This guide details the use of sea freight for the transportation of goods. It details how international shipping works and provides you with the necessary information to choose the correct shipping option for the movement of your goods. It also outlines the different vessels used in international shipping; the main considerations affecting sea freight costs and provides an overview of the documents required when transporting goods by sea.
The types of sea shipping
There are many different types of ship used for international sea freight; the differences reflecting the various requirements of importers and exporters, with particular vessels used to transport different types of cargo. Below is a summary of the different types of vessels used:
- Roll-on roll-off, or ‘ro-ro’ vessels are used to carry both haulage and passenger vehicles
- Container vessels are used to transport standard 20′ or 40′ containers
- Tankers are used to carry bulk liquids, such as oil and gas
- General cargo ships will carry all types of loose packed cargo
- Bulk carriers are used for the transportation of large volume, single commodity loads, such as coal, grain and ores
Trade vessels essentially operate in two ways:
- As liner vessels operating on fixed routes, and usually with a standard tariff. This sector is dominated by roll-on roll-off vessels, container and general cargo ships
- Or as charter vessels operating according to the demands of the organsiation chartering them.
The way in which goods are transported onto ships
There are three main ways in which goods are transported on ships:
Loaded in containers
Container shipping dominates international shipments. The benefits of container shipping is the ease of intermodal transit, (ie containers can be off-loaded and transferred directly to a road or rail vehicle); the ability to offer a door to door service; the speed and efficiency of loading / unloading and the obvious financial impact of such and finally, the security of the goods during transit.
There are many different types of container, such as refrigerated and open topped containers, however the most commonly used containers are the 20ft & 40ft containers. Their respective dimensions and capacity are as follows:
20ft: 589cm x 235cm x 239cm (h) – capacity 33.2 cubic metres
40ft: 1,203cm x 235cm x 239cm (h) – capacity 67.7 cubic metres
Break bulk is a term used to refer to any non bulk goods which aren’t containerised, such as goods on pallets, crates, or in drums or sacks. This form of transportation tends to be used for specialist trades, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, or for transport to smaller ports which may not have the necessary infrastructure to handle container cargo.
Used for the transportation of large quantities of certain commodities, such as coal, ore, oil etc.
Key international shipping routes
The main international shipping routes reflect the flow of world trade, with sailings being most frequent on those routes where the trade volumes are the largest and therefore demand the greatest.
For sailings into the UK, by far the busiest routes are those from the Far East, especially China. The North Atlantic route, which links Western Europe with the USA and Canada, is also a busy route. Sailings from the Middle East for the transport of oil, as well as routes to India, Australia, East and West Africa and Central and South America are also particularly busy.
Although there are services from the UK to all the main trading economies, if your goods are destined for a country with little trade with the UK, they may need to be transshipped to another local sailing during the final leg of the journey.
There will normally be a number of different options by which your goods can reach their final destination. These can be explored in detail by discussing them with freight forwarders who will have knowledge of the most cost effective and time efficient routes.
The costs of international shipping
There are a variety of factors which will impact the cost of moving goods by sea. Essentially there are two elements: the actual cost of the sea freight charged by the vessel operator, and the costs related to the handling and clearance of the goods at the ports of origin and destination.
Various factors will influence how these charges are calculated:
- The actual ocean freight is usually charged according to the shipping lines standard tariff, although larger shippers and certain freight forwarders may be able to negotiate preferential discounts
- Rates for charter vessels will depend on the supply and demand conditions prevalent at the time of charter
Other factors that will impact the final price include:
- The different rates for specific categories of cargo
- Congestion charges at the busier ports
- Currency adjustment factor (CAF), which takes into account the exchange rate changes during transit
- Bunker adjustment factor (BAF), which takes into account fuel price fluctuation
- Surcharges levied by the ports or shipping lines to cover the costs associated with different regulatory regimes
Another factor relating to containerised goods is whether or not you are shipping a full container load (FCL). Most shipping lines have tariffs based on container rates, making it far more economical to ship a full container. If your consignment is less than container load (LCL), it may be worth consolidating your cargo with that of other importers / exporters, in which case you will only pay for the weight and volume related to your own goods.
Establishing the most cost effective way to transport your goods can be a complicated task. You can either research and cost the various different options yourself, or employ the services of a freight forwarder to handle these issues for you..
Documentation for moving goods by sea
Transporting your goods by ocean shipping, as with most aspects of international trade requires the completion of a wide variety of documents. Below is a summary of the key documents:
Firstly you will need an Export Cargo Shipping Instruction which is a document that you provide to the shipping company which details your goods and your instructions for the shipment. If you employ the services of a freight forwarder they will complete this for you. You will also require one of the following:
- For hazardous cargo, a Dangerous Goods Note (DGN), which details the nature of the goods and the hazards they present
- For non hazardous cargo, a Standard Shipping Note (SSN), which provides the port of loading the information they require to handle your goods correctly.
In addition to the above, you will also require one of the following:
- A Bill of Lading. This is issued by the carrier and shows that the goods have been received. It also provides proof of a contract of carriage and acts as a document of title to the goods
- A Sea Waybill. This is similar to the bill of lading, the main difference being that it doesn’t confer title, therefore making it quicker and easier to use. A Sea Waybill is used where there exists a well established relationship between a buyer and seller or when ownership doesn’t actually change hands, for example when the goods are being shipped between divisions of the same company
For a detailed breakdown of industry terminology you may want to visit the Baltic Exchange website.
Marine transit insurance
Marine transit insurance doesn’t just cover the ocean shipping; it also covers the transport of the goods by road, rail or air.
To ensure that your cover is valid, you need to prove that you have an ‘insurable interest’ in the goods, which means proving that the goods belong to you. A shipping lines liability for the goods they transport is set by various international conventions and doesn’t always amount to the full value of the goods, which is why it is important to ensure that you have your own cover.
Contract of sale & insurance
There are several risks involved in international trade such as loss, damage and delay (such as detention at customs). How the risks are shared between the buyer and seller should be detailed in the sales using Incoterms.
Incoterms are a standard set of terms detailing precisely when responsibility for costs and risks moves from the seller to the buyer, and can impact your insurance costs as the more costs you are responsible for, the greater the insurance cover you will need.
In an ex-works (EXW) transaction, a seller is considered to have delivered the goods once they’ve been collected from the factory or warehouse. Therefore, from that point onward all risk passes to the buyer, as such the buyer needs to ensure that the goods are insured from that point onwards.
In a delivered-duty-paid (DDP) sale, the risk passes to the buyer only when the goods have arrived at their destination and have been cleared. In such a scenario a seller needs to insure the goods up to that point after which the risk is transferred to the buyer. Under a DDP sale the buyer or seller is under no obligation to contract for insurance. There are only two terms in Incoterms (CIF and CIP) which require insurance to be contracted; in both cases it is the seller’s obligation to insure.
Further sources of information:
Related web sites you might find useful
Shipping terminology on the Baltic Exchange website
Container guidance from the Transport Information Service website
Incoterms checklist on the SITPRO website
Department for Transport website
Insurance guidance on the SITPRO website