How Does Ocean Freight Work?

April 22, 2015

Seabridge Global Logistics News

Whether it’s shoes made in China or crude oil from India, the ability for businesses to ship materials and goods overseas by sea has brought about worldwide economic benefits. Each year billions of tonnes of goods are transported along principal trade routes, but have you ever considered how ocean freight works?

A quick break-down:

Ocean freight transports goods by high-capacity ships that transit regular routes on fixed schedules, although ocean freight has a high base cost, it scales extremely well, making it a popular choice.

Containerships and roll-on/roll-off ships are the most popular forms of ocean freight, carrying about 60 percent of the goods by value moved internationally by sea each year.

Goods need to be dropped to the port prior to being shipped. Depending on your incoterms, this will need to be arranged and paid for by either yourself or your supplier. Engaging a freight forwarder can ease navigating these complexities and help avoid confusion.


Once goods are delivered to the port, they are packed into the container and shipped to the destination port.

Container shipping is estimated to be two and half times more energy efficient than rail and 7 times more so than road.

The two most important. And most commonly used sizes today are the 20-foot and 40-foot lengths. The 20-foot container, referred to as a Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) became the industry standard reference so now cargo volume and vessel capacity are commonly measured in TEU.

The 40-foot length container – literally 2 TEU – became known as the Forty-foot Equivalent Unit (FEU) and is the most frequently used container today.

Container sizes are standard so that the containers can be most efficiently stacked – one on top of the other – and so that ships, trains, trucks and cranes at the ports can be specially fitted or built to a single size specification.

Proper loading or ‘stuffing’ of containers is very important to the safety and stability of the containers and the ships, trucks and trains that transport the containers.


Open sides – vegetables such as onions and potatoes

Tank containers – liquids such as chemicals, wine, vegetable oil

Flat racks – boats, vehicles, machinery or industrial equipment

Open tops – logs, machinery and odd sized goods

Reefer containers – Special refrigerated containers can control temperatures, allowing everything from meat, fruit, vegetables and dairy products, to chemicals and pharmaceuticals to travel across the world.

Each container has its own unique unit number, often called a box number that can be used by ship captains, crews, coastguards, dock supervisors, customs officers and warehouse managers to identify who owns the container, who owns the container, who is using the container to ship goods and even track the container’s whereabouts around the world.

Full Container Load (FCL) – you have the whole container to fill.

Less than Container Load (LCL) – you have one or more pallets put into a container along with other companies’ goods.


Cargo is typically too large or too heavy to be moved on container vessels such as haulage trucks, cars, even train carriages.

Vehicles are driven onto the ship via built-in ramps located stern-only, or bow-and-stern for quick loading/unloading. For this type of ocean freight some ships can accommodate a mix of vehicles and passengers; vehicles and containers; roll-on/lift-off capability; cars only on pure car carriers (PCC) and more.


Specially designed to transport unpackaged bulk cargo and liquids, such as grains, coal, ore and cement.

Making up 15% of the world’s merchant fleet, bulk cargo can present incredible challenges in loading and unloading, not to mention immense danger in transporting corrosive and combustible materials.

The transport of liquids presents unique handling and transport requirements. From pressurisation and vapour recovery to tank heaters, many tankers are designed for a specific cargo and specific route. Incredibly, these giants can carry anything from 25,000 to 550,000 tonnes of deadweight.


Carry goods that must be loaded individually, not in intermodal containers or in bulk (such as oil and grain).

Typically, cargo is delivered to the dock in advance and stored in a warehouse, which is then taken to the quay and lifted on board by crane. Loading and unloading is labour-intensive, with items lifted and stowed separately.


  • Containerships have the capacity to carry several large warehouses worth of goods on a single journey
  • A large containership engine weighs up to 2 300 tons about 1 000 times more power than a family car
  • Large containerships can be operated by teams of just thirteen people utilising sophisticated computer systems
  • The ships’ computer systems are highly advanced, enabling the precise routing, transport, loading and unloading of thousands of containers for every voyage
  • If all the containers from an 11 000 TEU ship were loaded onto a train, it would be 77 kilometers long
  • In an average year, a large container ship travels three-quarters of the distance to the moon. That means in its lifetime it travels to the moon and back nearly 10 times
  • A container of refrigerators can be moved from a factory in Malaysia to Los Angeles, a journey of roughly 14 484 kilometers, in just 16 days
  • Shipping is the most carbon-efficient mode of transportation
  • This involves quantifying several factors, including the emissions produced by particular fuels, the fuel efficiency of each form of transportation, the energy used by distribution centres and the emissions generated by different power-generation technologies (such as coal, natural gas or nuclear power) in those areas, and the emissions resulting from product packaging

Seabridge are experts in global logistics. Seabridge’s long-term relationships with leading ocean carriers not only guarantees capacity and competitive rates, it makes it possible to transport the most challenging of cargo. For your complete guide to sea freight, contact Seabridge today on 1800 727 195.