Sailing the Aegean Sustainably—Just Like the Ancients Did

Wind-powered tall ships might seem like a throwback, but they offer the travel industry a roadmap to the future of cruising.
Sailing the Aegean Sustainably—Just Like the Ancients Did
Star Clippers

Tall sailing ships seem to turn back the clock, evoking a bygone time when merchants, admirals, and pirates ruled the seas. Wildly evocative, with billowing white sails overhead and hulls directed toward points unknown, their dynamic form captures not only the wind, but the imagination.

Star Clippers’ four-masted Star Flyer most certainly captured mine. I huddled on its deck with fellow fledgling seafarers on a balmy August evening this past summer, readying to be blown about the Aegean as we sailed, truly sailed, out of the Greek port of Piraeus. Watching the ship’s crew hoist the first of its 16 sails, I began to spiral down the helix of my Hellenic DNA, imagining how my paternal ancestors—who hailed from the Greek isles of Syros and Zakynthos—must have likewise navigated these seas over centuries, praying for the favor of the Anemoi, the wind gods of Greek mythology. With Vangelis’s stirring “Conquest of Paradise” piping through the ship's speakers, starlight piercing the night sky, the unfurling of some 36,000 square feet of sails was inspiring. It was romantic. It was transporting. But most of all, it was necessary.

As Greece reels from a series of devastating wildfires (some of which required mass tourist evacuations from cruise port darling Rhodes in July), and recovers from its longest heat wave on record, traveling to the country this summer came with a new call to responsibility. Was there a way to explore the Greek isles without adding to the impact of an escalating climate crisis? I thought back to the way goods and people used to travel: by sea and by sail. Indeed, sometimes, when it comes to sustainability, what’s old is new again.

That adage is especially true in Greece. With its string of jewel-like islands beckoning travelers with attractive beaches and ancient culture, it’s no wonder this is cruise country. Nearly a third of the world’s cruise ships carrying over four million passengers called on the Greek islands last year—and that’s just a fraction of the more than 30 million cruise passengers that sail the seven seas annually. But the cruise industry comes with a dirty underbelly, tied to rampant waste production, port overtourism, and carbon emissions generated by the heavy fuel oil (HFO), or bunker fuel, that cruise ships primarily use.

“Bunker fuel is pretty much the dirtiest type of transportation fuel,” explains Dr. Mark Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy program at Stanford University, and author of No Miracles Needed: How Today’s Technology Can Save Our Climate and Clean Our Air.

Like the ship itself, the elegant staterooms aboard Star Clippers' Star Flyer evoke a bygone era.

Star Clippers

Today, the maritime industry—including cruise and cargo ships—is behind nearly 3% of annual greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Yet heightening environmental maritime regulations and cruise line commitments to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 have pushed the industry to explore and develop decarbonization technologies like battery and hydrogen electric, as well as the millennia-old, cost-effective, and ready-right-now technology of sails and wind power—an approach that, in turn, is powering a small but growing segment of the cruise industry.

“It’s so nice to have that feeling of how they were sailing in the past,” Star Flyer’s affable Croatian captain, Ante Basisca, tells me one afternoon as we chat in the ship's piano bar. With just 166 passengers, Star Flyer, modeled after a 19th-century clipper ship, isn't a conventional cruise ship. There’s no Broadway-style entertainment or thumping night club; rather, it's a laid-back, nautical atmosphere, where teak decks, polished brass, and clipper ship paintings abound. Most of my waking moments onboard are spent lounging by a small saltwater pool up on deck, under the sweeping canopy of canvas, or navigating around the riggers and booms and coils of rope. In my more adventurous moments, I climb out to the bowsprit net at the ship’s bow, listening to the lapping waves while suspended above the open sea below; another day, I have a go at clamoring up the rigging of the 50-foot-high mast up to the crow’s nest. Bobbing along with brilliant blue skies and firm breezes, the rocky shorelines of dreamy isles giving way to fiery sunsets, it’s easy to live out nautical fantasies of old.

And then, of course, there are the environmental advantages: “No emission. No gas. Nothing,” Basisca tells me. On our weeklong cruise, he says, we were able to operate solely on sails just about 30% of the time, citing obstacles like headwinds, and the need to get to port on schedule. While some smaller sailing companies rely more fully on a where-the-wind-takes-you approach, with no set route or cruising speeds, larger tall ship lines like Star Clippers have itineraries to keep. For our voyage, that translated to a sails-only run lasting some 19 hours on the way to the first port call, Rhodes, with a good portion of the remainder of the sailing powered by a combination of wind and engine power.

“We can sail under wind power up to 80% of the time on any given itinerary, so from a sustainability perspective this significantly reduces the amount of time we need to use the engine and burn fuel,” explains Terri Haas, VP of Sales and Marketing for Star Clippers North America. Beyond the sails, says Haas, Star Clippers’ smaller-capacity ships translate to other notable sustainability pluses, too, like minimized waste production and “less overtourism, which is important to maintaining the integrity of the small ports our ships visit.”

The ancient port of Piraeus, in Athens, Greece

Melvyn Longhurst/Alamy

Monaco-based Star Clippers is one of a handful of established tall sailing ship companies—along with players like Island Windjammers and Sea Cloud Cruises—that are leaning into the sustainability of these sailing ships, adding it to their longstanding lures of adventure and romance. A fresh crop of next-generation, sail-equipped ships is now also in the pipeline from cruise lines like Orient Express, Hurtigruten, and Ponant.

Realistically, experts like Jacobson see such hybrid models as the most practical application for wind power on ships, with wind ideally supporting emergent, clean-energy battery- and hydrogen-based technologies.

For a more fully wind-powered vacation, Captain Basisca tells me to consider sailing the Caribbean next, with its more reliable trade winds. But he notes that climate change has made tracking the wind anywhere more challenging. “In the past, it was easier to predict the wind and weather. Now everything has really changed,” he says. If I listen closely to the whispers of the Anemoi, I hear it: We as travelers need to embrace the winds of change in how we travel, too.