What is Break Bulk Shipping?
The term break bulk comes from the older phrase “breaking bulk” which is the extraction of a portion of the cargo on a ship, or the beginning of the unloading process from the ship’s holds. In modern context, break bulk is meant to encompass cargo that is transported in bags, boxes, crates, drums, or barrels – or items of extreme length or size. To be considered break bulk, these goods must be loaded individually, not in intermodal containers nor in bulk as with liquids or grains.
Break bulk was the most common form of cargo for most of history. Since the late 1960s, break bulk cargo has declined while containerized cargo has grown significantly. Moving containers on and off a ship is much more efficient than having to move individual goods. This efficiency allows ships to minimize time in ports and spend more time on the sea. Break bulk cargo is also more susceptible to loss, theft and damage.
Loading and unloading break bulk cargo can be very labor-intensive. Generally such cargo is brought to the quay next to the ship, and then each individual item is lifted on board separately – oftentimes using heavy-duty cranes from the boat or by the dockside. Once on board, each individual item must be secured and stowed separately as well.