Types of sea transport vessels used in ocean freight

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November 5, 2018

Sea transport is a dynamic industry. Sea transport accounts for about 90% of global trade. Due to the size or volume of some cargo, sometimes it is economically unviable to move consignments by any other means other than sea transport.

Ocean freight is the most affordable method of shipping goods and while size and weight may be an issue for air; it is usually not for sea freight. Without sea transport, intercontinental trade, the majority transference of raw materials, and the import/export of cheap food, and mass-produced goods would simply be impossible.

In sea transport, there are various types of ships that are used to transport goods around the world. The mode of sea transportation to be used as an essential consideration when planning and organizing the shipping process.

Aside from paying attention to the costs, the value of the cargo being shipped, the size and weight of the goods, the urgency of the shipment, also needs to be evaluated to best determine the best type of sea transport to use when using ocean freight.

Types of sea transport used for moving cargo

Container ships

Also commonly referred to as box ships, container ships transport cargo that has been packed into standard 20 inches, 40 inches or 45-inch containers that are stacked below and on deck. Container ships dominate commercial international shipping as they transport most of the world’s manufactured goods and products, generally through scheduled liner services. These types of sea transport vessels come in several capacities and can accommodate a number of different cargos.

Bulk carriers

Bulk carriers or bulk vessels, as the name suggests, transport bulk commodities, or ‘loose’ cargo such as grain, coal, and iron. Bulk carriers, like container ships, come in an array of sizes to suit the freight being shipped. Bulk carriers are easily identifiable because they have hatches above deck level that covers the cargo being held below deck.


Tankers generally transport crude oil, chemicals, and petroleum products. Tankers look a lot like bulk carriers except that the deck is flat (without hatches). However, unlike bulk carriers, tankers have pipelines and vents protruding all over the surface.

Breakbulk ships

Breakbulk ships are the oldest known variety of cargo-carrying vessels that still operate at sea. Unlike the present-day varieties of cargo vessels, these types of ship were very popular pre-1960s and were used for the transport of bulk cargo. The medium that is used to contain cargo before it is loaded onto a break bulk ship includes pallets, casks, and rugged boxes.

While unloading the cargo from the vessel, the pallets are unloaded using cranes and other pieces of equipment that can accommodate such loads. When pallets, casks, and rugged boxes are not available, cargo can also be loaded the cargo is directly into the vessel without any medium to contain it. This is possibly the main drawback of a break bulk vessel as compared to a shipping container vessel.

Specialized ships

Specialized ships are ships that have been transformed for dedicated purposes, like dredging, marine exploration, offshore construction, or for work gang ships that are used for housing workers in locations where there are no onshore living quarters.

Ro-Ro Ships

Ro-ro is an abbreviation for Roll-on/roll-off. Ro-Ro ships transport wheeled cargo such as cars and heavy machinery. The wheeled vehicles in the ship are loaded and unloaded through built-in ramps. Ro-Ro vessels that are entirely used for transporting cars and trucks across oceans are referred to as Pure Car Carriers (PCC) and Pure Truck & Car Carriers (PCTC) respectively. Contrasting to other goods that are measured in metric tonnes, the ro-ro cargo is measured in a unit known as lanes in meters (LIMs).

Reefer ship

A reefer ship is a ship that is primarily utilized for carrying refrigerated cargo or spoilable goods. Reefer ships were first used for transporting bananas but other foodstuffs such as food grains, fruits, fish, milk products and meat are also shipped using reefer ships today.


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