Break Bulk V/S Bulk: Understanding the Two Types of Cargo Ships

As a business, it is important to know the cargo ships well because you will need to choose the right one for your transportation needs. Ship finance can help you with the money needs; while the information will help you find the right cargo that justifies your transportation needs.   

Two methods in which cargo is transported are in the form of bulk cargo and break-bulk cargo. In the initial days, goods were handled manually in the shipping industry. The products are loaded on the vehicles from the factories and taken to port warehouses where they will be then moved to a vessel. The unloaded goods are then moved to the side of the ship. They are kept along with other cargo that needs to be lowered into the hold. The dockworkers will then get them packed. After that, the ship would start on its journey and deliver cargo at different ports. This makes the whole process costly and time-consuming.


An English engineer named James Brindley came up with a box boat idea to transport coal in the late 18th century. Here 10 wooden containers were used for transportation between Worsley and Manchester. This single step completely revolutionized the shipping industry. At the later stage of development, it was turned into something that can be transported through rail and wagon. Later in the 19th and 20th centuries came the time of closed container boxes which were used for transportation between rail and road. They were more or less like the containers that we are using today.

Later, intermodal container shipping became much popular in the market in terms of choosing the cargo transportation mode. This was because of the international standards of coding and sizes it was following for identifying containers. 

Bulk shipping is for materials like grain which are loaded loose on the ship. Break bulk on the other hand is about shipping packaged goods. In both cases, you will need the right ships to carry the cargo as well as a terminal where you can get such kind of cargo loaded and unloaded.

What is break bulk cargo?

Break bulk cargo is the kind where the products are held in drums, bags, crates, and bales. Such cargo needs to be loaded individually. Manufactured goods like cars, tools, machinery, etc. are some of the good examples of break bulk cargo. Before container shipping became popular in the 1960s, break bulk ships were common in the market. Today, container ships are used to carry the majority of the non-bulk cargo. The use of containers or containerisation has reduced costs and time of shipping as well as lowered pilfering and cargo damage. Still, it can be said that demand for break bulk ships even exists today.

Shipping companies or charterers can use break bulk ships as intermediary carriers. This way, they can be used to move goods to larger ships that cannot come near the ports that are shallow. Here the cargo may belong to many clients. Here you will find ships in different sizes right from 2000 to 40000 deadweight tonnage.  

Break bulk warehouse

The warehouse at the dock where all the cargoes are loaded is termed as break bulk warehouse. The cargo will be delivered via rail or road for storage at the break bulk warehouse. The goods are then taken from the warehouse when the ship arrives at the dock and loaded abroad using cranes. Some of such vessels for break bulk cargo come with on-board cranes while the rest need the ones on the dock.

Benefits of break bulk cargo

  • Items can be shipped separately as you don’t have to combine the goods into a single container.
  • You can move large-sized cargos that otherwise will not fit into the container.
  • You can have your goods reaching the smaller ports where it is not possible for the larger ships to get in.
  • You can dispatch the items quickly as you will be spending less time on reconstruction and deconstruction.

What is the bulk cargo?

Bulk cargo is different from break bulk cargo and here goods are packaged loose on the ship. Commodities usually loaded and transported through bulk cargo are generally raw materials like coal, grain, iron ore, etc. The cargo loaded on the ship is unloaded at decided cargo terminals. Depending on the quantity of the cargo loaded on the ship freight rates for bulk shipping are charged per metric tonne. Dry bulk cargo that is transported is measured by tonnes of deadweight (DWT) by the shipping industry.

Knowing bulk commodity

The most common raw materials used for manufacturing are terms as dry bulk commodities. They are generally of two types. They are known as minor bulks and major bulks. Major bulk commodities include grains like rice & wheat as well as other things like ore, minerals, etc. Minor bulk commodities include manufactured products like sugar, steel products, and cement. Large dry bulk ships are used to carry such bulk commodities.

So, what are such large bulk ships!

Such ships are also called bulk carriers, ore carriers, and even bulkers. Chinamax is the largest bulk carrier ship and that has the amazing ability to carry 400,000 DWT. It is 360 metres long, draught is 24 metres and width is 65 metres. With such a size it restricts Chinamax from entering only certain deepwater ports. Around the world, some of the ports that can accommodate the Chinamax are China, Brazil, the Middle East, and Europe. The carrier comes with seven big compartments and also the loading doors which make loading and unloading trouble-free. The expense of freight has remained low with the growing size of such ships.

Benefits of bulk cargo

  • The cargo transportation becomes less expensive as more can be moved in a single time.
  • Such cargo can meet the needs of multiple customers on a single voyage. 

To sum up

Here we have seen what bulk cargo and break bulk cargo stands for. Here we also saw how containerisation has developed over centuries and got polished with time to meet the changing transportation needs of businesses to move cargo from one place to another. Understanding the kinds of cargo ships and their role in maritime shipping will help you choose wisely in terms of cost-effectiveness, speed, and reliability.

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Christophe Rude

Christophe Rude

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