The most common types of large cargo ships, explained

October 29, 20196 min read
The most common types of large cargo ships, explained
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According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), 90% of the world’s cargo is transported by sea. Transporting goods via cargo ships is generally considered to be the most cost-effective method with ships carrying everything from food to electronics to oil, and is a critical aspect of international trade finance

Marine finance is a subset of equipment finance, while offerings in the space often comprise a wide array of dry bulk, tanker, and container vessels with varied carrying capacities measured in what is known as Deadweight Tonnage (DWT). Let’s take a closer look at the different types of vessels and sizes. 

Dry bulk carriers

Dry bulk carriers transport large quantities of dry goods. These vessels fall into roughly eight different sizes.

Handysize vessels have a carrying capacity of 15,000 to 35,000 DWT and range in length from 130m to 150m with a 10m draught. They typically contain five cargo holds for diversified storage with four on-deck cranes. Their shallow draught and small size allow them to operate in most ports across the world, making them the most common bulk carrier over 10,000 DWT.

Handysize vessels can carry a variety of dry bulk cargo, including iron ore, coal, cement, phosphate, finished steel products, wooden logs, fertilizer, and grains. These vessels are typically built in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, India, and the Philippines.

Handymax vessels with more modern builds can carry between 35,000 and 48,000 DWT. Measuring up to 150m to 200m in length with a draft of 11m to 12m, they have five cargo holds and four on-deck cranes, making them popular for unloading cargo in ports without sophisticated infrastructure.

When used as dry bulk carriers, they transport iron ore, coal, cement, finished steel, fertilizer, and grains, and they are most commonly built in Japan, South Korea, and China.

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Supramax vessels are medium-sized vessels with a carrying capacity between 48,000 and 60,000 DWT, with a typical draught of 12.2m and 199m length. Because of their smaller size, Supramax vessels can enter and exit smaller ports.

An ultramax cargo ship that could be part of a marine finance portfolio at sunset dwarfing onlookers

Ultramax bulk carriers are medium-sized vessels. Larger than Supramax vessels, they have a carrying capacity generally between 60,000 to 65,000 DWT. These vessels are considered an upgrade over the smaller Supramax carriers.

Panamax vessels are medium-sized vessels with a carrying capacity of 65,000 and 80,000 DWT. These vessels are primarily used for transporting products in the Caribbean and Latin America. These vessels each have seven cargo holds and are designed to fit the locks of the Panama Canal. New size regulations set by the Panama Canal Authority mean these vessels can now reach dimensions of 366m in length, 49m in width, and 15.2m in depth.

Kamsarmax vessels are medium-sized vessels with a carrying capacity between 80,000 and 85,000 DWT. These vessels are specialized in that they designed to fit both through the Panama Canal, as well as fit within Port Kamsar in West Africa.

Post-Panamax vessels are larger vessels with carrying capacities between 85,000 and 110,000 DWT. Post-Panamax ships are also designed to fit through the Panama Canal.

Capesize vessels are the largest dry bulk marine option, measuring roughly 230m to 270m long with a draft of 17m and nine cargo holds. Due to their larger size, only a few ports can accommodate them while fully loaded. Their carrying capacity is between 110,000 and 200,000 DWT. Capesize vessels are used in the transportation of coal, iron ore, and commodity raw materials—most commonly between Australia and China, and Brazil and China.

Tanker vessels

Tankers carry a homogeneous cargo of gases or liquids (such as bitumen, fuel oil, cycle oils, edible oils, diesel/gas oil, kerosene, gasoline, petrol, paraffin, and even wines and molasses). Since tankers are not restricted by space constraints and are low-speed vessels with a maximum cruising capacity of 15.5 knots, they run on large marine diesel engines.

Our tanker offerings use the flexible market scale (as opposed to the fixed AFRA scale) that rates tankers on deadweight tonnage (DWT). They break down into five categories.

Handysize vessels are smaller vessels with a carrying capacity generally between 10,000 and 40,000 DWT. Due to their smaller size, Handysize ships can access ports of all sizes.

A large red cargo ship on the open ocean meant to highlight marine finance concepts in alternative investments

MR (Medium Range) vessels are medium-sized vessels with a carrying capacity generally between 40,000 and 55,000 DWT. MR vessels are often used to transport cargo shorter distances. For example, between Europe and the East Coast of the United States.

LR1 (Long Range 1) vessels are medium-sized vessels with a carrying capacity generally between 55,000 and 80,000 DWT. LR1 vessels are extremely common vessels because they are used to carry both refined products as well as crude oil.

Aframax vessels are roughly 245m in length. Their carrying capacity of 80,000 to 120,000 DWT makes them ideal for short- to medium-haul crude oil transport. They are most common in small harbors that cannot accommodate VLCC tankers (see below) and are used by non-OPEC countries with lower crude oil production. Common routes include South America to the U.S. Gulf region through the Caribbean, North Africa to Southern Europe through the Mediterranean, the former Soviet Union to Northern Europe through the Black Sea and the North Sea, and Southeast Asia.

Suezmax vessels are typically 285m in length and are the largest vessels able to pass through the Suez Canal, with a carrying capacity between 120,000 to 200,000 DWT and beams of roughly 50 to 77.5m. Before recent canal upgrades, the maximum-allowed draught was 18.90m, but ships built after 2017 have a draught of 21.95m.

VLCC (Very Large Crude Carriers) vessels can reach up to 470m in length with a beam of 60m, though standard VLCC vessel dimensions are 300 to 330m in length, 58m width, and 31m in depth. With a carrying capacity of 200,000 to 320,000 DWT, VLCCs can carry huge amounts of crude oil in a single trip and are sometimes referred to as Supertankers. They are commonly used for long-haul crude transportation from the Persian Gulf to Europe, Asia, and North America and can traverse the Suez Canal. This means they are also used frequently around the North Sea, Mediterranean, and West Africa.

A container ship as seen on the ocean carrying cargo meant to highlight opportunities in marine finance

Container vessels

Container vessels are designed to carry large quantities of cargo stored in shipping containers. Container ships fall into roughly four categories.

Feeder vessels are smaller vessels with a carrying capacity generally under 3,000 TEU. They refer to ships that travel short distances to carry cargo to and from larger vessels—these larger vessels are often referred to as “mother vessels.”

Intermediate vessels are small to medium-sized vessels with a carrying capacity generally between 3,000 and 7,999 TEU.

Neo-Panamax vessels (or also referred to as New Panamax vessels) are medium to large-sized vessels with a carrying capacity generally between 8,000 and 14,999 TEU. These vessels were constructed to take advantage of the larger dimensions of the newer locks at the Panama Canal.

Post-Panamax vessels are large vessels with a carrying capacity generally above 15,000 TEU. Post-Panamax vessels are ships that are too large to pass through the Panama Canal.

Final Words

Whether it’s dry bulk carriers, tankers, or container ships, each vessel plays a crucial role in moving goods across the world. From Handysize to Capesize, and Handysize to VLCC, each vessel has unique characteristics and capabilities that make it suited for specific cargo and routes. So next time you see a ship on the horizon, remember the vital role it plays in our global economy!

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