Prospects for Next-Generation Wind Propulsion on the Upper Great Lakes

File image courtesy Skysails

Published Jul 12, 2023 1:13 AM by Harry Valentine

Locally built sailing vessels first appeared on North America’s Great Lakes in the 17th-century era of exploration, and sail powered vessels remained in commercial use in the region into the 1920s. There is scope to reconsider wind propulsion on the Great Lakes due to multiple modern developments in wind propulsion technology.


During the early 1800s, sail powered ships sailed upstream from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and along the St. Lawrence River as far as Montreal. At the time, a series of rapids prevented navigation between Montreal and Lake Ontario, while a waterfall prevented navigation between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. A series of rapids initially prevented navigation between Lakes Huron and Superior. Nevertheless, locally built sail-powered vessels carried people and goods around Lake Ontario as well as on the Upper Great Lakes, including Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan and eventually Lake Superior.

While commercial wind-powered sailing disappeared from the Great Lakes after 1930, recreational wind-powered sailing thrived during warm weather and including up to the present day. Following the oil crisis of the early 1970s, wind power researchers envisioned various configurations of future wind powered commercial ships that included the possibility of adapting airplane wing configurations to function as sails. While the practice of using kites to tow small boats originated in East Asia, advances in kite construction and in fabric material encouraged research into using super-size kites to assist in modern vessel propulsion.

Racing and Recreation

Despite an extended absence in commercial wind-powered commercial propulsion, research into improving wind propulsion focused on the sport and recreational side of sailing. Innovations in yacht design included replacing traditional fabric sails with aeronautical style wing sails. Surfing enthusiasts adapted frameless kites to provide propulsion for surfboards and eventually led to the development of hydrofoil surfboards. A Canadian professor of physics from Dalhousie University entered a windmill powered boat into a race at Halifax, which he won by sailing directly into the wind. Interest in adapting windmill technology to non-competitive boat propulsion involving small boats spread across the American northeast. Professor Blackford eventually adapted a small cruise vessel to windmill propulsion and achieved a speed of eight knots sailing directly into a headwind.

A segment of the cruise vessel industry borrowed a precedent from the recreational wind surfing sector by adapting kite propulsion for a small cruise vessel. Wind Star Cruise Lines owns and operates the 4-masted Wind Star, a sail-powered cruise vessel that offers accommodation to just over 140-guests and operates like a yacht.

Telescopic Solid Sails

A Swedish consortium that includes Wallenius Marine are developing a modern 5-mast commercial wind-powered ship named Ocean Bird. It will be fitted with telescopic wing-sails that can be extended upward during light wind conditions and partially retracted during severe wind conditions. The ability of the telescopic solid wing-sail to adjust its overall height makes the technology suitable for operation on the Great Lakes, as the wing-sails could be temporarily reduced in height on the approach to bridges that cross above navigation channels.

The presence of wind farms built near the shores of the Great Lakes indicates the presence of powerful winds that blow across vast expanses of open water. There are bridges with restricted height that have been built along narrow sections of navigable waterway, such as the Upper St. Lawrence River, the Detroit River, the St. Clair River, the Strait of Makinac, St. Mary’s River and Welland Canal. Wind power vessels that include telescopic wing sails would partially retract the wing-sails when approaching a bridge. Some designs of Flettner rotor sails can also be tilted to reduce overall vessel height.

Wind Direction

Through most of the navigation season, prevailing winds mostly approach Lakes Superior and Huron from the northwest, while summer winds mainly approach Lake Michigan from the south. Wind direction makes schooners and yachts suitable for westbound sailing across Lakes Superior, Erie and Ontario and also suitable for northbound sailing across Lake Huron. The same wind direction enhances the option to use retractable airborne kite sails for eastbound sailing across Lakes Superior, Erie and Ontario along with southbound sailing across Lake Huron and northbound summer sailing across Lake Michigan, where suction sails would also be suitable.

While southbound schooners and yachts can tack-sail across Lake Michigan, summer wind direction is also suitable for southbound sailing involving wind turbine powered vessels capable of sailing directly into prevailing headwinds. The research and development pioneered by Canadian professor of physics, Dr. Brad Blackford would form the basis of future wind turbine powered vessel propulsion on Lake Michigan, as well as westbound sailing along the Upper St. Lawrence River where channel width would restrict tack-sailing.

Windmill Tug-Barge

There would be scope to combine the precedent established by Professor Blackford with precedents in floating offshore wind power conversion, to form the basis of a windmill tugboat for tug-barge operation. A vertical-axis wind turbine such as the Typhoon Turbine from Japan that uses fins and vertical cylinders, could drive directly into a vertical-axis propulsion unit offered by Voith Schneider. There may be scope to install a flywheel and planetary gear system between the turbine and the thrust unit, with the flywheel being recharged when the thrust unit is set to neutral.

The vertical-axis turbine may also drive a variable-pitch axial-flow propeller set vertically on a large tug, with direct drive or driving through a planetary gear, or horizontally when driving through a 90-degree gear on a small tug. A twin-hull wind-tug would push and navigate a sightseeing cruise vessel along the Upper St. Lawrence River. The development of such a tug would establish a learning curve for the possible future development of a mega-size, ocean-capable version of the tug that would involve push and navigate various types of barges in ocean tug-barge service.

Future Research

While there is much research and development occurring internationally in the area of wind-powered and wind-assisted vessel propulsion, the Great Lakes present a unique opportunity for future research and development into such vessel propulsion. Several universities located around the Great Lakes have faculties of engineering capable of undertaking such research. The physical size of the Great Lakes represents suitable a proving and testing area for wind-powered and wind-assisted vessels that engage in the equivalent of short-sea sailing. Such sailing allows shore-based technical staff to have frequent access to the vessels when at port, allowing for frequent adjustments and modifications.

Universities located around the Great Lakes are within close proximity to each other, easing the option for joint collaboration among researchers at different nearby universities in developing future wind-based vessel propulsion. While such research will initially focus on vessel propulsion on the Great Lakes, such research would also form the basis of developing mega-scale versions of the technology intended for ocean-capable tug-barge propulsion. While some  ship and cargo configurations – such as stacks of containers - discourage the installation of deck-mounted sails, there is the option to develop a mega-scale wind-powered tug for tug-barge propulsion.

Wind-Electric Propulsion

A large electrically powered vessel could tow a mega-scale floating wind turbine that generates electric power for vessel propulsion. The dimensions of such a wind turbine would restrict its operation to the confines of a single Great Lake, with mobile floating wind turbines assigned to each of Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario. On Lake Superior at Duluth, Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, a battery vessel would assist a large vessel in and out of port as well as to and from navigation locks.

The mega-unit would provide electric energy for propulsion across Lake Superior, where the concept would be developed, tested and refined before a similar unit would be developed for ocean service.


While earlier generation wind technology propelled vessels across the Great Lakes decades ago, there is potential for modern wind power technology to either assist in vessel propulsion or provide all of the vessel propulsive requirements for certain types of vessels assigned to specific services. The ingenuity and innovative thinking of technical researchers would determine the future of wind-assisted and wind-based vessel propulsion on the Great Lakes.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.