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Most of the world’s cargo is shipped via container vessels. They vary in their dimensions, which will influence through where they may or may not transit. That is not all: there are multiple other types of ships journeying across our planet’s oceans, all dedicated to specific commodities and cargo types. The Freight Forwarding Experts share a quick recap of the world of ships as it stands today.

A Little History of the Container Vessel

If you have read our article on container types and sizes, then you know that the first container vessel was actually a tanker vessel (find out more on these ships), the Ideal X, which journeyed from New Ark, New Jersey to Houston, Texas on April 26th, 1955. It carried just under 60 containers. 

Today, the largest containerships can carry well over 20,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). A 20-foot container measures 1 TEU, a 40-foot container measures 2 TEU, meaning that large containerships carry thousands of containers. The technical progress and size growth that containerships have experienced is astonishing! The ability to load more cargo onto one single ship increases efficiency and thus reduces carbon emissions. The popularity of the containership is due to the multi-modal quality of the standard ISO container, which can be loaded onto trucks or transported by rail. With cranes now widely available in major global ports, it is fast and easy to load the containerships.

Modern containerships have their holds (the space where the cargo is stored) divided into bays with cell guides (they are also referred to as cellular ships) in which the crane operators can snugly fit the 20- and 40-foot containers. This enables efficient, speedy loading. 45-foot containers are then stored above the deck. In some ships, the hold is capped with a hatch cover. Container vessels vary by many design element but it is worth mentioning that some may be equipped with cranes. Such ships are referred to as geared (as opposed to gearless ships, which do not feature a crane) or as lift-on/lift-off (LoLo). While this means that these vessels can visit ports that do not offer cranes, those are becoming rarer – and so are LoLo containerships. 

  • The correct arrangement of the containers on the ship is called the stowage plan. A container vessel typically calls at several port during its journey: each time the ship berths at port, a certain number of containers will be loaded or unloaded. Correct container arrangement is key to port handing efficiency – imagine having to unload a container and realize that it is located at the bottom of the vessel bay, under a stack of other containers! 

    It is the joint responsibility of the port planner and the chief vessel officer to design an efficient stowage pla It also contributes to the safety of life at sea. Uneven weight distribution across the vessel can have dramatic consequences, as the vessel can bend. Stacking heavier cargo on top of a container stack can cause it to collapse and threaten the life of the sailors. Refer to our Verified Gross Mass and Safety of Life a Sea (SoLaS) resources to make sure your cargo is transported safely.

All modern containerships are equipped with an Automatic Identification System (AIS). This device shares the GPS coordinates of the ship, preventing collisions between vessels and providing visibility in difficult weather condition. It also enables track & trace services such as myDHLi.



Other Key Vessel Types

Cargo ships are classified on the basis of the type of cargo that they carry, their packaging (or lack thereof) or the way it is meant be loaded onto the vessel.

  • It was here before there were any containership. Garments, chemicals, foods… These ships can host a variety of items, but they all need to be packaged – and loaded – individually in boxes, crates or barrels. These goods are referred to as general or break-bulk cargo.

    Contrary to container vessels, cranes will not do! The popular image of a dock worker carrying a sack over to the dock of a ship is directly linked to the widespread usage of these vessels in centuries prior. 

    Get to know DHL Ocean Special and Ocean Charter to ship your non-containerized loads.

  • These ships carry liquid cargo, most often oil and gas. Tank ships can also be used to carry chemicals or foodstuff. With dry bulk and modern container ships, they are amongst the largest ships to roam the planet.

  • Whereas LoLo ships are equipped with cranes, RoRo vessels are built with ramps that enable the loading and unloading of vehicles (cars, trucks…) by means of… rolling! 

  • As their name suggests, these vessels can host multiple cargo types: one can be equipped with both ISO container bays and ramps for RoRo cargo, while another may be fitted to receive both liquid and dry bulk cargo. 

  • Much like reefer containers, refrigerated ships are temperature-controlled and suitable for sensitive goods. While reefer containers enable consistent atmosphere control and temperature monitoring from door to door, reefer vessels are still frequently used for perishables commodities.

    Make sure your temperature-sensitive goods are transported in the best conditions with DHL Ocean Thermonet and DHL Ocean Reefer Perishables.



Containership Sizes

Containership sizes are often ranked by their TEU capacity, ranging from a few hundred TEUs for feeder vessels to 18,000 TEUs or more for Ultra-Large Container Vessels (UCLVs). 

Size matters because the ability to load more containers onto the ship is key to efficiency, but that is not all. Being able to operate in certain port terminals or being able to navigate through the Panama or Suez canals are just as defining a factor for efficient seaborne cargo transportation.

  • Feeder vessels have a capacity ranging from 200 to a maximum of 3,000 TEUs. They can operate in smaller ports that large container vessels cannot berth at. Their will feed cargo to these large ships – referred to as mother vessels – in deep-sea hubs and transport cargo from the large vessels back to shore. Strong coordination saves time and enables the larger vessels to cover a reduced number of ports. Feeder vessels can be geared or gearless.

    While they do not qualify as feeder vessels, container-carrying barges are used to transport containerized cargo through inland waterways that bigger vessels can also not enter. In this type of intermodal transport, the barge can carry up to 300 TEUs

  • Panamax and Neo-Panamax ships can be routed through the Panama Canal in Central America, as they are nearly as wide as its locks allow for. Neo-Panamax ships are wider (up to 49 meters), longer and deeper (a ship’s depth is also referred to as draft) than Panamax, as they fit the Canal’s new dimensions since larger locks have been constructed. This enables Neo-Panamax ships to carry up to 14,000 TEUs, while Panamax vessels can only carry around 5,000.

    Some transportation routes bypass the Panama Canal, thus imposing less restrictions on the design of the ships using it. These larger ships are called Post-Panamax. They gave way to other very large and now Ultra-Large Container Vessels (ULCV), carrying 18,000 TEUs and more. 

    • Suezmax ships can be routed through the Suez Canal– most often, this size covers tanker vessels. Their beam (the ship’s width) measures up to 50 meters, and can be even wider if the ship has a reduced draft.
    • Malaccamax are the largest ships, with a beam measuring up to 60 meters. They can fit through the Strait of Malacca and carry up to 18,000 TEUs.

    Even larger with an even greater cargo capacity (20,000 TEUs and up), some ships are referred to as Post-Malaccamax or Post-Suezmax, because their dimensions exceed what the strait or canal can allow for. 

Only a few ports across the globe, such as Rotterdam or Singapore, have the infrastructure to handle the ultra-large container vessels. However, even a Panamax ship will be unable to call at certain ports if it is fully loaded. The ports that very large or fully-laden ships can berth at are called deepwater ports, where the sea is at least 12 meters deep – as opposed to regular ports where depth can be no greater than 6 meters. As explored above, the feeder vessels will ensure the good connection between the terminals.

Get in Contact with our Experts to discuss your requirements or get a quick quote while it's on your mind!