What is a Ferry?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A ferry is a boat that is designed to move people from one point to another. In cities located on large bodies of water, or areas with a large number of rivers and canals, ferries form an important part of the transportation system. In addition to being used by people and their cars, they are also utilized by shipping trucks and trains, and used to load and transport materials in bulk. A number of different designs accommodate different uses.

U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats are used to ferry harbor pilots out to ships in sensitive or restricted waterways.
U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats are used to ferry harbor pilots out to ships in sensitive or restricted waterways.

The term has been in use since at least the 1400s, and is related to an older Germanic word. Before bridges became widespread, a ferry would have been the only way to cross most bodies of water. Typically, the operator lived by the water, so that travelers could have rapid access to the services of the ferry. They ranged in size from small rowboats to much larger boats that could potentially hold horses and supplies as well as people.

Ferries may transport people to and from islands that are close to the mainland.
Ferries may transport people to and from islands that are close to the mainland.

In general, a modern ferry runs on a regular schedule, allowing people to plan trips around it. In population dense areas, the service may be very frequent, to accommodate large numbers of people. The most basic type of ferry just holds people, usually providing minimal amenities because the trip is short. When the boat arrives at the other end, the people can disburse onto other forms of public transit such as buses or trains. In many parts of the world, people use ferries to avoid commute traffic.

Other ferries also hold personal vehicles. Many of these ply locations such as the English Channel, carrying people back and forth between the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. In some cases, people stay in their cars on the ferry, while on longer trips, people find seating in the boat. It can also be used to load entire freight trains or shipping trucks, allowing companies to quickly move goods along major waterways.

Many different designs are used for ferries, depending on how they will be utilized. For longer trips, the design may include a cafe and other amenities to keep travelers entertained. Freight ferries tend to be rather utilitarian in design and appearance, while some passenger ships are sleek and decorative. Many passenger ferries take the form of high speed catamarans that can quickly get people where they need to go. In many cases, a ferry is built with a double ended design, meaning that either end can face forward while sailing, which saves time at docking and departure since the boat does not have to be repositioned.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@shell4life – It is a bit strange the first time that you drive your car onto a boat. I took a long ferry ride from the coast to an island once, and I parked my car on the deck and went inside.

This ferry had a lot going on inside. There was a cafe, a fine dining restaurant, a coffee shop, and a gift shop. So, if a person didn't want to spend a lot on a meal, he or she could eat at the cafe or grab a pastry at the coffee shop instead.

It was pretty neat to have all that available to me on a boat. I almost didn't want to get off when we reached our destination!


I imagine ferry travel would be a great way to avoid traffic jams on the highway. I doubt that there are too many other ferries out on the water at once to interfere with each other's courses!

I don't live anywhere near a big body of water, so I've never had the opportunity to choose this mode of commute. I think that if it were an option, I would definitely try it at least once. I hate getting stuck in traffic on my way to work!


There is a historic ferry crossing site on the Duck River along the Natchez Trace. I often drive up the Trace on my way to Nashville from Mississippi, and I have walked out to this site before.

Back centuries ago, the ferry was the only way that people could cross this river. They traveled back and forth up and down the Trace to do trading, so the ferry was an essential part of their journey.

The ferry is no longer in operation, but it is pretty neat to walk out there to the area where it once carted people across so that they could complete their journeys. The river isn't terribly wide there, but it is wide enough and deep enough to have deterred people from attempting to wade through it.


I once rode a ferry to Dauphin Island, Alabama. I had gone on vacation with my best friend and her dad, and I was surprised to learn that we would be taking the car across the water with us.

Her dad just drove right up onto the ferry and parked amongst all the other cars. Once it started to move, we got out so that we could get a better view.

The ride was pretty short, but it was fascinating. I had no idea that a ferry trip was going to be part of my journey, and now I can say that I've ridden one before.

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