How Much Does A Cargo Ship Weigh?

Shipping via cargo vessels is considered to be one of the best and safest modes of transportation for delicate goods and trades. It’s also quite cheap, which is a large reason why so many companies prefer this method.

Modern cargo ships are a sight to behold. They’re designed to carry a large volume of cargo over long distances and are pretty good at gliding over the waves of any ocean waters.

That being said, it may come as no surprise to know that the ships are designed to be as large as possible. 

But how much do they weigh? Is there an exact figure?

While we may not have the precise answers, this article will ply you with all the nautical information you’ll need to float your boat!

What Is A Cargo Ship?

A cargo ship (also known as a “freighter”) is a type of large vessel, ship or otherwise, that is used to transport a variety of heavy goods and materials between ports.

Cargo ships come in a variety of weights and sizes, with differing internal storage capacities. 

Cargo ships play a pivotal role in the handling of the bulk of the international trade services.

In fact, there are thousands of these vessels on the water at any one time, and over 1 billion tonnes of goods are carried internationally in containers. This accounts for about a quarter of all seaborne dry cargo! 

How Many Containers Can Fit On A Cargo Ship?

Depending on its overall size, most cargo vessels can hold anywhere between 10,000 TEU to 21,000 TEUs.

Since containers are measured in TEUs, the capacity indicates exactly how many containers can be placed on the deck and below the deck of the ship.

A Brief History Of The Cargo Ship

If we’re talking cargo ship weight then we need to discuss previous vessels, and how modern ships have been built to hold larger quantities of goods and materials.

Merchant ships during the Second World War weighed anywhere from 6,000 tons (and below) to 10,000 tons maximum.

But modern cargo ships are intimidatingly larger, with a deadweight average of around 100,000 tons, and bigger vessels averaging anywhere above 200,000 tons.

There are also still vessels in operation with a smaller 50,000 ton weight.

Again, you cannot get a fixed weight for these vessels as they all differ from one another, even if they are produced by the same manufacturer. Instead, these are just useful guidelines.

You may also be interested in why cargo ship weight is measured in “tons”.

Well, this word is derived from “tun”, a historic term that was once used to refer to the cargoes of wine barrels and liquor occupying 100 cubic feet of space.

Over time, the letter “u” was replaced to generate the word “ton” which is commonly used today. 

Types of Cargo Ships

There are many types of cargo ships currently on the waters. So much so, we would be here all day listing individual manufacturers! 

You can narrow the types of cargo ships out there down due to their schedule and overall role: namely cargo liners and tramp ships.

Cargo Liners

A cargo liner is a type of merchant ship that operates on a fixed pre scheduled route between designated ports.

They carry various consignments and goods, and sometimes even transport people! Cargo liners also have charged tariffs for the items on board.

Tramp Ships 

Tramp Ships are vessels that do not follow a predetermined schedule or route between ports. They are chartered by various users to transport their goods at a fixed contractual price.

Tramp ships are the preferred choice for smaller shipping companies as they do not have enough fleet to run liner voyages.

Variations Of Cargo Ships

There are four key variations of cargo vessels, all classified by the type of cargo that they carry. We’ve outlined these below.

Multi-Purpose Vessels 

The clue is in the name! These useful vessels can carry all types of goods regardless of whether they are liquids or general cargo thanks to separate storage systems and containers.

General Cargo 

These vessels are very popular. They are mostly used to transport packaged goods including (but not limited to) footwear, food items,  garments,  machinery, chemicals, furniture and even motor vehicles. 

Tankers

The tankers feature designed containers to transport liquid cargo, specifically light, clean petroleum products (CPP) and even asphalt and bitumen

Dry-Bulk Carriers 

They are referred to as “bulk” products because the goods are non-packed and loose, and are ready to go into the hold as they stand. Dry-bulk carriers usually ship food grains, sugar, iron ore, coal, fertilizers, bauxites, steel products, metal scrap, and many other dry goods.

Over 90% of global trade is conducted via the seas and dry bulk cargo transportation represents approximately 54% of total seaborne trade, which is equal to over 5 billion tons per year, so the largest owners of dry bulk carriers are also one of the biggest shipping companies in the world.

What Is A Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit?

A Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) is a unit of measurement used to calculate the exact cargo capacity for terminals and container ships.

The TEU is derived from the dimensions of a 20ft standardized shipping container. Standard containers can be 20 or 40ft in length, so the capacity of a container ship tends to depend on the ratio of the two sizes, however, there are longer containers like 45 and 48 and even 53-foot containers.

Understanding TEU’s work is essential. This is how shipping companies are able to calculate rate calculations.

So, when you receive a rate quotation from a company – make sure to multiply this number by how many TEUs are in your shipment, rather than just how many containers you are shipping! 

Cargo Ship Sizes

Varying vessel sizes already in existence are nothing to joke about.

All cargo ships operating in oceanic waters are designed to overcome geographical barriers, adapt to certain routes, or even to optimize the transport of particular goods.

However, size is used to determine which commercial route to take, or which ports they can be docked.

But before we discuss how much cargo ships weigh, we’d like to introduce you to the different-sized cargo ships starting with the largest and ending with the smallest.

Ultra Large Container Vessel (ULCV/VLCC/ULCC)

The ship abbreviations stand for Very Large Crude Carriers and Ultra Large Crude Carriers and are more commonly used as ship name prefixes.

These vessels are impressively large container and oil tankers capable of transporting between 150,000-320,000 tons and 320,000-550,000 tons of cargo respectively.

Capesize Vessels

Capesize vessels are used to signify those vessels which cannot pass through the canals of Suez and Panama.

These bulk carriers can transport between 80,000 and 175,000 tons, however, their load carrying extends simply to ores and minerals. Overall, they are quite rare, as are the ports with the space to receive them.

Suezmax

The Suezmax are medium-sized vessels with a capacity of between 120,000 and 200,000 tons. In this case, these vessels aren’t limited by their length or width, and only need to conform to a draft of 20 meters.

Panamax

These ships can easily pass through the Panama Canal. The name Panamax applies to oil tankers and cargo ships – both with a capacity of 50,000 to 80,000 tons.

Aframax

It derives its name from a standardized tanker rate system called AFRA (Average Freight Rate Assessment). These vessels are medium-sized tankers that can load between 80,000 and 120,000 tons, making them ideal for a short- and medium-distance oil trade.

Handy/Handymax

The Handymax are smaller boats traditionally used for dry cargo and at least 60,000 tons. A Handymax is normally 150-200 meters in length and remains one of the most common types of cargo ships.

As a result, these ships can enter any port without issue.

All of the above vessels have their own significance, usually relating to their allocated oceanic domains.

So, How Much Does A Cargo Ship Weigh?

According to a 2011 estimate, the weight of a cargo ship was approximated to be around the 165,000-ton mark.

However, the introduction of smaller and larger cargo ship vessels extends this range – so you can expect all cargo vessels to be between 50,000-225,000 tons.

This depends entirely on the manufacturer’s specifications and the exact need for the ship (the products that it is transporting). 

An ultra-large ship weighing around 225,000 tons would also measure 440 meters long by 50 meters wide (1,400 feet by 200 feet) and would have a capacity of 23,756 TEUs, and would weigh around the same as Chicago’s Sears Tower!

Now that is impressive! As of 2010, nearly 10,000 container ships of this weight and size are estimated to be in service globally. It’s safe to assume that this number may have increased over the years.

There are other variables that need to be considered when trying to figure out the weight of a vessel this size. Much like snowflakes, no two cargo ships are exactly the same.

Yes, the paint job and build may look the same, but there will always be minute differences. Even if they are manufactured and sold by the same company.

This makes it very difficult to pinpoint the exact weight of a container ship, and showcases why producing an average is much easier. 

While you can calculate the total ‘weight’ of all the ships registered around the world, and then divide by the number of ships to work out the mean, the result would not provide any valuable statistics.

Average Carrying Capacity Of Cargo Ships

The deadweight tonnage of a cargo ship is indicative of its capacity of a cargo ship. Put simply, it is the weight of the ship when it’s loaded with all cargo.

But the gross tonnage of a ship refers to the hull’s carrying capacity, which is indicated in cubic feet and divided by 100. 

There are much bigger ships that can displace water and are in the range of 600,000 tons. These sea vessels are called Ultra Large Crude Carriers–meaning they only carry crude oil.

Unfortunately, some ports cannot physically accommodate these ships due to the sheer magnitude of their size. 

If you really want to know the average carrying capacity of cargo ships, you may also want to consider the following information:

  • Standard containers measuring 20 or 40-foot can accommodate approximately 25 to 30 tons of goods. This is the equivalent of approximately 24,900 tin cans or 48,000 bananas or even frozen food in reefer container. Larger storage boxes may even be able to hold 40,000 shoe boxes!
  • The typical cost of transporting a 20 ft container from Asia to Europe carrying over 20 tonnes of cargo is about the same as the economy airfare for a single passenger on the same journey.
  • Cargo ships spanning lengths of 700 feet have the approximate carrying capacity for up to 1,000 of these containers. This would equal an overall carrying capacity of about 25,000 tons.
  • In real-life, cargo ships that travel between the US West Coast and Hawaii are approximately 700 to 900 feet long. The usual weight of their cargo on board is between 15,000 to 18,000 tons. 

How Much Can The Largest Cargo Ships Hold?

The largest cargo ships actively operating today are commonly known as Ultra Large Container Ships (ULCV). They are extremely fuel-efficient and are far more environmentally friendly than other variations.

These mega vessels are 23-container widths across and can stack 10 containers high on the top deck, and 8 containers high below the deck.

They have 24 bays and are measured in 18,000-21,000 20-foot equivalents or TEUs. The ULCV can carry between 18,000-21,000 containers or up to 165,000 tons.

How Much Bigger Can Container Ships Get?

Container ships could get as big as 30,000 TEUs in the near future, but shipping ports and waterways will have to be adjusted to accommodate these monstrous vessels, which will take many years.

As a result, larger cargo ships will need to be constructed to withstand a higher volume of weight. Infrastructure, from bridges to waterways to adjoining properties will all need to be adjusted accordingly. 

Modern Day Cargo Ships 

There are many cargo ships in operation today, all at various weights and sizes. Container ships have become the backbone of commercial freight transport, and play a vital role in the maritime industry.

As of today, almost all non-bulk cargo worldwide is transported by these ships! 

We have listed some of the largest cargo vessels in recent history for you to take a look at, noting their measurements, stowage capacity, and their tonnage.

MSC Jade

The smallest cargo ship on our list belongs to the fleet of the Mediterranean Shipping Company. The MSC Jade measures 398.40 meters by 59.00 meters wide, and 30.30 meters high.

The MSC Jade also has an approximate deadweight tonnage of 199,000 tons and a storage capacity of around 19,224 TEUs.

MSC Leanne

MSC Leanne is one of the newest ships in the cargo fleet of the Mediterranean Shipping Company. This ship can carry 19,462 TEUs and has a deadweight tonnage of 172,785The ship measures 399.99 meters by 58.80 meters, and 30.20 meters high.

MSC Rifaya

A Liberian ship, this MSC ship was called the MSC Rifaya. It is 399.99 meters long with a width of 58.80 meters, and a draft of 23.31 meters. This vessel has a carrying capacity of 19,462 TEUs, and its deadweight tonnage is 196,000 tons.

MSC Mirjam

MSC Mirjam is owned and operated by the Mediterranean Shipping Company, and is another Pegasus-class container vessel.

It is 399.99 meters long and 58.80 meters wide, making it a very impressive sight. The MSC Mirjam also has a draught of 23.31 meters and a carrying capacity of approximately 19,462 TEUs.

MSC Eloane

The MSC Eloane is another cargo vessel operating today. This ship is a Pegasus-class container vessel that has a length of 399.99 meters, a breadth of 58.80 meters, and a draft of 31.31 meters. It also has a carrying capacity of 19,462 TEUs and an impressive deadweight of 201,869 tons!

MSC Ingy

The MSC Ingy is one of the largest cargo ships serving under the flag of Liberia. Its dimensions are as follows: 399.99 meters in length and 58.80 meters in width, with a draft of 23.31 meters. Its maximum carrying capacity is 19,462 TEUs. If that wasn’t enough, it has a deadweight tonnage of 210,869! 

Ever Golden

This cargo ship was built by Imabari Shipbuilding Company Limited shipyard and sails under the flag of Panama. Built in 2018, it is 400 meters in length with a beam of 58.8 meters.

The ship has a gross tonnage of 21, 7612, a deadweight of 199,692, and a container capacity of 20,000 TEU. One thing Ever Golden lacks is the ability to serve with very high speed, with a maximum recorded speed of 11.4 knots.

MSC Diana 

MSC Diana is registered as a Liberian ship. It is owned and operated by the Mediterranean Shipping Company, and is a Pegasus-class container ship.

It actually remains one of the largest cargo vessels in the world, boasting 19,462 TEUs carrying capacity and a weight of 197,708 tons.

The overall length of this ship is 399.99 m. Its beam has a width of 58.80 meters, and its draft is 30.20 meters. 

MOL Triumph

The MOL Triumph is another large container ship. It once held the record for the biggest and heaviest cargo ship in the world, up until the Madrid Maersk overtook it.

This ship is 400 meters long, 58.8 meters wide, and 32 meters high. It was also the first 20,000 TEU ship in a fleet of six ships in MOL’s dockyard. 

Madrid Maersk

Madrid Maersk was built for the Maersk Line. It is the first of 11 second-generation Maersk Triple E-class container ships. During its launch in 2017, it became the second 20,000 TEU-class container ship ever (with 20,568 TEU).

With a deadweight Tonnage of 192,672MT, Madrid Maersk measures 399 meters in length and 58.8 meters in breadth.

COSCO Shipping Universe 

Registered and sailing under the flag of Hong Kong, this relatively new build is the largest cargo ship in China with a carrying capacity of 21,237 TEU.

It’s also quite impressive with a length of 400 meters, a width of 58.6 meters, and a maximum sailing speed of 22 knots.

With a deadweight of 199,000 MT, COSCO Shipping Universe is a flagship vessel of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

OOCL Hong Kong

This vessel was built and manufactured by the Orient Overseas Container Lines (OOCL). It is one of the largest cargo ships ever constructed with a length of 399.87 meters.

It is actually one of the largest vessels on this list and can carry a large amount of 21,413 TEU containers.

Furthermore, this ship has a deadweight of 197,317 tons, a beam of 58.8 meters, and a depth of 32.5 meters. Because of its weight and size, the OOCL Hong Kong is considered to be an Ultra Large Container Vessel. 

Conclusion

There is no definitive figure for how much cargo ships weigh, but there are rough estimates that will give you a little insight.

Average-sized cargo ships weigh in the range of around 165,000 tons, but smaller and larger vessels (50,000 tons and 220,000 tons, respectively) are also quite common amongst vessels used for this purpose.

Danny White