According to its name, a coaster is a cargo ship that is mainly used in coastal areas.
Coaster vessels are capable of sailing both at sea and in inland waters. It is possible to transport general cargo and bulk goods but also containers.
Tankers are not covered by the common definition of coaster, regardless of size or area of operation. It is interesting to take a look at the different definitions of “coaster”, which have changed repeatedly over the decades.
What is short-sea trade?
In order to understand what a coaster is, a common definition of coast is needed.
It is a fact that the coastal area has been defined more and more widely in the last decades, so that the operating radii of coasters have also increased. The English language generally distinguishes between “short-sea trade” and “deep-sea trade”, although these are not fixed and clearly delimited terms.
This is already revealed by a glance at such a common online encyclopaedia as “Wikipedia”, which also offers terms such as “coastal trade”, “coastal shipping” or also “coasting trade” and “coastwise trade” as synonyms for “short-sea shipping” and thus always includes the English word for “coast”. The European Commission, however, speaks of “short-sea trade”, but in some places there is also talk of “marine highways” and “motorways of the sea”, which does not exactly make the definition of the term any easier.
The relevance of coastal shipping is enormous. Statistics show a share of around 40 percent of the total volume for Europe alone, with a large proportion being transported via rivers and canals and thus attributable to inland navigation. Classical inland waterway vessels, as pushed or coupled convoys, have a loading capacity of up to 6,000 tonnes, roughly equivalent to the capacity of coasters.
The port of Rotterdam is particularly important for short-sea shipping in Europe, due to its perfect connections to the Rhine and thus to the Ruhr area. The Maas, Waal, Scheldt and the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal are also suitable for short sea shipping.
The main buyer for the loads is the large inland port in Duisburg. Also important are the ports of Hamburg, Felixstowe in Great Britain and Le Havre.
What is a coaster?
Now what is a coaster? Quite simply a ship that is used for short distances because of its dimensions.
A handy definition assumes a payload between 1,000 DWT (tonnes deadweight) and 15,000 DWT. The draught of a coaster is between three and six metres. The average value for the 1980s is 3,039 tonnes, although this figure has risen steadily historically.
As a rough conversion unit, the cargo of a truck can be used, whereby a standard 40-ton truck can load about 25 tons, which means that a coaster corresponds to at least 40 trucks and on average between 100 and 200 trucks.
Development of short sea shipping in Germany
In Germany, the use of coasters was mainly with sailing ships until the beginning of the 20th century and for several decades after that. Dangers were inland and within the North and Baltic Sea area.
It is interesting to note that the use of the steamships, which were already common at that time, was not worthwhile over the short distances, so that the Kümos functioned technically differently. This only changed when the first Hornsby-Akroyd engines and diesel engines appeared and strengthened the sailing ships.
The advantage of having a coaster is enormous, because thanks to its ability to travel both at sea and on rivers, there is no need for a stopover. It can be transhipped directly at the seaport and in some cases routes from more distant seaports directly inland are also conceivable.
The historical development has taken place since the end of the 19th century with the help of Rhine-sea ships or river-sea vessels. These – as well as other coasters – are characterized by a command bridge that can be shifted in height. This is of course necessary because of the bridges which otherwise could not be passed.
With the end of the Second World War and the following so-called “economic miracle”, the coaster experienced a real boom.
Especially the design of the engineer Adolf Weselmann prevailed, so that between 1948 and 1953 there was talk of “Weselmännern” and “Volkswagen der Kümos”. A Weselmann could transport up to 650 tonnes and had a maximum draught of 2.87 metres. Little by little, coasters became larger and, above all, the so-called feeder ships reached capacities that would previously have been conceivable only in overseas traffic.
Where is a coaster used?
Today, a coaster is mainly used in regular traffic and therefore always follows the same route and at fixed times.
Most of the terminals of the container ports are served by the coasters and vice versa, where a coaster receives goods from overseas for further distribution inland. We almost always talk about container ships, as this form of transport has long since accounted for the lion’s share of ship’s freight.
Frequent routes in coastal shipping are found both on the Lower Elbe and on the Rhine. The latter river is even navigable as far as Basel, so that the industrial areas in the Rhine-Neckar area and, of course, the Ruhr area and also Basel as an industrial location are well connected. By the way, also the activities of the famous Norwegian Hurtigruten can be considered as coastal shipping.
Here, according to the definition, it is indeed a route for postal ships, but its meaning is finally comparable to that of a Kümos. In the years between 1896 and 1995, the Verband Deutscher Küstenschiffseigner (association of German coastal ship owners) existed that merged with the VDR, the association of German ship owners.
Not only the fictitious coaster from the TV series “Kümo Henriette” , which was built in 1931 in Groningen and sailed under different names until 1987, or the Henriette II, which was launched in 1960 as “Axel”, but also a number of other Kümos. In the village of Wischhafen near Hamburg there is even a coastal shipping museum with the “Iris-Jörg”, built in 1956, and a number of other exhibits.
By the way, most of the coasters were traditionally built in Friesland, more precisely in Groningen, although with time shipyards in other places such as Wolgast or Hamburg-Neuenfelde were added.