What are the most critical milestones in container transport at sea?

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critical milestones in containers transport at sea

From its departure from the shipper’s premises until its delivery to the end consignee, cargo shipped by sea undergoes a complex and extensive process involving multiple parties, including the shipper, consignee, shipping lines, shipping agents, truckers, other inland carriers, freight forwarders and other third-party logistics, port authorities and operators, and warehouse teams. This article provides insight into the key milestones for sea container transport.

What are the key milestones in sea container transport?

Once the cargo is ready for shipment at the supplier’s warehouse, space is reserved directly with the shipping line, its appointed agents, or through a freight forwarder. The responsibility for handling local and international transportation can be assigned to the shipper or the consignee, depending on the Incoterms agreed upon in the commercial contract. This marks the beginning of a journey within the logistics chain, that may span several months before reaching its conclusion.

sea container transport

Release of Container empty to shipper (CEP)

When the booking is confirmed, the shipping company has to provide the shipper with the necessary equipment for transporting the goods. The empty shipping container, which may be owned by the ocean carrier itself, or by a container leasing company, is positioned either at the shipper’s location or at a designated container yard. As soon as the empty equipment is released, the latter assumes responsibility for loading it with the intended export cargo or goods.

Container pickup at shipper (CPS)

With the container now loaded with the intended cargo and properly sealed, the next step is its transfer to the departure port within the country of origin. It can be carried by truck, train, or barge, depending on the logistics plan in place.

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Container arrival and gate-in at first port of loading (CGI)

The loaded container is now delivered to the designated port facility, where it undergoes inspection and documentation verification before being accepted for shipment. The container’s condition, contents, and documentation must align with the shipping instructions and regulatory requirements. At this stage, the container is officially handed over to the port authorities, and the responsibility for the cargo transitions from the shipper to the shipping company’s control.

Container loaded at first port of loading (CLL)

Port transfers the containers from the yard to the vessel with great care and precision. Their expertise ensures that containers are loaded onto the ship in a manner that minimizes the risk of cargo damage, maintains the ship’s stability, optimizes available space, and ensures the overall safety necessary for a successful maritime voyage.

Vessel departure from first port of loading (VDL)

The vessel’s departure from the first (POL) marks the beginning of the ocean freight shipment’s journey across the seas until it reaches its final destination. It is also at this point that the calculation of the transit time, as outlined in the shipping schedule, officially starts.

operations at port

Operations at transhipment port

Except for shorter voyages, for example within Europe, ocean freight transportation often includes one or multiple stopovers at intermediate ports of call. Key operations are conducted at these transhipment (T/S) points:

  • Vessel arrival at T/S port (VAT): Having completed the first segment of the voyage, the vessel berths at the transshipment port.
  • Container discharge at T/S port (CDT): The container is offloaded in order to be transferred to another vessel better suited for the next leg of the journey.


During this phase, sorting, inspections, customs clearances, and thorough documentation checks may also be carried out to ensure compliance with customs regulations and international trade agreements. Moreover, depending on the specific requirements and cargo volumes, containers may be rearranged. Consolidation of smaller shipments into larger ones or vice versa optimizes space utilization, reduces the number of trips required, and ultimately contributes to cost savings and environmental benefits.

  • Container loaded at T/S port (CLT): The container is loaded onto the vessel that will undertake the next phase of its ocean transportation journey.
  • Vessel departure from T/S (VDT): The vessel departs, either bound for the next port of transshipment or directly to its ultimate destination, in accordance with the predetermined route outlined in the shipping schedule.


When the final destination is not directly accessible by sea, a multimodal transportation solution must be implemented. The containerized cargo is transferred from the seaport where it has initially been offloaded from the vessel to an inland or fluvial port.

Depending on the geographical location of the hub, the carrier may arrange for either a land transshipment (LTS) via truck or train, or a barge transshipment (BTS) on inland waterways to bridge the gap between the seaport and the inland destination.

The efficiency of operations at each intermediate port plays a pivotal role in shaping the overall transit time and ensuring adherence to the expected time of arrival (ETA). Thorough preparation and meticulous execution therefore stand as critical factors in minimizing transshipment delays (TSD).

Operations at final port of discharge (POD)

  • Vessel Arrival at Final POD (VAD): The arrival and berthing of the vessel at the final Port of Discharge (POD) mark the conclusion of the maritime leg of the journey.
  • Container Discharge at Final POD (CDD): The container is offloaded from the vessel onto the port’s docks.
  • Container Gate-Out from final POD (CGO): Once offloaded, the cargo undergoes customs inspections, documentation checks, and quality assessments, depending on the cargo’s nature. Here, the consignee or a third-party logistics provider settles customs duties, taxes, and the ocean carrier’s invoice (freight rates, potential demurrage, and detention charges, among others).


Now, the container is officially released and becomes available for pickup and gate-out for delivery to the consignee.

Container delivery to the consignee (CDC)

The cargo container is finally transported to the premises of the business or individual who has ordered the merchandise. Upon arrival, it is unloaded from the transport vehicle.

Additionally, its contents may undergo quality assessments to verify the integrity of the cargo. Subsequently, the products are transferred to the distribution center, warehouse, or retail outlet. A timely and well-organized delivery significantly influences the availability of goods in the market and guarantees customer satisfaction.

Container empty return to the depot (CER)

The empty container used to carry the cargo must be brought back to the inland facility or the port terminal specified by the ocean carrier. Timely container returns ensure the shipping company’s capacity to supply equipment for future shipments. This, in turn, contributes to maintaining the smooth flow of the global supply chain, helping to minimize potential delays and disruptions.

effective container management

What solutions to effective management container transport at sea?

This long and multifaceted process, encompassing numerous stakeholders across different countries and multiple ports, presents a wide array of challenges pertaining to various aspects:

  • Container management (equipment availability, container tracking, timely return…), especially during peak shipping seasons;
  • Local and international regulations, including customs documentation, import/export restrictions, and trade compliance;
  • Sustainability and environmental concerns (emissions standards and pollution prevention measures)
  • Port congestion, particularly at very busy ports like in China (Shanghai, Shenzhen, Ningbo, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Qingdao), Singapore, Korea (Busan), Arab emirates (Jebel Ali), the Netherlands (Rotterdam), Belgium (Antwerp), United States (Los Angeles in California);
  • Adverse weather conditions (storms, hurricanes…) or at critical points like the Suez Canal or the Panama Canal;
  • Cargo security (prevent theft, damage, or pilferage), especially for high-value goods;
  • Quality control of goods remains, particularly for perishable or sensitive items;
  • Outdated or inadequate infrastructure in some regions;
  • Extraordinary and unforeseeable events (political unrest and labor strikes in some countries, or global health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic);
  • Language and communication barriers when coordinating with stakeholders across different countries and cultures;
  • Exchange rate fluctuations.


The above factors, through inefficiency or disruption of the shipping process, can worsen shipment delays, impact the availability of goods in the market, and incur additional expenses (demurrage and detention, compliance to regulation, compensation for risks…), influencing pricing and the cost-effectiveness of the global supply chain.

To tackle these challenges, it is essential to employ suitable tools and strategies, such as acquiring insurance coverage to safeguard against accidents, damage, or loss, and embracing the assistance of emerging technologies. Some are playing a pivotal role, mainly Artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, Big data, and Machine Learning. They are used in a variety of applications:

  • remote shipping container management;
  • real-time container tracking for maximum freight visibility;
  • environmental factors monitoring (noise, greenhouse gases emissions, water and air quality…);
  • communication and coordination between all stakeholders within the logistics chain;
  • data collection and analysis for better operations management and carbon footprint reduction.


Container shipping is a vast topic, given its significance and the various challenges it must confront, including digitization and automation, sustainability, security concerns, and regulatory developments. More content is on the way to provide a more in-depth exploration of this subject.

Frequently Asked Questions About Milestones in Container Transportation

Sea container transport involves several key milestones, starting with the reservation of container space at the supplier’s warehouse and spanning through container pickup, arrival at the first port of loading, loading onto the vessel, vessel departure, transshipment operations, final port of discharge operations, delivery to the consignee, and container empty return.

The Release of Container empty to shipper (CEP) is a critical milestone in sea container transport. It involves the shipping company providing the shipper with an empty container for loading with export cargo or goods, marking the beginning of the logistics chain.

During the Container arrival and gate-in at the first port of loading (CGI) stage, the loaded container undergoes inspection and documentation verification at the designated port facility. It is officially handed over to the port authorities, and responsibility transitions from the shipper to the shipping company.

Transshipment ports play a crucial role in container transport. Key operations at transshipment ports include Vessel arrival at T/S port (VAT), Container discharge at T/S port (CDT), Container loaded at T/S port (CLT), and Vessel departure from T/S (VDT), which involves transferring containers to the next vessel in the journey.

Effective management of container transport challenges involves various strategies, including container management, compliance with regulations, sustainability efforts, mitigating port congestion, cargo security measures, quality control, infrastructure improvements, and the use of emerging technologies like AI, IoT, Big Data, and Machine Learning for real-time tracking and data analysis.

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