The Most Common Types of Cargo Ships

Nelson CabreraGeneral, Shipping Guide15 Comments

Types of container ships blog picture

If you have an international shipment, the decision to send it by air or by sea presents itself. Sea shipping isn’t nearly as fast but is generally much less expensive and the capacity is significantly greater. Shipments that are on a very tight schedule are best suited for air shipping.  However, sea shipments operate on a regular weekly schedule so businesses looking to ship internationally on a regular basis without time-sensitive shipments can save a great deal of money and hassle by using sea shipping.


History of Cargo Shipping

If you are new to the shipping game or simply new to sea shipping, it might be a bit confusing to figure out which cargo ships are appropriate for your company. Over the last 40 years, there have been significant improvements in the types of vessels and the size of vessels available to shippers. Since the 1960s international sea shippers have had many options that their predecessors did not, but with those options comes confusion about which vessel is best for which shipment.

Container Vessels

Container ships emerged during the 1960s when the idea of combining land routes with sea routes came about. Such a decision necessitated vessels that could carry standard size containers. With container ships, the loading and unloading occurs in specially-equipped ports. There are many sizes available, the largest of which are 400 m, and have a capacity over 18,000 TEU’s. These ships travel at very high speeds, with an average speed of 21 knots.

Bulk Vessels

Bulk vessels have a design perfect for carrying dry cargo. Specifically appropriate for things like sugar, fertilizer, grains, and power sources like ore and coal. There are specific ports with equipment necessary to load and unload a bulk vessel’s cargo. Unlike other vessels which rely upon a crane, bulk vessels use a conveyor or a pump.  You can find both vessels in many sizes and designs for a variety of shipping needs. These ships travel at a slightly lower speed with an average of 13 knots but the ships can hold up to 200,000 DWT.

Break Bulk Vessels

Break bulk vessels design makes them a perfect fit to carry general cargo that otherwise required individual loading without an intermodal container. These types of vessels have remained the backbone of all trading fleets, often carrying dry cargo and even liquid cargo.  Break bulk vessels can carry goods like bags of cargo including things like bags of flour, cement, or sugar. They can also carry palletized cargo like chemicals, paint, and even timber. Over the last 30 years as special cargo ships or things like bulk cargo have emerged, break bulk vessels have lost their importance. Now, dry cargo ships are better designed to take over the short-haul and small-size sailings that the break bulk vessels once managed.  Characteristically, the warehouses’ store equipment for loading and unloading, and the ship deck designs are all based upon what is being transported.

Reefer Vessels

Reefer vessels are specifically designed to carry goods that have to be temperature controlled or frozen during their shipment. This includes produce, fish, meat, and some alcohol. If your products are temperature sensitive, this is the best option for you.

Barge Vessels

Barge vessels came about in the 1960s in an effort to minimize the amount of time that ships spent in port. The storage of the cargo within the vessel is inside of a large floating pontoon. The loading and the unloading takes place at the harbor without the ship having to actually approach or linger at the port. Tugboats carry the pontoon between the port and the ship. These are not nearly as popular as container ships but they still serve their purpose quite well.

Tanker Vessels

Tanker vessels are designed specifically to transport liquids. If your company needs to ship chemicals or oil, a tanker vessel is the best option. On a similar note if you have to transport crude oil there are crude carriers that fall under this category designed specifically to transport crude oil internationally. You can get very large or ultra large crude carriers. If you are shipping liquefied natural gases there are specific carriers designed for this product called LNG carriers.

Multi-Purpose Vessels

Multi-purpose vessels can transport different types of cargo all-in-one. As the name suggests they are very versatile and used for multiple purposes. They are actually the most popular type of vessel for cargo shipping because companies can send many types of products with one ship and they don’t have to pay for a specialty vessel.

Ro-Ro Vessels

Ro-Ro vessels have a design that suits loading and unloading cargo trailers onto a ship with a ramp. An essential component needed in order to utilize this vessel is a cargo trailer with wheels. These types of ships come in many forms including cargo vessels specifically for railroad cars or truck trailers, car carriers, and other vehicle ferries.  These vessels use multiple loading ramps to load and unload. On average they can reach 20 knots while traveling across the sea.

Choosing the Right Vessel for Your Shipment

Overall, there are many different options. You can use the most tried-and-true method for sea shipments by relying upon container vessels, but if you have loose cargo, a bulk vessel might be better suited for your needs. If you have a very specific industry or business you might not have more than one option for sea shipments that suits you best. But, if your business supplies toys or games you might be able to take your pick. Understanding the different cargo ships used in the industry will give you the knowledge to decide the best shipping route for your business. If you are unsure whether your shipment is best delivered by a multi-purpose vessel or a bulk vessel, there are special carriers with answers to these questions and more.

Nelson Cabrera
Nelson leads global business development efforts within ShipLilly and has been featured as a logistics expert in numerous publications, including SupplyChainBrain, The Bulletin Panama, Logistics Management, and the Miami Herald.

15 Comments on “The Most Common Types of Cargo Ships”

  1. Avatar
    Shayla Cademis

    I never knew barge vessels came around in the 1960s to help minimize time boats spend in the port! My cousin is wanted to start a small transportation company and invest in a few barge vessels, but he’s a little worried about losing time spent loading the cargo onto the barge when it’s in the port. It’s good to know the barge vessels themselves can help with the time management, but hopefully he’ll be able to find a good loading company who can help him with the cargo loading/unloading process.

  2. Avatar
    KP Saravanan

    We @ Mithuna Group of Companies CHENNAI Largest Rice Exporters from Southern Indian… Are likely going to work on a 15,000/ MT Vessel Loads of Rice from Southern Krishnapattinam port to Luvanda Port Angola CIF Basis..

    Please let me know if you can make it at your house for us

  3. Avatar
    Nikita Ram Gurnani

    Thanks for sharing with us it’s Really helpfull it’s very helpful to transport students , they didn’t have any material to study these small blogs will help alot
    You can share on our email directly

    1. LILLY + Associates
      LILLY + Associates

      Hello Nikita, we are glad you enjoyed our content, please subscribe to our newsletter to stay updated with our news.

  4. Avatar

    As a Marine engineer student, it’s Really helpfull. Thank you vary much for sharing with us. WE asked permission to take some pictures and sentences for use in our blog. Love to you all from Indonesia.

    1. Avatar
      Ricardo Kasrim

      Hi Nimurka, we are glad you found our article useful. Sure, go ahead and use any content you like, but please don’t forget to cite the source.

  5. Avatar

    It was great reading this , I learnt some important things how ships are classified. It will come to my aid as I am working in a shipping line company.

    1. LILLY + Associates
      LILLY + Associates

      Hi Tatianna – It really depends on what type of cargo you are shipping. If you are shipping general cargo on a container, then a general cargo ship would be more cost-effective. In case you are moving breakbulk items (large or out of gauge items) then we would recommend you to use specialized ships.

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