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International Forwarding Association Blog » European Logistics » Navigating Complex Waters: Shipping Freight to European Islands

Navigating Complex Waters: Shipping Freight to European Islands

Transporting goods to European islands presents logistical hurdles that impact the efficiency of transportation operations. Key challenges include limited port capacity for large ships, dependence on ferry services, volatile sea and weather conditions, and the geographic isolation of islands.


Capacity Limitations for Large Ships

European islands often have limited capacity to accommodate large cargo vessels. This is because they were historically developed for smaller-scale maritime activities such as fishing or passenger transport. Expanding port facilities to accommodate large vessels is a logical step, yet, many islands are characterized by rugged coastlines and limited space. This poses challenges to expansion, including the construction of berths and cargo handling facilities. Additionally, the economic viability of investing in infrastructure on islands with smaller populations and less economic activity may deter governments or private investors from making upgrades.


Dependence on Ferry Services

Ferry services are often the primary or sole means of transport on islands that lack ports capable of accommodating large ships, such as Ithaca or Hydra in Greece or Sark in the Channel Islands.

Yet, ferries have limited capacity for cargo, especially those primarily designed for passenger transport. This limitation means that the volume of goods that can be transported per trip is restricted, which can lead to delays in the supply chain in Europe, particularly for perishable goods or urgent supplies. For example, specialty cheeses like Corsican Brocciu or Sardinian Pecorino, which are highly sensitive to temperature changes, face challenges due to ferry delays. Likewise, urgent supplies such as quick-setting hydraulic cement used for structural repairs after storm damage can be impacted by such delays.


Sea and Weather Conditions

Transporting freight to European islands is also challenged by their volatile maritime climates, with frequent storms, high winds, and rough seas that are especially severe in winter. Islands such as the Azores and Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean are particularly prone to intense seasonal storms that disrupt shipping schedules and threaten vessel safety.

Navigating these conditions requires ships designed for resilience and stability in adverse weather. These ships must be equipped with reinforced hulls to withstand the force of high waves and powerful propulsion systems that provide greater control in strong winds and turbulent waters.


Geographic Isolation

The geographic isolation of islands such as the Faroe Islands or Elba in Italy further complicates the logistics of shipping freight. Their remote locations mean extended travel times and transfers between ships, as these islands are far removed from the main shipping lanes and supply hubs. For example, shipments to the Faroe Islands typically require an initial sea journey from a European port like Copenhagen. This leg of the journey is typically undertaken by larger cargo ships due to their capacity and ability to navigate the open sea efficiently.

Then goods are transferred at T├│rshavn, the archipelago’s main port, which is equipped to handle the distribution of goods to smaller vessels. These vessels can navigate the narrower channels and shallower waters surrounding the other islands so that cargo reaches even the most remotely located islands efficiently and safely.