 2022. The sail, dubbed Wind Challenger, debuted on the company's coal carrier Shofu Maru, and helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 5% on a Japan-Australia voyage and by 8% on a Japan-North America West Coast voyage.

Similarly, Swedish shipping company Wallenius is working on Oceanbird, a new ship model with wing sails that could reduce emissions by 90%. And French company Zephyr & Borée built Canopée, a 400-foot-long cargo ship fitted with four articulated sails.

Ferry operators in Europe have also experimented with wind power. Viking Line (no relation to Viking Cruises) installed a "rotor-sail" aboard their Viking Grace ferry in 2021. Though it won't win any design awards, the tall cylinder enabled the line to reduce their emissions by 900 tons per year and saved 300 tons per year of Liquefied Natural Gas, or LNG -- the fuel on which Viking Grace is powered.

Could Cruise Lines Use Sail Technology? Some Already Are.

Cruise companies like Star Clippers are already rely on sail technology (Photo: Star Clippers)

Passengers looking for a greener alternative to big-ship cruising might be surprised to learn that a handful of cruise lines already embrace sail technology -- and have for some time.

Cruise companies like Star Clippers and Sea Cloud only have sail-powered vessels in their fleets. They use their engines as little as possible and design their itineraries around known trade winds to maximize this energy source.

Windstar Cruises also has three sailing yachts in its fleet -- Wind Star, Wind Surf and Wind Spirit -- further providing options for travelers who seek wind-powered cruising alternatives.

Publish date June 08, 2023
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