What are Container Ships – History, Types And Design

What are Container Ships?

As the name suggests, a vessel structured specifically to hold huge quantities of cargo compacted in different types of containers is referred to as a container vessel (ship). The process of sending cargo in special containers is known as containerization.

One of the most potent methods of hauling goods is done by Container Ships. These ships have made it feasible to transfer towering quantities of cargo at a time and have changed the global trade efficaciously.

Container ships are the cargo ships that carry most seagoing non-bulk cargoes. In today’s world, container vessels carry around 90% of the world’s non-bulk cargoes. One of the main ways of carrying ready goods worldwide is through Container Vessels. These containers are of a standardised size so that they can be easily transferred to various modes of transport. Anything can be carried on a Containership.

Related Read: A Guide to Shipping Container Dimensions

Because of the increasing demand in the market, increasing cargo-carrying capacity, increasing operating efficiency and improvement in environmental processes and operation of a container vessel in liner service, the container vessels have become bigger and bigger continuously.

The container carrying capacity of container ships today has increased more than 1200% as compared to 1968. They have become more technologically advanced and fuel-efficient over time.

what are container ships

History of Container Ships

The initiation of container shipping forms one of the most remarkable developments in the maritime cargo industry. Container ships, a type of cargo ship, have revolutionised the manner in which cargo supplies are ferried and transported across the world, by providing assurance of safety and security of the thus transported cargo supplies. Some of the biggest shipping companies today deal mainly with the containerized form of cargo.

The very first models of container ships were launched in the early 1950s and were mainly designed to ferry goods trains’ freight cars. Using crane systems and ramp systems, these freight cars could be loaded and unloaded from the vessels.

Over the years technological advancement has made it possible for comparatively far more feasible methodologies, though crane systems still play a major role in the loading and unloading operations of the containers to and from the vessels’ holds. Specialized lashing and cargo handling systems are used to secure the containers in their places.

Related Read: What is an Intermodal Container?

Container vessels are typical in that that they are constructed to accommodate immense possible cargo loads. The load holding capacitance of container vessels is measured in terms of Twenty-foot Equivalent Units or TEUs, with the biggest container ships carrying as much as over 15,000 -16,000 TEUs.

Because of such high capacities, some of the largest ships in the world are container ships.

Types of Container Ships

Container vessels can be classified in many  ways:

Development Generations

Containers vessels have been through various phases. These phases have been classified as generations.

  1. First Generation  1956 TO 1970
  2. Second Generation – 1970 TO 1980
  3. Third Generation 1980 TO 1988
  4. Fourth Generation  1988 TO 2000
  5. Fifth Generation  2000 TO 2005
  6. Sixth Generation 2006 TO TILL DATE

Related Read: Top 26 Innovative Uses of Shipping Containers

Handling Modes

LoLo Container Ships

Lift-on/Load-off vessels are the Geared container vessel, which can load and discharge the cargo themselves using the ship’s own crane.

They have the capability to operate without port cranes and can do the cargo operations unassisted.

Related Read: Container Gantry Crane: Construction and Operation

ROCON Container Ships 

ROCONs are ro-ro vessels that also carry containers. The arrangements are such that the containers may be loaded on the deck or there is a separate hold specifically for loading containers.

Related Read: What are Ro-Ro Ships?

Container Ship Sizes

 Some of the main types of container ships based on size are:
  • Panamax
  • Suezmax
  • Post-Panamax
  • Post-Suezmax
  • Post-Malaccamax


  • Panamax size vessels were first introduced in 1980.
  • These vessels were of around 4000-5000 TEUs.
  • Their dimension was such that they could pass the Panama canal. They were limited to the max length of 294.1m, Breadth of 32.3m and max draught of 12m, which was par in comparison to the dimensions of the canal.

Post- Panamax

  • A new transportation net was introduced by APL without using the Panama Canal. This created the  ‘Post-Panamax’ type. The introduction of Regina Mærsk in 1996 created a new development in the container ship market with an official capacity of 6400 TEU.
  • Post-Panamax’s development was climactic. In the present world, they occupy nearly 30% of the world’s fleet.
  • These sizes of vessels were subversive introducing new ideas and methods in the container shipping market.
  • The concept of cellular container vessels was introduced. Wherein the cell guides ran from the bottom of the hold to some tiers above the deck. This n reduced the running cost of ship owners as no lashing materials were used to secure the containers but also improved the speed of loading and discharging and reduced container shifting.


  • Suezmax max size vessels were introduced in relation to the Suez canal. These vessels have nearly the same size as that of the Suez canal.
  • Suezmax vessels have a carrying capacity of around 12000 TEUs, with Breadth about 50-57 m and draught in between 14.4m-16.4m.


  • These are Ultra-large container vessels with a carrying capacity of 18000 TEU with a breadth of 60m 21m max draught.
  • These vessels are known as Post Suezmax as their dimensions are too big for the vessel to pass the Suez canal.

Post – Malacamax

  • This size emulates the maximum permissible draught of 21m of Malacca Strait.
  • For this size of the vessel to enter the Ports, the port authorities will have to be ready. Presently only two ports in the world are ready to accept this size of vessel i.e., Singapore & Rotterdam.

Container Ships Service Range

Feeder Ship

  • These ships are used for short routes. Basically, the voyages are not longer than 500nm and they trade in the coastal areas only.
  • The Capacity of such vessels does not exceed 1500TEU.

Mother Ship

  • These are the vessels that are on international trade.
  • The size of these vessels is much bigger than feeders.

Basic Design Of Container Vessels

The design of the concomitant container vessel is decisive. The hull is akin to the conventional Bulk Carriers and General cargo ships which are built around a firm keel. The lower part of the vessel has a significant effect on the construction of the vessel. There are lower decks, an Engine room and plentiful ballast and Fuel Tanks. The Cargo holds are the places where the underdeck Containers are loaded.

Inside the hold, there are cell guide arrangements that guide the container to slot well. This not hold helps the crane operator to slide the container safely inside the holds but also acts as a guide for them. It is imperative to maintain this cell guide well. Any damage to the cell guides may lead to critical consequences. These holds are topped by hatch covers, above which the containers are stacked too.

Most of the modern container vessels do not have cranes but some do have cargo cranes installed on them, especially in vessels of smaller sizes. Vessels that have cranes onboard are called geared container vessels whereas vessels without cranes are called Gearless container vessels.

Related Read: Understanding Design Of Container Ships

These geared container vessels use them for self-loading and discharging at ports where the cargo volume is low. There are also some specialized systems for securing the containers onboard.

In most of the container vessels, lift away types of Hatch covers are used. Hatch covers not only increase the carrying capacity of the vessels but also prevents the water ingress inside the hold & fissure, the containers under-deck and on deck both. These hatch covers have cleats that must be closed after every cargo operation & before the vessel’s departure from any port.

Related Read: Important Points for Safe Container Lashing

Also, within a container ship, there are well-demarcated holds that separate each container from each other which simplifies the entirety of the filing of the containers.

  • In essence, container ships are regarded to be a generic reference. Within their ambit, there are several different types of container ships. Each container vessel is unique and different, with an undiminished operational singularity.
  •  Container ships that are built specifically to fit into the channels of the Panama Canal are referred to as the Panamax container vessels. These ships can be loaded with a maximum TEU of about 5,000 and measure slightly over 290 metres lengthwise.
  •  The smallest variance of container vessels is the Small Feeder type. These container vessels can carry loads up to 1000 TEUs. Several developments made to the Feeder categorisation has resulted in the development of the categories of ‘Feedermax’ and ‘Feeder.’ The former can carry a maximum of about 3,000 TEUs while the latter can carry around 2,000 TEUs.

Container shipping vessels represent a majority in terms of the packaged cargo ferried across the world. On account of the relevance and the ever-increasing demand for better maritime cargo transportation channels, there has been seen huge strides in the container ships’ domain. Such advancements are expected to grow even more in the days to come.

Types Of Containers 

  • ISO containers, also referred to as intermodal containers, are used to transport freight. ISO containers are designed for transportation by more than just one mode: such as truck and rail, or rail and ship.
  • These freight containers conform to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) container manufacturing standards.
  • ISO is an international standards organization headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. ISO containers are produced in several standard configurations, including dry (or cube), insulated, flat rack (or platform), open-top, refrigerated, and tank. Dry ISO containers are general purpose, totally enclosed, box-type containers used for general-purpose transportation.
  • ISO containers are manufactured in standard sizes.  The standard width of ISO containers is 8 feet, the standard heights are 8 feet 6 inches, and 9 feet 6 inches, and the most common lengths are 20 feet and 40 feet.
  • The use of 45 Feet containers has also increased significantly.

Types Of Containers By Design

  • Flat Rack Container
  • Dry Van Box Container
  • Tunnel Container
  • Side Open Container
  • Cylindrical Tank Container
  • Thermal Container
  • Open Top Container
  • Refrigerated Container

 Read More: 16 types of container designs here. 

Future Of Container Vessels

Container vessels represent a majority in terms of the packaged cargo ferried across the world. On account of the relevance and the ever-increasing demand for better maritime cargo transportation channels, there has been seen huge strides in the container ships’ domain. Such advancements are expected to grow even more in the days to come.

In the coming days, container ships have a lot more challenges to face, but the Container shipping industry will always stand strong. Upcoming changes in rules/regulations, increasingly stringent environmental laws, competitive market, Introduction of new technologies, Increase in marine traffic in relation to increase carrying capacity of the vessels will be its preeminent problems.

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Disclaimer: The authors’ views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Marine Insight. Data and charts, if used, in the article have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Marine Insight do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendation on any course of action to be followed by the reader.

The article or images cannot be reproduced, copied, shared or used in any form without the permission of the author and Marine Insight. 


  1. There is a solution to the problem of the above deck load of containers breaking off laterally over the side of the ship..The motion of a ship in roll is far greater than it is in pitch. Therefore if the containers were loaded 90 degrees rotated to the normal method, the container loaded lengthwise across the ship, the stack of containers would be much more stable laterally and naturally resistant to breaking away in severe roll.

  2. This article is just impeccable. Very nicely written and detailed.
    Each and every information provided here is correct and precise.I have been a Master from last 18years,but have always sailed in Gas tankers. Reading this gave me a clear information about the Container vessels.Very well done team Marine Insight. A big thanks to the person who has written.

  3. Hi… Sir/Mdm,

    Please advise.

    Can I have how to apply jobs vacancy at this industry line.

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