Transportation networks play a crucial role in human mobility, the exchange of goods and the spread of invasive species. With 90 per cent of world trade carried by sea, the global network of merchant ships provides one of the most important modes of transportation. Here, we use information about the itineraries of 16 363 cargo ships during the year 2007 to construct a network of links between ports. We show that the network has several features that set it apart from other transportation networks. In particular, most ships can be classified into three categories: bulk dry carriers, container ships and oil tankers. These three categories do not only differ in the ships’ physical characteristics, but also in their mobility patterns and networks. Container ships follow regularly repeating paths whereas bulk dry carriers and oil tankers move less predictably between ports. The network of all ship movements possesses a heavy-tailed distribution for the connectivity of ports and for the loads transported on the links with systematic differences between ship types. The data analysed in this paper improve current assumptions based on gravity models of ship movements, an important step towards understanding patterns of global trade and bioinvasion.