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A rowboat, or rowing boat is an early example of a watercraft Tage Erlander and Nikita Khrushchev at Harpsund 1964 (colour).jpg
A rowboat, or rowing boat is an early example of a watercraft

Watercraft, also known as water vessels or waterborne vessels, are vehicles used in water, including boats, ships, hovercraft and submarines. Watercraft usually have a propulsive capability (whether by sail, oar, paddle or engine) and hence are distinct from a simple device that merely floats, such as a log raft.



Most watercraft would be described as either a ship or a boat. However, there are numerous craft which many people would consider neither a ship nor a boat, such as: surfboards (when used as a paddle board), underwater robots, seaplanes, and torpedoes.

Although ships are typically larger than boats, the distinction between those two categories is not one of size per se.

The term "watercraft" (unlike such terms as aircraft or spacecraft) is rarely used to describe any individual object: rather the term serves to unify the category that ranges from jet skis to aircraft carriers. Such a vessel may be used in saltwater and freshwater; for pleasure, recreation, physical exercise, commerce, transport or military missions.


Racing scene of a personal watercraft Jetboot Jetski DM 2007 Krautsand 2.jpg
Racing scene of a personal watercraft

Usually the purposes behind watercraft designs and skills are for seafaring education or leisure activities, fishing and resource extraction, transportation of cargo or passengers, and for conducting combat or salvage operations. In general, the purpose of a water vehicle identifies its utility with a maritime industry sub-sector.


The design from which a water vehicle is created usually seeks to achieve a balance between internal capacity (tonnage), speed and seaworthiness. Tonnage is predominantly a consideration in transport operations, speed is important for warships, and safety is a primary consideration for less experienced or often smaller and less stable training and leisure vehicles. This is due to the great level of regulatory compliance required by the larger watercraft, which ensures very infrequent instances of foundering at sea through application of extensive computer modeling and ship model basin testing before shipyard construction begins.


Historically, water vehicles have been propelled by people with poles, paddles, or oars, through manipulation of sails that propel by wind pressure and/or lift, and a variety of engineered machinery that create subsurface thrust through the process of internal combustion or electricity. The technological history of watercraft in European history can be divided by reference to marine propulsion as simple paddle craft, oared galleys from the 8th century BCE until the 15th century, lateen sail during the Age of Discovery from the early 15th century and into the early 17th century, full-rigged ships of the Age of Sail from the 16th to the mid 19th century, [1] the Age of Steam reciprocating marine steam engine roughly between 1770 and 1914, the steam turbine, later gas turbine, and internal combustion engines using diesel fuel, petrol and LNG as fuels from the turn of the 20th century, which have been supplemented to a degree by nuclear marine propulsion since the 1950s in some naval watercraft. Current technological development seeks to identify cheaper, renewable and less polluting sources of propulsion for watercraft of all shapes and sizes.


A Severn-class lifeboat in Poole Harbour, Dorset, England. This is the largest class of UK lifeboat, at 17 metres long Lifeboat.17-31.underway.arp.jpg
A Severn-class lifeboat in Poole Harbour, Dorset, England. This is the largest class of UK lifeboat, at 17 metres long

Secondary applications of technology in watercraft have been those of used structural materials, navigation aids; and in the case of warships, weapon systems. The purpose of usage and the physical environment define the materials used in construction which had historically included grasses, leather, timbers, metals combined with timber or without, silicate and plastic derivatives, and others.


A vessel registration number (located near the top) on a Yamaha SuperJet 91 superjet.jpg
A vessel registration number (located near the top) on a Yamaha SuperJet

Watercraft registration is the registration of a watercraft with a government authority. In the United States, it consists of an alphanumeric string called a vessel registration number that is issued by the state's Department of Motor Vehicles. [2]

Navigation aids have varied over time: from astronomical observation, to mechanical mechanisms, and more recently analogue and digital computer devices that now rely on GPS systems.


Naval weapon systems have closely followed the development in land weapons, developing from:

Until development of steam propulsion was coupled with rapid-firing breech-loading guns, naval combat was often concluded by a boarding combat between the opposing crews. Since the early 20th century, there has been a substantial development in technologies which allow force projection from a naval task force to a land objective using marine infantry.

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Navy Military branch for naval warfare

A navy, naval force, or maritime force is the branch of a nation's armed forces principally designated for naval and amphibious warfare; namely, lake-borne, riverine, littoral, or ocean-borne combat operations and related functions. It includes anything conducted by surface ships, amphibious ships, submarines, and seaborne aviation, as well as ancillary support, communications, training, and other fields. The strategic offensive role of a navy is projection of force into areas beyond a country's shores. The strategic defensive purpose of a navy is to frustrate seaborne projection-of-force by enemies. The strategic task of the navy also may incorporate nuclear deterrence by use of submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Naval operations can be broadly divided between riverine and littoral applications, open-ocean applications, and something in between, although these distinctions are more about strategic scope than tactical or operational division.

Propeller Device that transmits rotational power into linear thrust on a fluid

A propeller is a device with a rotating hub and radiating blades that are set at a pitch to form a helical spiral, that, when rotated, performs an action which is similar to Archimedes' screw. It transforms rotational power into linear thrust by acting upon a working fluid, such as water or air. The rotational motion of the blades is converted into thrust by creating a pressure difference between the two surfaces. A given mass of working fluid is accelerated in one direction and the craft moves in the opposite direction. Propeller dynamics, like those of aircraft wings, can be modelled by Bernoulli's principle and Newton's third law. Most marine propellers are screw propellers with helical blades rotating on a propeller shaft with an approximately horizontal axis.

Ship Large buoyant watercraft

A ship is a large watercraft that travels the world's oceans and other sufficiently deep waterways, carrying goods or passengers, or in support of specialized missions, such as defense, research, and fishing. Ships are generally distinguished from boats, based on size, shape, load capacity, and tradition. In the Age of Sail a "ship" was a sailing vessel defined by its sail plan of at least three square rigged masts and a full bowsprit.

Naval architecture Engineering discipline dealing with the design and construction of marine vessels

Naval architecture, or naval engineering is an engineering discipline incorporating elements of mechanical, electrical, electronic, software and safety engineering as applied to the engineering design process, shipbuilding, maintenance, and operation of marine vessels and structures. Naval architecture involves basic and applied research, design, development, design evaluation (classification) and calculations during all stages of the life of a marine vehicle. Preliminary design of the vessel, its detailed design, construction, trials, operation and maintenance, launching and dry-docking are the main activities involved. Ship design calculations are also required for ships being modified. Naval architecture also involves formulation of safety regulations and damage-control rules and the approval and certification of ship designs to meet statutory and non-statutory requirements.

Steamship Type of steam-powered vessel

A steamship, often referred to as a steamer, is a type of steam-powered vessel, typically ocean-faring and seaworthy, that is propelled by one or more steam engines that typically move (turn) propellers or paddlewheels. The first steamships came into practical usage during the early 1800s; however, there were exceptions that came before. Steamships usually use the prefix designations of "PS" for paddle steamer or "SS" for screw steamer. As paddle steamers became less common, "SS" is assumed by many to stand for "steamship". Ships powered by internal combustion engines use a prefix such as "MV" for motor vessel, so it is not correct to use "SS" for most modern vessels.

Warship Ship built for warfare

A warship or combatant ship is a naval ship that is built and primarily intended for naval warfare. Usually they belong to the armed forces of a state. As well as being armed, warships are designed to withstand damage and are usually faster and more manoeuvrable than merchant ships. Unlike a merchant ship, which carries cargo, a warship typically carries only weapons, ammunition and supplies for its crew. Warships usually belong to a navy, though they have also been operated by individuals, cooperatives and corporations.

Paddle steamer Steam-powered vessel propelled by paddle wheels

A paddle steamer is a steamship or steamboat powered by a steam engine that drives paddle wheels to propel the craft through the water. In antiquity, paddle wheelers followed the development of poles, oars and sails, where the first uses were wheelers driven by animals or humans.

Steam frigate

Steam frigates, also known as screw frigates and the smaller steam corvettes and steam sloops, were steam-powered warships that were not meant to stand in the line of battle. The first such ships were paddle steamers. Later on the invention of screw propulsion enabled construction of steam-powered versions of the traditional frigates, corvettes, and sloops.


A riverboat is a watercraft designed for inland navigation on lakes, rivers, and artificial waterways. They are generally equipped and outfitted as work boats in one of the carrying trades, for freight or people transport, including luxury units constructed for entertainment enterprises, such as lake or harbour tour boats. As larger water craft, virtually all riverboats are especially designed and constructed, or alternatively, constructed with special-purpose features that optimizes them as riverine or lake service craft, for instance, dredgers, survey boats, fisheries management craft, fireboats and law enforcement patrol craft.

Merchant ship

A merchant ship, merchant vessel, trading vessel, or merchantman is a watercraft that transports cargo or carries passengers for hire. This is in contrast to pleasure craft, which are used for personal recreation, and naval ships, which are used for military purposes.

Nuclear marine propulsion Propulsion system for marine vessels utilizing a nuclear powerplant

Nuclear marine propulsion is propulsion of a ship or submarine with heat provided by a nuclear power plant. The power plant heats water to produce steam for a turbine used to turn the ship's propeller through a gearbox or through an electric generator and motor. Naval nuclear propulsion is used specifically within naval warships such as supercarriers. A small number of experimental civil nuclear ships have been built.

This is a partial glossary of nautical terms; some remain current, while many date from the 17th to 19th centuries. See also Wiktionary's nautical terms, Category:Nautical terms, and Nautical metaphors in English. See the Further reading section for additional words and references.

Sponson Protrusion found on the side of some ships, aircraft and vehicles

Sponsons are projections extending from the sides of land vehicles, aircraft or watercraft to provide protection, stability, storage locations, mounting points for weapons or other devices, or equipment housing.

Launch (boat) Open motorboat

A launch is an open motorboat. The forward part of the launch’s deck may be covered. Prior to the era of engines on small craft, a launch was the largest boat carried on a sailing vessel, powered by sail or by oars. In competitive rowing, a launch is a motorized boat used by the coach during training.

Marine engineering Engineering of boats, ships, oil rigs or other marine vessel or structure

Marine engineering includes the engineering of boats, ships, oil rigs and any other marine vessel or structure, as well as oceanographic engineering, oceanic engineering or ocean engineering. Specifically, marine engineering is the discipline of applying engineering sciences, including mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, electronic engineering, and computer science, to the development, design, operation and maintenance of watercraft propulsion and on-board systems and oceanographic technology. It includes but is not limited to power and propulsion plants, machinery, piping, automation and control systems for marine vehicles of any kind, such as surface ships and submarines.

Marine propulsion Systems for generating thrust for ships and boats on water

Marine propulsion is the mechanism or system used to generate thrust to move a ship or boat across water. While paddles and sails are still used on some smaller boats, most modern ships are propelled by mechanical systems consisting of an electric motor or engine turning a propeller, or less frequently, in pump-jets, an impeller. Marine engineering is the discipline concerned with the engineering design process of marine propulsion systems.

Amphibious warfare ship Ship used in amphibious warfare

An amphibious warfare ship is an amphibious vehicle warship employed to land and support ground forces, such as marines, on enemy territory during an amphibious assault. The largest fleet of these types is operated by the United States Navy.

Ships boat

A ship's boat is a utility boat carried by a larger vessel. Ship's boats have always provided communication with the shore and with other ships. Other work done by such boats has varied over time, as marine technology has changed. In the age of sail, especially for warships, an important role was the collection of drinking water. A large enough boat may be needed to carry an anchor to some distance away from the ship, so as to kedge out of a harbour or away from a hazard - and also to recover such an anchor afterwards. Warships have always used their boats as an extension to their military role. This includes the provision of a means of escape for the crews of fireships, the landing of troops, or the "cutting out" raids that were used by the Royal Navy, especially during the Napoleonic Wars. All these requirements competed with the need to be able to stow the boats on board in a way that did not interfere with the normal operation of the ship.

Steam-powered vessel

Steam-powered vessels include steamboats and steamships. Smaller steamboats were developed first. They were replaced by larger steamships which were often ocean-going. Steamships required a change in propulsion technology from sail to paddlewheel to screw to steam turbines. The latter innovation changed the design of vessels to one that could move faster through the water. Engine propulsion changed to steam turbine in the early 20th century. In the latter part of the 20th century, these, in turn, were replaced by gas turbines.


  1. "The Age of Sail". HMS Trincomalee. Retrieved 12 April 2016.
  2. "Vessel Boat Registration and Information". State of California.