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Since the 1970s seaborne trade has grown an average of 4% each year, and by 2008, seaborne trade accounted for 89.8% of global trade in volume.

At present, around 95% of global trade goes by sea. In the longer term, the fact that shipping is the most fuel efficient and carbon-friendly form of commercial transport should work in favour of an even greater proportion of world trade being carried by sea.

Maritime shipping is one of the most globalised industries in terms of ownership. The UK is heavily reliant on maritime trade, although nearly all vessels calling at the major UK ports are owned by non-UK shipping companies.

Maritime transportation follows regular itineraries, or maritime routes, whose importance has changed with economic development and technical improvements. For instance, containerisation, which started in the late 1950s, changed the configuration of freight routes with the introduction of innovative services. Prior to containerisation, loading or unloading a ship was a very expensive and time consuming task and a cargo ship typically spent more time docked than at sea.

The main element of the maritime sector is the cargo sector, with only a relatively small proportion of the sector given over to passenger transport by ferry or large cruise liner. The systematic growth of maritime freight traffic has been fuelled by:

  • Increases in energy and mineral cargoes derived from a growing demand from developed economies of North America, Europe and Japan. Many developing countries, such as China, are also increasingly involved in importing raw materials.
  • A policy of globalisation that equated with an international division of the production and trade liberalisation.
  • Technical improvements in ship and maritime terminals that have facilitated freight flows.
  • Economies of scale that have permitted maritime transportation to remain a low cost mode, a trend which has been further strengthened by the growth of containerisation.

Maritime traffic

Maritime traffic is commonly measured in deadweight tons, which refers to the amount of cargo that can be loaded on an ‘empty’ ship, without exceeding its operational design limits.

Maritime freight is conventionally considered in two categories:

Bulk cargo: Freight (dry or liquid) that is not packaged such as minerals (oil, coal, iron ore) and grains. It often requires the use of specialised ships such as oil tankers as well as specialised trans-shipment and storage facilities. Conventionally, this cargo has a single origin, destination and client.

Break-bulk cargo: General cargo that has been packaged in bags, boxes or drums. This cargo tends to have numerous origins, destinations and clients. Before containerisation, economies of scale were difficult to achieve with break-bulk cargo as the loading and unloading process was very labour and time consuming.

Maritime shipping is dominated by bulk cargo but the share of break-bulk cargo is increasing steadily.


Shipping has traditionally faced two drawbacks. First, speed – average speeds at sea are around 15 knots (26 km/hour). Second, delays when loading/unloading in port. However, technical improvements mean that the amount of containerised freight has grown substantially, from 23% of all cargo in 1980, 40% in 1990 to 70% in 2000, which has improved loading/unloading time.

Improvements have been due to:

  • Size: Growth in the average size of ships as well as the number of ships. Larger ships offer the owners the advantage of lower crew, fuel, berthing, insurance and maintenance costs. Ship size is now mainly constrained by the capacity of ports, harbours and canals to accommodate them.
  • Speed: The average speed of ships is about 15 knots (1 knot = 1 marine mile = 1,853 metres), which is 28 km/hour or around 575 km per day. Newer ships can travel at 45 to 55 km/hour (25-30 knots). Reaching higher maritime speeds remains a costly challenge so only further limited improvements in commercial maritime speeds are foreseen.
  • Specialisation of ships: General cargo ships, tankers, grain carriers, barges, ore and coal carriers, bulk carriers, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) carriers, Ro-Ro (roll-on roll off; for vehicles) and container vessels.
  • Ship design: Wood hulls were succeeded by wood hulls with steel armatures, to steel hulls (the first were warships) and to steel, aluminium and composite materials hulls. The hulls of today’s ships are the result of considerable efforts to minimise energy consumption, construction costs and improve safety.
  • Automation: Automation technologies are possible including self-unloading ships, computer assisted navigation and global positioning systems (GPS). The general outcome of automation has been smaller crews being required to operate larger ships.


The maritime cargo shipping industry offers two major types of services:

Charter services (also known as Tramp): A maritime company rents a ship for a specific purpose, commonly between a specific port of origin and destination. This type of shipping service is notably used in the case of bulk cargo, such as petroleum, iron ore, grain or coal
Liner shipping services: A regular scheduled shipping service often calling at several ports along a pendulum route (sequential port calls along a maritime range, structured as a continuous loop). A growing share of liner services is containerised.

Career opportunities in the maritime sector

The maritime sector has contracted in terms of the number of shipping companies in existence, whilst at the same it has become more professional and specialised. The technical and management side of the industry is dependent on fully-trained and qualified professionals, from deck and engineer officers to shipbrokers and managers.

Although the UK is no longer the great maritime power it once was, it is still one of the primary centres for shipping excellence and training/education centres. There is a variety of routes to qualification in the maritime sector, from colleges such as Glasgow Nautical College, South Tyneside Nautical College and North West Kent College, to universities such as Liverpool John Moores University, University of Southampton Warsash and the University of Plymouth.

Other organisations such as Lloyd’s Maritime Academy, part of the Informa Group which also owns the renowned maritime journal Lloyd’s List, also offer specialist courses in various aspects of maritime management. All these learning opportunities are universally recognised and respected.

It is essential that anyone aspiring to work in the maritime sector should undertake relevant training and development. It is a prerequisite that deck and engineer officers undergo an extensive programme of training from cadet level through the various levels of status, as well as gaining extensive practical experience on board vessel. Sponsorship from a variety of shipping lines is available, but opportunities are limited and demand is high allowing the shipping lines to be selective.

In an era of economic turmoil, the markets have contracted somewhat, but opportunities in the maritime sector can still be readily found, by referring to websites such as Shiptalk, Hellenic Shipping News and Maritime Journal. Statistics from the Passenger Shipping Association (PSA) show some 40 million passengers take ferry crossings each year, and 1.5 million take a cruise in the UK, which creates a number of job opportunities in the field of passenger transport, visit the PSA website for more information and some useful links to ferry and cruise operators.

The maritime sector, although much more specialised and leaner than previously, is still a worthwhile profession, and indeed an essential profession, as far as global trade and transport is concerned.

About the Author

  • About Mark Rowbotham: Mark Rowbotham is a Lecturer in the Maritime Studies Department of Liverpool John Moores University. He is also an independent consultant, trainer and writer in marine and customs issues, and has worked in government, commercial and academic sectors. He d

Mark Rowbotham

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