Oil tanker sizes and designs have gone through many changes over the centuries. The very first tankers were sail-driven. They were built in river River Tyne, England.

There were no official regulations by that time. As long as it doesn’t sink or got caught on fire, the vessel didn’t evolved much. However, they do evolved due to increasing demand and better safety designs.

Today, we have sophisticated tankers of various sizes and capacities navigation anywhere in the ocean. These ships sail while complying various regulations with the bottom line being safe and seaworthy.


Oil Tanker History

Before we understand the creation of various oil tanker sizes, let us first dive into a short history of oil tankers.

When oil was discovered, their main mode of transport was through barrels. However, they prove to be problematic- easily broken, can only be used once and expensive.

The barrels alone account for half the cost of petroleum production in 1860s.

Then comes the two-sail driven tankers in UK which is followed by Vaderland, the very first oil-tank steamer in 1873. Further development sprang back and forth in Europe and the US each design slightly better than the other.


Zoroaster- the first modern oil tanker in history

Zoroaster- the first modern oil tanker in history


Oil in Bulk

The very first modern oil tanker which utilizes “liquid in bulk” storage was the Zoroaster. It was 56 meters long, 8.2 meters wide and a daft of 2.7 meters.

Built in 1878, the vessel utilizes hull steel design and two iron tanks for holding 246 metric tons of  kerosene cargo. It also had ballast system for stability. This was a major breakthrough in the oil tanker shipping market during the early days.

Zoroaster was built in Sweden and could sail from there to the Caspian Sea via the Baltic Sea and various canals and waterways.


Bigger and Better

Though Zoroaster was a success, further developments even followed to address newly discovered problems. The sizes of tanker ships also grew due to the increasing demand for oil.

At the same time, regulations were developed to deliver harmonized standards in shipping and ship construction. Varying degrees of accidents like oil spills, collision and grounding were considered even before oil tankers were built and during their operation.


Oil tankers doing double banking ship-to-ship cargo operation in port

Oil tankers doing double banking ship-to-ship cargo operation in port


Today, we have incorporated technology to support us in running tanker vessels. Shipowners improved cargo operations and ballast systems using modern computers.

The bridge is equipped with state of the art tools for safer navigation. Today, even some companies are experimenting on autonomous ships.

The creation of super tankers into the market redefined the way we transport oil.

These huge ships are capable of carrying 3.2 million barrels of oil. By comparison, the United Kingdom consumes 1.5 million barrels of oil per day in 2019.


Types of Oil Tankers

There are many different kinds of tankers around the world. Their designs vary depending on the cargo they carry and the trade area they operate.

For this article, we will be focusing on oil tankers and their various sizes.

Generally, there are two basic types of oil tankers. Let’s discuss them below.


Oil tankers' position in the global supply chain

Oil tankers’ position in the global supply chain


Product Carriers

Product carriers are designed to transport refined petroleum products from one port to another. Basically, they get their cargoes from refineries and deliver it to the consuming market.

Thus, product tankers are built big enough to fit into ports and waterways like that of Amsterdam and Belgium.

There are two categories of cargoes that Product tankers carry. These are Clean Petroleum Products (CPP) and Dirty Petroleum Products (DPP).

CPP are sometimes called white cargoes. They are more refined and ready to use while others are used as raw materials for further product composition.


Product Chemical tanker

Product Chemical tanker


Examples of CPP are gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, naphtha and kerosene.

Good examples of Dirty Petroleum products are fuel oils. Product carriers can carry crude oil as well. Stick with me and we will discuss more details further down this article.


Crude Tankers

Crude oil is a non refined liquid petroleum composed of hydrocarbon (HC) compounds. It is found under the earth’s crust and is a naturally occurring fossil fuels.

It is sometimes called “black gold” because it produces many other products once refined.

Simply put, Crude Tankers, also called Crude Carriers, are oil tankers specifically built to carry crude oil. Since crude oil is the “Mother of all Petroleum”, countries around the world need this cargo to run their machines.

Crude carriers play tremendous task in delivering this cargo worldwide.


Deck of a crude oil tanker.

Deck of a crude oil tanker.


Oil Tanker Categories

Product and Crude Tankers are categorized according to their sizes measured in deadweight tonnes (DWT). Like I mentioned before, let’s discuss them one by one.


Product Tanker Fleet

1. General Purpose Tankers

GP Tankers are the smallest class of tankers with sizes ranging from 10,000 dwt to 24,999 dwt (deadweight tonnage).

They carry refined petroleum products and are considered to be very versatile. Due to their size, they can maneuver in inner waterways deep within rivers and locks.

They are perfect for navigating in channels and canals which poses draft and size limitations.


Fure West - a General Purpose Chemical/ Product Tanker Ship having 17,349 dwt

Fure West – a General Purpose Chemical/ Product Tanker Ship having a size of 17,349 dwt.


2. Handysize Product Tankers

Handysize tankers are similar to GP tankers when it comes to versatility and maneuverability. They have sizes between 25,000 dwt to 41,999 dwt.

Much like GP Tankers, they are also flexible due to their sizes. However, they can be very complex in their design. Handy size tankers are also designed to carry multiple grades of product including chemicals.

Thus, these types of tankers can jump between clean petroleum products (CPP) and various chemical cargoes.


Lucky Lady - Handysize Chemical/ Product Tanker Ship with 37,432 dwt

Lucky Lady – Handysize Chemical/ Product Tanker with 37,432 dwt


3. Medium Range (“MR”) Product Tankers

Medium Range Product Tankers have similar built and design with the handysize ones. But they are bigger in size, which comes between 42,000 dwt to 59,999 dwt.

They can also carry white cargoes and chemicals due to their tank coating designs. However, their size limits them from entering small inner waterways.

MR product tankers are so widely named because they are often used to service medium distance trades like Europe to US or Caribbean to US.


Torm Laura - Chemical/ Product Tanker having 49,999 dwt

Torm Laura – Chemical/ Product Tanker having 49,999 dwt


4. Long Range (“LR1”) Product Tankers

As the name suggests, LR product tankers trade their cargoes between long distances such as Middle East to Asia and sometimes to Europe.

Their size ranges between 60,000 dwt to 84,999 dwt. It is named LR1 because the next scale, which is also bigger, is categorized as LR2. They both travel long distances.

LR1 carries clean petroleum products as well as DPP. In many port of the world, LR1 is the largest product carrier that can fit in terminals due to draft, deadweight, length or beam limitations.


Insert image Cielo Bianco - Product Tanker with 74,999 dwt.

Insert image Cielo Bianco – Product Tanker with 74,999 dwt.


5. Long Range (“LR2”) Product Tankers

LR2 is the last category of  product tankers, and is the largest in the product tanker fleet. Their size ranges between 85,000 dwt to 124,999 dwt.

Just like LR1, LR2 also trades long distances  and services DPP as well due to their tank coating.

For this reason, LR2 competes directly with Aframaxes on key dirty trades. Aframaxes on the other hand cannot compete with them for white cargoes due to the lack of required tank coatings.

In 1990, Asian refiners were were unable to keep up the production of naphtha as a raw material for plastic production. Long range product tankers (LR1 And LR2) were used to meet the demand by importing from the Middle East.


Torm Gudrun - Product Tanker with 101,155 dwt.

Torm Gudrun – Product Tanker with 101,155 dwt.


Crude Tanker Fleet

1. Panamax Tankers

For a start, crude tanker fleet includes three “maxes”. The max means its the maximum size limit that that is able to pass a certain canal.

Hence, Panamax crude tankers are ships which have dimensions big enough to transit through the Panama Canal in fully loaded condition.

The canal’s parameters are 320m X 33,5m X 12,5m (Length X Beam X Depth). With the rehabilitation of the Panama Canal, a new breed of ships are born which is refereed to as Neo-Panamax.

Panamax crude carriers have sizes between 55,000 dwt to 84,999 dwt. Panamax tankers are directly referred to as crude carriers.

If they are capable of carrying refined petroleum products, they are named as LR1 tankers which are now product tankers.


Cabo Sounion - Panamax Crude Oil tanker having 69,636 dwt inside the Panama Canal Lock

Cabo Sounion – Panamax Crude Oil tanker having 69,636 dwt inside the Panama Canal Lock


2. Aframax Crude Tankers

You may have noticed that Panamax and Suezmax are named after a place. However, Afra isn’t a place you can find anywhere.

That is because Afra is an acronym which stands for Average Freight Rate Assessment system. It is a billing system used by the oil tanker market using the weighted average of all chartered tonnage within a period of time.

Aframax vessels were born to due to size constraints when larger vessels entered into the high seas. With a size range of 85,000 dwt to 124,999 dwt, they are the counterpart of LR2 for product carriers.


Seamaster IV - Crude Carrier with 109,266 dwt

Seamaster IV – Crude Carrier with 109,266 dwt.


3. Suezmax Tankers

Suezmax are the largest tankers capable of crossing the Suez Canal in fully loaded condition. They are 125,000 dwt to 199,999 dwt in size.

Since the Suez canal has no locks, Suezmax vessels only need to comply with restrictions of draft which is 20 meters, height of 68 meters and maximum beam of 77.5 meters.

Aframax are vital in delivering crude products between the Middle East and Europe since it serves as shortcut instead of going around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa


Seamaster IV - Crude Carrier with 109,266 dwt

Seamaster IV – Crude Carrier with 109,266 dwt.


4. Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC)

Now we enter the supertanker class.

The second biggest class of vessels are the VLCCs. Their size ranges between 200,000 dwt to 320,000 dwt. They are able to carry 1.9 million to 2.2 million barrels of crude oil.

VLCCs were created to meet the growing demand of global oil. They are responsible for carrying most of crude oil shipments around the globe.

Their main trade routes are between large oil producing areas such as Persian Gulf, North America, Europe and major markets in Asia.

Currently, there are 810 VLCCs in the world according to Statista.


Hunter Freya - a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) measuring 300,000 dwt

Hunter Freya – a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) measuring 300,000 dwt


5. Ultra Large Crude Carriers (ULCC)

ULCCs are the largest ships ever built with sizes above 320,000 dwt. Huge are an understatement in describing these ships. They are behemoths at sea.

Together with VLCCs, they are called supertankers due to their immense size.

Speaking of their size, a ULCC carrying three million barrels of oil has her cargo worth nearly USD200,000,00 considering the price of WTI crude per barrel of USD66.3.

The largest ULCC ever built is the Knock Nevis, which was later on named Mont until it got sold into scrap last 2009.

Mont weighs 564,650 dwt with dimensions of 458.45m x 68.866m x 29.8m (LOA x Beam x Depth).


ULCC TI Asia (formerly Hellespont Alhambra) in an STS Operation. She weighs 441,893 dwt.

ULCC TI Asia (formerly Hellespont Alhambra) in an STS Operation. She weighs 441,893 dwt.


Oil tankers serve as the “oil” that runs the global economy. As a seafarer, I work in Handymax types mostly trading within Europe.

What’s your oil tanker experience?


May  the winds be in your favor?


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