The Freight Series: Bulk Shipping

In the world of commercial shipping, there are three main categories of vessel used: container ships, tankers and bulk shipping. Bulk shipping refers to ships carrying traded dry commodities which are carried in ‘loose’ bulk format, and we are going to focus on these for this blog.

Sugar, grain, coal, iron ore and other dry goods are carried across the world in this way, and are referred to as ‘bulk’ because the goods are not packed or packaged but rather inserted into the hold as they are. The ships that carry these loose dry goods are called bulk carriers and come in many sizes. The name of each size depends on the deadweight (DWT), which means the weight that the ship can carry safely including the cargo and the other items on the ship, such as crew, fuel, stores and ballast. Ballast is a tank holding water that is used to balance the ship by increasing or reducing the amount of air in the tank.

Care must be taken to ensure that cargo never exceeds the deadweight of a ship, so as to avoid sinking or damage.

Bulk Sizes

A simple table showing the various classes

Bulk vessels are split into various classes depending on size, which we will go though in more detail below.

Once vessel size that sits outside of the traditional classes is the Mini Bulker (DWT of up to 15,000 tonnes). These are mainly used for short sailings and in the form of specialized vessels rather than traditional bulk carriers.

The Handy Class

A Handymax vessel

Handysize – DWT of up to 40,000 tonnes. These ships fit easily into most ports involved in the trading of raw sugar and so are common in the sugar industry. They tend to be used for shorter voyages and more coastal routes.

Handymax – DWT of up to 60,000 tonnes. This larger brother of the handysize is used for longer haul journeys that travel between continents.

Generally, the handy class vessels are fitted with their own ‘gear’, which is an industry term for the cranes needed for loading and unloading product from the hold.

Panamax Class

Supramax – DWT of up to 60,000 tonnes. These have now often replaced the handymax as new vessels are built.

Ultramax – DWT of up to 65,000 tonnes. New on the market, these vessels are usually equipped with an ‘eco main engine’ that reduces the amount of fossil fuels used, has an optimized hull shape and uses solar panels and batteries. There are a few variations in terms of specification, but generally they have been designed with sustainability in mind.

Panamax – DWT of up to 80,000 tonnes. Their name comes from the fact that they are the largest vessel able to transit the Panama Canal. The size of locks in this area restricts the size of vessel able to use the route, meaning that these vessels are not ordinarily used for sugar transportation.

Kamsarmax – DWT of up to 82,000 tonnes. Similar to the panama, this slightly larger vessel is the largest ship that can enter port Kamsar in Guinea, West Africa.

These vessels do not have their own ‘gear’ and so must use what is available at ports.

Capesize Class

A Capesize vessel

Capesize – DWT of up to 200,000 tonnes. Another ship that’s clue is in its name, the capsize is too large to fit through the Suez or Panama Canal and so must sail around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. Due to their huge size and DWT, these vessels are normally used for coal or iron ore rather than other dry goods.

These vessels do not normally carry their own ‘gear’ so need help from ports with the right equipment to load the commodities on and off.

Uses and applications

Handysize and Handymax bulk ships make up about 70% of the total dry bulk fleet of the world. This is mainly due to the versatility that these sizes offer in terms of ports that accommodate them.

Generally, dry bulk ships all steam at similar speeds of around 14 knots, meaning a sailing from Brazil to China takes about 30-35 days on average. Ship speeds used to be above 20 knots, but this led to harmful emissions, which is why low speeds are now more common and save 40% of fuel.

Sugar and other food ingredients only accounts for roughly 1.6% of the enormous bulk dry shipping market, but as we are in the dry commodities sector shipping in bulk is incredibly important to what we do at Czarnikow.

Author: Carys Wright