History of shipping

Commercial shipping began perhaps with the activities of the Phoenician merchants who operated their own vessels, transporting goods in the Mediterranean. The practices they developed were adopted by the merchants of ancient Greece and Rome and were continued by the maritime powers through the Middle Ages to modern times. The Venetians, from 1300 to 1500, owned a huge merchant fleet that served the interests of the merchant traders and the city-state exclusively. From 1600 to 1650 the Dutch ranked first in shipping activity, operating a globe-circling tramp service for merchants of western Europe.


Shipping is a private, highly competitive service industry. The activity of the industry is divided into several categories, namely, liner service, tramp shipping, industrial service, and tanker operation, all of which operate on certain well-established routes.


Most of the world's shipping travels a relatively small number of major ocean routes: the North Atlantic, between Europe and eastern North America; the Mediterranean-Asian route via the Suez Canal; the Panama Canal route connecting Europe and the eastern American coasts with the western American coasts and Asia; the South African route linking Europe and America with Africa; the South American route from Europe and North America to South America; the North Pacific route linking western America with Japan and China; and the South Pacific route from western America to Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, and southern Asia. The old Cape of Good Hope route pioneered by Vasco da Gama and shortened by the Suez Canal has returned to use for giant oil tankers plying between the Persian Gulf and Europe and America. Many shorter routes, including coastal routes, are heavily traveled.


Technically, coastal shipping is conducted within 32 km (within 20 min) of the shoreline, but in practice ship lanes often extend beyond that distance, for reasons of economy and safety of operation. In the U.S., coastal shipping is conducted along the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf coasts. Under the restriction known as cabotage, the U.S. and many other nations permit only vessels registered under the national flag to engage in coastal trade. Among many small European countries cabotage does not apply, and short international voyages are common. A special feature of coastal shipping in the U.S. is the trade between the Pacific coast and the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Vessels engaged in this trade traverse the open sea and utilize the Panama Canal; however, they are covered by cabotage laws. In coastal and short-distance shipping, special-purpose ships are often employed, such as car ferries and train ferries.


A major part of all the world's shipping moves on inland waterways—rivers, canals, and lakes. Usually such shipping employs smaller, lighter vessels, although in some cases oceangoing ships navigate inland waterways, for example, the St. Lawrence Seaway route to the Great Lakes of North America. Containerization, lighter-aboard-ship, and barge-aboard-ship operations have facilitated the shipping of cargoes between oceangoing vessels and those of the inland waterways.


Liner service consists of regularly scheduled shipping operations on fixed routes. Cargoes are accepted under a bill-of-lading contract issued by the ship operator to the shipper. Competition in liner service is regulated generally by agreements, known as conferences, among the shipowners. These conferences stabilize conditions of competition and set passenger fares or freight rates for all members of the conferences. In the U.S., steamship conferences are supervised by the Federal Maritime Commission in accordance with the Shipping Act of 1916. Rate changes, modifications of agreements, and other joint activities must be approved by the commission before they are effective. Measures designed to eliminate or prevent competition are prohibited by law.


Tramps, known also as general-service ships, maintain neither regular routes nor regular service. Usually tramps carry shipload lots of the same commodity for a single shipper. Such cargoes generally consist of bulk raw or low-value material, such as grain, ore, or coal, for which inexpensive transportation is required. About 30 percent of U.S. foreign commerce is carried in tramps. Tramps are classified on the basis of employment rather than of ship design. The typical tramp operates under a charter party, that is, a contract for the use of the vessel.

The center of the chartering business is the Baltic Exchange in London, where brokers representing shippers meet with shipowners or their representatives to arrange the agreements. Freight rates fluctuate according to supply and demand: When cargoes are fewer than ships, rates are low. Charter rates are also affected by various other circumstances, such as crop failures and political crises.


Industrial carriers are vessels operated by large corporations to provide transportation essential to the processes of manufacture and distribution. These vessels are run to ports and on schedules determined by the specific needs of the owners. The ships may belong to the corporations or may be chartered. For example, the Bethlehem Steel Corp. maintains a fleet of Great Lakes ore carriers, a number of specialized ships that haul ore from South America to Baltimore, Maryland, and a fleet of dry-cargo ships that transports steel products from Baltimore to the Pacific coast. Many oil companies maintain large fleets of deep-sea tankers, towboats, and river barges to carry petroleum to and from refineries. The ships often operate under contracts of affreightment.


All tankers are private or contract carriers. In the 1970s some 34 percent of the world tanker fleet, which aggregates about 200 million dwt, was owned by oil companies; the remaining tonnage belonged to independent shipowners who chartered their vessels to the oil companies. So-called supertankers, which exceed 100,000 dwt, are employed to transport crude petroleum from the oil fields to refineries. The refined products, such as gasoline, kerosene, and lubricating oils, are distributed by smaller tankers, generally less than 30,000 dwt, and by barges.


Merchant ships are classified as passenger carriers, cargo ships, and tankers. During the height of passenger travel by ship, the largest as well as the most glamorous ships afloat were the famed liners of the North Atlantic, which, beginning in the mid-19th century, sailed regular schedules between the Americas and Europe. Competing in speed as well as in size and appointments, such ships as the Mauretania, the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth, the United States, and the France gradually reduced the time for the North Atlantic crossing to less than four days. Their size, from about 45,000 to 75,000 metric tons and up to 300 m (1,000 ft) in length, was gigantic by the standards of the first half of the 20th century, but they have been dwarfed by the oil tankers of the 1970s and '80s. Today's passenger liners operate principally in the cruise trade.


Cargo ships carry packaged goods, unitized cargo (cargo in which a number of items are consolidated into one large shipping unit for easier handling), and limited amounts of grain, ore, and liquids such as latex and edible oils. A few passengers are accepted on some cargo liners. Specialized ships are designed and built to carry certain types of cargo, for example, automobiles or grain.


In the late 1950s container ships set the pattern for technological change in cargo handling and linked the trucking industry to deep-Sea shipping. These highly specialized ships carry large truck bodies and can discharge and load in one day, in contrast to the ten days required by conventional ships of the same size. The rapid development of the container ship began in 1956, when Sea-Land Service commenced operations between New York City and Houston, Texas. Barge-aboard, or lighter-aboard, ships, also called seabees (sea barges) or LASH (lighter-aboard ships), resulted from an evolutionary development of the container ship. They are capable of carrying about 38 barges, or up to 1,600 containers, or a combination of containers and barges. Their design enables them to deliver cargo to developed or undeveloped ports, without the need for berthing.


Tankers, designed specifically to carry liquid cargoes, usually petroleum, have grown to many-compartmented giants of a million metric tons and more. Despite their great size, their construction is simple, as is, for the most part, their operation. A major problem with the giant tankers is the severe environmental damage of oil spills, resulting from collision, storm damage, or leakage from other causes.  Specialized tankers transport liquefied natural gas (LNG), liquid chemicals, wine, molasses, and refrigerated products.


Many treaties and conventions have been adopted over the years with the objective of increasing the safety of life at sea. One of the most important agreements provided for the establishment of the International Iceberg Patrol in 1913, after the Titanic disaster. Under the International Load-Line Convention of 1930, ship loading was regulated on the basis of size, cargo, and route of the vessel. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, which governs ship construction, was ratified by most maritime nations in 1936, and updated in 1948, and again in 1960 and 1974.