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Difference between bulk and break bulk

Bulk and Break Bulk are two terms that are being used incorrectly and interchangeably in the course of day to day business..

These terms cannot be used interchangeably because there are distinctive differences between Bulk and Break Bulk in terms of cargo, nature, size, capacity, handling, trade, customers, ports, terminals, equipment, infrastructure…………………………………..

In the below article, I have explained the differences between Bulk and Break Bulk, differences in their operations, how the handling differs in both and differences in ships for both of these two cargo types..


The term BULK relates to trades where dry cargoes such as Iron ore, Grain, Coal, Alumina and Phosphate are carried in loose form, (i.e. the cargo is not packed) and loaded directly in the holds of the ship like below :

The ships that carry these bulk cargoes are known as Bulk Carriers, Ore Carriers or Bulkers and may be classified on the basis of their  Deadweight (DWT) as below..

DWT refers to the weight that a ship can safely carry – this includes the weight of the cargo on board the ship, the crew, stores, fuel, water, ballast etc.. If the total weight exceeds the DWT certified by the ship builder, then the ship could be in danger of sinking or damage..

Bulk vessel classification by DWT - difference between bulk and break bulk


Vale Sohar - Valemax size vsl - bulk and break bulk
Image of a Chinamax/Valemax bulker Courtesy – Peet de Rouw, De Nachtdienst Fotografie


Bulk carriers have several cargo holds but a single deck and cargoes maybe loaded and carried as a Single parcel with cargo in all holds for one customer or multiple parcels with cargoes in different holds for different customers..


bulk ships hold - bulk and break bulk


Since Bulk cargoes are mostly homogeneous, it may require the use of dedicated terminals – like Richards Bay Coal Terminal in South Africa for the loading and/or discharging (notice the different size of bulk ships loading)..

Richards Bay Coal Terminal - difference between bulk and break bulk
Richards Bay Coal Terminal – South Africa



  1. Gearless – meaning the ship doesn’t have its own cranes and/or other cargo handling equipment which means these ships can only berth at a terminal which has the required cargo handling equipment..
  2. Geared – meaning the has its own cranes and/or other cargo handling equipment which means these ships can call at any suitable berth at the port for cargo operations..



bulkers don't carry cargo on deck - bulk and break bulk



Bulk cargo fixtures can be done either on a spot basis (short term) or on a contract of affreightment (long term) basis.. Freight rates for bulk vessels are usually charged per Metric Ton depending on quantity and cargo loaded..



End of Bulk Section


The term BREAK BULK relates to trades where the cargoes are carried in unitized form such as palletised, bagged, strapped, bundled, drummed and crated like below and also non unitised general cargo (vehicles, steel etc)..

The ships that carry these break bulk cargoes are known as Break Bulk, Multi-Purpose or General Cargo vessels and come in a variety of sizes and types such as Single Decker, Tween Decker, Box Holds..

break bulk ship classification - bulk and break bulk

Cargo can be loaded under deck, on deck or between decks (tween deck) which some of the ships have like shown below..

break bulk vessel - bulk and break bulk


tween deck - break bulk vessel - bulk and break bulk
Vessel with a tween deck

In a break bulk or multi purpose vessel,

  • Cargoes may belong to various customers
  • No dedicated berth or terminal required
  • Can operate from any free berth



  1. Gearless – meaning the ship doesn’t have its own cranes and/or other cargo handling equipment which means these ships can only berth at a terminal which has the required cargo handling equipment..
  2. Geared – meaning the has its own cranes and/or other cargo handling equipment which means these ships can call at any suitable berth at the port for cargo operations..


break bulk vessels carry cargo on deck


Freight rates for Break Bulk cargoes are worked out on the basis of Freight Ton or Revenue Ton which means freight is charged on the volume (CBM) or weight (MT) of the cargo whichever is higher..

End of Break Bulk Section


Here is a look at the various ship types and a DWT vs Value comparison just so you can have an understanding of where the Bulk and Break Bulk ships stand..

vessel type - DWT vs Value - bulk and break bulk

Do you have any other points that you would like to share regarding the difference between Bulk and Break Bulk..?? Please comment if you do have..


References :

  1. Oshima Shipbuilding Co. Ltd –
  2. Peet de Rouw –
  3. Richards Bay Coal Terminal –
  4. Pacific Carriers Limited –
  5. Medlink Management S.A –
  6. Cargo Services UK –
  7. Rickmers –
  8. Briese Schiffahrt –


This article was originally posted in 2015 and now reposted after a few updates.. 

Hariesh Manaadiar
Hariesh Manaadiar
I am Hariesh Manaadiar, the Founder of Shipping and Freight Resource.. I have been in the dynamic shipping and freight industry for over three decades and have worked in several sectors.. I share my experiences and knowledge of the industry through this blog for those looking for help in the industry.. Stay subscribed for more free useful content about shipping, freight, maritime, logistics, supply chain and trade..


  1. cargo: HOT ROLLED ALLOY STEEL PLATE shipped in 50 bundles. Value of cargo = SGD 1,200,000/-
    Vessel name: XIN HAI TONG 17 [IMO Number: 9519016, Type of ship: Bulk Carrier, GRT: 32945, Class:NKK, , Year build 2010 Flag: Marshall Islands
    1) the vessel used is bulk carrier. So it this a bulk or break bulk shipment ?

    • Anything which is countable will be categorised as breakbulk. Hot rolled steel plate is countable and therefore is categorised as breakbulk

  2. Dear Terence,

    May I know from where to where are you transporting the Natural Rubber? Can we have your contacts, please?

    Thank you.

  3. Dear Hariesh,

    Thank you so much and glad this article explained very well about breakbulk and bulk cargo.

    I have an inquiry about transporting of Natural Rubber. And this is called break bulk cargo. Can you help me who is right person or company to inquire about this cargo. I look forward to your kind assistance.

  4. Would be nice to understand the greenhouse gas emissions of sending freight by the various types of freight. I imagine the emissions per tonne/kilometre of freight transported varies quite markedly between bulk and breakbulk, container freight.

  5. Dear Hariesh,

    Thankyou for such a informative content which is to be studied deeply and performed worldwide.

    Could you please let me know if whatever the cargo is, can it be called as Break Bulk if the cargo is packed properly for the sea carriage and if we have a good volume ?

  6. Hello

    Are container ships in the category of break bulk?

    In light of astronomical ocean freight charges in 2021, i read somewhere in comments where someone suggested using break bulk transportation to mitigate cost increase. However we solely bring packaged dry food products in regular 20 or 40 ft containers and i’m not sure how this can utilize break bulk shipping?

    • Hi Arash, container ships are NOT in the category of break bulk.. However, general purpose ships do carry containers on select routes.. It is also possible to ship your goods as break bulk instead of in containers as long as it is packed properly for the sea carriage and if you have a good volume..

  7. Nicely explained and very informative.
    Recently changed jobs and wanted to get this details.
    Thank you. You are doing a good Job.

  8. Many thanks Hariesh,
    very good article almost to have a very good first approach about bulk and BB cargoes and ships designs to carry these cargo. I love sharing your articles for my followers, in shipping since more 40 years we have always something to learn and to share.
    Next time when u will repost this topic please add Heavy Lifts Cargoes and specialized ships for very large and heavy cargoes.
    Thanks again for your posts and keep following you
    krgds juan

  9. Hi Hariesh, great contribution to my general knowledge. One question, you say 43% of ships are bulkers. Can you say anything about how much of that are bulk carriers and how much are breakbulk?
    Cheers, stay healthy,

  10. Good afternoon
    I’am writing a book about ” cargo handling on ship ” it is for the maritime Scholl in norway . Wondering if I can use the Picture (sketch) of a break bulk cargo ship in the book?

  11. Dear Sir,

    Thank you so much and glad this article explained very well about breakbulk and bulk cargo.
    I have an inquiry about transporting of sand. And this is called bulk cargo. Can you help me who is right person or company to inquire about this cargo. I look forward to your kind assistance.

    Thank you.

  12. Hi Hariesh – concerning the bulker sizes, I’ve always considered Handies to be up to 35,000 dwt with handymaxes up to abt 50,000 dwt and supramaxes above that. I know that handymaxes were out of favour for a long time due to the bigger is better for fuel efficiency theory howevr they do seem to be making a comeback

    • Hi Christopher, there is always scope for the different size vsls at different ports.. In my opinion, Handys will never go out of favour as there are still a lot of small ports around the world where these vsls are needed and also many short sea trades..

  13. Somebody…..Anybody help,please.What can I do so that I can be able to read the info in this article.It is just blurred.I need this data badly.

  14. The article is blurred,I can’t read anything.It looks like just the info I need for my assignment.I have created an account & signed in,but still can’t read anything.

  15. thank you for finally making me understand the difference between these two terms, the way you designed it is clear like water for me…thanks a lot keep it up and GOD bless you

  16. Excellent Graphics and explanations….I’m brushing up on terminologies etc etc…haven’t been in the dry bulk cargo business for quite a few years but hopefully that’s about to change
    Your site has helped tremendously….and so do the blogs/questions from others in general. Overall a very useful site…well done &
    Thank you again
    Peter Burns

  17. Very nice summary to give a basic idea to some of my staff to understand the difference. Good job! It is for basics, thus understandably there is a lot of ifs and buts, but it is certainly an excellent starting point to get the basics right.

  18. good day everyone,
    could you please tell me in which right bulk section my following example could be : a vehicle or any item carried on a bedflat ?(yacht shipped on 6x40flat for example).
    is it unitized cargo or neo bulk cargo.
    i think in my company i work, the term is not appropriate (we call it breakbulk cargo)
    and for information, can we call a Flat equipment, a Container.
    if we look a cargo on a flat, it does not really contain the cargo, since this cargo dimension may be outside the equipment
    thank you

    • Hello David, a container comes in many size/types.. Platform or Collapsible Flat Rack is one such type.. Cargoes that don’t fit in a standard container maybe loaded on a Flat Rack.. That cargo is then identified as an Out of Gauge cargo or Over Dimensional Cargo depending on which side of the Equator you come from.. But it will still be classified as a container shipment.. The freight for such cargoes maybe charged per container + the additional Out of Gauge charges for lost slots..

      However, there are cases where break bulk cargo maybe loaded on a container vsl but on top of several flat rack containers and then lashed on board.. Such cargo may be charged as lumpsum instead of per container..

      Trust this clarifies..

  19. Hai I am a Master mariner and a teacher by passion. When I spill a hand full of jewels from this treasure I feel more realistic and authentic. Your efforts are commendable.

  20. Great visuals but the article doesn’t cover the topic fully. There doesn’t appear to be any “universal” agreement re: definitions of the terms — check out the various dictionaries. There’s breakbulk, break bulk, and break-bulk as well as bulk cargo, et ali. Their definitions are similar among the various glossaries/dictionaries but nevertheless contain slight differences. Hinkleman’s global terms dictionary appears to be quite detailed but the only one I could find on the internet was 10 years old.

    • Hello Bud, can you pls clarify what is not covered in the article..

      The objective of the article was to explain the differences between bulk and break bulk.. As you rightly mentioned, Break Bulk is written as breakbulk, break bulk, and break-bulk across the internet and in text books, but it all means the same and that meaning is what is explained in the infographic..

      As explained in the article, Break bulk ships are also called Multi Purpose or General Cargo ships and in some cases people also refer to Break Bulk cargo as General Cargo because there are too many types of cargoes to list..

      There are no universal agreements on how Break Bulk/Multi Purpose/General Cargo ships are referred to.. IMO doesn’t make any reference to the term Break Bulk itself but refers to General Cargo ships..

  21. After so many years working in the shipping and logistics business, for the first time I got a full picture about this….

    • Thank you Miguel, that is one of the objectives of this blog to refresh and enhance the memory or knowledge of those already in the industry for several years, but may not be dealing with certain segments all the time.. 🙂

  22. Ship Types based on DWT appeared to be confusing. This can be explained clearly with a two dimensional graph instead presenting in a pie chart. Otherwise your explanation on break bulk and bulk is informative…

    • Hello Emil, a pie chart represents data visually as a fractional part of a whole and readers can see the data comparison at a glance.. As you can see in the pie chart, the Bulker category dominates the world’s ship types @ 43%.. That was the objective..

  23. Hi, Hariesh,
    Class article. Very informative. for all those especially who are more into containerized shipping.. There are many terms when a break bulk or bulk cargoes are shipped.
    We would appreciate some blog on these subjects like hook to hook etc.
    Keep up the good work…all the best.

  24. Great explanation, thanks.
    Any cargo such as coal, grain, phosphate or as you mentioned “cargo not packed” we used to call “in true bulk” to differentiate from the bulk cargo. Will this term help?

  25. Just for general interest only . Presentation was of a friendly introductory nature . Please also refer to IMO´s definition of a ” bulk carrier” .

    The so called ” Geared Dry Bulker” can at times carry a full and complete ” homogeneous ” cargo under deck & on deck such as sawn timber or strapped/bundled logs (paper pulp trade) and must observe all the prevailing rules of the trade and good seamanship concerning lashing/securing /stability .

    Although the practice was never fostered and has disappeared – since say the “70 ties ” – grain ( bagged & bulk” parcels ) and coal in bulk have been carried on weather deck of a ship !.

  26. The breakbulk cargo is the one which includes several types of cargo altogether. Breakbulk cargo is is found in many areas of Africa and Asia. The cargo which is made up of only one type packed uniformely is named neo-bulk cargo. You described neo-bulk cargo as being breakbulk cargo. Actually, breakbulk cargo tends to lose importance in modern shipping.


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