Maritime FAQs

by Capt. John Doswell

How can I get a ride on a tugboat?

It's not easy. It's basically impossible on a commercial working tug due to insurance and other factors.
There are some historic tugs that occasionally offer free rides, usually in conjunction with an historic ship festival (see the North River Historic Ship Society).

What's the difference between allision and collision?

A collision is when two objects strike each other, as when two ships passing make a misjudgment and one strikes another. An allision is similar, but refers to a collision where one of the two objects is stationary. The term is generally used in a nautical context. If a ship or boat strikes against a bridge abutment, this is called an allision.

What’s the difference between littoral and riparian?

Both refer to the waters adjacent to a shoreline. But “littoral” generally refers to a coastal area of the ocean or a sea, and may more specifically refer to the water areas between the limits of high and low tides. “Riparian” refers to the banks of a river, stream or small lake. The term “riparian rights” refers to the access rights by water allotted to the owner of waterfront property. It is presumed in law that if you own waterfront property, you have the right to access that property via water.

What’s the difference between flotsam and jetsam?

Both terms refer to floating debris, and might, therefore, be considered synonyms. However, technically “flotsam” (also known as “floatsam” or “flotson”) refers to the floating remains after a ship has foundered (or sunk), or cargo that was washed overboard by a storm, like wood items, furniture, life rings and so forth. Items that have been deliberately jettisoned (thrown overboard) from a ship, usually a ship in distress, are called “jetsam”. A ship in danger of sinking might jettison some cargo or other items to lighten the ship. In other words, “jetsam” is deliberate whereas “flotsam” is accidental.

What’s the difference between a boat and a ship?

There is no precise distinction between a boat and a ship. It’s more a matter of custom and usage. Size also matters, but size alone can be confusing. Back in the middle of the last millennium, ships were generally quite small, often under 100 feet, and would today be smaller than many boats. One definition asserts that “a ship can carry a boat but a boat cannot carry a ship”. But even that doesn’t work: today's large freighters could easily carry several dozen Santa Marias or Mayflowers on their decks. Following are a few other many rules of thumb, which will serve to confuse the issue even more:

In the US Navy, all submarines are called boats, regardless of size, except for Trident and Polaris class submarines, which are called ships. Lightships are ships but fireboats are boats. Have you ever heard of a fireship? Tugboats are also boats. Police boats and work boats are all boats. In fact, most boats are boats.

Sailboats (except tall ships) are boats. Most tall ships are ships, except for smaller ones, of course. Therefore, tall ships are simply large sail boats, except when they are not larger. Kayaks, gigs, canoes and skiffs are all boats, certainly not ships.

Barges are neither boats nor ships: they are barges. Except, of course,for a captain's barge or an admiral's barge, which are both small motorboats.

The word “ship” also refers to a type of tall ship which carries three or more masts, all fitted with square sails. Other types of tall ship include bark, barkentine, brig, brigantine, and schooner, to name a few.

The rule of thumb is, basically, if she looks like a ship, she is a ship.

What are three different ways that a tug can tow a barge or vessel?

On the hipWhether it’s a single barge, a group of barges made up as a single unit, or a vessel, when being moved by a tugboat, it’s called the “tow” (singular). A tug can move a tow in one of three different ways:

Astern - The tug pulls the tow via a tow line from the stern of the tug. This is common for ocean towing but less used in confined harbors as it may be difficult to keep the tow from swinging side to side.

Pushing - The tug ties off behind the tow, and pushes it forward. This provides a greater deal of control compared to towing astern.

Alongside (on the hip) – The tug ties up alongside the tow, typically aft of the midpoint of the tow. This method also provides a good deal of control.

What is a twenty-foot-equivalent unit (TEU)?

Containerships carry goods in metal boxes called containers, which are loaded and sealed at the factory or source, picked up by truck or rail to a shipping port, and transferred to a container ship. At the receiving end, the process is reversed.

Typical containers are about 8’ x 8’ x 40’. This approximates the size of the trailer of a standard tractor-trailer rig on the highway. However some containers are 20’ in length and occasionally containers can be 50’. But 40’ is the most common length, followed by 20’.

The container industry measures the capacity of a ship in TEUs, or twenty-foot-equivalent units. A 20’ container equals 1 TEU. The common 40’container equals 2 TEUs. So a ship with a capacity of 4,000 TEUs could carry (a) 4,000 20’ containers (b) 2,000 40’ containers or (c) any combination that adds up to 4,000 TEUs.

An average size container ship in New York Harbor is around 3,000 to 4,000 TEUs, but new container ships are being built with capacities of over 10,000 TEUs.

A 5,000 TEU container ship coming into New York Harbor carries the equivalent of 2,500 tractor-trailer rigs, which is why shipping is, by far, the “greenest” way to transport cargo of any method, being several times greener than either rail or truck.

What’s the difference between a lighthouse and a lightship?

A light house is a structure with a tower to house a light used as an aid to navigation. Before electricity, and even for some time after, lighthouses required a crew to operate the light, and thus, a lighthouse included living quarters. Today all lighthouses are automated.

A light ship is a floating light house, used to mark a shoal or bar where it was impractical to build a conventional lighthouse.  Light ships required large crews and were expensive to maintain. In New York, Frying Pan, at Pier 63 Maritime, and Ambrose at the South Street Seaport, are light ships.  None are in service today and only about 15 former lightships remain afloat, having all been replaced with automated lights on towers

What is a Yokahama and what is a camel?

A Yokahama is a large pneumatic rubber fender used to protect the sides of a ship or large boat from damage while alongside a pier or other vessel. This type of fender was invented by the Yokohama Rubber Co., Ltd. but the term is now often used generically.

A camel is wooden floating fender used to separate a large vessel from a pier or dock (the same purpose as a Yokahama). New piers today will typically be equipped with Yokahama-type fenders rather than camels.

Also (originally), camels were large hollow vessels that were partially sunk, tied along both sides of a ship, and then pumped out to raise the ship so that she could clear an area of shallow water.

What is the difference between a barque and a barquentine?

A barque (bark) had three or more masts, square-rigged on all but the aft (mizzen) mast, whereas a barquentine (barkentine) is square-rigged on the forward mast only.

What is a tall ship?

The term is commonly used to refer to a large boat or ship propelled by sails. Generally, but not always, tall ships will carry one or more traditional “square” sails. Types include:

Where did the terms port and starboard come from?

Port refers to the left hand side of a vessel as you face forward and starboard refers to the right hand side. Before the rudder was invented (by the Chinese), boats and ships were steered by means of a steering board. Since most people are right handed, it was customary to mount the steering board on the right hand side of the ship. This, the right hand side became know as the "steering board" side, which was eventually shortened to "starboard" side, and this term is still in use today.

To prevent damage to the steering board side, it became customary to tie up vessels with the side opposite the steering board to the pier or quay. This side was called the "loading board" side, eventually shortened to "larboard" side. But since "larboard" sounded too much like "starboard", sailors simply called it the "port" side, since it was usually the side nearest the port.

What commodities do we (in New York Harbor) import and export by ship?

Just about everything comes in by ship from TVs’ and iPods, to road salt, from orange juice & beer, to clothing, from automobiles, to sneakers to furniture, and on and on and on. However, our exports are dominated by (1) scrap steel and (2) waste-paper and cardboard.

What’s the difference between a dry dock and a graving dock?

A dry dock usually refers to a a floating, but submersible, barge with tall high hollow sides and open ends, that can be partially sunk to allow a vessel to float over the deck of the barge, subsequently to be raised by pumping out the dry dock until the surface of the barge clears the water, and the vessel is high and dry.

A graving dock is a type of dry dock that is a large pit in the ground, separated from a waterway by a floating or hinged gate. Once a ship enters a graving dock, the gate is shut, and all water pumped out, leaving the vessel dry so that its bottom can be worked on. To re-float the vessel, the pit is simply flooded until the water level matches that on the other side of the gate, and the gate is opened or removed.

What is the actual name of the Statue of Liberty?

The actual name is “Liberty Enlightening the World.”  The statue was completed 28 October, 1886 and is 151' tall. Its interior structure is steel, but the statue's exterior is made from copper. The statue was a gift from the people of France.

When did Ellis Island close?

It opened on 1 January 1892 and closed in 1954. In that period, it processed over 12 million immigrants. The main building was restored and opened as a museum on 10 September 1990. Over 40 percent of America 's population can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island.

Why was the Bayonne Bridge going to be a problem?

Its height was 150+ feet clearance but new container ships are being built that are much taller, especially after 2015 when the third, and larger, set of locks open in the Panama Canal. See What does ‘post-Panamax’ mean? This would have seriously affected the huge ports in Newark Bay and cost millions in lost jobs and economic activity. Instead, the Port Authority of NY/NJ jacked the existing bridge up to 215’ clearance.

What does "post-Panamax" mean?

A "Panamax" ship is the largest size ship that can pass through the Panama Canal. This is currently 1,050' long by 110' wide with a draft (depth) of 41'. Any ship larger is called "post-Panamax".

However, a new set of locks under construction will allow larger ships to pass through--up to 1,400' long by 180' wide, with a drafts up to 60'. These will be called "Panamax II" ships and the term "post-Panamax" will eventually refer to ships larger than Panamax II.

The arrival of these much larger ships expected in NY Harbor after 2015 would have created air-draft (vertical clearance problems) with the existing Bayonne Bridge. (See Why was the Bayonne Bridge a problem?)

Where are fireworks barges loaded?

Most fireworks in NY Harbor take place on barges from Hughes Brothers located in Erie Basin. After loading, these flat top barges will be towed to the viewing location by tugs. Another barge, know as a buffer barge, will be placed between the tug and the fireworks barge.

Which are the nation's and the world's busiest container ship ports?

The Port of New York and New Jersey is the third largest port in the U.S., as measured by the number of shipping containers that are unloaded each year. The largest in the nation is Los Angeles , and the second largest is Long Beach, California. However container ports in Singapore, Rotterdam and many other places are much larger yet. Here are some comparisons (all based on 2008 numbers in thousands of TEUs). See What is a twenty-foot-equivalent unit (TEU)?

Numbers based on thousands of TEUs
Singapore  29,918
Shanghai, China 27,980
Hong Kong 24,248
Shenzhen, China 21,414
Busan, South Korea 13,425
Dubai, United Arab Emirates 11,827
Ningbo, China 11,226
Guangzhou, China 11,001
Rotterdam, Netherlands 10,784
Qingdao, China 10,320
Hamburg, Germany 9,737
Kaohsiung, Taiwan 9,677
Antwerp, Belgium 8,663
Tianjin, China 8,500
Port Klang, Malaysia 7,970
Los Angeles, USA 7,850
Long Beach, USA 6,350
Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia 5,600
Bremen/Bremerhaven, Germany 5,529
New York/New Jersey, USA 5,265

What is the "Teardrop" Memorial?

The "Teardrop" memorial is a striking 9/11 monument donated by Russia as a "gift of solidarity in the war on terror" (President Bill Clinton). The monument was designed by Zurab Tsereteli and was dedicated on 11 September, 2006. This beautiful sculpture can only be appreciated from the water, such as on WHC's Hidden Harbor Tours®.