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 (FCL)

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 cargo is loaded onto a vessel and disembarks.

Port of Discharge (POD)

The port at which a vessel arrives and unloads cargo.

Direct Service

Vessel Schedule wherein cargo is loaded/unloaded from the same vessel.

Transhipment Service

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

Stripping

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.

Stuffing

Loading a container for shipping, at a 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.

Berth

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 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 cargo below the main deck of a shipping vessel.


Bulk Carrier

A vessel specially 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.

RoRo

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.

Stevedore

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 utilise 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 utilise 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.

In sea shipping, there are heavily trafficked and well-known routes that many vessels use known as “shipping lanes,” especially between high volume ports. Between these shipping lanes, there are also what is known as “shipping lines,” or fleets of shipping vessels privately owned and managed by a company or a consortium. In addition to shipping lines, there are also a variety of smaller merchant fleets and individual vessels who work on contract for cargo movement.

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 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 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. 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 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.

Dedicated Charters – Occasionally an agency or organisation will need to take full possession of a vessel for a single voyage or for an extended period of time. These vessel specific charters are governed by a contracting structure known as a “charterparty.” In a charterparty arrangement, the ship owner provides the vessel as a dedicated resource along with crew, and usually provides for the cost of fuel and maintenance, though the specifics of the arrangement are identified in the contract. Examples of dedicated charters in humanitarian aid might include:

Unique Concepts to Sea Transportation

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 free demurrage may vary for container and break bulk cargo based on the carrier agreement with the port, the shipping line companies, 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.

Vessel Limitations – Modern shipping vessels are becoming larger and more sophisticated, however it is extremely difficult - and at times impossible – to update seaports to accommodate these ships for a number of reasons. Additionally, many vessels might require additional specialised Material Handling Equipment (MHE) that isn’t always available in every port, especially under developed or neglected ports in countries prone to natural disasters and conflicts.  Limitations vessels might face include:

Port Operations

Seaports can be enormous compared to other ports of entry, such as an airport or a border crossing. Seaports must be large enough to accommodate vessels of various sizes, but also can have an extremely large storage and holding capacity. The largest container ports in the world process tens of millions of TEU containers each in a single year. Large ports can be extremely busy, with dozens of ships being loaded and offloaded with specialised cranes and MHE at any given time. Ports also tend to be highly secured and scrutinised – due to the high volume of goods, illegal smuggling and human trafficking have become large concerns for many countries. Based on the sheer size of the operations, vessels may not be able to berth or off load for days or even weeks, instead having to moor off coast waiting for berthing space to open up. It’s also very common for cargo to be delayed while being offloaded and moved around a port, especially in chaotic post emergency periods.

Port limitations can also impact the speed at which cargo can be offloaded, or even prevent offloading at all. Things such as the number of operating cranes, the number of available truck drivers or the available hands to move cargo may lead to significant port congestion. The lack of the appropriate handling equipment can adversely limit a port to the point it cannot service some vessels. In countries or locations with limited or unimproved facilities, it may be impossible to off load certain vessels. Small ports may lack cranes sufficient to move full sized containers or oversized cargo, requiring vessels to carry their own on-board MHE. Even if a port has proper MHE, if the equipment is old, poorly serviced, or the ground operators have limited or poor training, offloading and releasing cargo can be slowed down substantially. 

Example Port Operation Overview:

Material Handling Equipment

Ports require specialised equipment to load and offload cargo from vessels. In sea operations, cargo normally arrives containerised, however cargo can also be oversized or bulk. Special equipment is required to properly load and offload items. 

Reachstacker - Large vehicle designed to pick up and carry full-sized containers around a container yard. Reachstackers have different sizes, and may have maximum load limits under a fully loaded container. Reachstackers are usually not used for offloading vessels, unless the the vessels are small and in in unimproved port conditions - they are mostly used for rearranging containers in a shipping yard, or loading containers onto truck bodies for onward movement. 

Shipside Container Crane - A large crane capable of offloading full-sized containers directly from the deck of a ship. Shipside container cranes may either be stationary, or capable of moving to meet the needs of the operation. The cranes are usually very tall - well above the decks of most vessels rated for that port and are capable of lifting loads up to the max weight of containers. 

Gantry Crane - Another form of movable container crane, one that specifically straddles both side of a vessel or stack. Gantry cranes can be large enough to reach over the deck of an entire vessel, but may also be used for loading and offloading trucks or piles of cargo. 

Unloader / Grain Vacuum - A specialised tool for offloading loose, bulk cargo such as grain or sand with an extended adjustable arm that reaches into the deck of a bulk carrier. Unloaders can have a mechanical function, scooping and lifting bulk cargo like an elevator inside the arm. There are also configurations where the arm is a giant vacuum for grains called a "grain vac", that pushes loose grain out the back to a pre-set destination. 

Ship with Deck Mounted Cranes - Some ships may require their own onboard mounted MHE, such as deck mounted cranes. On-board MHE helps alleviate the problem of working within ports that have limited handling equipment. 

Grain Conveyor - A large mechanical conveyor that can either lift and dump grain, or be used to slowly offload grain from the belly of a bulk carrier. If used for offloading, there is usually a bagging operation occurring at the receiving end. 

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:

Bills of Lading (BOL) - The BOL 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. 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:

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.

The BOL is the major shipping document and has three roles:

Terms of the BOL:

There are three different entries possible in the box headed “consignee”:

Other commonly used BOL terms:

Example BOL:

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 organisations should still endeavour to utilise 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 a lower 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.

Container Shipping

Modern shipping containers have standardised interior, exterior and door dimensions. Containers also have pre-defined weight limits, set by the structural integrity of the containers and the rating on the cranes and vehicles used to move them. Shipping container weight will often be discussed in the following terms:

Containers may be made of different materials, altering the tare and gross weight availability.

Example container carrying vessel:

Though there are dozens of varieties of containers available to meet a number of needs, the vast majority of containers what are known as “dry containers” at either 20 foot (TEU) or 40 foot (FEU) sizes. TEU and FEU are totally enclosed, and though they are called “dry” are not actually hermetically sealed. The containers themselves are lockable and stackable, with two TEUs being able to be loaded on top of or below an FEU. Standard dry containers are mostly made from steel, however aluminium varieties are available.

As containers move, they are physically "sealed." A seal is usually a metal or plastic lock that can only be closed once. The only way to remove the lock is to physically cut it, thereby "breaking the seal." Container seals don't provide any form of structural security to the containers themselves, rather they are used as the process of tracking chain of custody. A proper container seal should have a tracking serial number on it. That serial number should be recorded at the point of sealing, and communicated to the ultimate recipient for cross reference. If the seal on the container at the receiving end does not match match the seal at the beginning of the journey, then theft or tampering may occur. Based on the volume of sea shipping, container numbers are frequently only checked if there is problem with the piece counts or product identification. 

Container Chain of Custody:

Stripping/Stuffing Process

Example Container Seals for Shipping Containers 

The process of stuffing/Stripping and sealing/unsealing can be entirely outsourced to a third party. Many organisations who deal with less than full container loads rely on consolidators or third parties to take and ship their cargoes for them, ensuring all formalities are taken on their behalf. Self managed stuffing/stripping and sealing/unsealing is largely only useful for shippers who move large volumes of cargo and have robust supply chain monitoring processes in place. 

When planning shipments in an TEU or FEU, shippers should consider the width, height, and total volume of a container. As an example, the interior width of a standard FEU is just under 2.4 meters while the width of a standard north American pallet is just over 1 meter on the short end while just over 1.2 meters on the long end; loading using this pallet type using any side by side configuration will inevitably mean losing some usable free space. The same goes for oversized pallets – pallets of excessive height will not be able to fit through doors if they exceed the door height, especially if pallets are moved by a hand truck or other form of MHE, meaning there will still be several centimetres of clearance required for the pallet to be picked up off the ground.

Cargo that is loose loaded into a container by hand may be able to fill up every available space, but loading and offloading cargo by hand can take extremely long periods of time. Unless a transporter is willing to do a drop and pick, the use of handloading may even be prohibitive. Additionally, many containers may be emptied and transloaded onto another truck where intermodal arrangements are not available, which would delay the process even further while increasing the risk of damage to cargo. In large scale response operations, shippers may opt to use palletised loading just to speed up the front and rear ends of the delivery.


TEU and FEU Dry Container


Type

Container Weight

Interior Dimensions

Door

Gross

Tare

Net

Length

Width

Height

Capacity

Width

Height

(kg)

(kg)

(kg)

(m)

(m)

(m)

(m3)

(m)

(m)

20 ft

24,000

2,370

21,630

5.898

2.352

2.394

33.2

2.343

2.28

40 ft

30,480

4,000

26,480

12.031

2.352

2.394

67.74

2.343

2.28

Outside of the standard TEU and FEU dry container, there are several common types of shipping containers to meet different needs.

 

Refrigerated "Reefer" Containers


Type

Container Weight

Interior Dimensions

Door

Gross

Tare

Net

Length

Width

Height

Capacity

Width

Height

(kg)

(kg)

(kg)

(m)

(m)

(m)

(m3)

(m)

(m)

20 ft

24,000

3,050

20,950

5.449

2.29

2.244

26.7

2.276

2.261

40 ft

30,480

4,520

25,960

11.69

2.25

2.247

57.1

2.28

2.205

 

Open Top Containers


Type

Container Weight

Interior Dimensions

Door

Gross

Tare

Net

Length

Width

Height

Capacity

Width

Height

(kg)

(kg)

(kg)

(m)

(m)

(m)

(m3)

(m)

(m)

20 ft

24,000

2,580

21,420

5.629

2.212

2.311

32

2.33

2.263

40 ft

30,480

4,290

26,190

11.736

2.212

2.311

64.4

2.33

2.263

 

Flat Rack Containers


Type

Container Weight

Interior Dimensions

Door

Gross

Tare

Net

Length

Width

Height

Capacity

Width

Height

(kg)

(kg)

(kg)

(m)

(m)

(m)

(m3)

(m)

(m)

20 ft

30,480

2,900

27,580

5.624

2.236

2.234

27.9

N/A

N/A

40 ft

34,000

5,870

28,130

11.786

2.236

1.698

27.9

N/A

N/A

 

High Cube Containers


Type

Container Weight

Interior Dimensions

Door

Gross

Tare

Net

Length

Width

Height

Capacity

Width

Height

(kg)

(kg)

(kg)

(m)

(m)

(m)

(m3)

(m)

(m)

40 ft

30,480

3,980

26,500

12.031

2.352

2.698

76.3

2.34

2.585

45 ft

30,480

4,800

25,680

23.544

2.352

2.698

86

2.34

2.585

Oversized Cargo

Sea shipping is ideal for extremely large cargo; the cargo holds of larger ships can handle excessively large items, while the MHE used in port operations can handle weights not common in air or trucking. For transportation of oversized items, shippers must obtain proper exterior dimensions, and in the case of machine equipment, should obtain detailed material handling specifications available from the manufacturer or in the equipment manual. Non containerised shipments may take some time to formalise, as a break bulk carrier with the appropriate size hold and free space may not be readily available. Additionally, it may be difficult to find vessels utilising the correct routing to arrive at a shipper’s intended destination. Shippers should begin conversations early with forwarders to determine the time and information needs to successfully ship bulk cargo.

Bulk Dry / Loose Cargo

Sea faring vessels have a unique capacity to carry enormous quantities of un-packaged bulk cargo; cargo that is loose dry cargo such as grain or ore. Bulk carriers can hold high volumes of loose items in one or a few large cargo holds in the middle of the vessel. Unlike containerised vessels, it is highly unlikely that bulk carriers would undergo a transhipment process – the act of getting loose bulk off and back on a ship is very energy intensive. Bulk carriers require special equipment and training to load and off load. Loading can occur with cranes or grain elevators, while offloading requires special cranes to scoop or even suck up fine granules. Depending on the needs on the ground, bulk cargo operations might even undergo bagging directly at the point, to facilitate quick loading onto to trucks for onward movement. Bulk cargo vessels are common for food operations in humanitarian response.

Physical Cargo Needs

Due to the long duration of sea shipping, shippers should be mindful of cargo that may have sensitives to temperature, or have specific expiration dates. Cargo shipped in a container along regular shipping lanes may easily take up to two months to reach its destination, especially when customs clearance and demurrage are taken into account. Containers will remain sealed, and will be exposed to the sun and elements throughout the duration of its journey, meaning contents can be subject to extreme heat or extreme cold.

Planning 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:

Where the movement of goods is to an area under the control of the local public authority, a clear understanding of the requirements covering movement of goods must be obtained from the appropriate authority prior to initiating any movement.

Templates and Tools

Guide - Container Specifications