A guide to Bulk Carriers Types for Agricultural Commodities


Feb 4, 2021 | Commodity Trading 101

Reading time: 8 minutes

Bulk carriers are the main means of transportation for dry agricultural commodities, such as Corn, Wheat, or Soybean. Bulk carriers come in various sizes and cover routes across the world. As the shortest route is always the best, bulk carriers may have to pass through canals, limiting their maximum size. Furthermore, ports also have a maximum carrier size they can accommodate. Different ‘classes’ of carriers emerged from these constraints, each one meeting various canals’ or ports’ criteria; and as a result, each one having a different cargo volume capacity. AgFlow’s data covers classes ranging from Coaster to Panamax. This article will cover these carriers’ types with their dimensions and particularities while providing insight using the data available on the AgFlow platform.

Bulk Carriers Types

Vessels’ dimensions and cargo sizes can generally help to classify bulk carrier types. These particularities can also be advantageous depending on the route length or the execution volume wanted. The metrics used to compare carrier types are the deadweight tonnage (or DWT), which is the weight of all content on board, and the vessel’s dimensions – including draft ( the distance between the ship’s keel and the waterline of the vessel) – which is particularly important in larger vessel types that can be limited in size due to canals’ or regional ports’ capacity.

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Figure 1: Conventional Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) Limits for Bulk Carriers

Coaster Bulk Carriers

Coaster carriers operate around coastlines, usually within the domestic waters of the country in which they are registered. However, they can also operate internationally in cabotage trading, in which a country allows vessels from a foreign company to sail and participate in trading in their domestic waters. This usually arises from joint agreements between nations or when a charter permits foreign participation. Thus, Coasters are essential to coastline trading for countries, notoriously so when domestic waters cover a large geographical area. Some areas that are the most known for having Coaster Bulk Carriers are the European Union, Canada, the United States, India, and the Philippines.

Coaster Bulk carriers’ dimensions are relatively small compared to other ship classifications, and cargo space is rarely divided into different bulkheads. As such, they restrict to a draft between 3 to 6 meters. They also have a low Deadweight minimum and maximum – carrying as little as 1,000 and as much as 15,000 DWT cargo -varying between regions.

Handysize Bulk Carriers

Handysize bulk carriers are larger than Coasters and can work for deep-sea trading, meaning they can operate across large seas. As the definition is not exact, it can also incorporate Handymax or even Supramax vessels. The main feature of Handysize type carriers is that they have a shallower draft than other large carriers and cranes built-in. Therefore, they can operate in most ports and terminals, making them the most versatile class of carriers. In fact, most vessels with  10,000 DWT or more are made up of Handysize carriers. Indeed, they are the most extensive fleet type globally, with more than 2000 units across the world in 2019. 

Handysize ships are capable of transporting cargo from 15,000 to 35,000 DWT. Due to the broad definition of the vessel classification, it can also refer to vessels capable of up to 60,000 DWT.

Handymax Bulk Carriers

Handymax bulk carriers are one of the two largest ships of the “handy” class carriers. They can fit different cargoes in their multiple holds. Usually, Handymax ships’ dimensions are in the range of 150–200 m (492–656 ft) in length. This measure can change to fit certain bulk terminal restrictions. For example, Japanese ports can accommodate Handymax vessels up to 190m in length. As part of the handy class, they also have a shallower draft, allowing them to fit in most ports and terminals.

Modern Handymax ships are built with five cargo holds and four cranes of around 30 tonnes working load, allowing them to accommodate ports or terminals with limited infrastructure. These modern Handymax carriers are capable of transporting a total cargo of 52,000 to 58,000 DWT.

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Supramax Bulk Carriers

Supramax is the largest of the handy class ships. They have the same construction as Handymax Bulk Carriers but on the larger side. They are the most sought-after Handymax vessels and could represent more than 90% of all Handymax vessels. With their cargo holds capable of containing up to 60,000 DWT, they are close to the largest class covered in this article: Panamax.

Most of these bulk carrier types (Handymax and Supramax) are built in East Asian shipyards, mainly in Japan, South Korea, and China.

Panamax Bulk Carriers

Panamax carriers are the only class carriers that correspond to an actual geographical limitation. Indeed they are meant to fit within basins and locks throughout the Panama Canal in Central America. As such, these ships have precise dimensions they need to fit.

Panamax vessels have to have a maximum length of 294.13 m (965 ft), the beam (or width) must be 32.31 m(106 ft) at most, and the draft must not exceed 12.04 m (41.2 ft). As such, they can fit between 60,000 to 80,000 DWT dry bulk cargo, making them one the largest carriers for dry bulk and the largest class in this article.

Since 2014, new locks and canal sizes allow for larger ships, called New Panamax or Post Panamax. Thus, they have new maximum dimensions and can fit vessels of up to 366 m (1,200 ft) in length, 49 m (160.7 ft) beam, and 15.2 m(49.9 ft). There aren’t many Post Panamax vessels sailing yet, especially for bulk cargo, but their cargo load can go over 100 000 DWT.

What AgFlow’s Data says about Bulk Carrier Types

AgFlow records freight rates data for Agricultural Commodities across the world. This data holds insight into how the carriers are used – depending on the regions — both for cargo weight and commodities.

Figure 2: AgFlow Data for Bulk Carrier Types Deadweight Tonnage (DWT)

From the AgFlow data for Deadweight Tonnage, it is possible to see how it compares with the typical limits given in figure 1. Indeed, the upper limit for some Bulk Coaster cargoes’ volume can be more than three times the typical one. Furthermore,  the lower limits don’t necessarily match, like the lower tonnage for Panamax carriers. This implies quotes for singular bulkheads.

Some other insightful views of the data are the commodity and export country distributions for bulk carrier types.

Figure 3: Commodity Distribution by Bulk Carrier Types

For the Export Country distribution in Figure 5, there is a similar distribution between Handymax, Supramax, and Panamax bulk carriers. This goes along with the fact that both Handymax and Supramax vessels are from the same builds and imply similar geographical coverage. The dataset also shows that all the data available at AgFlow for bulk Coaster carriers originate from three different countries, namely Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. That implies that these Coaster vessels probably operate in cabotage trading within the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. 

While this data and those percentages are not absolute, they reveal the difference in usage of the different types of bulk carriers. Moreover, freight rates also vary with bulk carrier types as well.

Figure 4: Ukraine Corn Spot Freight Rates by Ports and Carrier Types

The time-series in Figure 4, also described in this AgFlow article, show a spread in prices between the different types of bulk carriers. Logically, the larger the vessel, the higher the price. However, this hierarchy is not necessarily respected when comparing two different export ports in time. Thus leading to better executions possible.


Agricultural commodities bulk carrier types come in various forms, each one corresponding to a specific need. This could be for short-sea trading and cabotage with Coasters ships, a versatile and accommodating vessel with Handysize, Handymax or even Supramax carriers, or heavy cargoes for deep-sea trading with Panamax vessels.

AgFlow’s data further revealed that, although not absolute, the usage for the three most voluminous bulk carrier types is very similar across the globe. Moreover, it also showed that bulk carrier types have a spread in price which hierarchy can change in time with events. Therefore,  this similitude in distribution indicates that deep-sea trading is relatively similar globally and a well-oiled machine. Nonetheless,  Freight rates for Bulk Carriers are actually more dependent on routes, vessel sizes, and market events.

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Read also: Incoterms Guide (2020)

Read also:  Ocean Freight Rates for Dry Bulk Cargoes in 2020