Bunkering is the supply of fuel (or “bunkers”) for use by ships, and includes the shipboard logistics of loading fuel and distributing it among available bunker tanks.
The term originated in the days of steamships, when the fuel, coal, was stored in bunkers. Nowadays the term bunker is generally applied to the storage of petroleum products in tanks, and the practice and business of refueling ships. Bunkering operations are located at seaports, and they include the storage of “bunker” (ship) fuels and the provision of the fuel to vessels.
In many maritime contracts, such as charterparties, contracts for carriage of goods by sea, and marine insurance policies, the shipowner or ship operator is required to ensure that the ship is “seaworthy”. Seaworthiness requires not only that the ship is sound and properly crewed, but also that it is fully fuelled (or “bunkered”) at the start of the voyage. If the ship operator wishes to bunker en route, this must be provided for in a written agreement, or the interruption of the voyage may be deemed to be deviation (a serious breach of contract). If the vessel runs out of fuel in mid-ocean, this is also serious breach, allowing the insurer to cancel a policy, and allowing a consignee to make a cargo claim. It may also give rise to a salvage situation.