What is break-bulk?

Break bulk is a form of shipping where cargo is bundled into bales, boxes, drums, or crates that must be loaded individually. Common break bulk items include wool, steel, cement, construction equipment, vehicles, and any other item that is oversized. While container shipping became more popular in the 1960s, break bulk shipping remains and offers several benefits. It tends to be more affordable since bulky items do not need to be disassembled. What’s more, break bulk carriers can call in at more ports than container ships.

Understanding break bulk

Break bulk is a form of shipping where cargo is bundled into bales, boxes, drums, or crates that must be loaded individually.

Break bulk is named after the somewhat antiquated term breaking bulk which describes the extraction of a portion of cargo from a ship or the start of the unloading process itself.

In a more modern context, break bulk describes cargo transported in bales, boxes, pallets, drums, crates, and bags. Note that to be considered break bulk, this cargo cannot be loaded in containers or in bulk as is the case with goods such as iron ore, coal, or grain. Instead, it must be loaded on an individual basis.

This method of loading ships was commonplace up until around the 1960s when container shipping started to become more popular. While there are obvious benefits to containerization in terms of speed and efficiency, there remain situations today where break bulk is still useful. For example, break bulk is sometimes used to transport goods to ships that are considered too large for shallow ports.

Common break bulk cargo

Break bulk cargo is transported to the quay next to the ship and then each item is lifted onto the ship by a heavy-duty crane. Once onboard, the item must also be separately stowed and secured. 

Some examples of cargo that is shipped in this way include:

  • Construction equipment, vehicles, and vehicle components.
  • Steel girders and structural steel.
  • Baled commodities such as wool, paper, tobacco, rubber, and furs.
  • Bagged or sacked goods such as sugar, cement, flour, and milk powder.
  • Corrugated and wooden boxes.
  • Any item that is long, heavy, or oversized.
  • Hazardous materials that must be separated from other goods.

Break bulk ships

There are three types of ships that are utilized for break bulk goods, including:

  1. Break bulk carriers.
  2. Multi-purpose carriers, and
  3. General cargo vessels.

Each of these types also comes in a variety of sizes, including single-decker, tween decker, and box hold. Size is quantified by deadweight (DWT), or the weight the ship can transport without sustaining damage or sinking. Break bulk ship sizes tend to range from 2,000 to 40,000 DWT.

Break bulk ships are also said to be:

  • Gearless – these ships do not possess cargo handling equipment and/or cranes. As a result, they are limited to terminals that do. In some cases, specialized barges with high deck strength may be required to facilitate the loading of cargo.
  • Geared – these ships do possess the necessary break bulk equipment and have more choice in terms of the ports or terminals they can utilize.

Advantages of break bulk shipping

While break bulk is no longer the dominant form of shipping, it does have the following advantages:

  • Affordability – for shipping companies that require cargo to be transported to and from ports over land, the transportation of break bulk items is more affordable than container transportation. Since break bulk items do not need to be separated into pieces to be shipped, it also tends to be more affordable for companies with oversized cargo.
  • Flexibility – as hinted at earlier, break bulk items are deliverable to more ports around the world since not all ports have facilities for loading and unloading containers. Geared break bulk ships that carry their own cranes and equipment have even more flexibility in terms of port choice.
  • Efficiency – in general, break bulk shipping is more efficient than container shipping in terms of the paperwork involved. Since containers carry multiple goods, this necessitates several bills of lading per container. Break bulk shipping, on the other hand, only requires one bill of lading per shipment.

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