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Cargo transport by sea is by far the cheapest per kilogram per kilometre moved relative to the other major forms of transport used by other humanitarian agencies, and is convenient for bulky pre-planned consignments. Sea transport is unfortunately also one of the slowest methods of delivering cargo as well. Sea transport will likely not be used to service immediate needs in rapid on-set disasters, and is more appropriate for pre-positioning or to serve post disaster and longer term needs. 

Common Terms in Sea Transport

Shipping Container

A standard predefined set of containerised shipping units that are used throughout all sea shipments.  Shipping containers come in many variations to meet the needs of different shipments. Containers also have unique container numbers that can be tracked, and when in movement containers will be sealed using industry standard container seals. The vast majority of containers come in 20 foot and 40 foot dimensions.

Full Container Load (FLCFCL)

A volume of cargo from a single party or consignment capable of filling an entire shipping container.

Less Than Container Load (LCL)

A volume of cargo from a single party or consignment not capable of filling an entire shipping container.

Twenty Equivalent Unit (TEU) / 

Short hand for identifying a measure of volume equivalent to the container size and identifying slot space on a dock or a ship.   One 20-foot container is equal 1 TEU.

Forty Equivalent Unit (FEU)

Short hand for identifying a measure of volume equivalent to the container size and identifying slot space on a dock or a ship.   One 40-foot container is equal 1 FEU or 2 TEUs.

Port of Loading (POL)

The port at which a vessel cargo is loaded onto a vessel and disembarks.

Port of Discharge (POD)

The port at which a vessel arrives and unloads cargo.

Direct Service

A container that leaves and arrives on the same shipVessel Schedule wherein cargo is loaded/unloaded from the same vessel.

Transhipment Service

A shipment where a container changes multiple ships throughout the transport.

Live Load / Unload

When a , where cargo is offloaded at another port to connect to the vessel destined to the final point of delivery. There can be a single transhipment or multiple transhipments.

Live Load / Unload

When a forwarder or transport company sends or drops a container at a shipper’s facility and waits for the container to be loaded / unloaded without leaving within a stipulated period of time.

Drop and Pick

When a forwarder or transport company leaves a container at a shipper’s facility for one or more days without being present for the loading / unloading.


Removing contents from a container, either at the port or consignee’s location. May or may not involve breaking the container seal; a container may be opened prior to delivery for a variety of reasons including inspection and breaking down of a consolidated consignment. Also sometimes called destuffing or devanning.


Loading a container for shipping, at porta container freight station, consignees’ location or consolidation warehouse somewhere in the middle. Sealing the container may or may not occur at point of stuffing.

Shipside / Quayside

Storage and handling of cargo occurring at a port alongside or near a sea transport vessel.


A designated location in a port where a vessel can park and moor, usually along the long edge of a ship to provide safe and easy offloading. Maritime vessels vary dramatically in size, both in length and depth under the water they may draft, so berthing space must be designated by a port captain or port official, and must match the needs of the vessel.

On Deck Stowage

The placement of items cargo and containers stored on the surface deck of a ship for the duration of the transport. On deck refers to anything above below deck storage with free access to the air above the boat, however on deck storage might still start below the upper rim of the vessel.

Below Deck Stowage

The placement of items cargo below the main deck of a shipping vessel. 

Bulk Carrier

A vessel containing loose bulk cargo in a large central cargo holdspecially designed to transport unpackaged bulk cargo, such as grains, coal, ore, steel coils and cement, in its cargo hold(s). Bulk carriers are ideal for transport of grain or loose materials that may be removed with special equipment on the receiving end. Frequently, bulk carriers will require re-bagging on the receiving end of the shipment.

Break Bulk

Cargo transported in large, unitised quantities not contained in a standard shipping container. Break bulk cargo may be items like large machine parts, construction materials or even vehicles, and can be stored in specialised below deck compartments.


Any vessel that has capacity for vehicles to “Roll on / Roll off.” Might include regular vehicle ferry service, but also many long haul ships may have this capability.


A dock worker engaged with loading, offloading and management of maritime shipping activities.


Due to the sheer number of individual shippers that may be sending cargo on a single vessel, it’s extremely unlikely any one vessel will be departing from and arriving at the exact destination specified by the shipper. Cargo shipped via sea faring vessel will frequently use transshipment transhipment service, being  offloaded and reloaded onto two or more vessels while en route, staying in a secure port in between loadings while waiting for the correct vessel heading the correct destination. The linkages of a transshipment transhipment service are worked out by brokers and forwarders on behalf of the shipper, and shippers usually don’t get involved with routing, only becoming involved with cargo at the final destination.

Containerisation / Loose Item – The preferred method of shipping via sea is the use of containerisation units. Shipping containers, through their standardised construction, fit onto a wide variety of sea faring freight vessels. Containers are usually sealed at the POL, and as such can switch between multiple vessels and ports while en route with minimal risk of tampering or theft. Generally, shippers should seek to maximise their shipments by trying to reach a whole number of either 20 foot (TEU) or 40 foot (FEU) container or containers. Loads smaller than a full container load (FCL) might have to wait until a full container load is available, otherwise shippers might have to rely on what is known as “consolidation,” or sharing of one container with one or more other shippers. Consolidation Less than container load (LCL) cargo using consolidation might require waiting to find another shipper or shippers going to the same final destination as you. Consolidation also does not allow for fully unopened containers to be delivered to a consignee’s facility as the cargo will need to be broken down and separated at the port, which increases the chances of loss or theft.

Special items such as generators, vehicles that cannot fit into a container, or special handling containers like refrigerated containers (reefers) may also be transshipped transhipped using two or more vessels. For oversized or bulky items, they may also be shipped by the piece, however there may be fewer available vessels with the right stowage space heading to the correct locations, which might drive up costs and slow down the entire process of shipping.


Port Demurrage – Sea cargo in a port accrues demurrage at a different rate than airports or border crossings. Due to the size and complexity of port operations, containers and bulk cargo items are typically given two weeks of free storage before demurrage accrues. This port demurrage rate is variable however, and can change free demurrage may vary for container and break bulk cargo based on the carrier agreement of with the port, the shipping line companies, the ports and the local governments ranging from two days to fourteen days. 

Flag Carrying Vessel – The majority of the surface area of the world’s oceans are considered international waters, and vessels themselves may spend the majority of their time in non-incorporated international water. By binding international maritime law, all vessels must still be registered as a “flag carrier” for some country on earth. A vessel carrying the flag of a certain country does not mean the vessel was manufactured there, nor does it mean the crew or anything about the operation is connected to that country, it only means that’s the country the vessel is registered in. By regulation, vessels must spend at least some portion of the year docked in the country through which they are registered. Regulation also states that the country to which the vessel is registered has the ultimate authority and responsibility to enforce safety and pollution standards, and prosecute any violators under local law.


Bills of Lading (BOL) - The BOL – sometimes referred to as a “seaway bill” - is the transport waybill for a sea freight consignment. BOLs are conceptually one of the oldest mutually recognised forms of consignment tracking; traditionally seaborne trade was one of the few ways countries conducted official trade. The BOL states to whom and on what terms the goods are to be delivered at destination. Without an original It is one of the most crucial documents used in international trade in that it ensures the shipper receives their payment and the consignee receives their cargo, and without an official BOL the goods will not be released. Modern BOLs are highly standardised, and BOLs generated by different shipping lines will look almost identical in layout. Many shipping companies will require BOLs even if the vessel is not moving between two different countries – the BOL also represents a contract between the vessel owner and the owner of the good being shipped.

There are three types of BOL arrangements that can be used:

  • Original BOL - Consignee has to handover all three sets of original BOLs to their customs agent at destination to release the cargo. With original BOLs, possession of the goods is determined by possession o the BOL - whoever possesses the original BOLs may be entitled to demand possession of the  goods from the carrier. Shipments using original BOLs may be delayed if the documents are lost or not in hand at the time of clearing.
  • Seaway BOL – Original BOL is not required and cargo can be released directly to the consignee by their customs agent. Seaway BOLs are useful because the physical document does not need to be present, and the consignee can begin clearing as soon as cargo arrives. Many banks do not accept Seaway BOLs if a letter of credit is required however.
  • Telex Release BOL – In telex BOLs, the supplier surrenders the original BOL to their export/forwarding agent at origin and transmits using telex directly to customs at destination request to release of cargo to the consignee.

BOLs are usually issued in a set of three originals and several non-negotiable copies. The BOL is signed on behalf of the ship owner by the person in command of a ship or the shipping agent, acknowledging the receipt on board the ship of certain specified goods for carriage. It stipulates the payment of freight and the delivery of goods at a designated place to the consignee therein named.