English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

The captain of a ferry appears to steer or drive it. What is the correct verb for this?

share|improve this question
up vote 9 down vote accepted

Captain is a verb; and pilot is a possibility too, although that has a specific meaning with regard to ships [a shipping pilot is usually someone who is locally skilled and will successfully negotiate hazards around a harbour].

verb [with object]
be the captain of (a ship, aircraft, or sports team):
   all the boats are captained by professional sailors
the person in command of a ship

pilot verb (pilots, piloting, piloted)
[with object]
be the pilot of (an aircraft or ship):
   he piloted the helicopter from Paris to Deauville
a person who operates the flying controls of an aircraft


A captain (as well as captaining) navigates (guides it over its route):

navigate verb
2 [with object] sail or travel over (a stretch of water or terrain), especially carefully or with difficulty:
   ships had been lost while navigating the narrows
   the drivers skilfully navigated a muddy course
  • [no object] (of a ship or boat) sail; proceed:
      [with adverbial of direction]:
      we sailed out while navigating around large icebergs
  • guide (a vessel or vehicle) over a specified route or terrain:
      she navigated the car safely through the traffic


share|improve this answer
A ferrier is the guy in command of a ferry, perhaps more commonly called a ferryman — who is not to be confused with a farrier (from Old French ferrier), who puts iron shoes on horses. – tchrist Jul 5 '13 at 16:03
@tchrist Or with a furrier – hunter2 Jul 12 '13 at 3:43

In addition to the other answer's "captain", I would add "helm" to refer specifically to the person and act of operating the steering controls - a captain may be moving around the bridge for a better view, giving instructions to the helm.

share|improve this answer
If by a ferry the OP means mean something like a modern car ferry, then yes there are at least three roles: a captain who is responsible for the ship (in that sense the driver, if it crashes it's the captain's fault); (at least in complex waters) a pilot who is an expert in the sea of that area who may suggest to the captain "such-and-such a bearing" (and a captain is usually well to agree); and a helmsman who holds the wheel. If you mean an old chain ferry across a river or the ferry across the Styx, the guy is the ferryman. – Dan Sheppard Sep 16 '14 at 1:41

While I agree with the other answers, there is nothing wrong with steering a ferry. At least, it sounds right to me and the Free Dictionary seems to agree with me (emphasis mine):

v. steered, steer·ing, steers v.tr.

  1. To guide by means of a device such as a rudder, paddle, or wheel.
  2. a. To direct the course of. See Synonyms at conduct.
    b. To maneuver (a person) into a place or course of action. See Synonyms at guide. v.intr.
  3. To guide a vessel or vehicle.
  4. To follow or move in a set course.
  5. To admit of being steered or guided: a craft that steers easily.

The word's etymology also supports nautical usage (emphasis mine):

steer (v.)
"guide the course of a vehicle," Old English steran (Mercian), stieran (West Saxon), from Proto-Germanic *steurijanan (cf. Old Norse styra, Old Frisian stiora, Dutch sturen, Old High German stiuren, German steuern "to steer," Gothic stiurjan "to establish, assert"), related to *steuro "a rudder, a steering" (cf. Old English steor "helm, rudder," German Steuer and first element in starboard), from PIE *steu-ro- (cf. Greek stauros "stake, pole"), from root *sta- "to stand" (see stet).

The notion is of a stiff, upright pillar or post used in steering.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.