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The Port of London today

The context: why sea-borne trade has changed
New types of ships
How the port of London has changed
Terminals of the port of London today
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New types of ships

The rise of specialist ships

The Liquified Petroleum Gas Carrier Lincolnshire
View full size imageThe Liquified Petroleum Gas carrier Lincolnshire. © NMM
General cargo ships – now known as 'break bulk' vessels - carry only a small share of today's sea-borne trade.

Some items, such as certain forestry products, still need to be packed in the traditional way, but most other goods are now carried in specialist ships.


Liquid bulk carriers

The chemical tanker Stolt Emerald
View full size imageThe chemical tanker Stolt Emerald. © NMM

Giant supertankers carrying huge quantities of crude oil are probably the best known and most recognisable of all merchant ships.

The category also includes vessels designed to carry refined oil products and many other chemicals and vegetable oils.


Ultra Large Crude Carrier Limnea
View full size imageThe supertanker Limnea.     © NMM

When crude oil was first shipped around the middle of the 19th century, it was transported in barrels or in special tins.

The first ocean-going tanker built to carry oil in bulk was the Gluckauf (1886). Her large tanks could be filled or emptied using a pump. At 2300 tons she was tiny compared to the modern giants.

The supertankers

The bow of the Limnea

View full size imageThe Limnea. © NMM

In western countries, demand for oil rocketed after the Second World War, and ever-larger ships became necessary to bring crude oil from the Middle East. The first supertanker was the 206,000 DWT Idemitsu Maru (1966).

The biggest ship ever built is the 564,000 DWT Seawise Giant (1979). 485 metres (1591 feet) long, she can carry more than 4 million barrels of crude oil. The giant crude carriers specialize in long-distance trade between the Gulf and the west or Japan. Smaller tankers remain in use for shorter routes.

Liquid Natural Gas (LNG)  Libra
View full size imageThe Liquified Natural Gas carrier Libra. © NMM
'Product' tankers carry petrol, aviation fuel or paraffin. This category includes LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) and LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) carriers, with their characteristic spherical tanks, and many smaller vessels used for transporting edible oils.

Dry bulk carriers

The ore bulk carrier LA Loma
View full size imageThe ore carrier LA Loma.  © NMM

A basic definition of dry bulk is any solid that is shipped without packing. The dry bulk carrier evolved from the ideas of Ole Skaarup.

He proposed a vessel with its machinery at the stern, and large, clear holds with wide hatch openings for easy cargo handling. The ship, the 19,000 DWT Cassiopeia, was launched in 1955. All bulk carriers since have followed her basic design.

The bulk carrier Kaien Maru
View full size imageThe bulk carrier Kaien Maru. © NMM

Dry bulk carriers, also known as 'bulkers', now play a vital role in sea-borne trade, carrying goods such as coal, grain, iron ore, aggregates (quarried or sea-dredged stone and sand) and scrap metal. 

They have grown since the days of the Cassiopeia. Some are almost as big as the supertankers. The 365,000 DWT Berge Stahl, built to carry iron ore, is 360 metres (1181 feet) long. 

Container ships

The container ship Norasia Pearl.
View full size imageThe container ship Norasia Pearl. © NMM

Containerization is the practice of carrying freight in containers of uniform shape and size for shipping.

Almost anything can be stored in a container, but they are particularly useful for the transport of manufactured goods.

Since the 1950s containers have revolutionised sea-borne trade, and now carry around 90% of all manufactured goods shipped by sea.

Tilbury Container Terminal: a container being lowered on to the Moreton Bay
View full size imageLowering containers on to the Moreton Bay.  © NMM

The modern container ship evolved from the ideas of Malcolm McLean, a truck operator from North Carolina who had branched out into shipping. He found that containers simplified the loading and unloading of ships.

Advantages of containers

The ASEA crane alongside the Moreton Bay
View full size imageThe ASEA crane loading the Moreton Bay. © NMM
Several factors made it no longer necessary to pack, unpack or store goods at the port:

  • by packing and unpacking the containers at the place of production rather than at the quayside
  • by moving containers to the port by lorry or rail
  • by using quayside cranes to lift the containers onto and off the ship.

Tilbury Container Terminal: the Jervis Bay alongside OCL's Berth 39.
View full size imageThe container ship Jervis Bay at Tilbury.  © NMM

The traditional teams of stevedores and porters became redundant, and large quantities of goods could be shifted far more quickly than before.

With fewer workers to be paid and less time spent in the ports, containerization meant huge savings for the shipping firms.


Container cells in the Moreton Bay
View full size imageContainer cells on the Moreton Bay. © NMM

To make containerization pay, new ships were designed. They were built to carry the maximum number of containers. Their internal layout allowed easy removal of the containers by crane. 







RO-RO vessels

The passenger ferry Ailsa Princess off Stranraer.
View full size imageThe passenger ferry Ailsa Princess off Stranraer. © NMM
This is a descriptive name short for 'roll on, roll off'. Perhaps 'drive on, drive off' would be better, because these vessels allow vehicles to drive on or off through a door in the bow or the rear. RO-RO ships have a large car deck instead of a cargo hold.

The vehicle carrier Hual Tracer
View full size imageThe vehicle carrier Hual Tracer. © NMM
RO-ROs come in two types. Passenger RO-ROs include the familiar Channel ferries. Cargo RO-ROs are mainly specialist trade vehicle carriers, handling imports of cars and other vehicles. They can also carry a small number of containers.


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Container ships
DWT (Deadweight tonnes)

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