Sailing on the winds of change: at sea with the New Dawn Traders

The New Dawn Traders deal in precious cargo from Europe and the Carribean that we don’t produce here in the UK, such as olive oil, almonds, cocoa and coffee. Sailing on the natural wind patterns of the ocean, they retrace a trade route that entails the trail of colonialism which formed the world we live in today. Whilst the ship is mid-voyage, I was lucky to catch the founder of this entrepreneurial expedition, Alexandra Geldenhuys, who told me the tale of the journey so far, and where it’s headed…

The voyage

As I write, The Gallant, a Blue Schooner Company sailing ship built in 1916, and first commandeered by the New Dawn Traders in 2019, sits in the port of Leixões, near Porto, where it arrived ahead of schedule on the favourable winds. Her 3rd trip to Porto, she’d usually be greeted by the crowds of this bustling cargo town, but this time the port is quiet and the crew have to stay on board.

Luckily, there’s plenty to be getting on with while they await the arrival of the finest Portuguese olive oil, almonds, honey, wine and beans from the farms to the port (link to order at the end of the article). Thanks to meeting olive oil sommelier, Marije Passos, from Passeite farm, The New Dawn Traders work with 3 local farmers growing different varieties of olives in harmony with the local ecosystems.

Before arriving in Penzance on July 3rd, The Gallant and her crew will sail to Les Sables d’Olonne, near Nantes, and then L’Aber W’rach, in Brittany, where they’ll deliver cargo, and collect ‘Fleur de Sel’. The salt of Noirmoutier is produced by 5th century salterns, transformed from wetlands by Benedictine monks, and harvested using ancestral techniques.

Following the summer/autumn trips to Europe, in winter/spring, The Gallant heads to the Caribbean for coffee, cocoa and sugar. These luxuries, like olive oil and almonds, are those we don’t produce in the UK and have historically imported in unethical and unsustainable ways.

The New Dawn Traders builds relationships with small farms and co-operatives who cultivate and trade harmoniously with the land, growers, and buyers. “If we wish to heal and protect the planet and our communities, we need to support the farmers who are doing the work. They have their hands in the soil and they are the cornerstones of their communities as well”, says Alex.

Cocoa beans Brasso Seco Village St George, Trinidad – @thenewruraltt

In Trinidad, the New Dawn Traders work with the Alliance of Rural Communities to source the highly sought after, native Trinitario cocoa beans, which they buy directly from the growers and bring back to Cornwall to be made into single-origin, ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate by Chocolarder.

@chocolarder chocolates – photo @sferreiraphotography

In Colombia, Tolima coffee beans are carefully picked and dried in the sweet smelling breeze that blows through the smallholder farms in the mountains and valleys where they grow, before NDT returns with them for roasting by Cornwall’s Yallah Coffee

In the North of Columbia, glacier-fed-rivers irrigate the plains and valleys of the Sierra Nevada, where a small, indigenous community makes panela: raw, unrefined sugar that’s full of molasses, making for a nutrient-rich and fudgy treat. Pura Panela supports 180 families, whose ancient methods of farming align with the moon and produce small amounts that wouldn’t be possible to export on a larger scale.

The Gallant sailing from Trinidad towards Colombia

We still need to trade, but in a way that is truly fair and respectful for the people and the planet that provide for us. By doing it on a community scale we can get the model right.”

The model ship

Farmers and producers, as well as crew, captains, and buyers, make up the ‘Voyage Co-Op’ – a model that builds a sustainable economy around the fossil-fuel-free sailing of sustainably produced cargo. The ship can carry 35 tonnes and make 3 round trips a year; 1 full ship on 1 round trip can cover running costs for the year, so it’s scalable and self-sufficient, doesn’t rely on volunteers, and supports workers rather than shareholders.

Before Covid, the New Dawn Traders hosted parties for The Gallant on arrival to port, for people to celebrate the ship, learn about sail cargo, and collect their orders. Whilst it’s a shame for the ship to have to move toward more virtual interaction, NDT was fortunate in already having a direct sales model, only needing to tweak the schedule and delivery plans in response to the crisis. 

If anything, we’ve seen an increase in interest. Our ethical values resonate more strongly now with people than they have before, with sales up 70% from the last voyage“, Alex tells me. “Despite the global upheaval, as a working cargo vessel, the Gallant can keep sailing. If anything, our small but resilient network of producers, sailors, makers and port allies are coming into their own – showing that another system is possible! Food grown with love, shipped with the wind and delivered into your hands.”

To make up for the loss of events and ensure everyone gets their goods, DropPoint will make national deliveries, whilst local distribution is coordinated by a team of ‘port allies’. Allies galvanise their communities to pre-order in bulk and then share the cargo; anyone can become one, receiving the tools to become part of the supply chain and create a local market for sailed cargo.

People want to get involved but don’t necessarily have the business skills to set themselves up. Their enthusiasm was worth so much more though“, Alex explains. NDT handles the import and export paperwork, pays the ship and the producers, and works collaboratively with the supply chain to maximise the marketing potential for each port ally.

A WhatsApp group including the allies, cargo producers and captains of the ship, is used to keep each other updated, with one spreadsheet for prices and orders. The system, Alex says, “seems common sense to me, but is quite an unusual way of doing business.”

The pioneer

Born in South Africa, Alex moved to England when she was 15, where she’s lived in Birmingham, London, Brighton, Bristol and, for the last few years, in Cornwall. Despite growing up 8 hours inland, and with no history of sailing, she knew she’d live by the sea, she tells me; “I always believed it was possible to go everywhere and see everything, but as a participant, not a tourist, and without negatively impacting the environment.”

Alex aboard the Tres Hombres in 2013, @tom_powell_photo

At university, Alex studied fashion – a “window into consumer culture” and supply chains. Getting as far away from fashion as possible, she went to work on a cacao farm project in Brazil, where she was inspired by the idea of bringing beans back on a sailing ship, and experienced food direct from the fields and rivers.

As Alex’s relationship with taste and place grew from her experiences of real, quality food, so did her dream of sailing cargo. What she hadn’t dreamed of, however, was the long, slow lesson in economics and the shipping industry; its evolution since the invention of the shipping container, and the explosion of consumer capitalism, discovering how “disjointed and murky the supply chain, the links between producers and buyers, has become”.

Alex’s first transatlantic trip was as cook aboard the Tres Hombres, which sails under the flag of the Fairtransport Company. During the voyage, she heard the story of sailing ships throughout economics, history, community and culture. The Tres Hombres brought rum back from the Carribean; a lesson in trade and marketing that led Alex to seek a product of value that could be traded affordably.

The Tres Hombres & The Gallant rafted together in Martinique for a sunset BBQ, Jan ’20. Photo by Len Visser, @theprancingdutchman

In the ultimate sustainable reality, imported products would only be those that can’t be produced locally, but might be culturally important or interesting, perhaps the finer things, that add excitement to life.”

High seas

The New Dawn Traders endeavour to find ways to make high quality food more available and affordable, whilst supporting small scale farmers. They’re therefore working toward a membership scheme that will make it possible for people to spread the cost of their cargo pre-order.

“We presume that price relates to quality, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect the true cost of food,” says Alex. “Subsidies on fossil fueled shipping and agriculture make things that are actually expensive seem cheap, as the costs are covered elsewhere, like by our taxes. As we unpick the supply chain, the injustices become clear and can be rebalanced, by replacing old systems with fairer ones.”

Cherries in Leixões, Portugal, Jun ’20, photo @sferreiraphotography

New Dawn Trader products aim to cost less than, or at least equal to, the equivalent supermarket price. By shortening the supply chain and inviting customers to pre-order and collect, costs are reduced; producers can therefore be paid higher than market-value, the ship is fairly remunerated, and, through bulk ordering, the savings passed to the community.

Winds of change

Privileged to be able to pursue her dreams and live precariously, thanks to a support network of sofas for sleeping on between trips, Alex founded New Dawn Traders in 2013 when living in Bristol. Inspired by the city’s active food and environment networks, her motivation: to take others on a journey to connect with those living in harmony with the planet, and participate in fair exchange.

“Today’s sail cargo ships are travelling routes that follow the natural wind patterns swirling around the planet’s oceans. These are the same forces harnessed by the first ‘Voyages of Discovery’ in the 17th Century; voyages that set us on the path toward the economy and culture that we have today, voyages that intended to exploit and conquer distant lands for the benefit of our rich elite, in the name of ‘progress’. These voyages have left a legacy of oppression and environmental destruction that is still palpable today.”

The Gallant sailing into Bristol’s Underfall Boatyard, Sept ’19, photo @benjaminpryor

Last year, The New Dawn Traders finally sailed The Gallant into Bristol. An international port since medieval times, Bristol was the second biggest in Britain in the mid 1700s, when it became the centre of the slave trade. Over half a million enslaved Africans were traded on Bristol ships [1]. In 1750 alone, around 8000 of the 20,000 enslaved Africans sent that year to the sugar and tobacco plantations in the Carribean and North America, left from Bristol [2].

Accounting for 80% of Bristol’s trade by the end of the 18th century, slavery profited investors, shipbuilders, merchants and manufacturers, forming the foundations of the city’s wealth. Its ships capitalised on the ‘triangular trade’ between England, West African and the Caribbean [2], exporting goods for plantations – mainly woollen cloth, and returning with slave-produced sugar, rum, indigo and cocoa, processed by local industries that employed thousands of workers. [1] 

Alex believes that understanding our heritage and history, and feeling its consequences, empowers us to make better decisions for the future. Hence the New Dawn Traders’ mission, of: ‘Retracing old trade routes with a fresh and revolutionary mission, turning full circle, upside down and inside out the intentions and exploitations of the Age of Discovery. Revitalising the futures of traditional sailing vessels and the industries of traditional skills and knowledge that maintain them. Revolutionary, direct and respectful cross-cultural pollination of knowledge, food, commodities and culture, Empowering inspired individual creativity for the benefit of the planet, through Direct experience of different ecosystems and cultures.

The Gallant waiting to unload in Chaguramas, Trinidad, Feb ’20 – photo @geoffrion.david

Sailing the old sea routes of the slave trade is a sensitive journey and uncomfortable subject, but not one that Alex shies away from. It’s her intention to “offer a return to sail-shipped cargo as an opportunity for learning – part of the process of understanding and healing“.

On the horizon

“Sailing ships don’t easily fit into the system as it has become. They operate seasonally and work with nature, not against it. New systems of business need building to align with the nature of sailing and therefore with the natural cycles of the planet.”

The New Dawn Traders wish to make a Voyage Co-op toolkit available to communities around the world, as a replicable model for small scale supply chains. Inspired by other alternative economic models, like CSAs, veg box schemes and food co-ops (many of which are included on the Farms To Feed Us database), Alex applies these principles to ocean shipping, and is building a network all along the supply chain, based on shared ethics and values, production methods, economic and business practice.

The Gallant arriving in Mexico, Mar ’20 – photo @geoffrion.david

The ‘Sail Cargo Alliance’ (SCA) brings together sail cargo projects around the world. The aspiration is to build the network so that small ships can carry cargo along the coastline, making use of the ports in the UK and Europe, which were specifically designed for sailing ships.

Bigger ships would then be able to start fulfilling their capacity for international trade, once we build the demand up to a certain scale,” Alex tells me. They’re ready and raring to go when we are.

Alex’s bold vision of a “new paradigm of global trade” involves ethical and equal exchange, a balance of shared nutrients and respect between people and place. In the New Dawn Traders, we see a model ship of sailing cargo based on the principles of permaculture – described by Alex as ‘Earth care, people care and fair share’ – taken to the seas and driven by the changing winds.

Hear more from Alex and The Blue Schooner Company about The Sail Cargo Alliance

Order olive oil, almonds, wine, salt, chocolate, coffee, sugar and more from The New Dawn Traders for UK-wide delivery, subject to availability. For more information on produce, ports and the ship’s schedule, head to: https://www.newdawntraders.com/order-cargo, where orders can be made from local ports with port allies, or for national delivery from Penzance.

[1] Wikipedia; Bristol Slave Trade

[2] Bristol Museums; Professor Madge Dresser, with contributions from Bristol Museums Black History Steering Group

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