Export grain vessels

by Emily Wilson
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Te introduction of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA-90) in the United States forced a radical rethink in the way ships were designed. The requirement for segregated ballast tanks, double hulls and other provisions, was to raise the price of vessels by some 15%, and ship owners saw the chance to introduce upgrades that would enhance the revenue earning potential of their vessels.

As a result, modern ship design has enhanced safety, new engine designs for higher speed and lower fuel consumption, optimized hull design, less stack pollution, segregated ballast tanks, higher pumping rates and self-sustaining capabilities, including cranes and grabs. The basic bulker for tramp service has evolved into a multi-modal carrier rather than simply a box that floats.

Bulk Carrier Vessels

Design of bulk carrier vessels has evolved to meet the demands of the users. They contain large, unobstructed holds that are able to accept a wide range of bulk cargoes, and have strengthened holds and hulls to permit loading of low-density cargoes, as well as alternative hold loading. Modern bulk carriers can normally handle heavy grains as deadweight cargo. Self-trimming characteristics and wider beam lead to higher stability, less trimming and securing.

Cape-size Vessels

These vessels are defined as having a molded breadth (beam) more than 32.2 meters. Their typical size is approximately 160,000 deadweight tonnes (DWT) plus a laden draft in excess of 14 meters. They are used principally for iron ore and coal trade raw materials. They are almost always gearless and, thus, dependent on shore facilities for loading and unloading. Cape-size vessels are the lowest cost per tonne/mile to operate, but there are a limited number of loading/discharging ports worldwide that are able to accommodate this size of vessel.

One of the key attributes of this type of vessel is its ability to load to her full deadweight. Medium density cargoes can be stowed up to about 46 cubic feet/tonne. Modern trends in cape-size vessels are showing higher horsepower main engines and auxiliaries without increased fuel consumption and an increase in deadweight from wider beam rather than greater length overall (LOA) or draft.

Panamax-size Vessels

These vessels are defined as maximum size vessels able to transit the Panama Canal. Their maximum overall length is 294.13 meters, maximum beam is 32.31 meters, draft is 12.04 meters in tropical fresh water, and they can be geared or gearless — over 90% are gearless. The typical modern size of this vessel is 65,000 to 80,000 DWT, with a laden draft on average of 13.2 meters (cut size for Panama Canal transit). They are used in minor coal and iron ore trades, grain, ferrous and non-ferrous metals and ores trade.

This vessel’s smaller dimensions permit access to the majority of world ports. Modern trends are showing heavy cranes and large grabs, mechanical hatch covers, and optimization of beam/LOA limits to increase deadweight without increasing and/or reducing draft.

Handymax-size Vessels

These vessels are defined having 43,000 to 55,000 DWT, overall length of 185 to 210 meters, beam of 28.5 to 32.2 meters and a draft of 10.5 to 12.5 meters. They are normally geared with cranes. Key attributes are similar to the larger size vessels except they have more flexibility in terms of loading and discharging. Modern vessels are more flexible in their ability to load bulk, breakbulk and modular cargo.

Modern trends in these vessels are similar to larger size vessels. They are moving toward semi-open hatches and having greater underdeck cubic capacity. They are also showing large tanktop areas and higher tanktop strength, heavier gear (30-tonne cranes) and have mechanical ventilation and humidifiers/de-humidifiers.

Handy-size Vessels

These vessels are defined as having 25,000 to 43,000 DWT, are less than 185 meters LOA with a draft of 9 to 10.5 meters, beam of 23 to 28.5 meters, and are over 95% geared. Key attributes are similar to handymax vessels, however, their smaller size and shallower drafts allow them to call in less developed ports and regions, while retaining the ability to be self-sustaining.

Loading and Unloading Procedures

There are a number of issues that come into play when considering export vessel capacities, including load port capabilities such as draft and height of loaders. The same applies to restrictions at the discharge port.

Grain vessels are loaded in a very controlled environment. The main conditions described here are Canadian-specific but very similar to U.S. regulations.

Agents send out a complete and fully detailed message to the vessel master, describing the intended cargo breakdown, advising stowage factors as well as discharge port quantities. If we are loading one commodity at one load port, it is quite a simple procedure. However, when a vessel is loading a number of different grades of cargoes, at various berths, destined for three or four discharge ports, the whole procedure can be quite complicated. After any number of communications with the vessel, a finalized stowage plan is settled upon.

The vessel is then charged with completing a stability calculation form that is submitted to a Port Warden in Canada, and in the U.S., the National Cargo Bureau. The purpose of this form is to demonstrate that the vessel will be able to travel from load port to its final destination in a safe and stable condition. Grain in transport can have what is termed as "shifting moments," and should a vessel be loaded in an improper manner, very drastic results could occur, jeopardizing both cargo and crew.

Once a vessel has arrived, it is boarded by the Coast Guard (Port Warden) and inspectors from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The Port Warden checks the stability and structural condition of the holds and hatches, and the CFIA checks the holds for cleanliness. Vancouver is one of the toughest ports in the world for hold cleanliness inspections so instructions to vessel personnel are extremely detailed. The hold inspectors are very strict. They are mostly concerned with old cargoes, loose rust or scale. When cleaning, it is imperative to pay particular attention to hard-to-reach areas such as behind frames, stiffeners, pipe guards and ladder ways.

Once the vessel passes inspection, it commences loading.

Although changing very little, the loading procedures in Vancouver can be complicated, with some vessels loading at up to three berths on occasions, due to the variety of cargoes. This requires a very strong communication link between agents, stevedores loading the vessel, charterers or shippers, as well as the terminals, Grain Clearance and/or the Canadian Wheat Board.

The vessel must, of course, confirm all of these plans. The master and chief officer will need to know what is expected in order that they keep their vessel safe throughout the loading process.

Vancouver has some particular situations that require detailed attention.

Rain: Vancouver is a rainy weather city, so when feasible, and with the cooperation of the vessel, the innovation of rain tents became necessary for the continuance of loading. Every precaution is taken to protect the cargo.

Cargo Separations: The variety of cargoes loaded in Vancouver necessitate the building of cargo separations. This entails leveling the cargo with the use of a bombardier, then laying poly or canvas around the perimeter (frames and ladders) and then covering the entire surface with a poly cloth. Once the poly cloth is in place, the entire area is covered with either dunnage or plywood. This protects other cargoes from seeping into the lower cargo as well as offering protection at discharge.

Strapping: Occurring less these days is the requirement to secure the cargo by strapping. This may be necessary when a vessel is not full and has a slack hold. If the "shifting moments" are too high then the Port Warden will require strapping. This is a very expensive operation that requires wire cable to be secured to the sides of the vessel, the cargo domed, dunnage laid, then all secured into place by cranking the strapping into place.

All having gone well and the loading complete, the final step is to have the vessel passed as safe to proceed to sea by the Port Warden. The port warden will measure the vessel, check draft, fuel the ballast as well as ensuring that the holds are suitably filled prior to issuing a certificate that the vessel may proceed. Without this certificate, Customs will not issue clearance.


Unloading is all about timing with virtually the same requirements as preparation for loading. There are not as many regulatory bodies involved, however, inspections will take place during unloading to ensure the cargo has been taken care of and not damaged during voyage. Timing comes in to play as receivers are either in a hurry for the cargo or must make adjustments to their milling or delivery schedules.

Governmental Authorities

An area that is having a great impact on the movement of grain is the heightened involvement of governmental authorities. These authorities take into consideration working conditions on the vessel, general safety and operating procedures, as well as possible structural deficiencies that vessels may suffer due to age or poor construction.

Just as many companies now operate under a form of quality management, such as ISO procedures, so must ocean-going vessels. The system is known as ISM (International Ship Management).

Within the same department as the Port State Control is the Bulk Carrier Inspection Team. Agents are obliged to advise Port State Control if they represent a vessel over ten years of age coming to the port. If an inspection is going to be carried out, the agents will arrange an anchorage where the inspection can take place.

The primary purpose of this inspection is to check the internal integrity of the vessel in question. The number of vessels that have just fallen apart over the years has perhaps necessitated this requirement. Vessels are not only subjected to great stresses during loading and unloading, but simple wear and tear (and poor maintenance) can cause great damage.

Of great importance to elevators, is the consequence that these inspections may have if a vessel fails inspection. Depending on the extent of the problem, delays of up to two weeks or even greater could occur. Hundreds of thousands, and up to millions of dollars could be incurred in costs of repairs, let alone the cost of delayed or even cancelled shipments. Obtaining a better working relationship with authorities so that terminals may receive adequate warning of such inspections is critical to help avoid unnecessary expenses, such as labor. The solutions to this problem are limited, but awareness is necessary.

Freight Brokers and Vessel Agents

Freight brokers find cargo for ships or ships for cargo and put the two parties together. Brokers also carry out the negotiations on behalf of the party they are representing and can play a role if a dispute arises. The broker will work a variety of cargoes but many will specialize in grain in particular, primarily due to the volume that moves off the West Coast in a normal year.

Since it would be impractical for a vessel owner to open an office in every port in the world, they appoint agents to attend to their requirements when a vessel is calling at a certain port.

The agent’s role, for the most part, is as liaison, ensuring that both the owner and the vessel are fully aware of all details regarding a vessel’s call to the port. The agent makes sure that all cargo details and port requirements are given to the ship and attends to a multitude of details.