A ship /ʃɪp/ is a large vessel that floats on water. Ships are generally distinguished from boats based on size. Ships may be found on lakes, seas, and rivers and they allow for a variety of activities, such as the transport of persons or goods, fishing, entertainment, public safety, and warfare.
Ships and boats have developed alongside mankind. In major wars, and in day to day life, they have become an integral part of modern commercial and military systems. Fishing boats are used by millions of fishermen throughout the world. Military forces operate highly sophisticated vessels to transport and support forces ashore. Commercial vessels, nearly 35,000 in number, carried 7.4 billion tons of cargo in 2007.
These vessels were also key in history's great explorations and scientific and technological development. Navigators such as Zheng He spread such inventions as the compass and gunpowder. On one hand, ships have been used for colonization and the slave trade. On the other, they also have served scientific, cultural, and humanitarian needs.
As Thor Heyerdahl demonstrated with his tiny boat the Kon-Tiki, it is possible to achieve great things with a simple log raft. From Mesolithic canoes to today's powerful nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, ships tell the history of man.
Ships can usually be distinguished from boats based on size and the ship's ability to operate independently for extended periods. A commonly used rule of thumb is that if one vessel can carry another, the larger of the two is a ship. As dinghies are common on sailing yachts as small as , this rule of thumb is not foolproof.
A number of large vessels are traditionally referred to as boats. Submarines are a prime example. Other types of large vessels which are traditionally called boats are the Great Lakes freighter, the riverboat, and the ferryboat. Though large enough to carry their own boats and heavy cargoes, these vessels are designed for operation on inland or protected coastal waters.
The history of boats parallels the human adventure. The first known boats date back to the Neolithic Period, about 10,000 years ago. These early vessels had limited function: they could move on water, but that was it. They were used mainly for hunting and fishing. The oldest dugout canoes found by archaeologists were often cut from coniferous tree logs, using simple stone tools
Roughly 5,000 years ago, Ancient Egyptians already knew how to assemble planks of wood into a ship hull. Woven straps were used to lash the planks together, and reeds or grass stuffed between the planks helped to seal the seams.
At about the same time, people living near Kongens Lyngby in Denmark invented the segregated hull, which allowed the size of boats to gradually be increased. Boats soon developed into keel boats similar to today's wooden pleasure craft.
The first navigators began to use animal skins or woven fabrics as sails. Affixed to the top of a pole set vertically in a boat, these sails gave early ships great range. This allowed man to explore widely, allowing, for example the settlement of Oceania about 3,000 years ago.
The ancient Egyptians were perfectly at ease building sailboats. A remarkable example of their shipbuilding skills was the Khufu ship, a vessel in length entombed at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza around 2,500 BC and found intact in 1954. According to Herodotus, the Egyptians made the first circumnavigation of Africa around 600 BC.
The Phoenicians and Greeks gradually mastered navigation at sea aboard triremes, exploring and colonizing the Mediterranean via ship. Around 340 BC, the Greek navigator Pytheas of Massalia ventured from Greece to Western Europe and Great Britain.
Before the introduction of the compass, celestial navigation was the main method for navigation at sea. In China, early versions of the magnetic compass were being developed and used in navigation between 1040 and 1117. The true mariner's compass, using a pivoting needle in a dry box, was invented in Europe no later than 1300.
Towards the end of the fourteenth century, ships like the carrack began to develop towers on the bow and stern. These towers decreased the vessel's stability, and in the fifteenth century, caravels became more widely used. The towers were gradually replaced by the forecastle and sterncastle, as in the carrack Santa María of Christopher Columbus. This increased freeboard allowed another innovation: the freeing port, and the artillery associated with it.
In the sixteenth century, the use of freeboard and freeing ports become widespread on galleons. The English modified their vessels to maximize their firepower and demonstrated the effectiveness of their doctrine, in 1588, by defeating the Spanish Armada.
At this time, ships were developing in Asia in much the same way as Europe. Japan used defensive naval techniques in the Mongol invasions of Japan in 1281. It is likely that the Mongols of the time took advantage of both European and Asian shipbuilding techniques. In Japan, during the Sengoku era from the fifteenth to seventeenth century, the great struggle for feudal supremacy was fought, in part, by coastal fleets of several hundred boats, including the atakebune.
Fifty years before Christopher Columbus, Chinese navigator Zheng He traveled the world at the head of what was for the time a huge armada. The largest of his ships had nine masts, were long and had a beam of . His fleet carried 30,000 men aboard 70 vessels, with the goal of bringing glory to the Chinese emperor.
Parallel to the development of warships, ships in service of marine fishery and trade also developed in the period between antiquity and the Renaissance. Still primarily a coastal endeavor, fishing is largely practiced by individuals with little other money using small boats.
Maritime trade was driven by the development of shipping companies with significant financial resources. Canal barges, towed by draft animals on an adjacent towpath, contended with the railway up to and past the early days of the industrial revolution. Flat-bottomed and flexible scow boats also became widely used for transporting small cargoes. Mercantile trade went hand-in-hand with exploration, which is self-financing by the commercial benefits of exploration.
During the first half of the eighteenth century, the French Navy began to develop a new type of vessel, featuring seventy-four guns. This type of ship became the backbone of all European fighting fleets. These ships were long and their construction required 2,800 oak trees and of rope; they carried a crew of about 800 sailors and soldiers.
Ship designs stayed fairly unchanged until the late nineteenth century. The industrial revolution, new mechanical methods of propulsion, and the ability to construct ships from metal triggered an explosion in ship design. Factors including the quest for more efficient ships, the end of long running and wasteful maritime conflicts, and the increased financial capacity of industrial powers created an avalanche of more specialized boats and ships. Ships built for entirely new functions, such as firefighting, rescue, and research, also began to appear.
In light of this, classification of vessels by type or function can be difficult. Even using very broad functional classifications such as fishery, trade, military, and exploration fails to classify most of the old ships. This difficulty is increased by the fact that the terms such as sloop and frigate are used by old and new ships alike, and often the modern vessels sometimes have little in common with their predecessors.
In 2002, there were 1,240 warships operating in the world, not counting small vessels such as patrol boats. The United States accounted for 3 million tons worth of these vessels, Russia 1.35 million tons, the United Kingdom 504,660 tons and China 402,830 tons. The twentieth century saw many naval engagements during the two world wars, the Cold War, and the rise to power of naval forces of the two blocs. The world's major powers have recently used their naval power in cases such as the United Kingdom in the Falkland Islands and the United States in Iraq. Warships were also key in history's great explorations and scientific and technological development. Navigators such as Zheng He spread such inventions as the compass and gunpowder. On one hand, ships have been used for colonization and the slave trade. On the other, they also have served scientific, cultural, and humanitarian needs.
The size of the world's fishing fleet is more difficult to estimate. The largest of these are counted as commercial vessels, but the smallest are legion. Fishing vessels can be found in most seaside villages in the world. As of 2004, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated 4 million fishing vessels were operating worldwide. The same study estimated that the world's 29 million fishermen caught 85.8 million metric tons of fish and shellfish that year.
Other classification systems exist that use criteria such as:
Another way to categorize ships and boats is based on their use, as described by Paulet and Presles. This system includes military ships, commercial vessels, fishing boats, pleasure craft and competitive boats. In this section, ships are classified using the first four of those categories, and adding a section for lake and river boats, and one for vessels which fall outside these categories.
Passenger ships range in size from small river ferries to giant cruise ships. This type of vessel includes ferries, which move passengers and vehicles on short trips; ocean liners, which carry passengers on one-way trips; and cruise ships, which typically transport passengers on round-trip voyages promoting leisure activities onboard and in the ports they visit.
Special-purpose vessels are not used for transport but are designed to perform other specific tasks. Examples include tugboats, pilot boats, rescue boats, cable ships, research vessels, survey vessels, and ice breakers.
Most commercial vessels have full hull-forms to maximize cargo capacity. Hulls are usually made of steel, although aluminum can be used on faster craft, and fiberglass on the smallest service vessels. Commercial vessels generally have a crew headed by a captain, with deck officers and marine engineers on larger vessels. Special-purpose vessels often have specialized crew if necessary, for example scientists aboard research vessels. Commercial vessels are typically powered by a single propeller driven by a diesel engine. Vessels which operate at the higher end of the speed spectrum may use pump-jet engines or sometimes gas turbine engines.
Modern warships are generally divided into seven main categories, which are: aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, submarines and amphibious assault ships. Battleships encompass an eighth category, but are not in current service with any navy in the world.
Most military submarines are either attack submarines or ballistic submarines. Until World War Two, the primary role of the diesel/electric submarine was anti-ship warfare, inserting and removing covert agents and military forces, and intelligence-gathering. With the development of the homing torpedo, better sonar systems, and nuclear propulsion, submarines also became able to effectively hunt each other. The development of submarine-launched nuclear missiles and submarine-launched cruise missiles gave submarines a substantial and long-ranged ability to attack both land and sea targets with a variety of weapons ranging from cluster bombs to nuclear weapons.
Most navies also include many types of support and auxiliary vessels, such as minesweepers, patrol boats, offshore patrol vessels, replenishment ships , and hospital ships which are designated medical treatment facilities.
Combat vessels like cruisers and destroyers usually have fine hulls to maximize speed and maneuverability. They also usually have advanced electronics and communication systems, as well as weapons.
Fishing boats are generally small, often little more than but up to for a large tuna or whaling ship. Aboard a fish processing vessel, the catch can be made ready for market and sold more quickly once the ship makes port. Special purpose vessels have special gear. For example, trawlers have winches and arms, stern-trawlers have a rear ramp, and tuna seiners have skiffs.
In 2004, 85.8 million metric tons of fish were caught in the marine capture fishery. Anchoveta represented the largest single catch at 10.7 million metric tons. That year, the top ten marine capture species also included Alaska pollock, Blue whiting, Skipjack tuna, Atlantic herring, Chub mackerel, Japanese anchovy, Chilean jack mackerel, Largehead hairtail, and Yellowfin tuna. Other species including salmon, shrimp, lobster, clams, squid and crab, are also commercially fished.
Modern commercial fishermen use many methods. One is fishing by nets, such as purse seine, beach seine, lift nets, gillnets, or entangling nets. Another is trawling, including bottom trawl. Hooks and lines are used in methods like long-line fishing and hand-line fishing). Another method is the use of fishing trap.
Barges are a prime example of inland vessels. Flat-bottomed boats built to transport heavy goods, most barges are not self-propelled and need to be moved by tugboats towing or towboats pushing them. Barges towed along canals by draft animals on an adjacent towpath contended with the railway in the early industrial revolution but were outcompeted in the carriage of high value items due to the higher speed, falling costs, and route flexibility of rail transport.
Riverboats and inland ferries are specially designed to carry passengers, cargo, or both in the challenging river environment. Rivers present special hazards to vessels. They usually have varying water flows that alternately lead to high speed water flows or protruding rock hazards. Changing siltation patterns may cause the sudden appearance of shoal waters, and often floating or sunken logs and trees (called snags) can endanger the hulls and propulsion of riverboats. Riverboats are generally of shallow draft, being broad of beam and rather square in plan, with a low freeboard and high topsides. Riverboats can survive with this type of configuration as they do not have to withstand the high winds or large waves that are seen on large lakes, seas, or oceans.
Lake freighters, also called lakers, are cargo vessels that ply the Great Lakes. The most well-known is the , the latest major vessel to be wrecked on the Lakes. These vessels are traditionally called boats, not ships. Visiting ocean-going vessels are called "salties." Due to their additional beam, very large salties are never seen inland of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Because the largest of the Soo Locks is larger than any Seaway lock, salties that can pass through the Seaway may travel anywhere in the Great Lakes. Because of their deeper draft, salties may accept partial loads on the Great Lakes, "topping off" when they have exited the Seaway. Similarly, the largest lakers are confined to the Upper Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie) because they are too large to use the Seaway locks, beginning at the Welland Canal that bypasses the Niagara River.
Since the freshwater lakes are less corrosive to ships than the salt water of the oceans, lakers tend to last much longer than ocean freighters. Lakers older than 50 years are not unusual, and as of 2005, all were over 20 years of age.
The St. Mary's Challenger, built in 1906 as the William P Snyder, is the oldest laker still working on the Lakes. Similarly, the E.M. Ford, built in 1898 as the Presque Isle, was sailing the lakes 98 years later in 1996. As of 2007 the Ford was still afloat as a stationary transfer vessel at a riverside cement silo in Saginaw, Michigan.
For a ship to float, its weight must be less than that of the water displaced by the ship's hull. There are many types of hulls, from logs lashed together to form a raft to the advanced hulls of America's Cup sailboats. A vessel may have a single hull (called a monohull design), two in the case of catamarans, or three in the case of trimarans. Vessels with more than three hulls are rare, but some experiments have been conducted with designs such as pentamarans. Multiple hulls are generally parallel to each other and connected by rigid arms.
Hulls have several elements. The bow is the foremost part of the hull. Many ships feature a bulbous bow. The keel is at the very bottom of the hull, extending the entire length of the ship. The rear part of the hull is known as the stern, and many hulls have a flat back known as a transom. Common hull appendages include propellers for propulsion, rudders for steering, and stabilizers to quell a ship's rolling motion. Other hull features can be related to the vessel's work, such as fishing gear and sonar domes.
Hulls are subject to various hydrostatic and hydrodynamic constraints. The key hydrostatic constraint is that it must be able to support the entire weight of the boat, and maintain stability even with often unevenly distributed weight. Hydrodynamic constraints include the ability to withstand shock waves, weather collisions and groundings.
Older ships and pleasure craft often have or had wooden hulls. Steel is used for most commercial vessels. Aluminium is frequently used for fast vessels, and composite materials are often found in sailboats and pleasure craft. Some ships have been made with concrete hulls.
Propulsion systems for ships and boats vary from the simple paddle to the largest diesel engines in the world. These systems fall into three categories: human propulsion, sailing, and mechanical propulsion. Human propulsion includes the pole, still widely used in marshy areas, rowing which was used even on large galleys, and the pedals. In modern times, human propulsion is found mainly on small boats or as auxiliary propulsion on sailboats.
Propulsion by sail generally consists of a sail hoisted on an erect mast, supported by stays and spars and controlled by ropes. Sail systems were the dominant form of propulsion until the nineteenth century. They are now generally used for recreation and racing, although experimental sail systems, such as the kites/royals, turbosails, rotorsails, wingsails and SkySails's own kite buoy-system have been used on larger modern vessels for fuel savings.
Mechanical propulsion systems generally consist of a motor or engine turning a propeller. Steam engines were first used for this purpose, but have mostly been replaced by two-stroke or four-stroke diesel engines, outboard motors, and gas turbine engines on faster ships. Electric motors have sometimes been used, such as on submarines. Nuclear reactors are sometimes employed to propel warships and icebreakers.
There are many variations of propeller systems, including twin, contra-rotating, controllable-pitch, and nozzle-style propellers. Smaller vessels tend to have a single propeller. Aircraft carriers uses up to four propellers, supplemented with bow- and stern-thrusters. Power is transmitted from the engine to the propeller by way of a propeller shaft, which may or may not be connected to a gearbox.
Until the application of the steam engine to ships in the early 19th century, oars propelled galleys, or the wind propelled sailing ships. Before mechanisation, merchant ships always used sail, but as long as naval warfare depended on ships closing to ram or to fight hand-to-hand, galleys dominated in marine conflicts because of their maneuverability and speed. The Greek navies that fought in the Peloponnesian War used triremes, as did the Romans at the Battle of Actium. The use of large numbers of cannon from the 16th century meant that maneuverability took second place to broadside weight; this led to the dominance of the sail-powered warship.
The first commercial success accrued to Robert Fulton's North River Steamboat (often called Clermont) in the US in 1807, followed in Europe by the 45-foot Comet of 1812. Steam propulsion progressed considerably over the rest of the 19th century. Notable developments included the steam surface condenser, which eliminated the use of sea water in the ship's boilers. This permitted higher steam pressures, and thus the use of higher efficiency multiple expansion (compound) engines. As the means of transmitting the engine's power, paddle wheels gave way to more efficient screw propellers.
Steam turbines were fueled by coal or, later, fuel oil or nuclear power. The marine steam turbine developed by Sir Charles Algernon Parsons raised the power to weight ratio. He achieved publicity by demonstrating it unofficially in the 100-foot Turbinia at the Spithead naval review in 1897. This facilitated a generation of high-speed liners in the first half of the 20th century and rendered the reciprocating steam engine obsolete, first in warships and later in merchant vessels.
In the early 20th century, heavy fuel oil came into more general use and began to replace coal as the fuel of choice in steamships. Its great advantages were convenience, reduced manning due to removing the need for trimmers and stokers, and reduced space needed for fuel bunkers.
In the second half of the 20th century, rising fuel costs almost led to the demise of the steam turbine. Most new ships since around 1960 have been built with diesel engines. The last major passenger ship built with steam turbines was the Fairsky, launched in 1984. Similarly, many steam ships were re-engined to improve fuel efficiency. One high profile example was the 1968 built Queen Elizabeth 2 which had her steam turbines replaced with a diesel-electric propulsion plant in 1986.
Most new-build ships with steam turbines are specialist vessels such as nuclear-powered vessels, and certain merchant vessels (notably Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and coal carriers) where the cargo can be used as bunker fuel.
In these vessels, the reactor heats steam to drive the turbines. Partly due to concerns about safety and waste disposal, nuclear propulsion is rare except in specialist vessels. In large aircraft carriers, the space formerly used for ship's bunkerage could be used instead to bunker aviation fuel. In submarines, the ability to run submerged at high speed and in relative quiet for long periods holds obvious advantages. A few cruisers have also employed nuclear power; as of 2006, the only ones remaining in service are the Russian Kirov class. An example of a non-military ship with nuclear marine propulsion is the Arktika class icebreaker with 75,000 shaft horsepower. Commercial experiments such as the NS Savannah proved uneconomical compared with conventional propulsion.
About 99% of modern ships use diesel reciprocating engines. The rotating crankshaft can power the propeller directly for slow speed engines, via a gearbox for medium and high speed engines, or via an alternator and electric motor in diesel-electric vessels.
The reciprocating marine diesel engine first came into use in 1903 when the diesel electric rivertanker Vandal was put in service by Branobel. Diesel engines soon offered greater efficiency than the steam turbine, but for many years had an inferior power-to-space ratio.
Diesel engines today are broadly classified according to
Most modern larger merchant ships use either slow speed, two stroke, crosshead engines, or medium speed, four stroke, trunk engines. Some smaller vessels may use high speed diesel engines.
The size of the different types of engines is an important factor in selecting what will be installed in a new ship. Slow speed two-stroke engines are much taller, but the area needed, length and width, is smaller than that needed for four-stroke medium speed diesel engines. As space higher up in passenger ships and ferries is at a premium, these ships tend to use multiple medium speed engines resulting in a longer, lower engine room than that needed for two-stroke diesel engines. Multiple engine installations also give redundancy in the event of mechanical failure of one or more engines and greater efficiency over a wider range of operating conditions.
As modern ships' propellers are at their most efficient at the operating speed of most slow speed diesel engines, ships with these engines do not generally need gearboxes. Usually such propulsion systems consist of either one or two propeller shafts each with its own direct drive engine. Ships propelled by medium or high speed diesel engines may have one or two (sometimes more) propellers, commonly with one or more engines driving each propeller shaft through a gearbox. Where more than one engine is geared to a single shaft, each engine will most likely drive through a clutch, allowing engines not being used to be disconnected from the gearbox while others keep running. This arrangement lets maintenance be carried out while under way, even far from port.
On boats with simple propulsion systems, such as paddles, steering systems may not be necessary. In more advanced designs, such as boats propelled by engines or sails, a steering system becomes more necessary. The most common is a rudder, a submerged plane located at the rear of the hull. Rudders are rotated to generate a lateral force which turns the boat. Rudders can be rotated by a tiller, manual wheels, or electro-hydraulic systems. Autopilot systems combine mechanical rudders with navigation systems.
Some propulsion systems are inherently steering systems. Examples include the outboard motor, the bow thruster, and the Z-drive. Some sails, such as jibs and the mizzen sail on a ketch rig, are used more for steering than propulsion.
Superstructures are found above the main deck. On sailboats, these are usually very low. On modern cargo ships, they are almost always located near the ship's stern. On passenger ships and warships, the superstructure generally extends far forward.
Boats and ships are kept on (or slightly above) the water in three ways:
A vessel is in equilibrium when the upwards and downwards forces are of equal magnitude. As a vessel is lowered into the water its weight remains constant but the corresponding weight of water displaced by its hull increases. When the two forces are equal, the boat floats. If weight is evenly distributed throughout the vessel, it floats without trim or heel.
A vessel's stability is considered in both this hydrostatic sense as well as a hydrodynamic sense, when subjected to movement, rolling and pitching, and the action of waves and wind. Stability problems can lead to excessive pitching and rolling, and eventually capsizing and sinking.
The advance of a vessel through water is resisted by the water. This resistance can be broken down into several components, the main ones being the friction of the water on the hull and wave making resistance. To reduce resistance and therefore increase the speed for a given power, it is necessary to reduce the wetted surface and use submerged hull shapes that produce low amplitude waves. To do so, high-speed vessels are often more slender, with fewer or smaller appendages. The friction of the water is also reduced by regular maintenance of the hull to remove the sea creatures and algae that accumulate there. Antifouling paint is commonly used to assist in this. Advanced designs such as the bulbous bow assist in decreasing wave resistance.
A simple way of considering wave-making resistance is to look at the hull in relation to its wake. At speeds lower than the wave propagation speed, the wave rapidly dissipates to the sides. As the hull approaches the wave propagation speed, however, the wake at the bow begins to build up faster than it can dissipate, and so it grows in amplitude. Since the water is not able to "get out of the way of the hull fast enough", the hull, in essence, has to climb over or push through the bow wave. This results in an exponential increase in resistance with increasing speed.
This hull speed is found by the formula:
Or, in metric units:
When the vessel exceeds a speed/length ratio of 0.94, it starts to outrun most of its bow wave, and the hull actually settles slightly in the water as it is now only supported by two wave peaks. As the vessel exceeds a speed/length ratio of 1.34, the hull speed, the wavelength is now longer than the hull, and the stern is no longer supported by the wake, causing the stern to squat, and the bow rise. The hull is now starting to climb its own bow wave, and resistance begins to increase at a very high rate. While it is possible to drive a displacement hull faster than a speed/length ratio of 1.34, it is prohibitively expensive to do so. Most large vessels operate at speed/length ratios well below that level, at speed/length ratios of under 1.0.
For large projects with adequate funding, hydrodynamic resistance can be tested experimentally in a hull testing pool or using tools of computational fluid dynamics.
Vessels are also subject to ocean surface waves and sea swell as well as effects of wind and weather. These movements can be stressful for passengers and equipment, and must be controlled if possible. The rolling movement can be controlled, to an extent, by ballasting or by devices such as fin stabilizers. Pitching movement is more difficult to limit and can be dangerous if the bow submerges in the waves, a phenomenon called pounding. Sometimes, ships must change course or speed to stop violent rolling or pitching.
A vessel's design starts with a specification, which a naval architect uses to create a project outline, assess required dimensions, and create a basic layout of spaces and a rough displacement. After this initial rough draft, the architect can create an initial hull design, a general profile and an initial overview of the ship's propulsion. At this stage, the designer can iterate on the ship's design, adding detail and refining the design at each stage.
The designer will typically produce an overall plan, a general specification describing the peculiarities of the vessel, and construction blueprints to be used at the building site. Designs for larger or more complex vessels may also include sail plans, electrical schematics, and plumbing and ventilation plans.
Ship construction takes place in a shipyard, and can last from a few months for a unit produced in series, to several years to reconstruct a wooden boat like the frigate Hermione, to more than 10 years for an aircraft carrier. Hull materials and vessel size play a large part in determining the method of construction. The hull of a mass-produced fiberglass sailboat is constructed from a mold, while the steel hull of a cargo ship is made from large sections welded together as they are built.
Generally, construction starts with the hull, and on vessels over about 30 meters, by the laying of the keel. This is done in a drydock or on land. Once the hull is assembled and painted, it is launched. The last stages, such as raising the superstructure and adding equipment and accommodation, can be done after the vessel is afloat.
Once completed, the vessel is delivered to the customer. Ship launching is often a ceremony of some significance, and is usually when the vessel is formally named. A typical small rowboat can cost under US$100, $1,000 for a small speedboat, tens of thousands of dollars for a cruising sailboat, and about $2,000,000 for a Vendée Globe class sailboat. A trawler may cost $2.5 million, and a 1,000-person-capacity high-speed passenger ferry can cost in the neighborhood of $50 million. A ship's cost partly depends on its complexity: a small, general cargo ship will cost $20 million, a Panamax-sized bulk carrier around $35 million, a supertanker around $105 million and a large LNG carrier nearly $200 million. The most expensive ships generally are so due to the cost of embedded electronics: a Seawolf class submarine costs around $2 billion, and an aircraft carrier goes for about $3.5 billion.
Most ships, however, require trips to special facilities such as a drydock at regular intervals. Tasks often done at drydock include removing biological growths on the hull, sandblasting and repainting the hull, and replacing sacrificial anodes used to protect submerged equipment from corrosion. Major repairs to the propulsion and steering systems as well as major electrical systems are also often performed at dry dock.
Vessels that sustain major damage at sea may be repaired at a facility equipped for major repairs, such as a shipyard. Ships may also be converted for a new purpose: oil tankers are often converted into floating production storage and offloading units.
Most ocean-going cargo ships have a life expectancy of between 20 and 30 years. A sailboat made of plywood or fiberglass can last between 30 and 40 years. Solid wooden ships can last much longer but require regular maintenance. Carefully maintained steel-hulled yachts can have a lifespan of over 100 years.
As ships age, forces such as corrosion, osmosis, and rotting compromise hull strength, and a vessel becomes too dangerous to sail. At this point, it can be scuttled at sea or scrapped by shipbreakers. Ships can also be used as museum ships, or expended to construct breakwaters or artificial reefs.
Many ships do not make it to the scrapyard, and are lost in fires, collisions, grounding, or sinking at sea.
In Britain until Samuel Plimsoll's Merchant Shipping Act of 1876, ship-owners could load their vessels until their decks were almost awash, resulting in a dangerously unstable condition. Anyone who signed on to such a ship for a voyage and, upon realizing the danger, chose to leave the ship, could end up in jail. Plimsoll, a Member of Parliament, realised the problem and engaged some engineers to derive a fairly simple formula to determine the position of a line on the side of any specific ship's hull which, when it reached the surface of the water during loading of cargo, meant the ship had reached its maximum safe loading level. To this day, that mark, called the "Plimsoll Line", exists on ships' sides, and consists of a circle with a horizontal line through the centre. On the Great Lakes of North America the circle is replaced with a diamond. Because different types of water (summer, fresh, tropical fresh, winter north Atlantic) have different densities, subsequent regulations required painting a group of lines forward of the Plimsoll mark to indicate the safe depth (or freeboard above the surface) to which a specific ship could load in water of various densities. Hence the "ladder" of lines seen forward of the Plimsoll mark to this day. This is called the "freeboard mark" or "load line mark" in the marine industry.
Oil spills have devastating effects on the environment. Crude oil contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are very difficult to clean up, and last for years in the sediment and marine environment. Marine species constantly exposed to PAHs can exhibit developmental problems, susceptibility to disease, and abnormal reproductive cycles.
By the sheer amount of oil carried, modern oil tankers must be considered something of a threat to the environment. An oil tanker can carry of crude oil, or 62,000,000 gallons. This is more than six times the amount spilled in the widely known Exxon Valdez incident. In this spill, the ship ran aground and dumped 10.8 million gallons of oil into the ocean in March of 1989. Despite efforts of scientists, managers, and volunteers, over 400,000 seabirds, about 1,000 sea otters, and immense numbers of fish were killed.
The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation has researched 9,351 accidental spills since 1974. According to this study, most spills result from routine operations such as loading cargo, discharging cargo, and taking on fuel oil. 91% of the operational oil spills were small, resulting in less than 7 tons per spill. Spills resulting from accidents like collisions, groundings, hull failures, and explosions are much larger, with 84% of these involving losses of over 700 tons.
Following the Exxon Valdez spill, the United States passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA-90), which included a stipulation that all tankers entering its waters be double-hulled by 2015. Following the sinkings of the Erika (1999) and Prestige (2002), the European Union passed its own stringent anti-pollution packages (known as Erika I, II, and III), which require all tankers entering its waters to be double-hulled by 2010. The Erika packages are controversial because they introduced the new legal concept of "serious negligence".
When a large vessel such as a container ship or an oil tanker unloads cargo, sea-water is pumped into compartments in the hull to help stabilize and balance the ship. During loading, this ballast water is pumped out from these compartments.
One of the problems with ballast water transfer is the transport of harmful organisms. Meinesz believes that one of the worst cases of a single invasive species causing harm to an ecosystem can be attributed to a seemingly harmless jellyfish. Mnemiopsis leidyi, a species of comb jellyfish that inhabits estuaries from the United States to the Valdés peninsula in Argentina along the Atlantic coast, has caused notable damage in the Black Sea. It was first introduced in 1982, and thought to have been transported to the Black Sea in a ship’s ballast water. The population of the jellyfish shot up exponentially and, by 1988, it was wreaking havoc upon the local fishing industry. "The anchovy catch fell from 204,000 tons in 1984 to 200 tons in 1993; sprat from 24,600 tons in 1984 to 12,000 tons in 1993; horse mackerel from 4,000 tons in 1984 to zero in 1993." Now that the jellyfish have exhausted the zooplankton, including fish larvae, their numbers have fallen dramatically, yet they continue to maintain a stranglehold on the ecosystem. Recently the jellyfish have been discovered in the Caspian Sea. Invasive species can take over once occupied areas, facilitate the spread of new diseases, introduce new genetic material, alter landscapes and jeopardize the ability of native species to obtain food. "On land and in the sea, invasive species are responsible for about 137 billion dollars in lost revenue and management costs in the U.S. each year."
Ballast and bilge discharge from ships can also spread human pathogens and other harmful diseases and toxins potentially causing health issues for humans and marine life alike. Discharges into coastal waters, along with other sources of marine pollution, have the potential to be toxic to marine plants, animals, and microorganisms, causing alterations such as changes in growth, disruption of hormone cycles, birth defects, suppression of the immune system, and disorders resulting in cancer, tumors, and genetic abnormalities or even death.