Even though we in America tend to look at technology, retail, and the investment world as the best places to make personal fortunes, a glance around the world shows that there have been huge personal empires built from the shipping industry. Although I'd never suggest that buying a single stock like General Maritime (NYSE:GMR) could make you independently wealthy, it might be worth a look all the same.

Fourth-quarter results highlight a major problem with this business -- it can be intensely volatile. Net voyage revenue dropped nearly 41%, and while it's true that a lower number of operating days (due to a 10% reduction in average fleet size) made a difference, the nearly 33% drop in average pricing (as measured by average daily time charter equivalent amounts) was the bigger factor.

With lower pricing leading to lower revenue, profits also dropped for the period. Operating earnings fell by more than half (when you exclude the gain from ship sales) and net earnings were likewise down substantially from last year.

So what's the good news? Well, for starters, the company has been selling off older vessels; it now operates a fleet that is entirely double-hulled and has an average age of under 11 years (with no ship older than 15 years). The company also has a very clean balance sheet, which will either permit asset acquisitions (though management presently seems to think market prices are too high) or higher dividend payouts.

To be sure, this is not an idea for the faint of heart. Charter rates are volatile -- the average rate for General Maritime's Aframax-class ships was about $29,500 per day in the fourth quarter, and current rates are about $25,000 per day, but the company managed to book nearly two-thirds of its Aframax fleet at prices of $40,000 per day or higher for the first quarter. What's more, as a company focused on transporting oil, General Maritime is sensitive both to supply from newly built ships and demand in places like China and Japan.

At a bare minimum, I'd strongly suggest that Fools pondering dipping their toes into this market also look at stocks like Frontline (NYSE:FRO), OMI (NYSE:OMM), Tsakos Energy (NYSE:TNP), and DryShips (NASDAQ:DRYS) -- just to broaden their knowledge and get a bit more of the flavor of the shipping industry.

For more Foolish thoughts on shipping out:

Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).