Everything You Need to Know About Feeder Vessels

Everything You Need to Know About Feeder Vessels

Eve Jones

A feeder vessel, feeder ship or feeder container ship is a medium sized freight ship. Its job is to collect shipping containers from a port and then transport them to transhipment hubs or central container terminals so the containers can either be loaded onto larger vessels to complete their journey, or onto other types of vehicles so that they can be transported inland.

That’s the short answer, but if you’re here to find out a little more about feeder vessels, then keep reading! This is one in a series of blog posts in which we take a look at different types of boats, yachts, ships and vessels, from icebreaker ships to heavy lift vessels to lightships and beyond.

And in this post we’re going to explore one of the unsung heroes of the oceans.

Everything you need to know about feeder vessels

As you might have guessed, feeder ships get their name from the fact that they ‘feed’ larger cargo ships with containers. The reason for this is that some vessels are too big physically to call at smaller seaports or at ports that are inland, or sail where the water is not deep enough.

a cargo ship berthed at a small port with tourist boats in the foreground.

And of course this also works in reverse, so that goods that have been manufactured in Place A and then transported to an inland port via canal or river, can then be loaded onto the feeder so they can be taken to their ‘mother’ ship that is berthed elsewhere, ready to undertake the next leg of their journey to their destination port.

And as mentioned above, feeders also transport containers to major ports for onward shore-based transportation, and they are also used to move containers between smaller ports.

For example from one European port to another, or domestically such as on the Great Lakes - Lakes Superior, Michigan, Erie, Huron, and Ontario - in the United States and Canada.

Port Huron, Lake Michigan, USA at dusk.

Feeder ships are often an integral part of a logistical process known as the hub and spoke model. Imagine a bicycle wheel with the hub at the center and the spokes leading outwards (and inwards) and you’ll have some idea of how the model works.

What is the hub and spoke model in logistics?

In shipping, the hub is the central container terminal or transhipment hub and the spokes represent the lines of transportation, with vehicles - in our case feeder ships - moving products to and from the hub. Larger vessels will berth at the hub, ready to receive the feeder’s cargo to then transport it to its final destination.

The increasing use of ‘mega ships’ has created a growing demand for feeder vessels to operate as ‘go-betweens’ and many businesses are adopting the hub and spoke model in order to shorten travel times - and therefore fuel emissions and costs.

a motorcycle with a container port in the background.

How big are feeder vessels?

Feeder vessels are medium-size container ships. The largest can carry up to 3000 TEUs whilst the smallest may only have 300 TEU capacity. Broadly speaking, a feeder ship has an average capacity of 300 to 1000 TEU.

Hold on - what’s a TEU?! TEU stands for Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit. It is a measure of volume in units of twenty-foot long shipping containers. Therefore one 20-foot container equals one TEU.

In addition, there are three different categories of feeder ships:

  • Small Feeder - can carry up to 1000 TEUs
  • Feeder - can carry up to around 2000 TEUs
  • Feedermax - can carry up to around 3000 TEUs

Bear in mind that the very largest cargo and container ships have a capacity of up to 25,000 TEU, meaning that they can carry the equivalent of at least 8 feeder vessels - and at most 80+ feeders.  

aerial view of a container ship.

What do feeder ships look like?

To the untrained eye, a feeder vessel looks just like a container ship. Shipspotters (yes, they exist!) and those in the industry, however, will usually be able to recognize a feeder by its smaller size.

One thing you will notice about some feeder ships is that they have their own loading gear - crane hooks, ropes, winches and loading booms - onboard. This is because many smaller or inland ports and terminals do not have the space required for lifting equipment such as gantry cranes. Thanks to the feeder having its own equipment, containers can be easily on- and offloaded, no matter how minimally a port is equipped.  

Feeder vessels are also slower than their larger counterparts.

a feeder ship in still waters.

Feeder vessels: Conclusion

Small Feeders, Feeders and even Feedermax vessels might not be as big and fast and travel as far as other container and cargo ships, but their importance to the domestic and global supply chain, and to the maritime industry in general, should not be underestimated.

If it wasn’t for the humble feeder (and her hardworking crew, of course) the hub and spoke model in logistics would grind to a halt and the knock on effect of that would be huge in terms of shipping the world’s goods and products from their place of manufacture or origin to their destination markets - and on to the end user or customer.

Want to learn more about other types of commercial vessels?

There are so many different vessels that fall under the umbrella of ‘cargo ship’ that to take a deep dive into them in one blog post would be too much. That’s why we’ve written lots of articles about lots of vessels!

different vessels in a port.

For example, have you ever wondered what a RoRo ship is and what specific cargo it transports? How about finding out more about bulk carriers or oil tankers? Now’s your chance to find out!

Read the previous article in this series: Everything You Need to Know About RoRo Ships

Read the next article in this series: Everything You Need to Know About Icebreaker Ships