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The A to Z of Marine Cargo Surveys

Sea freight isn’t always smooth sailing. Weather, technical failure, human error… these are all risks you’ll be facing when shipping cargo. But here’s the silver lining: you can minimise the chances of your consignment getting damaged while in transit by means of a marine cargo survey.


In a nutshell, it’s an inspection of cargoes transported by seagoing vessels, which is conducted by a marine cargo surveyor. Expert investigators may be appointed not only by the cargo owner, but also by the cargo recipients, insurers or any other parties involved in the shipping process.
It’s a common misconception that marine cargo surveys only take place when damage occurs during a voyage, and a freight claim is filed.
Let’s dispel this myth, shall we?

In fact, a marine cargo survey can take place either before the cargo leaves the port (called proactive survey), or once it reaches its destination (known as reactive survey). Let’s look at the scope of each sort of inspection:

Proactive surveys

  • Ensure safety storage for each type of cargo.
  • Record in which condition the goods will be received at destination (unless damage occurs in transit).
  • Verify and certify compliance with cargo handling and stowage regulations.

Reactive surveys

  • Establish the possible cause of damage.
  • Ascertain the extent of damage or loss.
  • Assist claimants on methods necessary to mitigate the loss.
  • Enable liability to be determined.
  • Prevent the same type of damage from occurring in the future.


It’s a no-brainer, the answer’s NO. Each type of maritime cargo has different loading and stowage requirements, as it may react differently to external factors during voyages.
Let’s learn the types of cargo a surveyor may have to inspect:

Dry Bulk Cargoes.

These are unpackaged, solid materials that are uniform in composition and loaded directly into the cargo space of a bulk carrier (e.g. coal, iron ore, grains, sugar, coffee, and sand).

Liquid Bulk Cargoes.

This covers commodities shipped in their free-flowing liquid form (e.g. crude & refined oils, wine, chemicals, and biofuels) or in their liquid gas form (LNG/LGP). They’re usually transported by tankers.

Containerised Cargoes.

General cargo that is shipped as container load units and transported by container carriers. Nowadays, it accounts for almost 90% of non-bulk cargo.

Roll-On Roll-Off.

Any cargo that is driven on or off from a vessel on its own wheels (e.g. cars and buses), or using a platform vehicle.

Breakbulk Cargo (also known as General Cargo).

This term refers to cargo that is handled as separate pieces, and loaded individually or in lots, without being containerised. It also covers goods that don’t fit in the largest container (e.g. generators, pipes and bundles of steel rod).

Temperature Controlled Cargoes.

Both frozen and chilled foods (e.g. dairy, fruits & vegetables, or pharmaceuticals). Since these cargoes are perishable, their safe transportation depends on the carriage instructions, which must define the requested storage conditions.

Hazardous Cargoes.

Due to their flammable, corrosive or poisonous nature, among others, these substances may be dangerous to the vessels carrying them, to people or to the environment. If there’s hazardous material on board, the surveyor should request its Dangerous Goods Declaration and MSDS, in order to become aware of related personal safety and protection issues.

Put together the widely differing types of cargo and the endless number of potential causes for damage, and you’ll get a myriad of surveys. So, the question that comes to mind is…


Let’s analyse 3 proactive and 2 reactive marine cargo surveys that are commonplace for any expert surveyor.

1. Pre-Shipment Surveys (proactive).

This inspection verifies the cargo particulars and condition. The surveyor will identify the items to be shipped, comment on their condition, and record serial numbers if needed.

The resulting report certifies that the goods are properly packed and marked for the voyage, including handling instructions.

2. Loading Surveys (proactive).

The marine cargo surveyor witnesses the loading and securing of the consignment at the vessel. The first step is to inspect the ship and proposed method of securing the goods, as well as verifying the cargo packing is suitable.

The surveyor must ultimately ensure that the cargo is correctly stowed and secured, taking into account the likely weather conditions during the sea voyage.

3. Draught Surveys (proactive).

It’s the “before and after” survey used to determine the weight of cargo loaded on board. This is done by measuring the vessel’s displacement prior to and after loading or discharging.
The figures obtained by the surveyor are used for bill of lading or invoice purposes, so their accuracy is paramount.

4. Damage Surveys (reactive).

The surveyor investigates claims for damage and deterioration. The purpose of this survey is to determine probable cause and extent of damages to a certain commodity, and to recommend actions to mitigate the loss.

5. Loss Investigations (reactive).

Cargo surveyors may have to report on cases of theft, pilferage or partial loss of cargoes.

They ascertain crucial details to determine policy liability and secure any recovery from the responsible parties (e.g. in whose custody the cargo was when the theft occurred).


Once the survey’s over, the marine cargo surveyor produces a final report to present all facts and findings. It may include pictures as an aid, but they cannot replace proper survey notes.

A good report should be clear, concise and accurate, as it’s one of the documents on which liability of a party may be established.

In case of damage and loss surveys, the report will not only incorporate the physical evidence found but also a history of the movement of the goods, i.e., accurate dates of transfer of control. It should also include recommendations as to how to improve the packaging, stowage and securing, transportation or warehousing of cargo.
In a nutshell, the marine cargo report is the only factual piece of evidence on which underwriters, buyers, sellers, shippers and carriers can rely in case of damages or loss.

Want a marine cargo surveyor to help you prevent or determine liability? Click here if you’d like to find out more about our survey coordination services.

We are Claimar, your Third Party Administration (TPA) management partner, skilled and expert in marine services.


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