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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 containerized 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 (FLC)

A volume of cargo capable of filling an entire shipping container.

Less than container load (LCL)

A volume of cargo not capable of filling an entire shipping container.

Twenty Equivalent Unit (TEU) /

Short hand for identifying a 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 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 is loaded 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 ship.

Transhipment Service

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

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.

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.


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


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 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 below the main deck of a shipping vessel. 

Bulk Carrier

A vessel containing loose bulk cargo in a large central cargo hold. 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, unitized 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 specialized 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.

Sea Transport Arrangements

Very rarely are sea cargo vessels owned or wholly leased by single agencies that also solely utilize them for their own shipping purposes. The overall size, cost, time and general nature of sea freight necessitates that no single entity but those with massive and regular volumes of cargo could ever utilize an entire vessel at once. As a remedy to this, the vast majority of sea cargo is arranged through freight forwarders, and is negotiated based on the POL/POD, consignment size, type and special handling needs. Shippers sending any goods via sea should liaise with their forwarders to identify the correct modality of moving their cargo from one place to another.


  • Hull draft – Some vessels have drafts too deep for some harbors, which are limited by the natural topography of the ocean floor.
  • Offloading – Smaller and unimproved sea ports may lack the offloading equipment to move containers and bulky items. Vessels moving these items may need deck mounted cranes to move items themselves
  • Size – Vessels that are too long may not be able to adequately berth to offload cargo
  • Flag carrying vessels – Some vessels may be banned from entry to harbors due to their source origin or registered flag.

Sending Goods by Sea

Sea Transport Documentation

The overall requirements for and types of documentation used for sea transport remain consistent with most shipments (waybill, packing list, proforma, etc). There are documents specific to sea shipping however. These might include:


Non-traditional movement – there may be instances in which cargo is moved via a seafaring vessel in which no BOL is used. Such an instance might be when cargo is moved using ocean waterways without moving between two countries, when the sea carrier or vessel owner isn’t large enough to participate in regular maritime shipping practices, and when natural disasters or conflicts preclude the normal procedures associated with sea shipping. In such instances, individuals or organizations should still endeavour to utilize standard shipping best practices, such as use of packing list and waybill, to prevent loss or theft along the way.

Cargo Configuration for Sea Shipping

Cargo shipped via sea tends to require the lowest attention to detail, especially if cargo is shipped using standard shipping containers. There are still a few things shippers should know when prepping cargo for sea movement however.


  • Medical cargo – pharmaceuticals and consumables that have expiration dates must be handled with transit times in mind. Many countries won’t import medical goods with less than 18 months of shelf life left, a time constraint that starts at the point of customs. This means medical goods must be procured and shipped with even longer shelf lives. Shippers should know the import procedures of the intended destination and plan accordingly. Temperature sensitive items may need reefer storage, even if not expressly stated by the manufacturer.
  • Food stuffs – containerized food items should be prepped for long storage – special temperature requirements must be identified up front, and fumigation may be required prior to loading.
  • Dangerous Goods – sea shipping standards around dangerous goods are less stringent, but must still be accounted for. Some DG items are reactive to metal, meaning long term exposure to shipping containers might actually damage the container resulting in additional cost to the shipper. Other DG items become combustible with increased heat – even though cargo at origin or destination may not be exposed to extreme temperatures, containers can be offloaded and held in extremely hot climates while waiting transhipping on another vessel.



Sea Movement

In planning movements by sea, port capability and the control of port activity needs to be understood in order to assess any possible constraints that could impede the movement of goods. The following factors will indicate the suitability of a port to handle the planned movements:

  • The number, type and size of ships that can be handled at one time
  • Tpical Typical vessel waiting and discharge times
  • Availability of equipment to handle different types of consignment – for example, bulk, bagged, loose, containers etc., and its state of repair
  • Availability of labour, working hours and typical discharge rates for both manually
  • Unloaded cargo and containers
  • Operational factors that may constrain activity such as the risk of congestion or the impact of the weather at certain times
  • Port documentation requirements and the efficiency of procedures for clearing cargo
  • Storage facilities and infrastructure such as railways, roads