What is a Drydock?

Mary McMahon

A drydock is a structure used in the construction, maintenance, and repair of ships and boats. It is built in such a way that it can be filled with water to allow a vessel to sail in, and then drained, leaving the entire body of the vessel exposed so that it can be worked on. Most ship yards have at least one drydock, and some are extremely large to accommodate massive ships in need of repair work. A skilled team of ship builders and repair people work on the vessel while it is drydocked, and then flood the area so that it can return to the open water and active use.

Man with a backpack
Man with a backpack

There are two common types of drydock. The first has been used since antiquity, with writing from both Ancient Greece and Egypt suggesting that those of this type were in active use. The area is connected to a harbor or body of water with the use of gates or caissons to separate the main body of water from the structure. The earth in the area is dug out and supported so that it will not collapse, and the bottom is lined. The drydock is flooded to allow a ship to sail in, and then drained with the use of pumps.

The second type, a floating drydock, has also been used for hundreds of years in various forms. It has a series of chambers that can be filled with water to sink it, or drained and filled with air to lift the drydock, along with a ship that has been positioned inside. This type of structure can be used in the open ocean for emergency repairs, and also sailed to locations around the world, making them highly flexible and useful repair tools.

Positioning of a ship in drydock is crucial. Blocks must be aligned along the bottom, or keel, of the ship to support it, and others are placed along the sides to prevent the ship from listing in one direction or another. The crew works with blueprints to ensure that the weight of the ship will be supported without causing undue stress to the hull, and divers are often used to perfectly position the ship while the drydock is being drained. Once the ship has been positioned and the area drained, work can begin. Some drydocks are also covered, to allow for work in all weathers, and to create a secure area to work on confidential ships, such as submarines.

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Discussion Comments


I had no idea that they made dry docks that could be brought out to sea to repair ships.

It does seem amazing too that they had these kind of dry docks that could be floated and used almost anywhere in existence many hundreds of years ago.

It seems like the dry docks haven't changed much since the dry docks of ancient times.


I grew up next to a huge shipyard that worked on cruise ships and other huge sea fairing vessels. Predictably, they had a huge dry dock. It was a series of locks and canals that went from the ocean into their dry dock. I was able to see the transfer from sea to land a few times and you would not believe what a massive process it is.

They must use a couple of million gallons of water to make the voyage from sea to land. There are huge gates that hold the water in the various locks and the water is pumped out into the ocean in a huge rush. Watching it as a kid it seemed like an act of God because everything was so huge and powerful.


My dad has a pretty nice sail boat that he sails around the coast of Maine and Canada. In the winters he stores it in a dry dock because the cold weather does so much to wear the boat down.

He has had the boat for almost 20 years now. He told me once that if he didn't drydock it would have been useless in less than 10 years. It is expensive to do but it has done so much to add to the life of his boat. And thank God for that. My Dad is never happier than when he is sailing.

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