break bulk

Break bulk cargo

In shipping, break bulk cargo or general cargo is a term that covers a great variety of goods that must be loaded individually, and not in shipping containers nor in bulk as with oil or grain. Ships that carry this sort of cargo are often called general cargo ships. The term break bulk derives from the phrase breaking bulk the extraction of a portion of the cargo of a ship or the beginning of the unloading process from the ship's holds. These goods may be in bags, cases, crates, drums, barrels, or they may be kept together by baling or loaded onto pallets.

A break-in-bulk point is a place where goods are transferred from one mode of transport to another, for example the docks where goods transfer from ship to truck.

Break bulk was the most common form of cargo for most of the history of shipping. Since the late 1960s the volume of break bulk cargo has declined dramatically worldwide as containerization has grown. Moving cargo on and off ship in containers is much more efficient, allowing ships to spend less time in port. Break bulk cargo also suffered from greater theft and damage.

Loading and unloading

Although cargo of this sort can be delivered straight from a truck or train onto a ship the most common way is for the cargo to be delivered to the dock in advance of the arrival of the ship and for the cargo to be stored in warehouses. When the ship arrives the cargo is then taken from the warehouse to the quay and then lifted on board by either the ship's gear (derricks or cranes) or by the dockside cranes. The discharge of the ship is the reverse of the loading operation.

Loading and discharging by break bulk is labour intensive. The cargo is brought to the quay next to the ship and then each individual item is lifted on board separately. Some items such as sacks or bags can be loaded in batches by using a sling or cargo net and others such as cartons can be loaded onto trays before being lifted on board. Once on board each item must be stowed separately.

Before any loading takes place any signs of the previous cargo should be removed. The holds should be swept, washed if necessary and any damage to them repaired. Dunnage may be laid ready for the cargo or may just be put in bundles ready for the stevedores to lay out as the cargo is loaded.

There are many sorts of break bulk cargo but amongst them are:

Bagged Cargo

Should be stowed on double dunnage and kept clear of the ship's sides and bulkheads. Bags should be kept away from pillars and stanchions by covering with matting or waterproof paper.

Baled Goods

These should be stowed on single dunnage at least 50mm thick. The bales should be clean with all the bands intact. Stained or oily bales should be rejected. All fibres can absorb oil and are liable to spontaneous combustion as a result they should be kept clear of any new paintwork. Bales close to the deckhead should be covered to prevent damage by dripping sweat.

Barrels and Casks

Wooden barrels should be stowed on their sides on "beds" of dunnage which keeps the middle of the side (the bilge) off the deck and they should be stowed with the bung at the top. To prevent movement wedges called quoins are put in on top of the "beds". Barrels should be stowed fore and aft and not athwart ships. Once the first tier has been loaded the next tier of barrels fits into the hollows between the barrels, this is known as stowing "bilge and cantline".


Cartons (cardboard boxes) should be stowed on a good layer of dunnage and kept clear of any moisture. They should not be overstowed with anything other than similar cartons. They are frequently loaded on pallets, if so the slings that are used to load the cargo are frequently left on to facilitate discharge.

Cased Goods

Wooden cases or crates should be stowed on double dunnage in the holds and single dunnage in the 'tween decks. Heavy cases should be given bottom stowage. The loading slings are often left on to aid discharge.


Metal drums should be stowed on end with dunnage between tiers.

Paper Reels

These are generally stowed on their sides but care must be taken to make sure they are not crushed.


These are lifted on board and then secured using lashings. A great deal of care should be taken to make sure they do not get damaged. Vehicles must also be prepared by ensuring potentially hazardous liquids (gasoline, etc) have been removed.

Steel Girders

Any long heavy item should be stowed fore and aft. If they are stowed athwart ships they are liable to shift if the ship rolls heavily and pierce the side of the ship.

Advantages and disadvantages

The demise of break bulk did not start with containerisation but with the advent of tankers and bulk carriers (see the history of tankers and bulk carriers) which did away with the transport of liquids in barrels and cargoes such as grain in sacks. All three use specialised ships and shore facilities to effect faster turnarounds with fewer personnel, however they do require large initial investments. Overall the demise of break bulk demonstrates that these newer systems are superior. In all, the new systems have reduced costs as well as spillage and turn round times, in the case of containerisation, damage and pilfering as well.
The advantage that break bulk does have is that there is no requirement for any shore facilities except a wharf that the ship can tie up to; as a result there is still some requirement for this sort of ship.


  • Marc Levinson, The Box, How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton Univ. Press 2006).
  • Sauerbier, Charles L.; Meurn, Robert J. (2004). Marine cargo operations: a guide to stowage. Cambridge, Md: Cornell Maritime Press.

See Also

Search another word or see break bulkon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature