Types of Oil Tankers – Handymax, Panamax, AFRAmax, Supertankers

by | Last updated Nov 24, 2023 | Ship Types, Vessel Information | 0 comments

When it comes to types of oil tankers, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. 

From their sizes and designs to trading areas and cargo-carrying capacities, these vessels come in many shapes and forms that have evolved throughout the years.

In fact, the first tankers were sail-driven and built in the River Tyne, England during the 1860s. 

At that time, there were no official regulations, so shipbuilders could create anything that resembled a boat, resulting in primitive designs that barely met safety standards.

However, as demand for oil grew, vessel owners began building bigger ships with better safety features. 

Today, we have a fleet of sophisticated tankers of various designs and capacities that navigate the seven seas, delivering oil to where it’s needed most.

Oil Tanker History

Before we understand the various oil tanker types, 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 cargoes 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 in black and white photo.
Zoroaster- the first modern oil tanker in history

From Barrels to Bulk

The very first modern oil tanker that utilized “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.

Two 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 oil tanker types: Product Carriers and Crude Carriers. For this post, 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.

1. Product Carriers

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

Because of the oil demand and their carrying capacity, they 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 cargoes. They are more refined and highly volatile, while some are ready to use.

Meanwhile, DPPs 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.

2. Crude Tankers

Also known as Crude Carriers, these types of oil tankers are specifically built to carry crude oil.

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 fuel.

Due to its importance, it is sometimes called “black gold” because countries around the world need this cargo to produce things we use today.

It is also referred to as the “Mother of all Petroleums” as it can be refined into more than 6,000 chemicals and by-products.

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.

The 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 have over 14,199 ships.

These figures are further categorized into 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. They also have the biggest tonnage combined 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

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

As of 2021, there are around oil tankers 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 built between 10,000 dwt to 24,999 dwt (deadweight tonnage).

They carry refined petroleum 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 a blue hull, white deck, and white accommodation berthed alongside a terminal.
Fure West – a General Purpose Chemical/ Product Tanker Ship having 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 capacities- 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 tanker vessel sailing near the coast.
Lucky Lady – Handysize Chemical/ Product Tanker Ship with 37,432 dwt

3. Medium Range (“MR”) Product Tankers

MR 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 dimensions limit 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 sailing along the narrow channel.
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.

They are constructed 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.

Motor Tanker Cielo Bianco sailing along the coast.
Product Tanker Cielo Bianco with 74,999 dwt.

5. Long Range (“LR2”) Product Tankers

LR2 is the last category of product tankers and is the biggest in the product tanker fleet. They are between 85,000 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. However, 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 at the anchorage.
Torm Gudrun – Product Tanker with 101,155 dwt.

Crude Tanker Fleet

These tankers include the three maxes and two supertankers. Their end suffix, max, pertains to the “MAX-imum” size limit it can pass on certain canals.

1. Panamax Tankers

Panamax tankers are unique vessels that can fully load and transit through the Panama Canal, thanks to their scale and specifications.

Ranging from 55,000 to 84,999 dwt, these ships fit snugly within the canal’s dimensions of 320m X 33,5m X 12,5m (Length X Beam X Depth).

In some cases, these tankers can also carry refined petroleum cargo, making them eligible to be called LR1 tankers, which are categorized as product tankers.

It’s worth noting that with the recent rehabilitation of the Panama Canal, a new type of vessel known as NeoPanamax has emerged. However, the former still remains vital in the crude carrier category.

Cabo Sounion - Panamax Crude Oil tanker having 69,636 dwt inside the Panama Canal Lock
Cabo Sounion inside the Panama Canal Lock. Image: Vessel Finder.

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 dimension constraints. With a size capacity between 85,000 dwt to 124,999 dwt, they are the counterpart of LR2 for product tankers.

Crude oil carrier Seamaster IV navigating in a channel channel while using her manifold crane.
Seamaster IV – Crude Oil Tanker 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 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.

Crude Carrier Miltiadis M II docked in a port and performing cargo operation.
Miltiadis M II – Crude Oil Tanker with 162,397 dwt

4. Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC)

Now we are entering the supertanker class together with the ULCC.

The second biggest class of vessels is the VLCCs. Their size ranges between 200,000 to 320,000 deadweight tons. They can carry 1.9 million to 2.2 million barrels of 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 petroleum shipments around the world.

Their main trade routes are between major 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) cruising in the blue ocean.
VLCC Hunter Freya measuring 300,000 dwt

5. Ultra Large Crude Carriers (ULCC)

ULCCs are the largest ships ever built above 320,000 deadweight tons. Huge is an understatement in describing these ships. They are behemoths at sea.

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 named Mont until it got sold into scrap last 2009.

Mont weighs 564,650 deadweight tons 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 in an STS Operation.

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 tankers is challenging and humbling especially if they are huge.

Which type of oil tanker have you sailed before?

May the winds be in your favor.



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