In February 2020 Antarctica hit an unthinkable record temperature of 20.75 degrees Celsius, rivalling that of an average (summer) June day in London. Brazilian scientists conducting research from Seymour Island in western Antarctica, described this new record as “incredible and abnormal”.

As global warming and its consequences render life increasingly precarious for multiple species, including us humans, the reality of this fact is finally, albeit reluctantly, entering mainstream consciousness. International school strikes, massive demonstrations, civil disobedience by law-abiding citizens have made headlines that are hard to miss. And while our governments and mega-corporations are still failing both at national and global levels, citizens and small businesses are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.

Yet, what is beneath the radar of most climate activists, and definitely the public at large, is one of the most polluting and prolific industries in the world – the shipping industry. 90% of what we use in our everyday lives in the West at least, has been transported by cargo ship. The carbon emissions in one year from fifteen of the largest container ships in the world are an eye-watering equivalent to those emitted by the entire automobile industry in the same period.

Rightly, the aviation industry is under pressure for its 2% contribution to global carbon emissions. The shipping industry contributes 3.5 %, using the lowest grade fuel in the entire transport industry. So, it was in tiny Costa Rica, a model society in terms of how deeply it has embraced environmental awareness, that 3rd Space interviewed Danielle Doggett, co- founder of Ceiba, a project tackling this Goliath amongst polluting industries by building a carbonless freight ship – the largest traditional sailing cargo ship being built in the world – a prototype for the future of shipping.

Accustomed to the ‘siloing’ of climate protest, social justice, political engagement, ‘green’ technology, and new economics, as we drove to the Ceiba’s home on a rented plot of land in a beautiful but poor area of CR, we had no idea how comprehensive in its vision and values this company would turn out to be. Not just a ‘cool’ project in an exotic location, the deeper we dived into the story of Ceiba, the more impressed we were by the holistic vision and mission of its founders – forging a sustainability that clearly embraces social, economic, and environmental aspects both at local and global levels. 

3rd Space: Welcome to 3rd Space.

Ceiba: Thank you very much for having me here, I’m really excited to be part of it.

3rd Space: Can you tell us what inspired you to take on this project, and the history behind it?

Ceiba: It definitely came from my early experiences at thirteen sailing on the Great Lakes in Canada. My grandmother signed me up for a summer camp where we went sailing on a little Tall Ship for eight days. She sent me there to get a different kind of experience. I loved it, so I stayed with that program throughout high school. It was designed so that you volunteer all summers and weekends, and in return they trained you. So when I got through high school, I had been well trained as a navigator and sailor on this little Tall Ship in the Great Lakes.  From there I just went out into the world and continued sailing, as well as my education in Norco College and other places. Then, in 2010, in the Dominican Republic, I stepped on board the ‘Tres Hombres’, an engineless sailing cargo ship from the Netherlands. And that’s where I met Lynx 10 years ago.

3rd Space: Lynx is the co-founder of Ceiba?

Ceiba:  Yes. On my second day in DR, we loaded up eighteen thousand bottles of rum, and sailed it back to Europe. I continued working for them for almost three years. Between long stretches of sailing, working in their office, and going to school, this company really took my passion for sailing and gave it a purpose and direction.

Prior to this I did a lot of sailing, training, and races – fun stuff; but this didn’t connect me with the purpose I experienced when I sailed cargo emissions-free. It’s a statement. And this resonated with me. I worked for some other sailing cargo companies and began writing business plans. I got fascinated with the numbers side of things because I saw they weren’t always balancing. These companies were succeeding in being inspirational, but they were not really succeeding in the classical sense of where they’re making money. And to me that was interesting, because this was almost every single person’s first question when discussing emission-free shipping. I’m not saying that this should be the first question, but it was. It didn’t feel right to say the numbers aren’t balancing, and it didn’t feel like it had to be that way. So, I started diving pretty deep into learning about business, reading books, talking to accountants and people who understood finance. I interviewed as many people as I could and proceeded to write business plans.  

I was doing this when Lynx sent out an email to our FB friend group saying, “Hey! guys, we’ve always talked about building a boat … so are we going to do it, or not?” I responded immediately – “Yes! and I would like to do the numbers part. I have everything ready for this”. This is what I was waiting for. So Lynx brought the technical and construction aspect and, at least in the beginning phase, I was able to bring the numbers aspect. This balanced really well.

3rd Space: I can see why this combination is important if Ceiba is not just to be a one-off project, but a template for others.

Ceiba: Yes. In many ways we are similar to other inspirational companies out there because we are tiny compared to the largest commercial ships. But if we can be a for-profit company that satisfies not only the financial, but also the environmental and social aspects of shipping, we can take those numbers and put them on the desk of Maersk [largest shipping company in the world]. We want to be able to say, “We might be small, but we do everything the same as you, and look at our numbers – we are carbon negative and we are socially responsible”. 

Dani, the co-founder of Ceiba

3rd Space:  Can you say a bit about the shipping industry itself? Within environmental movements in Europe, people are very focused on the aviation industry, for obvious reasons, but shipping rarely comes up. In fact, someone recently said to me that they were planning to take a ship – a cargo ship – to Durban, to avoiding flying.

Ceiba: Oh, That’s funny!

3rd Space: I read, later, that shipping contributes 3-4% of all carbon emissions compared to the already large, 2% of the aviation industry. I began to question the assumption that marine travel, unless by sail boat, is the ‘green’ alternative people think it is. Can you speak a bit about this?

Ceiba: Since being asked this question about the shipping industry before, especially in comparison to the aviation industry, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are parts that are comparable and parts that aren’t.  At the end of the day, and I am not an authority on the aviation industry, essentially the aviation industry is a “terrestrial” mode of transport. That means it’s regulated in the same way that a car or a truck is, versus the shipping industry, which is largely operating outside of territorial waters. So they don’t play by the same rules.  

3rd Space: That’s interesting. 

Ceiba: There are those who support the concept of ‘economy of scale’ in this debate. Some go as far as to say that per item it takes more carbon to drive to the store to get your groceries, then it does for an ocean liner to cross the ocean to deliver those items in bulk.  Therefore, you shouldn’t worry about buying local because the emissions are so low that you can buy anything from anywhere. In other words, per item your car emits more than the boat!

3rd Space:  Wow!

Ceiba: Yes, that sort of thinking is challenging. In response I say, ‘okay, there is economy of scale, I’m not going to argue about how much carbon is associated with an apple’. But if you look at fuel quality it’s a very different picture. When you put fuel into your car, whether it’s gasoline or diesel, it’s clear. It’s relatively free of visible impurities. Aviation fuel is more refined still. Aviation fuel, jet fuel, as far as I know, has the highest level of refinement of any fuel.  It is the cleanest fuel in the world in terms of the transportation industry.

Entrance to the Ceiba shipyard

Ships, on the other hand, are at the opposite end of the spectrum – they use the dirtiest fuel – the least refined of anything we burn.  It’s like black bitumen tar. They require a secondary engine to heat it up, so that it’s liquid enough to actually use. At cold temperatures they say you can walk on it! To get the picture, think what happens if you put dirty diesel into your car….

So, when people ask me about the aviation industry, I say – Yes, it’s a polluting industry, but if the marine industry cleaned up their fuel – making it even 1% more refined – think how much that could make a difference. Think of the black carbon that just wouldn’t be here anymore. I say, stop burning a by-product of your own oil industry. Many shipping companies own oil platforms. It’s an often-quoted fact that 15 of the largest cargo ships emit more sulphur, heavy carbon, and nitrous oxides than every single car in the world combined. So, if those 15 ships burn cleaner fuel, just think about that….

3rd Space:  It’s huge!

Ceiba: Sulphur dioxides are the cause of acid rain*. Heavy black carbon is regarded as lethal on land.

3rd Space:  It’s amazing to think that if those ships were on land….

Ceiba: Exactly… it would never be allowed. And it shouldn’t be allowed that just because you are ‘big’, you can be dirty. So, the part that you can compare is the fuel that’s being used. But there is also the social aspect. There is very active, very real modern day slavery happening on board many of these ships. The conditions, pay, contracts are literally slave contracts. If you ask any airline attendant – is she or he working on a slave contract?  The answer is No. Maybe they have bad hours but there are reports of ship workers having to drink water mixed with sea water for days.

3rd Space: Wow! Because of lack of regulations? 

Ceiba:  Yes, although it does depend on the flags. If you register a vessel out of countries like the UK or Canada, there are standards for pay and social conditions. That’s why many vessels tend to register in countries without such standards. 

3rd Space:  There’s no international standards?

Ceiba:  No, there’s no police force for the middle of the ocean.

Looking at the plans with Lynx, Ceiba’s co-founder

3rd Space: In terms of the project itself, Dani, why Costa Rica as your base?

Ceiba: Initially it was Links’ suggestion. He had lived here. But our Friends Group considered other places, especially those close to wood sources we would be using, so we wouldn’t have to transport. But we also needed to work all year around. Canada gets very cold! Since coming here, the reasons why this makes it the best possible home for this project have become clearer.  Costa Rica has amongst the best ship building lumber in the world, and it also protects it. It has some of the strongest forestry laws in the world. It’s one of the only countries where the national forest is expanding every year, rather than decreasing in size.

There’s also no army. It’s a very peaceful country, which is wonderful. Something we support and appreciate very much. It’s also the environmental mind-set of the people here. Costa Rica is 99% carbon neutral, or carbon-free, in terms of the power provided to the people. And I think it’s third, after Iceland and Switzerland, in terms of being the ‘greenest’ country in the world. Being a small country and a rapidly ‘improving’ country, the government is very supportive of green businesses. There are business incubators, and I’ve actually met the president! [smiles]. Costa Ricans are excited about new green technologies in their country.

3rd Space:  It’s striking how much pride and care local people have for the environment – their forests and wildlife. It’s interesting in terms of considering what “progressive” really means.  

Ceiba: I think the identity of a lot of Costa Rican people is shaped by their environment, and they shape the environment as well. It’s really beautiful.

3rd Space: In terms of your team here, you mentioned 50% are from Costa Rica?

Ceiba:  Our goal is 50% from Latin America, so we have people in our community from Nicaragua and other places. 

3rd Space: How do they find out about the project?

Ceiba:  Word of mouth primarily – through people’s networks, schools, different channels. I posted a small job offering with a drone shot of the shipyard on a WhatsApp group with about a hundred and twenty members. I got six applications that day! I realized WhatsApp is the way to reach Costa Ricans! [laughs]. The people from Costa Rica who work here are our friends, or from our local community, our neighbours.  

3rd Space:  And where else do you get people coming from?

Ceiba:  Our team is amazing. We’ve had around a 180 people participate in this project from over 25 different countries, and we’ve contributed around 70,000 hours to date, since 2016. We have had people from Canada, Europe and also as far as Chile, Argentina, Australia, South Africa and Madagascar. There’s a lot of interest from Russian ship builders but we haven’t had one yet [smiles]. Soon we will be welcoming someone from Zimbabwe.  

3rd Space: The big question – particularly when you first decided to pursue this project – how do you get the financing to start? 

Ceiba:  This is estimated to be a $4.2 million USD project. Between Links and I, we had about $10,000 Canadian on our credit cards. For some reason that didn’t intimidate us… I’m not really sure why. So, we used all that money – that ‘huge’ amount of money [smiles] – to put into planning, lay the ground work and do some really low-finance things like the business plan. We then visited different sites so we could say [to potential funders] that we had done that level of research. We worked really hard to build up our foundation and our credibility, and then when we were ready, we used 45% of our money on a Kick-starter video. This was a huge amount of work, and a huge risk. But we succeeded in getting $30,000 in one month, and that money was used for registering the company, for paying initial lawyer’s fees. We also bought a truck, although I don’t think we had even started renting land! Registering the company was important, as it set us up to be able to sell shares.

Since then we’ve accepted investment as a for-profit company. Part of that initial $30,000 was also used for market research. This was really hard for me, and I think also for Links, because we were sailors and wood workers! But we were told: ‘You have got to do research!’. We spent so much time and so much money on this I thought it was probably a waste of both. But it added enormous credibility. I am now really happy we did that. 

3rd Space: So investment is still your source of funding?

Ceiba:  Yes, it is.

3rd Space: Do you ever accept donations?

Ceiba: Actually, the building we are currently in has been paid for by donation because recently we opened up a non-profit association. This arose from seeing other things in the local community that we wanted to do. We want to make a difference here,but we didn’t feel this was justified to fund with investor money.

3rd Space:  I see. Can you say a bit more about what you’re doing in the non-profit?

Ceiba: The non-profit is very young. We have received a few donations, including one for this building, which is an educational centre designed for courses focusing on small boat building. We offer other things too like tool making and woodworking. This year we are trying to allocate more resources to the non-profit, and also facilitate funding for the local community. This is one of the poorest regions in the whole country.  

I want to make education and money available so that people here can do the things they want to do with their lives. There’s a lot of entrepreneurial-spirited people here, and I know that if they have a plan, and if we can help them just refine their plan a little, they would create businesses. 

3rd Space:  You must be well regarded in the local area? 

Ceiba:  Yes, there is a lot of warm feeling. One of the main things we want to do this year is to buy the shipyard. We currently lease the land. Once we own it, we could do so much more, and increase ways to support the community longer term. 

3rd Space: It would seem there are a lot of different skills needed, a lot of labour, and a lot of very specific knowledge? Does this come from your network, people you know?

Ceiba: You definitely hit the nail on the head that we have a lot of requirements, including very specific skill sets. This is one reason why we feel comfortable bringing people in from outside of the area. Being someone who has volunteered for a decade of my life, I’m very aware that volunteers can have a positive, and at times a negative impact on communities, where they can take jobs away from local people. We’re hypersensitive to this. The skill-sets needed do not yet exist here. To answer your question, initially it was through my and Links personal networks. I think we put up one post, and I reposted this in twenty languages. Other than this, we’ve never solicited workers to come here. On Monday morning I’m supposed to go through a new round of applications. There’s a hundred CV’s that we are considering.

3rd Space: That’s amazing! It shows what an impact you are having, that people want to be part of such a revolutionary project with such far-reaching potential.  In terms of the point you made about being sensitive to bringing in volunteers, are Ceiba’s education programs linked to the specific skills you need, or will need?

Ceiba: Yes. We have completed two carbon-free boat building courses so far, and also blacksmithing courses. If somebody really excels, and if we can buy the shipyard, they would have a job here. 

3rd Space:  So you are building a community of ship builders? [laughs]

Ceiba: Exactly! If we are able to succeed with Ceiba, and get more contracts to build ships, this is all just going to grow. There are other opportunities as well. For example, connecting with more affluent communities, we could build smaller versions of Ceiba, but a little fancier, and then sell to those markets here in Costa Rica. This would be a way to inject a lot of income into this community.

Interviewer: Brilliant! Your vision then, is a long-term sustainable community?

Ceiba: That’s the idea.

Experimental housing structures!

3rd Space: Can we go a little more into the specifics of the materials you use – predominantly sustainably sourced wood. Some would question the long-range sustainability of this?  Obviously tree planting plays a key role, but how does this work in terms of forest regrowth, maintaining forest biodiversity that develops over time?  

Ceiba: This is very important to us. We are advocates of visionary forest management plans, and that’s how we choose to be culturally and environmentally sensitive. We work very carefully to source from suppliers with long-term plans. This is how we select our wood and show that it’s sustainable. But does that mean we believe that forests are better off managed by people? No. What I do believe is that human-managed forests, selectively logged, can really provide sustainable regenerative building materials that are organic. I also believe that a lot of forest should not be touched, old growth forests should not be touched.

So we do cut trees that are planted by farmers on a small scale, personal plantation level. And we have a tree planting scheme. We’ve planted around three thousand trees so far in the name of Ceiba, and we plan to plant twelve thousand by the time she’s sailing. We also have a 10% Green Actions Fund, so we are going to be giving back 10% of profits into green actions like tree planting. 

3rd Space: Looking to the future, do you see this as a scale-able model to achieve a carbon-free shipbuilding industry? Would this not depend on large scale forest plantations? I can see how this works well with a single project. But to scale up, how do you envision that working? 

Ceiba:  I would say, Yes, this would require plantations. But before I came to Costa Rica I used to think of ‘plantations’ as a mono crop – bad, large etc.  Here, I’ve learned that plantations can mean ‘planted’ in a lot of ways – on personal land, on corporate land. It doesn’t mean large evil mono-crops devouring natural forests.

For us, it could definitely mean our own managed forest, and planted trees. I would love to buy a barren field and reforest that with a sustainable long-term vision. On a larger scale, we could see cattle fields and mono-crops transformed into land that made money to protect itself.

3rd Space:  Yes! 

Ceiba:  That could be a wonderful aspect of this. I see wood as one of the only real regenerative sustainable building materials that we have. There are other materials such as woody plant fibres that I don’t know much about, and those would be in the same category. But if you look at the steel used to build ships today, that industry starts by deforesting, then goes into mining, then into refinement with issues like contamination of water etc. 

3rd Space:  Yes, it’s a cycle of environmental degradation. 

Ceiba: One of my favourite things we did this year was go to Haida Gwaii. In 1985 there was a logging protest that happened at Haida Gwaii. It’s an island halfway between Vancouver Island and Alaska; formerly Queen Charlotte Island. It’s essentially a sovereign native-owned area that has stood up to logging in a huge way. They’ve signed a land-use order and agreements that, as far as I know, are some of the most sophisticated, giving most of the power to the community. Actually Canada and Haida nation agree to disagree on who owns the land [smiles]. The forest is called the Taan Forest, or Bear Forest, and the Haida nation have a thousand year-old land forest management plan. They never cut old growth forest and have many traditional sustainable practices. 

3rd Space:  A thousand years! That’s incredibly impressive.

Ceiba:  It’s essentially for the rest of time because the oldest trees are a thousand years old.

That is where we are getting our masts. We want to make that our northern home port. The population is declining, jobs are leaving. It’s partially due to unsustainable lumber practices. We are excited about learning from them with their 1000-year management plan, and also sharing with them. Maybe there’s a way we can work together to keep jobs up there. They have an incredible tradition of boat building that has survived – just barely – which could be revived.

3rd Space: You mentioned your routes would be primarily the Americas? 

Ceiba::  At the moment it’s Central America, Mexico, up to Canada. But there could be a chance to go to Peru and the Galapagos. In the future there are many possible routes.

 3rd Space: And in terms of the cargo, what would this include? 

Ceiba:  So, northbound up to Canada and the US is easy. Costa Rica has all the products that they could ever want – coffee, rum, vanilla, chocolate, turmeric, coconut milk, coconut oil, avocado oil, the list goes on …so many amazing products. But finding products to come back has been more challenging, but not impossible.  There’s an interest in barley for a new beer market here. And there is a zero import tax on electric vehicles, whereas other vehicles can have up to 80% tax. People want electric bicycles and similar products in keeping with the environmental mind-set. A lot of communities, on their own initiative, are shifting away from plastic, styrofoam etc and using bio-packaging. But they are frustrated because this is shipped with a heavy oil stain all over it.

This year we’re initiating our Cargo Intention Campaign. If we can get 20 times more demand for cargo in signed letters-of-intent, this will fund more boats. Ideally we are looking for clients who share the same values. Some shipping companies will only transport products derived from organic fair-trade. When people ask me about this, I say, “load up the tires”. I would love for all products to be in line with our values, but our mission is to inspire change in the shipping industry as a whole. Our ship ‘rocks’ and people really need rocks [literally] moved. Our ship can move those rocks emissions-free. That’s the point!

3rd Space: You are out to change the system, right?

Ceiba:  Yes. Actually, I went from “we should transport the best premium, most expensive five hundred year old pure…” to barley. This is not for the 1%. I want shipping to be emissions-free for everyone.  Make transport affordable. Ship it, then people can buy it… and it’s a proved concept. 

3rd Space: What you are doing is revolutionizing a transport system. It makes me think of the cruise ship industry which also uses dirty fuel. Do you see the Ceiba template as being transferrable to cruise ships?

Ceiba: Yes, without a doubt! We are focused on being a carbon-less cargo transportation company, but the application for cruise, or transporting people, is very high. I worked for a company in Iceland called North Sailing. Their sailboat is silent and emissions- free. They have the prototype of the engine we’re going to put in. From Iceland to Greenland they do whale watching from a sailing ship that’s makes no noise. There’s no bio-acoustic pollution, no diesel. It’s electric with sails, so you’re not disturbing the whales…. a richer experience for all. 

3rd Space: People have to know about these options. There is so little known even about the role the shipping industry plays in our lives.

Ceiba:  Ninety-percent of everything you own has been shipped in an ocean liner.

3rd Space:  Is that right? There we go. Do you think that businesses when faced with a choice, will make the right choice?

Ceiba:  Yes, I think we are going to find those clients who want the highest level of sustainability. They can have organic fair-trade products and bio-packaging but we can offer emissions-free transport.

3rd Space:  Yes, that’s huge. Could we go back to the issue of scale? 

Ceiba: I definitely see clean forms of transportation going to scale, whether or not it’s a wooden sailing ship. The future really, really, really should be emissions-free, or 90%. We have almost unlimited solar power, currents, and all this wind is free! So if you’re a real capitalist, you’re just using the free stuff! [laughs] I really believe that it will go in this direction.  

3rd Space:  So those are the three sustainable sources of energy for driving a ship?

Ceiba:  There’s also hydrogen – hydrogen is actually coming into its own. We could have a hydrogen-powered engine on board; and we’re in communication with people about that. Here in San Jose they have hydrogen buses. We’re working with a technical university. I don’t think we’re going to be doing hydrogen but potentially for future ships. There are other ways of powering a vessel also. 

3rd Space:  Does that mean for future projects you might do this differently? 

Ceiba: I think its very likely we will build several ships in this design, and they will have a place and a purpose, especially with community trainings. But if we buy the shipyard, it will be easy to diversify plans. Ceiba will give us the proof of concept: to show that people will pay for clean products, that they want clean products, that they want clean shipping. So a bigger design is something that I see happening. We are already in conversation with some large coco producers who are interested in larger boats.

3rd Space: Do you see this template as transferable to other cultures?

Ceiba: Yes, while I think we could definitely shift to larger, or more refined designs, there is a place for this [smaller traditional ships] in those places that don’t have a lot of resources.

Restoring the relationship with the water, and skills, of coastal communities– something many have lost because of the emergence of fibreglass, and because large shipping industries own everything, is important Small coastal community shipping and boat building is almost gone.  Losing those skills and connection, means to a certain extent, loss of self-reliance.  They can’t cut a tree down and build a boat anymore. [Dani points to a small wooden boat moored in the inlet below us, built in their workshop by local people]. That little boat has relevance today – that little wooden boat actually can revolutionize and restore what it means to be a coastal community.

3rd Space We spend a lot of time in India. Coastal communities there suffer similar problems. There seems a potential for replication intercontinentally – a revival of wooden boats and small cargo ships?

Ceiba: We went to Nicaragua and did a little research there. Nicaragua is apparently fifteen years behind [Costa Rica]. We found wooden boats there. They’re still there – but they’re rotting. So we took pictures of the boats. We’re recording details because in their state, they’re going to sink at some point, and with them the knowledge.

3rd Space: What you are doing is far-reaching in terms of vision and comprehensive sustainability – human, economic, and environmental. It’s so impressive.

I have one last question, Dani. We are part of a foundation in London that supports small projects with visionary ideas. Because you and Links are doing this from the ground up, what would you say to those people? There so many daunting elements in launching such a project. What would you say to someone just starting out?  

Ceiba:  I think if you want to do something, you want to achieve something, you have to be willing to lose every single penny that you put in, and not worry about it. Once you let that go, you are no longer living in fear of failure. We were willing to lose everything on our credit cards – a 100% of what we had. But just going for it and then being able to say to people, “We’re fully committed, we have no fear with this,” we felt that we had to succeed….I think that freed us from being afraid.  

So, whatever you’re willing to risk, risk it.

  • Low-grade ship bunker fuel (or fuel oil) has up to two thousand times the sulphur content of diesel fuel used in US and European automobiles.
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Comments 1

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    3rd-space said that: We are part of a foundation in London that supports small projects with visionary ideas ….
    Maybe she could remind the British marine history that Britain became the biggest maritime nation in the world because of wooden ships. Not very often in a humane way, but still. The power of wooden boats still exists.
    The ‘only part’ the British (and any other nations ….) forgot was to do this with the environment in mind. The British Isles soon became empty wooded, like the Dutch, like the Spanish etc.
    Once you tackle that problem, you are half way there ….
    And then, with humanity in mind too, this could work magnificently I think.

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