In Support of Grassroot Experiments; Apollonia

Maritime transportation takes advantage of huge economies of scale, but it was not always that way. Even quite recently there were many maritime ventures in the United States that operated on quite a small scale and in certain places in the world maritime transportation still takes place on very small scales down to the canoe level.

Economies of scale are a complex subject. While the per pound, or per passenger, costs go down with economies of scale, almost inevitably there is something or someone that is left behind. In the past there was a strong connection between maritime at large and the public, but today, due to these economy of scale efficiencies, that connection has been mostly lost.

Our waterways inherently have low greenhouse gas emission characteristics, which makes it worthwhile to revisit waterborne transportation on smaller scales too, but the disconnect between the public and our waterways has made it difficult to ensure that we establish a lasting re-connection.

Moreover, since technology, commerce and society change constantly, what was once an optimized economy of scale may today lumber along by sheer momentum while new opportunities at smaller scales are attractive, but don’t develop because they cannot be seen in the large lumbering picture.

There is so much change in maritime recently that I have become very much interested in an experiment that is unfolding along the Hudson River that is working on the smallest scale.

That project is called Apollonia. Apollonia is the experimental revival of sail freight along the Hudson River. Apollonia is a 64 feet 10 ton schooner operated by dedicated maritime experimentalists in an effort to shift cargoes from fossil fuel driven vessels and vehicles to sustainable energy driven vessels.

In the simplest terms, it is sail transportation along the Hudson. That is inherently slow and labor intensive, which would seem unattractive as compared to fossil fuel driven cargo transportation along the Hudson River.

However, that is a flawed comparison because today there is no cargo transportation along the Hudson River. There is some cargo transportation in and out of the Hudson River, but not along the Hudson River. There used to be massive cargo transportation along the Hudson River, but that has been taken over by trucks. There are trains that run along the Hudson River, but they do not distribute cargo along the river. While trains are also quite efficient, they have their own disadvantages such as being stuck to a fixed track.

Appollonia is doing cargo distribution along both sides of the Hudson River as far south as New Jersey and as far North as the start of the New York State Canals. This is a two-way neighborhood cargo distribution system that aims at zero emissions.

Apollonia is sail powered, which on the Hudson (actually named Mahicantuck; the river that flows both ways) means she is actually sail and tide powered. The typical average voyage speed with wind and tide is three knots, which is slow but also quite impressive for sail power and, if speed is not required, it is perfectly fine for cargo on boats that don’t burn any fuel.

So far, Apolonia has sailed 11 round trips with cargo from Hudson to New York City and has delivered 110,000 pounds of cargo on those trips. There is a wide variety of cargo, often quite small parcels, but real cargo all the same, such as malted barley for microbreweries, pumpkins, maple syrup, mushroom logs, beer, cider, solar panels, coffee beans, flour, honey, condiments and mead. Right now, there is more downriver cargo than upriver cargo, but that is just a matter of finding the right cargo to go upriver. For example, I would like to see my local Monmouth County elixer, Laird’s Applejack, carried upriver at zero emissions.

The vessel’s arrival at what is presently amounting to 20 different ports is becoming a community event and the focus of the repurposing of neglected community waterfronts to serve as recreational, commerce, tourism and educational hotspots. The community event character is growing into a waterfront market situation where the vessel is also selling cargo on the dock; a famous river trade tradition.

In its present guise, Apollonia uses a diesel engine to maneuver the vessel to the berth, but the crew is extremely parsimonious with the use of diesel and, at present, fuel consumption is 3 gallons for a 250+ mile voyage. She is actually an excellent candidate for solar powered electric drive to make the vessel zero carbon, and some design work in that regard is underway.

Moreover, the dedicated Apollonia team also focuses on zero emission door to door distribution, where they even carry a solar powered ebike and trailer, and will deliver cargo only to EV’s for further inland distribution.

At first glance this may be regarded as a cute tree huggy idealistic money loser, but as a dyed in the wool (wool and dyes is good potential cargo for this trade) steely eyed transportation engineer, I am seeing something else.

This is actually a low cost grass roots effort that, with modest support, can crack something that we have not been able to do with prior substantial government subsidies for river borne trade development.

Apollonia is cracking the chickens and eggs problem for river born trade. River borne trade requires two things: Vessels to carry cargo, and many places to pick up and deliver cargo along a route. Neither exist and one cannot function without the other. Therefore, we need both at the same time.

This is a difficult proposition and to date we have tried to solve it with big vessels between big ports (Big tug and container barges between New York and Albany). At that scale the chickens and eggs are too unwieldy and basically invisible to the general public at large. In effect, the chickens don’t get their feet on the ground and the eggs don’t hatch.

Apollonia is making a difference and is at a stage where stronger financial support is required.

It needs to be emphasized that while this all looks like a return to 19th century technology, it is not. New technologies such as the internet are shifting the base 19th technology into a viable 21st century technology. There is no Amazon (basically a 19th century Sears style store) without the internet and there is no Doordash without the internet.

M&O is supporting this technology experiment and we hope that other industry stakeholders will join in.

This experiment has already resulted in incredible insights that we are happy to share but take too much space to list here. Apollonia is data driven, and what impresses us most is the excellent cost, environmental, cargo and commercial data that Apollonia is generating. While the project feels grassroots; it is actually closer to a NASA program on a tiny scale.

Our present support focuses on developing the micro cargoes that are available along the river.

Apollonia aims to achieve this by enabling their logistics manager/cargo broker/supercargo to take on this task as a full time employee to the project. We know the person who has done this part time, and based on his track record so far, he is the magic bullet that will enhance port access and the flow of cargo to a level where additional vessels will need to be considered. While his talents warrant a very large salary, his passion for the project forces him to accept a small salary and the goal is to fund that salary through industry contributions.

At M&O, we provide occasional support to pure charities, but more often we provide support to efforts that we consider to be excellent bang for our buck in improving our industry and society at large.

Apollonia provides a unique opportunity for our industry and society at large for the following reasons:

  1. 1. Any river trade development is a benefit to our industry, whether in port development, cargo development, tourism development or recreational development. Apollonia is the trailblazer for this development.
  2. 2. Our industry is aching for dedicated young professionals, but young people cannot be attracted to an industry if they have no contact with the industry. Apollonia is the fun, low stress, entry point to our industry for young people.
  3. 3. Sustainability in maritime is incredibly complex, and solutions requires experiments. As Master Yoda says: “There is no try, there is only do” and Apollonia is doing.
  4. 4. While economies of scale reduce cost, cost is only a small part of happiness. Community is another major factor in happiness, and Apollonia is creating and reconnecting communities that often have been left by the wayside due to economies of scale. This is not charity; this is quality of life and sustainability for everyone.

To get a better idea of the operations check out Apollonia’s cargo manifest:

The Port of New York and the Hudson River made history time and time again such as with the Half Moon in 1608, the Onrust in 1614, Fulton’s North River Steamboat in 1807, and Pete Seeger’s Clearwater in 1969, maybe Apollonia will add the next chapter and here is a chance to be part of history.

Other maritime stakeholders are joining us in support of this project and soon I will provide the full list.