French seafarer turned executive Jean Zanuttini is confident of finally realising his vision for a transatlantic, sail-powered cargo ro-ro after the project hit troubled waters over the last couple of years.

The former ship officer is chief executive of start-up Neoline, which had hoped to have one of his 136-metre Neoliner designs running from France to the US and Canada by the end of this year.

The company signed a letter of intent (LOI) for two newbuildings in 2019, but has now had to re-tender and push delivery of the first out to the first half of 2024.

Zanuttini told TradeWinds Neoline found it had to "strongly justify" the investment needed for the vessel to its financiers.

Lacking firm deals

He explained that after signing the LOI in 2019 with French shipbuilder Neopolia Mobility, Neoline cargo volumes to be supplied by backers such as Renault and Beneteau were also only covered under LOIs.

"We realised when talking with finance people we really had to have a firm contract," the CEO said.

This problem was solved by agreeing firm deals last year with the two shippers, plus Manitou.

Zanuttini said "firm" talks are being carried out to turn LOIs from Clarins and Michelin into finalised contracts.

The Neoline boss also said the shipyard itself needed more time because there was only a LOI in place for the vessel, not the rigging.

"So we also had to work strongly to have a good and proper competition for the rigging," he added.

Neoline and the Neoliner

Nantes-based Neoline will run the vessels between St-Nazaire in France, Baltimore, Halifax, and St-Pierre & Miquelon.

The Neoliner will have 4,200 square metres of sail area.

French shipowner Compagnie Maritime Nantaise (MN) owns a stake in Neoline.

MN is part of the family-owned, Le Havre-based Sogestran group, which also took a shareholding.

"That took some time, and by the end of 2020, we had an issue with the Neopolia Mobility offer. It was a little bit too expensive for us," Zanuttini added.

So another tender was launched, drawing a little under 10 offers from shipyards.

Neopolia Mobility came back with a new offer that was more in line with Neoline's targets, the CEO told TradeWinds.

This was partly because the yard received strong support from local and public institutions and partly because the contract was split into two: one for the ship and one for the sails, Zanuttini added.

The Pays de la Loire region, where Neopolia is based, also decided to award a €1.3m loan ($1.6m) to Neoline in May.

Financing in place next month?

Now financing efforts, described by Neoline as challenging in the context of an innovative project, are moving forward again, with bank loans expected to be in place next month to allow construction to start this summer.

Equity financing is already arranged, the CEO said.

The ship design remains the same, with most of the propulsion coming from wind power.

The vessels are expected to cut fuel consumption by up to 90% compared to conventional ro-ros at a speed of 11 knots.

Zanuttini said the plan is still to build two ships.

"But we have to start one by one," he said.

The idea is to start construction of a second ro-ro a year after the first.

The CEO spent seven years as a ship officer, particularly on ro-ros. He has been acting as a maritime and naval consultant since 2010.