When it comes to ocean transportation, some might automatically think of massive container vessels carrying loads upon loads of cargo with ease. Vessels such as the OOCL Hong Kong, COSCO Shipping Taurus or Madrid Maersk are on the list of the largest shipping vessels across the globe. Although these and other large-scale shipping vessels significantly contribute to the movement of goods in the supply chain, there are quite a few smaller vessels and ships that are just as important and continue contributing to the transportation of goods and fulfilling other purposes for those on the water.
Our goal is to give these smaller vessels credit where it is rightfully due, all while examining their position in the ocean transportation industry and where they are headed.
REEFER SHIPS (AND CONTAINERS)
Known for being smaller in size and scale, the reefer ship serves a special purpose in transporting goods, specifically perishable goods including food and other items requiring specific cooling capabilities. The major differentiator among these ships is their unique design exclusively for transporting cold items. These ships are typically equipped with specific access points and pallets capable of holding reefer containers (usually twenty-foot TEUs). Port Technology has appropriately referred to these reefer containers as “large fridges carried by containerships.”
Among the types of cargo commonly found on one of these reefer ships, bananas are considered the most important over fruits, meats, and even blood and other expensive types of cargoes, according to Port Technology. Other items include pharmaceuticals, flowers and other perishable food varieties. Without the capabilities of these reefer ships to ensure proper temperatures are maintained during transport, many parts of the supply chain would suffer.
The reefer ship does have its competition, however. The previously mentioned “large fridges” are becoming savvier and offering more in terms of temperature variations during transport. Port Technology reports that in 2018, only eight total reefer transport specialist companies existed out of the original 20+ back in 2000. These upgraded reefer containers are cited as the main culprit of this.
Known for its unique “raft” appearance and functions, the barge vessel stands out by offering much more than what meets the eye. This special type of transport method requires some powering from another source, meaning it does not have its own engine to keep it moving. Although there are some self-powered barges in the modern market, the classic barge in known for relying on a tugboat to move from point A to point B successfully. The barge maintains its position for inland transportation through its environmentally friendly benefits such as reduced fuel usage while transporting more in fewer miles compared to trucks.
According to a report from the American Maritime Partnership, more than 750 million tons of cargo are moved by the famous tug-and-barge combination every year, in addition the $30 billion economic impact in America. The barge industry is not exempt from disruptions, however. Last year proved to be a difficult time for the industry due to extreme flooding and trade tensions, directly impacting the agricultural sector. The Waterways Journal reported that 19.8 million acres went without planting in 2019 due to flooding.
“While some freight rates have appreciated, we still face downward pressure in agricultural and coal markets that need significant improvements in demand before the barge industry can realize a true recovery from what we have seen in the last three to four years,” commented Mark Knoy, president and CEO of American Commercial Barge Line (ACBL) in the report.
Think of tugs (or tugboats) as a “part two” of the barge vessel. The tug holds its own in the maritime world, however, and is not solely confined to pulling the barge in its lifetime on the water. Whether it is an ocean, sea, rescue or harbor tug, these much smaller helpers on the water work alongside non-powered vessels or other watercraft, including some sizeable ships that needs assistance when in trouble.
These small-but-mighty supporters have a decent range of displacement anywhere from 300 to 1,000 tons, depending on which type (ocean, rescue, harbor). Large tugs are of great importance to global navies. One of the largest of these types of tugs is the Russian Navy’s Vsevolod Bobrov, which boasts a 9,700-ton displacement and the ability to break ice when needed.
Think of these tankers as the hazmat vessels of the maritime shipping world. Ranging from S1, S2 and S3 rankings of ships, the chemical tankers on the ocean vary in degrees of safety measures based on the types of chemicals onboard and their requirements outlined by the International Bulk Chemical Code (IBC). These tankers vary in size but are typically anywhere from 5,000 dwt all the way up to 50,000 dwt, although the larger tankers are not as frequently seen. These ships come equipped with individual deep well pumps, pipelines and other systems to ensure minimum risk of exposure and potential contamination.
Chemical tankers are a different breed of ships as they come with an increased set of risks from the liquids they transport. Among common risks, cargo compatibility, cargo spillage, toxicity and flammability all pose potential problems for those onboard and the environment. Compliance simply cannot be subpar in efforts when it comes to transporting chemicals and leading chemical carriers such as Odfjell Tankers, Fairfield Chemical Carriers, and B+H Shipping continue to make waves in the transport of chemicals and other related liquids across the globe.
These are just a few of the various types of watercraft supporting the global supply chain. Without these ships guiding the way, many of the things needed to keep domestic and global economies afloat would not be as easily accessible, transportable, or available. As containerships and other mega-vessels continue to challenge the ocean shipping landscape, it is important to consider the ways these smaller ocean vessels and ships can transform to better meet market demands while supporting sustainable operations. At this point in time, these smaller players in ocean shipping are here to stay.