Ship Types

Listed below is a brief guide to the different types of passenger carrying cargo ships. The type of ship you choose will determine various important aspects of your voyage.

Container Ships

The most popular method of transporting goods by sea is the container ship. Containers come in standard 20 foot and 40 foot sizes, which means that ships can be loaded and unloaded very quickly - and time equals money to the shipping lines.

A ships container capacity will be described as so many TEU - this stands for 'twenty foot equivalent units'. Therefore, if a ship could carry 1000 forty foot containers, that is the equivalent of 2000 twenty foot containers - meaning its capacity is 2000 TEU.

Modern container ships are fast - they can cross the Atlantic in as little as 7 days - and the largest ones are so huge that you get a very smooth ride in all but the roughest conditions. These are factors that may be considered an advantage by some people.

One of the disadvantages, as far as passengers are concerned, is that the fast loading and unloading of containers means that time ashore is usually quite limited. The ship would rarely spend more than 24 hours in port - often less in a very efficient container terminal.

General Cargo Ships

These are ships that transport cargo that will not fit into containers, such as large machinery, sheets of metal, timber, agricultural exports etc. This is the way all cargo was transported before containerisation was introduced.

They are easily identified because they have a forest of booms and cranes to lift the cargo out of the ships holds - which is the reason they are sometimes referred to as 'Lo-Lo' ships - meaning 'Lift on - Lift off'.

The slower loading and unloading of general cargo - also known as break bulk - means that general cargo ships usually spend much longer in port than container ships - making them an excellent choice for passengers who wish to spend as much time ashore as possible.

Bulk Carriers

These ships transport 'loose' cargo, such as coal, mineral ores, phosphates and grain in holds below deck. Again, like general cargo ships, bulk carriers tend to spend longer times in port loading and unloading.


This stands for 'Roll on - Roll off' - these ships are designed to transport vehicles which drive onto the car loadiing decks via a ramp at the stern and/or the side of the ship.

Mail and Supply Ships

Mail and supply ships carry mail, cargo and passengers to small isolated communities. These ships generally provide more accommodation than regular freighters (which are limited to a maximum of 12 passengers).

A classic example of a mail and supply ship is the "Aranui 3", which departs from Tahiti about 16 times a year, connecting the remote Tuamotu and Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia in the South Pacific.


Reefers are so called because they are refrigerated ships designed to carry frozen or chilled cargo, such as bananas, various types of fruit, orange concentrate, meat and fish.

Since their cargo is perishable, these ships are designed to be fast, and often will have white painted hulls to reflect the suns heat, helping to keep the cargo cool.

They are most notably used in the trade between Europe and the West Indies - it could be said that Reefers are the modern equivalent of the famous 'Banana Boat'.


Coasters are small general cargo or container ships that travel along the coast, connecting lots of small ports on what is known as 'feeder routes'.

Once a Coaster arrives at a major port, the cargo can be transferred onto a much larger container ship for transportation anywhere in the world.