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  • Most river-sea traffic is operated by seagoing ships. However, some specific inland vessels can be allowed to make restricted journeys at sea between two ports of the same country provided they comply with specific requirements.
  • Inland vessels can never be allowed to perform international sea journeys, as they do not hold seagoing ship certificates. As most of IMO regulations applicable to seagoing ships are not entirely appropriate to domestic trade along the coastline in restricted maritime areas, the granting of a special certificate allowing inland vessels to navigate at sea is justified.
  • Restricted maritime areas in which inland navigation vessels may be able to operate can be classified for the purpose of suitable requirements consistent with the risk level. This is dependent notably on the severity of the wave and swell, the risk of shipping water, the exposure to strong wind, the distance from shore and refuge and weather conditions. In such areas, inland vessels must be designed to withstand more severe weather conditions than do pure inland vessels. Also, access to maritime areas is given to inland vessels taking into consideration restricted routes and limitations on wave height.
  • In order to be allowed to navigate at sea (in a restricted manner) and obtain the corresponding certificate, such inland vessels must prove that they comply with:
    – classification requirements related mainly to ship design (hull structure, bow height, stability etc.) and equipment requirements established by classification societies and,
    – regulatory requirements set by relevant state administration which may provide complementary requirements (national law, qualification of crew, radio communication, navigation lights, operational conditions etc.)
  • The EU Directive 2016/1629 establishes harmonised conditions for issuing technical certificates for inland waterway vessels in EU inland waterways. However, it also allows Member States to apply stricter technical requirements in certain zones of navigation, in particular zones 1 and 2 – estuaries – where inland vessels may be faced with more difficult conditions of navigation than usual. This Directive does not make it mandatory for Member States to identify such zones 1 and 2 on their territory but lists the subjects for possible additional technical requirements applicable to inland vessels in such zones (in relation to stability, equipment, watertightness etc.). In Belgium (Flanders), some inland vessels are allowed to navigate directly at sea, along the coast (estuary transport). This type of traffic is regulated by a Royal Decree, outside the scope of Directive 2016/1629 (see chapter 3, part 2 below), as no zones 1 or 2 have been defined in Belgium. However, Belgian estuary vessels also need to comply with Directive 2016/1629.
  • Drawing from the information above, a common case of river-sea transport performed by an inland navigation vessel can therefore be described as follows:

  • There is currently no harmonisation in the requirements to be complied with by such inland vessels in order to navigate at sea. The possibility for inland vessels to navigate at sea is also not allowed in several EU countries. Given the differences in treatment of this type of transport in the EU, Directive 2016/1629 calls for greater harmonisation of the conditions for the issuing, by Member States, of supplementary Union inland navigation certificates for operations of inland vessels in zones 1 and 2.
  • For the purposes of this report, the focus will be on the cases of Belgium (Port of Zeebrugge) and France (in the Port du Havre area and Golfe de Fos), where inland vessels navigating “at sea” can be observed, always in compliance with specific national regulations. Such national regulations allowing this type of transport are also applicable in India, Russia, China and Italy.



  • Belgium is the most telling example when studying the case of inland vessels that are allowed to navigate at sea, known in Belgium as estuary transport. Estuary traffic is carried out by estuary vessels, which must hold a certificate provided by a competent Belgian authority, allowing them to navigate at sea under the conditions prescribed in the national and regional regulation. The legal ground is a Royal Decree from 2007 (Koninklijk besluit betreffende binnenschepen die ook voor niet-internationale zeereizen worden gebruikt: which enforces the set of regulations allowing an inland vessel to navigate at sea between Belgian coastal ports. Since the last state reform, which has seen many of these responsibilities move to the regions, Flanders has issued minor changes to this Royal Decree.
  • According to this Decree, estuary vessels must comply with the rules applicable to inland vessels and must be designed in a way that allows them to navigate at sea (sufficient stability, safety requirements). They must, amongst other requirements, comply with MARPOL, without however holding a certificate, COLREG (preventing collisions at sea) and be equipped with sea radar (navigation equipment). Meteorological aspects must also be taken into account before the captain of such an inland vessel can decide whether or not to perform a sea voyage. The recent changes made by the Region of Flanders allow for some simplifications for this category of vessels and less administrative burden for ship owners. This evolution of the Decree also aims at reducing investment costs needed for building estuary vessels which are of lighter build and more cost-effective than seagoing ships that can also sail on the same routes from Zeebrugge to Ghent and Antwerp, as well as further upstream. With the evolvement of safety technologies, it is possible that the Decree further evolves in the future.
  • Almost all estuary traffic in Flanders departs from or arrives at the maritime port of Zeebrugge towards or from the port of Antwerp and the North Sea Port (North Sea Port is the name of the port formed by the cross-border merger between Zeeland Seaports (Flushing, Borsele and Terneuzen) in the Netherlands and Ghent Port Company in Belgium, signed on 8 December 2017) and dedicated inland container terminals.


Source: Based on


  • Belgium is the country in western Europe where the highest volumes of goods are transported via estuary transport. In 2018, 2.1 million tonnes of goods were transported via estuary traffic at the port of Zeebrugge, of which 58% were liquid bulk, 41% container and 1% ro/ro. Overall, estuary traffic represents 5.2% of maritime traffic registered at the port of Zeebrugge (Source: 2018 annual report Port of Zeebrugge, Overall, 1047 estuary vessels called at the port of Zeebrugge in 2018 (+ 47 compared to 2017).
  • The estuary fleet in Belgium is composed of 13 vessels in total, 9 tankers, 1 Ro-Ro cargo and 3 container carriers. Some are certified according to the prescriptions of the Belgium Royal Decree of 2007, and some obtained a certificate under a previous regime. The Belgian estuary fleet is quite recent, with the majority of the fleet being 15 years old or less.



Vessels’ name(s)*Built inAgeType of vessels
Presto200316Motor tanker
Polybotes200415Ro-Ro cargo ship
Tanzanite, Texas200415Motor tanker
Breitling200514Motor tanker
New Jersey200613Motor tanker
Amberes, Deseo, Tripoli200712Container vessel
Inventory, Montana, Mozart20118Motor tanker

*Until 12 November 2018, another motor tanker was also in operation, the Zeebrugge, built in 1971. However, its certificate was not extended after this date.

  • The Ro-Ro cargo ship “Polybotes” is generally used for the spot market. It is also able to answer to the strong market demand for “high & heavy” cargoes, as it can transport extremely heavy one-piece parts of up to 60m in length, such as wind turbines, industrial transformers, tanks for liquids and yachts. The three container estuary vessels are primarily used to facilitate the connection with Antwerp. They follow a fixed rotational scheme which takes them to Antwerp three times a week. It takes eight hours to reach Antwerp from Zeebrugge, while it would take one and a half days if a conventional inland navigation route along canals was used. These three ships together have a capacity of 800 TEU per day and carry 160,000 TEU per year. These estuary vessels also allow to connect with several shortsea routes, in particular with the Baltic network (Source: Connect, Annual magazine of the port of Zeebrugge, 2019, Four of these estuary vessels call at North Sea Port, making approximately 75 voyages to and from the North Sea Port each year, carrying mainly containers and cars.



  • In France, some inland vessels are also allowed to operate alongside the coastline in domestic maritime areas (zone 1), beyond the “transverse limit of the sea”, subject to restricted requirements prescribed by a national regulation (Arrêté du 2 octobre 2018 relatif au classement des zones de navigation des bateaux de commerce, des bateaux de plaisance et engins flottants et aux compléments ou allégements des prescriptions techniques applicables sur certaines de ces zones de navigation :, adopted in October 2018, in accordance with Directive 2016/1629. According to this national regulation, exclusive navigation on such zones 1 by inland navigation vessels is forbidden. However, there are seven different pre-identified routes where inland navigation vessels can be allowed to navigate at sea (both for goods and passenger transport). The requirements to be met by inland vessels also vary depending on the relevant route. For goods transport, this type of traffic takes place mainly in two areas: the Port du Havre area in the Seine estuary and the Golfe de Fos. This approach implies having well-defined zones of navigation and “transverse limits of the sea”.
  • It is worth noting that before the adoption of the above-mentioned regulation, inland vessels navigating to Port 2000 (Port du Havre) were subject to a dedicated decree, outside the scope of application of Directive 2016/1629 (Arrêté du 15 décembre 2014 relatif à la navigation de bateaux porte-conteneurs fluviaux en mer pour la desserte de Port 2000 et des quais en Seine à Honfleur : (as the example of the Belgian regulation).
  • In France, even if inland vessels comply with the necessary requirements to navigate in the identified maritime area, their ability to do so is also conditional upon meteorological and sea conditions at the time the vessels are set to navigate at sea. Other conditions that need to be met are their foreseeable evolution during the journey time, the securement of an authorisation from the competent port police authority to enter or leave a port located on one of the pre-identified routes, and compliance with applicable local pilot regulations. Finally, it is the responsibility of the inland vessel operator to ensure safe navigation.
  • This solution is particularly relevant when connections between inland waterway systems and maritime ports is insufficient. However, this solution is also dependent upon meteorological conditions, which may hinder its reliability. Where no direct inland access is available, the existence of a route involving transhipment can therefore be a useful complement to connect inland waterways with such maritime ports.


Port of Le Havre

  • Currently, there is no direct inland access between the Seine and the Port of Le Havre (Port 2000) for inland container vessels. Inland vessels adapted to navigate at sea are therefore the only direct way (without transhipment) to reach the container terminal.

Source: Figure based on Vantorre, M., Eloot, K., and Geerts, S. Paper 25 – Inland vessels at sea: a useful contradiction to solve missing links in waterway systems. Proceedings PIANC – SMART Rivers Conference 2013 (Editors: Rigo, P., Wolters, M.). Liège/Maastricht, 23-27 September 2013 and


  • There are currently eight inland vessels allowed to navigate at sea in the port of Le Havre area:
    – six container inland vessels (Oural, Bosphore, Euroports, Arc-en-Ciel, Pythagore and Smack) amounting to 137,500 TEU in 2016;
    – two bunker vessels (the New-York carrying heavy fuel and the New-Jersey carrying gasoil).
  • A co-funding of 25 million euros for the realisation of the project aiming at creating a direct inland access to Port 2000, and therefore allowing any type of inland vessel to access the Port, was agreed upon in March 2019. It is therefore possible that river-sea traffic in this region decreases once this project is finalised.


Golfe de Fos area

  • In the Golfe de Fos area, existing river routes connecting the river Rhône with Martigues and the “Etang de Berre”, are currently long journeys that are only accessible by small inland vessels. However, an alternative sea trajectory through the Golfe de Fos is also possible. Given the recent modification of the French national regulation, very few vessels use the sea trajectory alternative, although it may be used more in the future if there is a sufficient business case for it.


Source: Direct access to maritime ports by adapted inland waterway vessels. PIANC Report No. 118, Maritime Navigation Commission & Inland Navigation Commission Expert Group, 2013


  • The possibility for inland vessels to navigate at sea is also very relevant in the context of passenger transport, allowing operators to offer new cruises. This is, for instance, the case of the French company CroisiEurope which offers cruises on the Loire, where the inland cruise vessel must navigate on a short sea stretch to reach Saint-Nazaire. With the adoption of the above-mentioned new French regulation, CroisiEurope will now be able to propose new cruises on the Gironde up to Royan, crossing maritime domestic waters. Allowing inland vessels to navigate at sea can therefore represent an important business opportunity, also in the passenger transport sector.



  • Inland vessels at sea can become relevant whenever a maritime/coastal port is not sufficiently connected to the inland waterway network, insofar as there is an underlying economic rationale (in other words, if this solution is less expensive than a multimodal option involving transhipment). Only then can this type of transport develop in a given area.
  • It is worth noting that pilot cases for this kind of transport have been elaborated. For instance, in Germany, a special solution for river-sea transport was developed to connect the Jade-Weser-Port to the river Weser. Indeed, the hinterland accessibility of this port is currently limited to trains and trucks as there is no direct access for inland vessels. Conventional sea-going inland ships are not competitive at the given bridge heights and water depths connecting the Jade-Weser-Port to the river Weser. Therefore, a need for a completely new ship design which is seaworthy and which at the same time can be used efficiently on the inland waterways was identified, leading to the German joint research project BiWi (“Schlussbericht zum Teilvorhaben Entwicklung und Optimierung eines seegehenden Binnenschiffsleichters” – Friedhoff, B. et al.; DST-Report 2081; Duisburg, 2016). In this context, a solution was developed based on the pusher-barge principle with a special hydraulic coupling. At sea, suitable pushing vessels or tugs will be used to propel a sea-going barge. In inland navigation, a conventional canal pushing vessel is used and, ideally, pushes several barges at the same time. The concept was successfully tested with scale models up to significant wave heights of 2.5 metres.
  • Although the concept has not yet been expanded upon due to subsequent discussions about the possible creation of a direct inland access, the development of such a transport concept connecting seaports to inland waterways could be possible in other areas.
  • In Sweden, several projects involving inland vessels at sea are also in the pipeline. For instance, on the west coast of Sweden, the petroleum-company Preem would like to transport petrol and diesel on barge-vessels from their coastal refinery in Lysekil down to Gothenburg and up via the Göta Älv river to the town of Karlstad on the northern part of Lake Vänern. The company sees extensive opportunities for a sustainable transport-flow and great environmental and climate advantages. Avatar Logistics is the partner responsible for the logistical solution and the barge-vessel concept.
  • In May 2020 the Port of Stockholm will inaugurate its new major port Norvik outside the coastal town of Nynäshamn. The traffic between Nynäshamn and Stockholm is dense and the infrastructure with road and rail not fully adequate. A great deal of interest has been shown for a barge-container-shuttle between Norvik and the Södertälje Canal up to the Lake Mälaren and the western parts of the Stockholm area. Avatar Logistics and the four ports in the region are ready to meet the challenges and are discussing barge-logistic concepts.