Ship or Ocean Freight - Commodity transport on oceans

Ocean freight is an important type of transportation for commodities. Because commodities are traded in large quantities, vessels are a suitable means of transportation. As ships are capable of transporting the largest amounts of goods out of the different transportation methods. Furthermore many commodities will be transported between Europe, the Americas and Asia and thus ocean freight is the only meaningful form of transportation, as air freight is still more expensive and has less cargo capacity than ocean freight. Ocean freight is also a favorable choice when there are other transportation options available. The following factors can influence the choice for ocean freighting. Ocean freight has become a fairly safe form of transporting goods and more importantly has lower costs than the other forms of transportation, which will always weigh in when choosing a transportation method.

Ship Types

There are a number of different types of ships which are being used to transport commodities across the oceans. These differences are based on the type of cargo they are carrying, the size of the ship and options regarding unloading of the cargo.

Ship Size

Ships are divided into different types based on their size. The size of a ship is usually determined by its loading capacity. However the weight of a ship and the physical measurements, will also influence the categorization of the ship type. The physical measurements determine which canals the ships can pass through and in many cases the name for the size type category will be derived from the name of canals across the globe. The following categories are determined based on the physical size of ships:

Seawaymax: largest size that can traverse the St. Lawrence Seaway

Panamax: largest size that can traverse the Panama canal

Suezmax: largest size that can traverse the Suez Canal

Malaccamax: largest size that can traverse the Strait of Malacca

Capesize: Size that cannot traverse the Panama Canal and thus must either traverse the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn.

The loading capacity of a ship is expressed in deadweight tonnage (DWT). This is the weight a ship is able to safely carry. This includes not only the cargo but also the fuel, provisions, ballast water and personnel. Based on DWT the following categories of bulk carriers are determined: Small Handysize, Handymax, Panamax and Capesize.

Small Handysize: carries between 10.000 and 35.000 DWT

Handymax: carries between 35.000 and 59.000 DWT

Panamax: carries between 60.000 and 80.000 DWT

Capesize: carries over 80.000 DWT

The loading capacity however can also be expressed in the number of containers it can carry. The quantity of containers that a ship can carry is usually measured in so-called TEU of FEU. Which represent either twenty-foot equivalent unit of forty-foot equivalent unit. These numbers can reach up to 15.000 TEU. When a carrying capacity is expressed in FEU, this means a double amount of TEU can be carried by the same ship.

Cargo Type

There can be made a distinction between two different types of cargo, or more specifically the manner in which the cargo is being transported. Many commodities can be transported as bulk cargo. Bulk cargo are unpackaged commodities which are loaded, in large quantities, into a ship’s cargo hold. In bulk cargo there can be made a distinction between dry and liquid bulk cargo.
The other manner in which the cargo can be transported is by container. One ship can carry a large number of containers and thus can carry many different commodities during a single journey. An advantage of using container ships is the possibility containers offer in terms of climate control. Containers can be used to keep the commodity cool or even frozen depending on the type of commodity. Container also offer an advantage during further transport of the commodity to its final destination. As the containers can easily be transferred from the onto another form of transportation such as trucks or trains, who will then deliver it to the final destination.
There are also ships that are capable of carrying both dry and liquid cargo. These however are expensive and are therefore becoming less used in ocean freighting.

Unloading Capabilities

There are differences in the capabilities of ships to unload their cargo without the requirement of shore-based equipment. This will influence the flexibility of ships in matter of different routes and different cargo they can transport.
The first type are the gearless carriers. These ships do not posses their own equipment to unload their cargo and must rely on off-shore facilities to unload their cargo. This will reduce the building costs of the ship, but limits their possible trade routes as they can only unload at ports with unloading capabilities. Some of these ships are specifically created for a single port-to-port trade route, in which case the low building costs make it a very efficient transportation method.
The counterpart of gearless carriers are geared carriers. This type of ships have their own unloading capabilities in the form of cranes and conveyors. This gives these ships a great deal of flexibility in choosing which trade route they can operate. Furthermore it gives ships a level of independence as they don’t need to rely on off-shore facilities. These capabilities however come at a cost and makes them more expensive in comparison to gearless carriers.
Another type of carriers is the so-called BIBO or “Bulk in, Bags out”. This type of carrier will load bulk goods into its cargo holds. Upon unloading the bulk goods are then packed into sacks or bags. This type is most commonly used to transport sugar. This transportation type has a number of advantages. First off all the sugar is only loaded into bags upon unloading and thus the risk of damage to the bags is reduced, due to the limited time the bags are transported. Furthermore the risk of damage to the sugar due to climate changes can be limited in a climate controlled cargo hold. Whereas bagged sugar has a higher risk to be affected by climate changes during the voyage.


Barges are a unique type of ship used to transport large quantities of bulk goods. They are flat-bottomed boats used to transport goods across rivers and canals. Barges are not always self-propelled and may rely on tow- or tugboats to move across waterways. A tug-boat may in some cases form a so-called ’tow’ of up to forty barges. This makes for a efficient way of transportation as a single tow can move large quantities of goods while it requires a relative small quantity of fuel. In contrary to the use of rail or road transportation, which requires far more fuel to transport the same amount of goods.