Types of Oceangoing Merchant Vessels

Ships used to transport cargo and/or passengers into the open ocean are often referred to as oceangoing merchant vessels. These ships are vital to the offshore industry—for both the completion of jobs (such as offshore drilling), and for the transportation of cargo. Below, we discuss the most common types of oceangoing merchant vessels seen on the open water.

Common Types of Merchant Vessels

  • Bulk Carriers: When cargo needs to be carried in unpackaged bulk (ex: iron ore, coal, grain, etc.), it is put on board a bulk carrier (also known as a "bulker"). These vessels have distinctive hatches on their decks designed to slide outboard, thus making both loading and unloading much easier. Per the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, a bulk carrier is "a ship constructed with a single deck, top-side tanks and hopper side tanks in cargo spaces." Bulkers account for around 15 percent of merchant fleets globally and can range in size from smaller single-hold mini-bulkers that carry around 10,000 deadweight (DWT) to ships that can carry up to 400,000 in DWT.

  • Containerships: These vessels are used to transport containerized cargo (cargo that has been stored in intermodal containers). The capacity of a containership is measured in twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), which is based on the volume of intermodal containers that are 20 feet in length. The smallest containerships (in the feeder category) have a capacity of 1,000 to 3,000 TEUs; larger containerships are known as ultra-large container vessels (ULCV) and have a capacity that exceeds 14,500 TEUs. Only 50 ports worldwide can accommodate containerships with a capacity greater than 10,000 TEUs.

  • Tankers: Vessels used to transport liquids/gases in bulk are known as tankers and tank ships; the most common versions of these vessels are oil tankers, chemical tankers, and gas carriers. Similar to other merchant vessels, tankers can range in size from vessels designed to serve small harbors to vessels designed for long hauls with a capacity of several hundred thousand tons. Tanker sizing is split into the following categories: general purpose tanker (10,000-24,999 DWT); medium range tanker (25,000-54,999 DWT); long-range 1 (55,000-79,999 DWT); long-range 2 (80,000-159,999 DWT); very large crude carrier (160,000-319,999 DWT); and ultra large crude carrier (320,000-549,999 DWT).

  • Specialized Ships: Certain merchant vessels categorized as specialized ships include vessels designed to transport heavy lift goods, to transport refrigerated cargo, to handle wheeled cargo such as cars (also known as roll-on/roll-off or RORO), and to lay underwater cables (also known as a cable ship).

  • Cruise Ships: Cruise ships are merchant vessels designed to carry passengers. These are essentially floating cities, where passengers get to enjoy the experience of a pleasure cruise that can last anywhere from a few days to several months. On these cruises, the ship itself is part of the experience and therefore can include everything from restaurants and buffets to dancing and swimming pools.

Do you have further questions about oceangoing merchant vessels? Contact our maritime law firm!

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