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Major Shipping Routes for Global Trade

Posted by Paige Stewart on May 24, 2018 - 8:03 AM
Containerships passing through the Suez Canal

The importance of maritime shipping

Ocean shipping services transport more than 80 percent of all globally traded products. In fact, maritime trade is a huge part of what makes the world go round. The clothes you wear, the vehicle you drive (and the fuel), the TV you watch, and the cellphone in your hand likely came from countries like China, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom. But, have you ever thought about the shipping routes ocean vessels take to ensure a quick and safe delivery? Discover which maritime lanes are the most popular, and find out what kinds of ships navigate these paths and the type of freight they’re transporting.

Major world shipping lanes

Natural and manmade water routes benefit international trade by providing quick sailing times and an easier, cost-effective way to move goods. The eight routes below give a glimpse into some of the busiest and most popular shipping lanes for ocean cargo vessels.   

The English Channel

Known as the busiest shipping lane in the world, the English Channel separates England from France, and connects the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The channel is 350 miles long, 20-150 miles wide, and 150-400 feet deep. Approximately 500 ships travel the channel daily, making it a critical route in the European shipping network.

Located at the narrowest part of the English Channel is the Strait of Dover, which connects the Baltic and the North Sea. More than 400 vessels use this strait daily, carrying products like grain, minerals, steel and oil.

Strait of Malacca  

The Malacca Strait is a narrow 550 miles and is the shortest route between the Pacific and Indian oceans. It links major Asian economies such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. The Strait of Malacca is the world’s second-busiest waterway, with more than 83,000 vessels traveling this route each year. In 2016, 16 million barrels of oil flowed through the strait daily, also making it a major oil chokepoint. Other goods transported through this strait include coal, palm oil, Indonesian coffee and liquefied natural gas.

Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is an artificial passageway designed to reduce transit times between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It’s approximately 50 miles long, 10 miles wide and takes roughly 10 hours to travel (tolls are required). Before its completion in 1914, ships would sail around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America — increasing voyages by 2,000 to 8,000 nautical miles (or about 2,300 to 9,200 miles), depending on origin and destination.

In 2016, the Panama Canal expansion opened to allow cargo ships carrying up to 14,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent unit) to pass. Through a system of three locks (the Miraflores, the Pedro Miguel and the Gatun), ships raise to the level of Gatun Lake (85 feet above sea level) to travel back to the Pacific Ocean. More than 14,000 ships navigate the Panama Canal each year, carrying vegetable oil and fats, canned and refrigerated foods, chemicals and petroleum chemicals, lumber, machinery parts and grains.

Suez Canal

On November 17, 1869, the 120-mile manually constructed Suez Canal opened, creating the shortest maritime route between the Atlantic and Indian oceans. Without this route, vessels would have to travel around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope (transit times typically lasting 24 days compared to the canal’s 16 hours). Today, it’s considered one of the world’s most heavily used shipping lanes, with more than 100 vessels traversing it daily. In fact, 3.9 million oil barrels per day transited the Suez Canal in 2016; and in 2017, more than 900,000 tons of cargo traveled through. Top commodities transported are petroleum, coal, metals, wood, oilseeds, cement and fertilizers.   

Recent expansions allow vessels up to 66 feet in depth, 223 feet in height, 254 feet in width and 240,000 deadweight tons to pass through. The canal cannot regulate two-way traffic. Instead, ships travel in one northbound and two southbound convoys throughout a 24-hour period. There is one passing area in Ballah-Bypass near El Qantara in the Great Bitter Lake. The Suez Canal Authority of the Arab Republic of Egypt owns and operates the Suez Canal and does collect tolls.

Bosphorus Strait

The Turkish Strait of Bosphorus links the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea, ultimately connecting to the Atlantic Ocean. It forms a boundary between Europe and Asia and is internationally significant for oil, commercial and military trade. The strait is 19 miles long, 120-408 feet deep, and has a maximum width of 2.3 miles. More than 48,000 vessels navigate the Bosphorus each year, about 132 per day. Common vessels passing through include general cargo ships, bulk carriers, chemical tankers, containerships, livestock carriers, and liquid petroleum gas carriers. But, because of the strait’s width and length, there are some vessel restrictions.

Strait of Hormuz

The Strait of Hormuz connects the Gulf of Oman with the Persian Gulf. It consists of two lanes that accommodate inbound and outbound traffic, and a two-mile buffer zone separates them. Hormuz is also a critical lane for oil transportation. In 2016, total oil flow increased to a record high of 18.5 million barrels per day — or, about 30 percent of the world’s total oil consumption. It’s delivered primarily to Asian markets such as China, Japan, India, South Korea and Singapore.

The Danish Straits

The Danish Straits are a system of three channels — the Oresund, the Great Belt and the Little Belt — that interlink the North Sea and Baltic Sea. The Great Belt is the widest channel and is the primary passage for large vessels. The Danish Straits are crucial for transporting oil between Russia and Europe. In fact, an estimated 3.2 million barrels per day of crude oil and petroleum products flowed through the Danish Straits in 2016.

Saint Lawrence Seaway

Considered the most important shipping lane in North America, the St. Lawrence Seaway connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes. Together, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River form the longest deep-draft navigation system in the world. It extends 2,300 miles into North America and directly serves Ontario, Quebec, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, New York and Pennsylvania. Every year, more than 350,000 pounds of raw materials, agricultural commodities and manufactured products travel this route. The amount of products flowing through make it a crucial network for commerce between the U.S., Canada and more than 59 overseas markets.

Need to ship freight overseas? Choose ArcBest®

As a fully licensed Non-Vessel Operating Common Carrier (NVOCC), ArcBest provides international ocean freight services to and from all major ports. From less-than-container-load (LCL) shipping to full container load (FCL), we offer solutions to match your needs. For more information about overseas shipping, call 844-560-2531.  

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