With the ability to transport thousands of containers in a single ship, ocean transport has become a vital part of modern global logistics and a crucial for numerous global supply chains. The rapid increase in the popularity of shipping containers, as well as technological advancements now means that most ocean transportation is conducted by large vessels with the ability to carry multiple containers and container types. Not only is this more efficient, but also enables a greater variety of cargo to be transported from anywhere in the world.
Because of the way that ocean transport has evolved, there are numerous types of vessels designed to carry different types of sea freight, including:
Bulk carriers will hold cargo that is not packaged in any way, such as coal, grain or cement. The goods will be tipped into specially designed holds, and some of these bulk carriers will have their own loading or mechanisms. Around 20% of merchant fleets are comprised of bulk carriers.
General cargo or multi-purpose vessels are designed to offer flexibility and carry a wide variety of cargo, including everything from cranes to breakbulk cargo. Usually containing four or five holds, general cargo ships have long protruding rigging for winches, and some may have refrigerated spaces for perishable food items.
Most ocean transport takes place using standard sized container ships. Their holds and decks are designed for 20 ft and 40 ft containers, which are loaded onto the vessel with huge, mechanised cranes. The containers can be moved onto rail transporters and freight lorries which are equally designed to carry containers of these standard sizes.
Tankers carry liquids like oil or hazardous gases in bulk. They are instantly recognisable with their large surface area and extreme length – some can be as much as a quarter of a mile long.
Barges are much smaller versions of container ships. They will hold containers in their hundreds rather than thousands and are not self-propelling. Barges are usually used to transport cargo on inland waterways, rivers and canals as an intermodal service.
It is estimated that 90% of goods consumed in the world today have made a sea journey at some point, illustrating just how vital ocean transport is to global supply chains and economies.
There are different container sizes like 20 foot and 40 foot. This standardisation means that ships can be loaded mechanically with the most efficient use of space possible.
There has been a huge expansion in the size of container vessels over the last 20-30 years. In 2002 a ship could carry no more than 6,500 TEU. The largest container vessels today can hold nearly 24,000 TEU (24,000 individual 20 ft containers). The more containers a ship can carry the cheaper it is to transport a product. We see the effect of large scale ocean transport on our own high streets. It brings down the prices of goods shipped from long distances because of the economies of scale created by container shipping.
Ocean transport only operates successfully if it's different elements link up together in a seamless way.
Ocean transport only operates successfully if its different elements link up together in a seamless way. Obviously, the process requires vessels to carry goods; navigable waters; ports that are equipped to deal with the technology and mechanical procedures required to load and unload ships; intermodal connections like roads and railways to move goods to their onward destination; shipyards and repair facilities.
Multiple businesses will be involved in each link of the ocean transport chain. They include agents like freight forwarders, intermodal solutions providers, port authorities, customs brokers and consolidators.
A freight forwarder is an agent that works independently of shipping companies. They organise the shipments, working with carriers, intermodal providers and ports to ensure that shipments move smoothly through the logistics network. Freight forwarders handle much of the administrative aspects of cargo shipping, such as preparing customs documentation, bills of lading and import/export paperwork.
Any commercial sea port in the world falls under the jurisdiction of a port authority, a public or privately run body which manage the activities that take place at the port. Essentially at container ports this involves ensuring that cargo moves efficiently to and from docked vessels, maintaining the port infrastructure and equipment, and minimising the time each ship spends in the port.
Customs brokers specialise in procedures relating to imports and exports. They will ensure that the goods being imported carry the correct customs documentation, and that the right duties and taxes have been paid. The value of using customs brokers is that they will know customs legislation and regulations inside out, and will be able to advise on what you need to do to avoid fines, fees or delays with your cargo.
Consolidators are agents who work with suppliers and shipping companies to ensure containers are full. They do this by combining cargo from different suppliers into the same container. Full containers are more financially viable to the shipper than half-empty ones, and there are fewer touchpoints in the journey of a consolidated shipment than one that is ‘less than container load’ (LCL).