The simple task of transporting passengers and sometimes cargo across a body of water may not seem all that remarkable, but it’s something that dates back centuries. There are various writings and published works since ancient times that suggest that the boatman’s profession was a crucial aspect in the formation of cultures and civilizations.

Today, ferries remain an essential means of transportation around the world. In many riverside cities and destinations, these boats are part of the public transportation system and provide the means to travel over water without the use of a bridge or tunnel.

Furthermore, ferries are also common in larger seas or oceans, connecting countries and even continents. Although the manufacture and construction of these colossal ships is amazing, each and every component, no matter how small, can be crucial. So we like to think that our range of high-quality products, from BSP adapters to NPT fittings, might come in handy.

But what is the history of the ferry? How many different types of boats are there? And what are the largest ferries and busiest routes in the world?

shuttle history

In Greek mythology, Charon was the ferryman of Hades, ferrying newly deceased souls across the rivers Styx and Acheron, which separated the worlds of the living and the dead. However, he still had to pay Charon a fee, usually a coin placed in or on a dead person’s mouth. In the days before steam and diesel, this boatman’s chosen method of propulsion was a long pole held in his right hand, while he greeted the deceased with his left.

In Anonymus De Rebus Bellicis, a piece of Roman literature from the 4th century, it is speculated that a team of oxen once powered a ferry. In theory, this principle could work, especially when you consider Kevin J. Crimson’s book When Horses Walked on Water: Horse-Powered Ferries in Nineteenth-Century America.

But it is said that the first steam ferry was the Juliana, invented by John Stevens. It began operating on October 11, 1811 between New York City and Hoboken, New Jersey. However, with the advent of diesel engines in the 20th century, steam ferries have become a rarity and are reserved for special occasions or tourist routes.

While most modern ferries still use diesel as their primary fuel source, the shipping industry is constantly looking for cleaner alternatives that don’t do as much damage to the environment. Studies have found that ships running on liquefied natural gas are slightly more efficient, while electric and hybrid alternatives have also been developed in recent years.

Types of modern ferry

Even though there are several different types of ferry in operation today, each tends to share certain characteristics. However, route length, passenger or vehicle capacity, speed restrictions or requirements, and weather conditions will determine which ferry is used in a particular location.

double tip

The front and rear of this type of ferry, known as the bow and stern, are interchangeable. Therefore, they can travel back and forth between two ports of call without turning around. While this saves a great deal of time, it is sometimes absolutely necessary due to the size and area restrictions of certain terminals.

Famous double-ended ships include the Staten Island Ferry, the Washing State Ferries, the Star Ferry, and numerous ships in the North Carolina Ferry System and the Lake Champlain Transportation Company. There are also double-ended ferries in operation in the Norwegian Fjords, British Columbia, and Sydney, Australia.


Although hydrofoil ferries may seem like a pretty advanced concept, the prototypes date back more than 100 years. Essentially, a hydrofoil is a boat that initially floats on the surface, but as speed increases, the hull rises out of the water, decreasing drag and allowing higher speeds. The benefit of this type of vessel is that passengers can be transported quickly and fuel costs minimized. For this reason, they are common in the English Channel and compete with the Eurostar trains that circulate through the tunnel.

However, they also have their drawbacks. Due to their technically complex nature, they are expensive to build and require ongoing maintenance. In addition, the sharp edges of a hydrofoil found in the water during operation can also injure or kill marine mammals such as whales.


The development of the modern hovercraft is typically attributed to British mechanical engineer Sir Christopher Cockerell. In the 1950s, he developed a sea vehicle that used blowers to produce a large volume of air under the hull. The difference in air pressure above and below the hull generates lift and allows a hovercraft to float on the surface of the water.

Due to their adaptability and cost effectiveness, they soon became a commercial success, favorably throughout the UK and the English Channel. Before long, hovercrafts were also adopted by the military and were even used for recreational purposes.

But like hydrofoils, they require a large amount of maintenance and can be susceptible to damage from harsh weather conditions. On top of that, hovercraft are limited to a certain payload and their sea-keeping ability depends on size.


These ferries feature two parallel hulls of equal size, which are geometrically stabilized. Due to its lightweight nature, thin hulls that reduce drag, and unballasted keel, a catamaran has a shallow draft and can travel at high speeds. They also lean much less than a monocoque, allowing for more comfortable and efficient sailing.

Traditionally they relied on the wind for power and their sails would shed less than alternatives. But today’s catamaran ferries combine the features of a motor yacht with the features of a multihull.

Due to their myriad advantages, catamarans are the ferry of choice for various high-speed services. They can replicate the speeds of a hydrofoil without suffering the effects of strong waves or dirty water.


Primarily used to transport wheeled cargo such as cars, trucks, and trailers, loading and unloading boats have built-in ramps that allow vehicles to start off effortlessly. When the ship reaches its destination, the cargo can just as easily exit the other end.

In the past, vehicles had to be specially prepared before being hoisted into a ship’s hold, which was a costly and time-consuming exercise. In addition to that, the cargo was also damaged. But in 1849, Thomas Bouch came up with the idea of ​​a train ferry with an efficient loading and unloading mechanism to maximize efficiency.

While these were used extensively in World War I, purpose-built landing ships capable of carrying military vehicles were developed for World War II. Today, they are still widely used for commercial and passenger purposes.

cruise ship

A combination of a cruise ship and a ‘Ro-Pax ferry’, this type of vessel is often used by tourists on seaside vacations or simply as a means of transportation. They are like a cruise ship in that they have many facilities on board, such as restaurants, bars, and even entertainment or accommodation. RoPax ferries are those with a large garage entrance and substantial passenger capacity.

Cruise ferries are often found throughout Europe in the Baltic Sea, North Sea, Irish Sea, English Channel and Mediterranean. However, they also operate between China and Australia.

pontoon ferry

They are not the most advanced or modern ships in the western world, but pontoon ferries are widely used in less developed countries. Due to their inexpensive yet versatile nature, pontoon ferries are often used to transport people and vehicles across large rivers or lakes where the cost of a bridge is too high.

The most common pontoon ferries borrow design ideas from a catamaran. But instead of featuring two narrow hulls, they usually have pontoons on either side of the deck or raft. Ramps will be installed on both sides of the vessel to increase the efficiency of passengers and vehicles boarding and alighting.

cable ferry

Also known as a chain ferry, swing ferry, floating bridge, or raft, this type of vessel is guided and often propelled through the water by cables attached to both shores. Traditionally, steel ropes or chains were used, but in the late 19th century, stronger and more durable wire cable became common.

A jet ferry uses the force of the river to turn through the current, while a motorized ferry has a motor or electric motor to move on its own. The gears or drums on board pull the boat, but the cables or chains have quite a bit of slack as they have to sink below the surface and allow the boat to pass.

There are also fast-disappearing manual ferries, such as the Stratford-upon-Avon Chain Ferry in the UK and the Saugatuck Chain Ferry in Michigan, USA.

Facts and figures of the modern ferry

The world’s largest car ferry in service: the MS Ulysses, operated by Irish Ferries between Ireland and Wales. Launched in March 2011, this ship is 12 decks high, but six are designed specifically for vehicles. In total, the Ulysses can carry 1,342 cars and 240 trucks.

The world’s largest passenger ferry in service: Stena Hollandica and Britannica, operated by Stena Line between the Netherlands and Great Britain. This ship has 1,376 beds, 538 cabins, an onboard cinema, lounge, bar, buffet and a la carte restaurants, a sun terrace and free Wi-Fi throughout the hotel.

The world’s fastest car ferry in service: the Luciano Federico L, operated by Buquebus between Montevideo, Uruguay and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Capable of reaching a maximum sea trial speed of 60.2 knots, it holds a Guinness World Record. The ship can also carry 450 passengers and 52 cars along this 110-nautical-mile route.

The oldest ferry service in continuous operation: the Mersey Ferry between Liverpool and Birkenhead or the Rocky Hill Ferry to Glastonbury. This is a controversial record, as a couple of different ferries claim to be the oldest service still running today. In 1150, the monks of the Benedictine convent at Birkenhead used to charge a small fee for rowing passengers across the Mersey Estuary. However, there may have been a break in service following the dissolution of the monasteries. The ferry between Rocky Hill and Glastonbury, Connecticut, which has been running since 1655, only stops running when winter freezes over.

The world’s largest ferry system: On the west coast of Scotland, Caledonian MacBrayne operates a fleet of 29 vessels, calling at 50 different ports. Elsewhere in the world, BC Ferries in British Columbia has 36 ships visiting 47 terminals, while Washington State Ferries has 28 ships, going to 20 destinations around Puget Sound.

Although jumbo jets and high-speed trains have replaced ferry routes in some areas, they remain an incredibly important and crucial means of transportation for millions of people around the world. The most modern ships are also incredibly fast, highly efficient and can carry dozens of passengers in comfort and style.


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