Reefer ship

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MV Salica Frigo

A reefer ship is a refrigerated cargo ship; a type of ship typically used to transport perishable commodities which require temperature-controlled transportation, such as fruit, meat, fish, vegetables, dairy products and other foods.

History of reefers[edit]

In the 1700s, only the rich elites had ice for their guests or to cool their drinks or preserve other perishables. It was harvested locally in winter and stored through summers in covered ice houses to minimize melting. Ice production was initially very labor-intensive as it was performed entirely with hand axes and saws, and may cost hundreds of dollars a ton to have ice available all summer. In the early 1800s they developed techniques and specialized tools to harvest ice cheaply and one of the major exports from Massachusetts, New York and other settled northern states was ice—the "Frozen Water Trade".[1] This trade eventually averaged several million short tons of ice per year that sold for millions of dollars in the U.S.. This ice was harvested by scoring the ice with horse drawn gouges or ice plows that allowed the ice to be separated into square or rectangular blocks. This ice was cut out of frozen lakes, rivers and ponds, floated in a cleared channel to a loading dock before being transferred to an insulated ice house. There it was kept till it could be sold or transferred.

Ice harvesting developed into a profitable business with 1 acre (0.4 ha) of clean water in a cold climate yielding up to 3,000 to 150,000 short tons (2,700 to 133,900 long tons; 2,700 to 136,100 t) of ice per year which could be harvested for about $1.5 per ton and sold for up to $4 per ton. Before railroads existed the ice was transported by wagon or sleigh to Boston or other northern ports where it was stored in ice houses until it could either be loaded aboard ships for shipment elsewhere or sold for local consumption. The number of ice loaded ships in some harbors exceeded nearly all other trade in Boston, etc. in winter months. The ice when it was delivered was put in specially designed ice houses in each port to minimize melting before it was sold. After 1840 when railroads were developed ice was often shipped by rail in insulated rail cars and the railroads started using ice to help keep perishables cold. The refrigeration industry developed for use by the railroads closely parallels the refrigerated ship business—they both used nearly the same equipment. In warmer than average winters when less ice could be harvested the cities suffered a shortage of ice in what were called then "Ice Famines".[1] One of the many shortages the south suffered in the U.S. Civil War was ice—they could no longer import it from the northern states.

One of the more unusual applications of the frozen ice trade was the miners in Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada. As they mined ever deeper for the silver and gold there the temperatures in the mines continued to rise. Soon the temperatures were well over 110 °F (43.3 °C) and they started having to give the miners ice to help them survive. A miner could use over 75 pounds (34 kg) of ice per shift. The ice was harvested in winter from frozen lakes in the Sierra Nevada (U.S.) with some like the Central Pacific Railroad building, after 1869, special ponds to help them harvest and ship ice to Virginia City, San Francisco, California and other Nevada and California cities.

By 1830, ice became a commodity available in most cities in the United States. The ice trade developed more slowly in Europe and even today many Europeans prefer room temperature drinks versus the iced drinks preferred by most in the US. Ice supplied year round at a reasonably low cost (usually less than $10/month) made it available for most middle-class people for cooling drinks, keeping ice boxes cold for storing perishables, etc.—previously a luxury affordable only by the upper classes. Most of the ice was shipped to cities in the United States; but significant amounts were shipped to warmer foreign cities and countries by first sailing ships and later paddle steamers. The ice loaded on board ships was put into near air tight insulated compartments and further insulated with sawdust around the outside of ice blocks to reduce melting during shipment. A typical shipment would lose about 20% of its weight before sale; a 24,000 miles (39,000 km), about 200 day, ice shipment to Calcutta, India usually arrived with more than half of its ice. At the ports the ice was stored in ice houses until sale. The first ice shipments to the tropics were made by Frederic Tudor in 1805 from Charlestown, Massachusetts to Martinique. By 1815 he had established a profitable trade to Havana Cuba, New Orleans, Louisiana and other southern cities. Soon he and others were taking advantage of the melting ice to preserve apples, butter etc. which could be sold at a profit in a warm climate-the first "reefers". One of the most popular products was ice mixed with salt used to make ice cream. By 1836 they were shipping ice to Calcutta India.[2]

By 1869, they were shipping beef carcasses frozen in a salt-ice mixture from Indianola, Texas, to New Orleans, Louisiana and served it in hospitals, hotels and restaurants. By 1873 they were shipping frozen beef from America to London which developed into an annual tonnage of around 10,000 short tons (8,900 long tons; 9,100 t). The insulated cargo space was cooled by ice, which was loaded on departure. The success of this method was limited by insulation, loading techniques, ice block size, distance and climate.

Ship refrigeration timeline[edit]

The first attempt to ship refrigerated meat was made when the Northam sailed from Australia to the UK in 1876. The refrigeration machinery broke down en route and the cargo was lost. In 1877, the Steamers Le Frigorifique and Paraguay carried frozen mutton from Argentina to France, proving the concept of refrigerated ships, if not the economics. In 1879 the Strathleven, equipped with compression refrigeration, sailed successfully from Sydney to the UK with 40 tons of frozen beef and mutton as a small part of her cargo.

Dunedin, first refrigerated clipper ship to complete a successful shipment of refrigerated meat

The clipper sailing ship Dunedin, owned by the New Zealand and Australian Land Company (NZALC), was refitted in 1881 with a Bell-Coleman compression refrigeration machine—this steam powered freezer unit worked by compressing air, then releasing it into the hold of the ship. The expanding air got cooler as it expanded cooling the cargo in the hold. Using 3 tons of coal a day, this steam powered machine could chill the hold to 40 °F (22.2 °C) below surrounding air temperature, freezing the cargo in the temperate climate of southern New Zealand, and then maintaining it below freezing (32 °F (0 °C)) through the tropics. The Dunedin's most visible sign of being an unusual ship was the funnel for the refrigeration plant placed between her fore and main masts, (sometimes leading her to be mistaken for a steamship which had been common since the 1840s). In February 1882, the sailing ship Dunedin sailed from Port Chalmers New Zealand with 4331 mutton, 598 lamb and 22 pig carcasses, 246 kegs of butter, as well as hare, pheasant, turkey, chicken and 2226 sheep tongues and arrived in London UK after 98 days sailing with its cargo still frozen. After meeting all costs, The NZALC company made a £4700 profit from the voyage.

Soon after the Dunedin's successful voyage, an extensive frozen meat trade from New Zealand and Australia to the UK was developed with over 16 different refrigerated and passenger refrigerated ships built or refitted by 1900 in Scotland and Northern England shipyards for this trade.[3] Within 5 years, 172 shipments of frozen meat were sent from New Zealand to the United Kingdom. Refrigerated shipping also led to a broader meat and dairy boom in Australia New Zealand and Argentina. Frozen meat and Dairy exports continued to form the backbone of New Zealand's economy until the UK's entry into the European Economic Community in 1974 led to New Zealand produce being excluded by the EEC's trade bans. Today (2012) New Zealand has no refrigerated cargo ships.

Loading Clan McDougall with frozen meat for England. Archives New Zealand

The Nelson brothers, butchers in County Meath, Ireland, started shipping extensive live beef shipments to Liverpool, England. They successfully expanded their beef business until their imports from Ireland were insufficient to supply their rapidly growing business and Nelson decided to investigate the possibility of importing meat from Argentina. The first refrigerated ship they bought was the Spindrift which they renamed in 1890 the SS Highland Scot. A vessel of 3,060 gross tons bought by James Nelson and Sons in 1889 and fitted with somewhat primitive refrigerating plant operating on the cold air system, became one of the pioneer vessels in the refrigerated meat and other perishable commodities trade. They hauled beef carcasses from Argentina to Britain their regularly scheduled shipments and ships developed into the Nelson Line that was formed in 1880 for the meat trade from Argentina to UK. All of their ships had a Highland first name. Refrigeration made it possible to import meat from the United States, New Zealand, Argentina and Australia, etc.. The Nelson Line began passenger service in 1910 between London, England and Buenos Aires and in 1913 came under control of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. In 1932 Royal Mail Group collapsed, Royal Mail Lines Ltd was founded and Nelson Line merged into the new company and disappeared as a separate company

  • In 1879, Henry Bell (1848–1931) and John Bell (1850–1929) of Scotland and Joseph James Coleman (1838–1888) of England completed the Bell-Coleman dense-air machine on the Anchor liner Circassia, which successfully brought a cargo of chilled beef from the US to London.
  • In 1880, Strathleven, equipped with a Bell-Coleman air machine and loaded with successfully shipped beef, mutton, butter and kegs, sailed from Melbourne Australia to London—a 9-week voyage of about 15,000 miles (24,000 km).
  • In 1881, Alfred Seale Haslam (1844–1927) of England equipped the liner Orient with Haslam refrigeration compressors. He bought the Bell-Coleman dense-air patents in 1878 and eventually equipped four hundred plants and ships with Bell-Coleman machines.
  • By 1899, refrigerated fruit ship traffic to the US reached 90,000 tons/ year.
  • By 1890, after acquiring the patent rights of Franz Windhausen's CO2-compression refrigeration system, the J&E Hall company installed the first marine CO2 refrigerator system on the Nelson Line ship Highland Chief.
  • In 1900, a worldwide survey found 356 refrigerated ships, 37% of which had air machines, 37% ammonia compressors and 25% CO2 compressors.
  • In 1900, Great Britain imported over 360,000 metric tons of refrigerated meat: 220,000 tons from Argentina, 95,000 tons from New Zealand and 45,000 tons from Australia. There were weekly sailings on refrigerated "banana boats" from the UK to Central America by Elders and Fyffes Ltd, which had been importing bananas since 1888 to the UK in their own ships. Round trips took 28 days.
  • In 1901, the first refrigerated banana ship, the Port Morant, was equipped with a CO2 machine and carried 23,000 stems of bananas at controlled temperature from Jamaica to the UK.
  • In 1902, Lloyd's Register recorded 460 ships with refrigerating plants.
  • By 1902, the United Fruit Company started having refrigerated "banana" boats built in the UK to add to their fleet which hauled passengers and bananas between ports in the United States and Central America.
  • By 1910, UK refrigerated meat imports rose to 760,000 tons/year.
  • By 1910, the British company J&E Hall had installed 1800 CO2 refrigeration machines in ships.
  • By 1913, UK fleet included 230 refrigerated ships with total cargo capacity of 440,000 ton.
  • By 1935, refrigerated imports into Britain totaled 1,000,000 metric tons (980,000 long tons; 1,100,000 short tons) of meat, 500,000 tons of butter, 130,000 tons of cheese, 430,000 tons of apples and pears, and 20 million stems of bananas.

United Fruit Company reefer ships[edit]

The United Fruit Company has used some type of reefers often combined with Cruise ship passenger accommodations, since about 1889. Because of their cargo was mostly bananas they have been nicknamed the "Banana Fleet". Since bananas are relatively light and the normal shipping route was to Central America and then back to various U.S. ports these ships were often built as combination cargo ships and what are now called Cruise ships to pay for more of their operating expenses. After about 1910, they called their combination cruise ships and refrigerated cargo ships the "Great White Fleet". To avoid US shipping regulations and taxes they are registered in about six other countries with very few now maintaining US registry. European associates with their own ships were often employed to ship fruit to Europe. United Brands was taken over by Chiquita Brands International, Cincinnati in the 1980s and owns the largest fleet of banana boats in the world, but none of them now sails under the US flag.[4] SS Pastores and the SS Calamares were built in Ireland in 1912 and 1913 for the United Fruit Company as a combination Cruise ship and refrigerated cargo ship. The United Fruit Company's fleet of about 85 ships was one of the largest civilian fleets in the world. These ships normally carried up to 95 cruise ship passengers and a crew to ports in Central America and then would return to the United States with passengers and a cargo of refrigerated bananas and miscellaneous cargo. They were part of United Fruit's "Great White Fleet"—to minimize heat build-up the ships were all painted white.

The renamed USS Pastores and USS Calamares were taken over by the United States Navy in World War I and used to take troops and refrigerated supplies to and from Europe. After hostilities ceased they were returned to United Fruit Company in 1919. They were requisitioned again on 2 June 1941 from United Fruit for use in World War II. After hostilities had ceased they were then returned again to United Fruit Company in 1946.[5]

Reefers in U.S. Navy service[edit]

World War I[edit]

In World War I, the US Navy contracted for 18 Refrigerated ships for hauling provisions to the troops in Europe. They were launched 1918 and 1919 as the war was ending and were nearly all scrapped by 1933 in the Great Depression as an economy move. Most were built in Baltimore Dry Dock in Baltimore, Maryland, Moore SB in Oakland, California and Standard SB Co. in Shooter's Island N.Y.[6]

World War II[edit]

USS Mizar, formerly the United Fruit Co's SS Quirigua

The Mizar-class stores ships were six United Fruit passenger and refrigerated cargo liners built in 1931–33 that the United States Maritime Commission requisitioned in 1941–42. They were USS Antigua, USS Ariel, USS Merak, USS Mizar, USS Talamanca and USS Tarazed. Antigua, although requisitioned, was never commissioned into the Navy.

Other "reefers" converted for US Navy use were the Danish ships USS Pontiac, USS Roamer and USS Uranus.

In addition, the US Maritime Commisison ordered 41 new refrigerated ships for the Navy. Because of the difficulty of building refrigerated ships only two were delivered in 1944. 26 were delivered in 1945 and the remainder in 1946–48.[6]

Types of reefers[edit]

Reefer ships may be categorised into three types:[7]

  1. Side-door vessels have water tight ports on the ships hull, which open into a cargo hold. Elevators or ramps leading from the quay serve as loading and discharging access for the forklifts or conveyors. Inside these access ports or side doors, pallet lifts or another series of conveyors bring the cargo to the respective decks. This special design makes the vessels particularly well suited for inclement weather operations as the tops of the cargo holds are always closed against rain and sun.
  2. Conventional vessels have a traditional cargo operation with top opening hatches and cranes/derricks. On such ships, when facing wet weather, the hatches need to be closed to prevent heavy rain from flooding the holds. Both above ship types are well suited for the handling of palletized and loose cargo.
  3. Refrigerated container ships are specifically designed to carry containerised unit loads where each container has its individual refrigerated unit. These containers are nearly always twenty-foot equivalent units (often called TEU) that are the "standard" container cargo size that are loaded and unloaded at container terminals and aboard container ships. These ships differ from conventional container ships in their design and power generation and electrical distribution equipment. They need provisions made for powering each container's cooling system. Because of their ease of loading and unloading cargo many container ships are now being built or redesigned to carry refrigerated containers.
Unloading frozen pork from the Clan Line ship Clan MacDougall in the mid-20th century

A major use of refrigerated cargo hold type ships was for the transportation of bananas and frozen meat but most of these ships have been partly replaced by refrigerated containers that have a refrigeration systems attached to the rear end of the container. While on a ship these containers are plugged into an electrical outlet (typically 440 VAC) that ties into the ship's power generation. Since many merchant vessels now have diesel-electric propulsion units installed providing power to individual units is mostly a wiring job. Refrigerated container ships are not limited by the number of refrigeration containers they can carry unlike other container ships which may be limited in their number of refrigeration outlets or have insufficient generator capacity. Each reefer container unit is typically designed with a stand-alone electrical circuit and has its own breaker switch that allows it to be connected and disconnected as required. In principle each individual unit could be repaired while the ship was still underway.

Refrigerated cargo is a key part of the income for some shipping companies. On multi-purpose ships, Refrigerated containers are mostly carried above deck, as they have to be checked for proper operation. Also, a major part of the refrigeration system (such as a compressor) may fail, which would have to be replaced or unplugged quickly in the event of a fire. Modern container vessels stow the reefer containers in cellguides with adjacent inspection walkways that enable reefer containers to be carried in the holds as well as on the deck. Modern refrigerated container vessels are designed to incorporate a water-cooling system for containers stowed under deck. This does not replace the refrigeration system but facilitates cooling down of the external machinery. Containers stowed on the exposed upper deck are air-cooled, while those under deck are water-cooled systems. The water cooling design allows capacity loads of refrigerated containers under deck as it enables the dissipation of the high amount of heat they generate. This system draws fresh water from the ship's water supply, which in turn transfers the heat through heat exchangers to the abundantly available sea water.

The reefer ship Dole Honduras unloading bananas in the Port of San Diego

There are also refrigeration systems that have two compressors for very precise and low-temperature operation, such as transporting a container full of blood to a war zone. Cargoes of shrimp, asparagus, caviar and blood are considered among the most expensive refrigerated items. Bananas, fruit and meat have historically been the main cargo of refrigerated ships.

Worldwide service[edit]

According to the CIA's The World Factbook,[8] there were about 38,000 registered merchant ships in the world in 2010, of which about 920 were designed as refrigerated cargo ships. Because of the proliferation of self-contained refrigerated container systems on container ships, there are many more ships than those designed for only refrigerated cargo that are also carrying some refrigerated cargo. The countries with the largest numbers of reefer ships in their registries are the world's two most prominent flags of convenience: Panama with 212 and Liberia with 109 (both as of 2010).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Weightman 2001, p. 78.
  2. ^ Weightman 2001, p. not cited.
  3. ^ Shaw, Jeffrey. "New Zealand Shipping Co & Federal Steam Navigating Co". New Zealand Shipping Vessels. Retrieved 12 February 2012. 
  4. ^ Swiggum, S; Kohli, M (23 November 2006). "United Fruit Company". The Fleets. Retrieved 12 February 2012. 
  5. ^ "USS Pastores (AF-16) and USS Calamares (AF-18)". Retrieved 12 February 2012. 
  6. ^ a b "R-Type Refrigerated Cargo Ships". Merchant Ship Construction in U.S. Shipyards. Shipbuilding History. 12 February 2008. Retrieved 12 February 2012. 
  7. ^ Kohli, Pawanexh (July 2000). "Reefer Vessels – An Introduction" (pdf). CrossTree Techno-visors. 
  8. ^ "Country Comparison :: Merchant Marine". The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved 17 February 2012. 


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