Eastern Europe Shipping Blog

Expert tips on smarter shipping between the U.S. and Eastern Europe, including shipping of heavy goods.

Out of gauge cargo shipping: flat rack or RO-RO?


Out of gauge cargo shipping often presents you with a choice. Is it better to transport the oversize load in a specialized ocean container? Or should you use roll-on, roll-off (RO-RO) service?

Here are some questions to consider as you choose the most efficient and cost-effective way to ship out of gauge cargo.

What are your time constraints?

out-of-gauge-cargo-shippingRO-RO service isn’t available at every port. And where it is available, you might not get a sailing when you need it. Most container vessels have weekly sailings, but a RO-RO vessel might sail weekly, or every other week, or even “on inducement” – only when there’s enough cargo to justify a call on that port. If the RO-RO options don’t line up the way you need them to, container service might be the best choice.


How much do you want to pay?

Whether you ship out of gauge cargo from Port A to Port B on a container ship or a RO-RO ship, the ocean rate will probably be about the same. But since container lines serve more ports and offer more sailings, they offer more chances to explore the options for a better price.

Also, if there’s no RO-RO service near your final destination, that could increase the total transportation cost. Imagine, for example, that you’re shipping an excavator from the US to Poland, but RO-RO carriers are presently not offering service to any of the Polish ports. You could put the cargo on a RO-RO ship to Germany and then truck it to the consignee. But that would add a significant trucking fee. If the excavator fits on a flat rack, it’s probably more economical to use container service to a Polish port.

Handling charges at the port might also tip the decision one way or another. Every marine terminal charges a fee to load cargo on or off a vessel, and it’s generally higher for oversize loads. A container port charges a flat fee to lift a container. At a RO-RO port, the handling charge depends on the load. If employees can drive or tow the cargo on or off the vessel, the cost is minimal. If the load is static, the charge depends on the equipment you need to move it. You’ll pay a flat fee to use a forklift. But if the load is so big it requires a crane, you’ll pay by the hour, most likely with a two-hour minimum – even if the job takes only 30 minutes.


What does the cargo weigh?

A flat rack container is sturdy, but there’s a limit to how much weight it can take. If your cargo exceeds that weight, then RO-RO is your only option. You might also have problems on a container ship if the cargo is dense. Even if the total weight falls within the container’s capacity, if there’s too much weight per square foot or square inch, the ocean carrier might refuse the load. Or the carrier might tell you to put runners on the container floor to spread out the weight. That solves the density problem, but if the runners elevate the load too much, that extra height might drive up the ocean rate.


What are the dimensions?

Some wheeled vehicles are so wide, it’s impossible to secure them safely to a flat rack container. And if the cargo is both extremely long and extremely wide, it might block access to the four points where a gantry crane must connect when it lifts the container onto the vessel. If either of those cases holds for your load, RO-RO is the only choice.


Can the load be driven or towed onto the vessel?

If you’re shipping a large machine with wheels or tracks, then hauling it to a RO-RO port and rolling it onto the vessel could be the simplest and least expensive option. To use a container ship, you’ll first need to truck the cargo to a warehouse for transloading onto a flat rack, and then truck that container to the port. There, the container will have to pass inspection to make sure it meets standards set by the National Cargo Bureau (NCB) for blocking and bracing. The extra processing and the inspection add time and expense.


An Unscheduled Side Trip

A US company shipped a piece of construction machinery to a RO-RO port in Germany. Workers at the port were supposed to drive the machine off the ship. But when the time came, the machine wouldn’t start. Port employees tried over and over, but with no luck.

The line had no choice but to continue its scheduled trip along the Baltic coast, taking along the construction machine.

Eventually, the ship looped back to the German port. This time, workers managed to get the machine started, and they drove it off the vessel. The cargo reached its destination, but it arrived about five days late.

The moral of the story? If you plan to drive RO-RO cargo onto and off a vessel under its own power, double check to make sure it’s in good working order.


How well can you protect the cargo from the elements?

On a RO-RO vessel, cargo travels under deck, so it’s protected from rain, snow and other hazards. When you use a container ship, you can ask to have your cargo stowed under deck. The steamship line might agree – but that doesn’t guarantee that your flat rack won’t end up on the top of the vessel. No matter what the line says, you should protect the load with shrink wrap, tarping or another material.


One more alternative for out of gauge cargo shipping

Sometimes it’s clear you should use container service for a particular load. Sometimes you need to use RO-RO. But often, there’s no easy rule of thumb to lead you to the right solution. Instead, you have to weigh multiple pros and cons.

And sometimes there’s an even better solution – control your container shipping costs by turning the out of gauge cargo into a standard-size load. If you can dismantle and reconfigure the load, it might fit into a closed container, gaining you a lower ocean rate. And don’t forget that no matter what steamship line may tell you, you can load as much as 55,000 lbs. into that container if you use heavy goods shipping specialists for transportation to and from port. Of course, if you do dismantle the cargo, you’ll need someone at the receiving end who knows how to put it back together.  

A freight forwarder that specializes in out of gauge cargo shipping can help you consider every angle to find a solution that achieves your goals. To start that conversation, get in touch with I.C.E. Transport.


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