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The operations at ports are increasingly busy and complicated. But all that complexity can be clarified and understood with reliable and accurate data.


The key to global trade

Ports are at the very heart of modern supply chains and transport networks. They’re the nerve centres where goods and vehicles move from sea to land or land to sea. Without them international commerce would grind to a halt and, due to increasing demand, they’re also increasingly complex.

In ports, cargo is loaded and unloaded, goods are transferred for storage or transport, crews and personnel are changed and vessels get fuelled and serviced. Then there are a host of administrative and management tasks as well.

But what exactly are these places, how do they differ, and what happens in each? Read on and we’ll demystify these vital hubs of commerce and transport.

What are ports?

A port is an area in a harbour, or on another suitable piece of land, where vessels and vehicles can be sheltered, serviced, loaded and unloaded. Different forms of freight transport—water, rail and road—converge here.

These trade hubs tended to grow where there was a safe harbour for fishing in a location convenient for transporting people and goods. Today, many of the world’s most thriving cities, like Shanghai, Singapore and New York owe their success to their origins as ports.

Monofunctional ports handle a limited range of commodities—often large, unpackaged ‘bulk cargoes’ of raw materials, in either dry or liquid form. To take one example, many ports in the Persian Gulf specialise in sending the region’s oil to places around the world.

In contrast, polyfunctional ports handle a wider range of goods, frequently alongside other industrial activities. The materials are often intended for ‘transshipment’—i.e. they will be sent further afield onboard other vessels.

Polyfunctional ports are likely to include special and general cargo facilities for containers, bulk cargoes or raw materials. They can accommodate different types of vessels usually carrying inbound goods.

Let’s look at some of the other main categories of ports:


Seaports are built at the coast and they’re the most common type of port for commercial shipping and transport. There are three main subcategories of seaport.

Cargo ports

Common categories of commodities like liquid fuels, chemicals, food grains, timber, technology or cars require different methods of loading and unloading from ships to land transportation. Each port will be equipped with machinery and facilities that suit the cargo that’s handled there.

All-in-one ports process multiple forms of cargo. Meanwhile, a smart port is a modern facility with embedded technology and automation to keep it operating smoothly.

Cargo ports are also sometimes known as ‘bulk ports’, ‘break bulk ports’ or ‘container ports’. Not all of them have deep enough water to accommodate the biggest ships; larger vessels require deep water ports.

Ports of call

Also known as a mid-way port, this is where a ship stops to top-up its fuel supplies, carry out repairs or transfer some cargo.

Cruise home ports

As the name suggests, these ports specialise in dealing with cruise ships. They have facilities for passengers to board and disembark safely and they’re likely to be very busy, due to a continuous stream of travellers, crew and service teams.

Inland ports

Sometimes called ‘dry ports’, inland ports manage cargo, passengers or both on smaller waterways like rivers or lakes. Sometimes they have access to the sea via canals or natural waterways.

Inland ports are usually shallower than seaports. They handle ferries and smaller boats, but not deep-water docking. They may also have machinery to load and unload cargo, warehouses for parts and supplies, storage facilities for containers, distribution centres and freight logistics operations.

Fishing ports

Fishing ports are generally hubs for commercial fishing, but sometimes they provide services for recreational fishing too. A fishing port can be inland or by the sea, but it’s likely to have facilities to process and store fish, alongside buildings for administration and other operations.

What are terminals (and how do they differ from ports)?

A port is the whole area where ships and vehicles are sheltered, serviced, loaded and unloaded, while a specific type of cargo is taken to be handled at a terminal. For example, a port may contain separate terminals for containers, ‘Ro-Ro’ (roll-on-roll off for cars and goods vehicles), oil and gas, or bulk cargo.

Equally, multi-purpose terminals handle a variety of cargo. These facilities need not necessarily be located at the port. Rail or road connections are sometimes used to transfer goods to a terminal at an inland location.

What are berths?

The area where a ship is moored is called a berth. Each port or terminal will have several berths with equipment for handling cargo, as well as open or closed storage areas, so cargo can be discharged, loaded and stored.

The area immediately around the berth is called the quay.

Remembering the basics

The difference between commercial operations at our coasts are easier to remember if you think about the following hierarchy.

  1. A natural or manmade harbour may contain one or more ports.
  2. Each port has terminals to handle different types of cargo.
  3. Each terminal will include one or more berths for loading, unloading, servicing, embarking and disembarking.

Activities: discharge of cargo and loading

There is a wide variety of different infrastructure and interfaces for vessel access and land access in ports across the world. To accommodate a particular vessel, a port must have suitable tidal range and sufficiently deep channels and berths.

The tidal range is the difference between high and low tides. Most ships can’t operate properly if these vary by more than three metres.

As regards depth, a standard Panamax ship of 65,000 deadweight tonnes will require the water to be 12 metres deep. However, 70% of world ports have a depth less than 10 metres and are unable to accommodate ships more than 200 metres in length.

Size of ports and access links

A port’s current or future success is often determined by the amount of space available to support its maritime operations.

Even if it has good access to the sea and deep waterways, there may not be enough available land for development and expansion. This is particularly relevant now that a greater volume of container traffic, or ‘containerisation’, has increased the need for space.

The infrastructure at different ports varies widely. Modern container terminals often require cranes called ‘portainers’ that lift containers, stacking yards with gantry cranes and vehicles like ‘straddle carriers’ that move containers around the terminal. Refrigerated containers, or ‘reefers’, need separate stacking areas. Many terminals now have sophisticated ‘smart’ facilities that use automation rather than manual work.

Among other factors, a port’s value will depend upon its quality of access by land to industrial operations and markets. The most successful will need efficient systems to distribute goods inland, like river barges, good rail links and roads that are suitable for heavy trucks.

As ports become busier, moving ever greater quantities of commodities, the pressure on land increases. Due to these considerations, and concerns about the environment, many operators now prioritise rail and barge links, because they are less prone to congestion and more environmentally friendly than road transport.

Time in port, congestion and delays

The length of time that vessels remain in port varies widely.

It may take from 21 to 36 hours to load or offload oil from an oil tanker, for example. The speed of this process will depend upon the size of the vessel and the configuration of the pumps, both on the ship and on the berth. The process is further complicated by the need to either add or remove ballast, as the cargo is unloaded or loaded.

It can take between one to three days to unload container ships, depending on their size and capacity. Many have 10,000 containers or more on board.

For carriers of bulk cargo, the time will vary from between 12 hours to several days, in line with the complexity of loading or unloading, the size of the vessel and which equipment is needed. ‘Geared carriers’ and ‘self-dischargers’ have equipment on board for loading and unloading, while ‘gearless carriers’ rely exclusively on machinery in the port.

Critically, problems cause delays and delays cost money. The complexity of the operations in ports means that if something unexpected happens, there are likely to be knock-on effects.

For instance, maintenance issues may cause a vessel to spend more time in berth than anticipated. Its activities will then need to be rescheduled, which is likely, in turn, to affect the schedule of ships waiting to take its place. Similarly, an error in a bill of lading potentially means delays, rearranged operations and, ultimately, backups of traffic and congestion on road or rail.

Because estimated times of arrival (ETAs) at the vessel’s next destination are still often logged and updated manually, they tend to be rough estimates that could become quickly outdated if there is a problem at the current location that will cause delay. There can be significant uncertainty not only around when a vessel might actually enter or leave its berth, but the knock-on effect is additional uncertainty around when that vessel should arrive at its next destination. It can be an expensive challenge for many businesses that rely on accurate ETA information.

The emergence of geospatial ports data

Today, however, greater accuracy can be delivered by advanced maritime data. By plotting ports, terminals and berths with more granular location data, a vessel is no longer identified as being simply ‘in port’ or ‘not in port’. The vessel can be tracked to individual terminals and berths or seen to be on the move between different areas of a port as its sequence of activities are carried out – whether these activities are planned or unplanned, and whether or not there has been a manual update to the ETAs that are logged. It’s this kind of visibility within ever-growing and more-complex ports that is increasingly helpful for shipping and ship servicing businesses, as well as businesses that are moving their materials and goods by sea.

We understand how to respond to the need for more granular location data. That’s why our Geospatial Ports Database is the most comprehensive source of data on the precise location of vessels at port, terminal or berth level. For businesses that want greater accuracy of arrival and departure times and possibility of delays, or for those who need to calculate how and when port congestion will either occur or be cleared, this is vital insight.

Key takeaways

  • Ports, terminals and berths are at the heart of global supply chains and transport networks.
  • A natural or manmade harbour may contain one or more ports, for sheltering vessels, loading and unloading and the onward transportation of goods.
  • Terminals and berths are vital infrastructure in ports, providing facilities for handling cargo and the space to moor vessels for loading and unloading.
  • It’s difficult to calculate the length of time a vessel will need to remain in port, thanks to the complexity of loading and unloading operations and the uncertainty of other logistics.
  • Greater granularity of data around port locations is increasingly important to shipping related businesses for efficient operationsOur Geospatial Ports Database provides highly accurate information on the location of vessels at port, terminal or berth.