Oil tanker sizes and designs have gone through many improvements over the centuries. The first tankers were sail-driven and built in the River Tyne, England during the 1860s.

There were no official regulations at that time. In other words, they were crude designs. As long as they don’t sink or burn along the way, their designs did not evolve much.

The increase in demand prompted vessel owners to create bigger ships with better safety features. Today, we have sophisticated tankers of various sizes and capacities navigating across the seven seas.


Oil Tanker History

Before we understand the various oil tanker sizes, let us first dive into a short history of these mammoth ships.

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 are expensive.

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

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


Zoroaster- the first modern oil tanker in history

Zoroaster- the first modern oil tanker in history.


From Barrels to 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.

Constructed in 1878, the vessel utilizes a hull steel design and two iron tanks for holding 246 metric tons of kerosene cargo. It also had a ballast system for stability. This was a breakthrough in the oil tanker shipping market that paved the way for bigger sizes.

Zoroaster was built in Sweden and could sail 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 oil demand.

At the same time, they developed regulations to deliver harmonized standards in shipping and ship construction. They considered varying degrees of accidents like oil spills, collisions, and grounding even before building bigger tankers.

The creation of supertankers in 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. They have different designs depending on the cargo they carry and their trading area.

Generally, there are two basic types of oil tankers: Product Carriers and Crude Carriers. We will be focusing on oil tankers and their various sizes.


Oil tankers' position in the global supply chain. Oil from sea platforms and pumpjacks are stored in refineries. Crude oil carriers carry them to other country's refineries. Once refined, they are transported to the consumers from other countries using product tankers of different sizes.

Oil tankers’ position in the global supply chain.


Product Carriers

Product carriers are tankers that transport refined petroleum products from one port to another. They usually get their cargo from refineries or other product carriers and deliver them to the consuming market.

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

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

CPPs are also called white cargo. They are more refined and highly volatile, while some are ready to use.

Meanwhile, Dirty Petroleum Products are heavier fractions like paraffin wax, tar, asphalt, lubricating oils, and heavy fuel oils.

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


Product Chemical tanker in an anchorage area waiting to load her cargoes.

Product Chemical tanker.


Crude Tankers

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

Sometimes called “black gold”, these commodity can be refined into more than 6,000 chemicals and by-products.

Crude Tankers, also called Crude Carriers, are oil tankers specifically built to carry crude oil.

Since crude oil is the “Mother of all Petroleums”, countries around the world need this cargo to produce things we use today.


A crude oil tanker sailing in the open ocean as seen from the bridge. Notice the huge expanse of deck area with pipelines and other fittings installed on top.

Deck of a crude oil tanker.


World Tanker Fleet

According to Equasis Statistics, Oil and Chemical tankers make up 11.8% of the world’s fleet. It has a total population of 14,199 vessels out of 119,999 ships in total.

Take a look at the image below:


World fleet for total number of ships by type and size. The oil and chemical tankers has over 14,199 ships.

Total number of ships by type and size showing that oil and chemical tankers has over 14,199 ships.


These figures are further categorized into sizes namely small, medium, large, and very large.

Not surprisingly, medium-sized tankers have the most numbers at 7,364 ships. This size makes sense since medium-sized vessels have fewer draft restrictions while being able to trade worldwide.

Though they have the most number of ships, the very large carriers comprise the biggest volume and carrying capacity.

Very large tankers have the biggest tonnage overall taking a 31.3% share against all other ship types.

Again, size matters!


The oil and chemical tankers in the very large category comprise 31.3% or has the biggest volume in gross tonnage across all other ship types.

Very Large tankers have the biggest tonnage capacities.


Oil Tanker Categories

Product and Crude Tankers sizes are categorized according to their measurement in deadweight tonnes (DWT).

As of 2021, there are around crude oil carriers in the world as stated by Statista.

Let’s break them down below


Product Tanker Fleet

1. General Purpose Tankers (GP 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 to bigger ships.


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

Fure West – a General Purpose Chemical/ Product Tanke 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. The difference is their bigger size- between 25,000 dwt to 41,999 dwt.

Much like GP Tankers, they are also flexible and can dock into most ports. But they can be very complex in their design.

Handy-size tankers can carry multiple grades of oil products 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 a similar build and design to the handysize ones. But they are bigger, which comes between 42,000 dwt to 59,999 dwt.

They can also carry white cargo and chemicals due to their tank coating characteristics. 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 the US or the Caribbean to the 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 over long distances such as the 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 ports 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. But Aframaxes cannot compete with them for white cargo due to their lack of required tank coatings.

In 1990, Asian refiners 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

The crude tanker fleet includes three maxes and two supertankers. Their end suffix, max, pertains to the maximum size limit it can pass on certain canals.


1. Panamax Tankers

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

They have sizes between 55,000 dwt to 84,999 dwt. they can fit into the Panama Canal which has parameters of 320m X 33,5m X 12,5m (Length X Beam X Depth).

The rehabilitation of the Panama Canal also breeds new types of ships called Neo-Panamax.

Panamax tankers are directly referred to as crude carriers.

If they are capable of carrying refined petroleum products, they are named LR1 tankers and can be considered 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 that stands for the 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 specific period.

Aframax vessels were born due to size constraints. 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

They are the largest tankers capable of crossing the Suez Canal in a 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 the draft which is 20 meters, a height of 68 meters, and a maximum beam of 77.5 meters.

Suez Canal is vital in delivering crude products between the Middle East and Europe since it serves as a 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 are entering the supertanker class.

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

For another comparison, a VLCC has a length overall of 300+ meters and a beam of 60+ meters.

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

Their main trade routes are between large oil-producing areas such as the 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 is 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 USD200,000,000 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. Conducting ship-to-ship transfers with different oil tanker sizes is humbling especially if they are huge.

What’s your oil tanker experience?

May the winds be in your favor.




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