What is a Jolly Boat?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2019
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A jolly boat is a small, lightweight boat carried by a ship. The basic design of the jolly boat has also been used to make boats which are used independently of a ship for general work, and in some regions of the world, modified designs are even used for activities like racing. Jolly boats come in a range of shapes and sizes, and can be powered with various methods.

As ships grew larger, the need for ship's boats emerged. A ship's boat is small and light, designed to be launched from a ship and used as a method of communication between ship and land, or from ship to ship. Ships themselves often had trouble getting close to shore in regions without harbors, while ship to ship communication could be facilitated with a ship's boat which allowed ships to hold a safe distance from each other. Ship's boats were also used in a military context for boarding, on early factory ships in which people used ship's boats for fishing and brought their catch back to the ship at the end of the day, and for emergency evacuation of ships.


The jolly boat is one of the smallest designs of ship's boat. Usually clinker built, it was classically powered with oars, although some versions could be poled or sailed, and modern jolly boats may use a small engine. The boat was not designed for comfort or long trips, having only basic amenities such as benches. The shallow draft of the jolly boat allowed sailors to bring the boat on inland rivers in addition to bringing people and goods ashore.

Typically, a jolly boat would be stored on davits, so that it could be easily deployed when needed and tucked out of the way when it wasn't. Some ships towed their jolly boats, or kept the boat in storage elsewhere on deck. Large ships had a range of ship's boats to choose from, with the jolly boat being used when a small boat would do the job.

The lightweight design of the jolly boat makes it easy to handle and often highly maneuverable. These traits led a number of people to adopt the jolly boat for inshore sailing and lightweight general activities, including recreation and sporting events with boats. A number of manufacturers continue to produce jolly boats today, both designed for use on ships and as standalone boats utilized in transport, recreation, and activities like fishing.


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