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Tonnage is a measure of the size or cargo carrying capacity of a ship. The term derives from the taxation paid on tuns or casks of wine, and was later used in reference to the weight of a ship's cargo; however, in modern maritime usage, "tonnage" specifically refers to a calculation of the volume or cargo volume of a ship. The term is still sometimes incorrectly used to refer to the weight of a loaded or empty vessel.[cn]

Measurement of tonnage can be less than straightforward, not least because it is used to assess fees on commercial shipping.

Tonnage measurements

Gross tonnage (GT) is a function of the volume of all ship's enclosed spaces (from keel to funnel) measured to the outside of the hull framing. The numerical value for a ship's GT is always smaller than the numerical values for both her gross register tonnage and the GRT value expressed equivalently in cubic meters rather than cubic feet, for example: 0.5919 GT = 1 GRT = 2.8316 ; 200 GT = 274 GRT = 775,88 ; 500 GT = 665 GRT = 1,883.07 ; 3,000 GT = 3,776 GRT = 10,692.44 ), though by how much depends on the vessel design (volume). There is a sliding scale factor. So GT is a kind of capacity-derived index that is used to rank a ship for purposes of determining manning, safety and other statutory requirements and is expressed simply as GT, which is a unitless entity, even though its derivation is tied to the cubic meter unit of volumetric capacity.

Tonnage measurements are now governed by an IMO Convention (International Convention on Tonnage Measurement of Ships, 1969 (London-Rules)), which applies to all ships built after July 1982. In accordance with the Convention, the correct term to use now is GT, which is a function of the moulded volume of all enclosed spaces of the ship.

It is calculated by using the formula : Failed to parse (PNG conversion failed; check for correct installation of latex and dvipng (or dvips + gs + convert)): GT = K \cdot V , where V = total volume in m³ and K = a figure from 0.22 up to 0.32, depending on the ship’s size (calculated by : Failed to parse (PNG conversion failed; check for correct installation of latex and dvipng (or dvips + gs + convert)): K = 0.2 + 0.02 \cdot\log_{10}V ), so that, for a ship of 10,000 total volume, the gross tonnage would be 0.28 x 10,000 = 2,800 GT or 3531.46 GRT. GT is consequently a measure of the overall size of the ship. For a ship of 80,000 total volume the gross tonnage would be 0.2980617 x 80,000 = 23,844.94 GT.

Net tonnage (NT) is based on a calculation of the volume of all cargo spaces of the ship. It indicates a vessel’s earning space and is a function of the moulded volume of all cargo spaces of the ship.

A commonly defined measurement system is important; since a ship’s registration fee, harbour dues, safety and manning rules etc., are based on its gross tonnage, GT, or net tonnage, NT.

Gross register tonnage (GRT) represents the total internal volume of a vessel, where a register ton is equal to a volume of 100 cubic feet (2.83 ), which volume, if filled with fresh water, would weigh around 2,800 kg or 2.8 tonnes. Calculation of GRT is complex; a ship's hold can, for instance, be assessed for bulk grain (accounting for all the air space in the hold) or for bales (omitting the spaces into which bulk, but not baled cargo would spill). Gross register tonnage was replaced by gross tonnage in 1994 under the Tonnage Measurement convention of 1969, and is no longer widely used term in the industry.[1][2]

Net register tonnage (NRT) is the volume of cargo the vessel can carry; i.e., the gross register tonnage less the volume of spaces that will not hold cargo (e.g., engine compartment, helm station, crew spaces, etc., again with differences depending on which port or country is doing the calculations). It represents the volume of the ship available for transporting freight or passengers. It was replaced by net tonnage in 1994, under the Tonnage Measurement convention of 1969.

The Panama Canal/Universal Measurement System (PC/UMS) is based on net tonnage, modified for Panama Canal purposes. PC/UMS is based on a mathematical formula to calculate a vessel's total volume; a PC/UMS net ton is equivalent to 100 cubic feet of capacity.[3]

The Suez Canal Net Tonnage (SCNT) is derived with a number of modifications from the former net register tonnage of the Moorsom System and was established by the International Commission of Constantinople in its Protocol of 18 December 1873. It is still in use, as amended by the Rules of Navigation of the Suez Canal Authority, and is registered in the Suez Canal Tonnage Certificate.

Thames measurement tonnage is another volumetric system, generally used for small vessels such as yachts; it uses a formula based on the vessel's length and beam.

Weight measurements

While not "tonnage" in the proper sense, the following methods of ship measurement are often incorrectly referred to as such:

Displacement is the actual total weight of the vessel (mostly without pay load). It is often expressed in long tons or in metric tons, and is calculated simply by multiplying the volume of the hull below the waterline (i.e. the volume of water it is displacing) by the specific gravity of the water. (Note that the specific gravity will depend on whether the vessel is in fresh or salt water, or is in the tropics, where water is warmer and hence less dense.) For example, in sea water, first determine the volume of the submerged portion of the hull as follows: Multiply its length by its breadth and the draft, all in feet. Then multiply the product thereby obtained by the block coefficient of the hull to get the hull volume in cubic feet. Then multiply this figure by 64 (the weight of one cubic foot of seawater) to get the weight of the ship in pounds; or divide by 35 to calculate the weight in long tons. Using the SI or metric system : displacement (in tonnes) is volume (in m³) multiplied by the specific gravity of sea water (1.025 nominally).

The word "displacement" arises from the basic physical law, discovered by Archimedes, that the weight of a floating object equates exactly to that of the water which would otherwise occupy the "hole in the water" displaced by the ship.

Lightship or Lightweight measures the actual weight of the ship with no fuel, passengers, cargo, water, etc. on board.

Deadweight tonnage (often abbreviated as DWT for deadweight tonnes) is the displacement at any loaded condition minus the lightship weight. It includes the crew, passengers, cargo, fuel, water, and stores. Like Displacement, it is often expressed in long tons or in metric tons.


Historically, tonnage was the tax on tuns (casks) of wine that held approximately 252 gallons of wine and weighed approximately 2,240 pounds. This suggests that the unit of weight measurement, long tons (also 2,240 lb) and tonnage both share the same etymology. The confusion between weight based terms (deadweight and displacement) stems from this common source and the eventual decision to assess dues based on a ship's deadweight rather than counting the tuns of wine. In 1720 the Builder's Old Measurement Rule was adopted to estimate deadweight from the length of keel and maximum breadth or beam of a ship. This overly simplistic system was replaced by the Moorsom System in 1854 and calculated internal volume, not weight. This system evolved into the current set of internationally accepted rules and regulations.

When steamships came into being, they could carry less cargo, size for size, than sailing ships. As well as spaces taken up by boilers and steam engines, steamships carried extra fresh water for the boilers as well as coal for the engines. Thus, to move the same volume of cargo as a sailing ship, a steamship would be considerably larger than a sailing ship.

"Harbour Dues" are based on tonnage. In order to prevent steamships operating at a disadvantage, various tonnage calculations were established to minimise the disadvantage that the extra space requirements of steamships presented. Rather than charging by length or displacement etc., charges were calculated on the viable cargo space. As commercial cargo sailing ships are now largely extinct, Gross Tonnage is becoming the universal method of calculating ships dues, and is also a more straight-forward and transparent method of assessment.


  1. CWP Handbook of Fishery Statistical Standards. Retrieved May 10, 2006.
  2. International Convention on Tonnage Measurement of Ships, 1969, International Maritime Organisation. Retrieved May 10, 2006.
  3. Panama Canal Tolls, from the Panama Canal Authority. Retrieved May 10, 2006.


  • The Oxford Companion To Ships & The Sea, by I. C. B. Dear and Peter Kemp. Oxford University Press, 1979. ISBN 0-19-860616-8
  • Ship Design and Construction, Volume II; Thomas Lamb, Editor. Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, 2004. ISBN 99909-0-620-3

See also

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