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Today's tramps

Today's tramp: bulk carriers

Bulk cargoes

Most of the cargoes once carried by tramp steamers and big sailing ships are now shipped by bulk carriers.  These cargoes are typically commodities of relatively low value, which can be carried ‘raw’ without any protection, such as metal ores, coal, grain or fertilizer.  Bulk carriers also load part-processed cargoes, such as sawn timber, steel plates and sections or wood pulp. 

Design of the bulker

The bulk carrier or bulker has its engines, bridge and crew accommodation right aft, allowing the fore part of the ship to be devoted to cargo.  It has large clear holds, served by hatches that slide completely clear to facilitate loading and discharge.  In ships which mainly trade with coal or ore, the holds may be hopper shaped so that the cargo falls to the narrow, lowest point.  This makes it easier to trim the cargo so that it is stable when the ship is at sea, and also helps discharge as the grabs can get at the last remnants when the hold is almost empty.

Some bulk carriers have their own cargo gear in the form of large cranes set between each hold.  Others, and particularly the larger ones, rely completely on loading and unloading facilities in the ports they visit, facilities which will usually be faster and more powerful than gear which could be mounted on a ship.  In order to be economical bulk carriers, like any ship today, need to spend the very minimum of time in port.  

The impact of the bulk carrier

Today’s big bulk carrier is very efficient.  The biggest can rival in size giant tankers.  They have so reduced the cost of shipping bulk commodities round the world that transport costs for say, coal and iron ore, are a negligible part of their total cost.  This has had an important economic impact.  Because high quality iron ore, rich in iron, can be brought from Brazil to Europe so cheaply, it is not worth extracting lower grade ore locally.  An even bigger impact has been on the coal industries in Europe.  Coal from deep, labour-intensive mines in high-wage economies has been largely replaced for iron and steel making by coal quarried where labour is cheaper.  The large bulk carrier has thus contributed to the decline of extractive industries in Europe, but with benefit to economies elsewhere.  Truly, shipping has a major impact on the world economy.