Once we have specific verbs to refer to the action of operating a vehicle, my question is:

What verb should I use to "drive" a boat/ship?

  • 3
    What kind of boat? This question has been asked before for motorboats and ferries. The answer for a sailing boat is obvious. Michael's boat is rowed ashore, hallelujah. What kind of boat is yours? What is the context?
    – RegDwigнt
    Sep 14, 2013 at 11:33
  • In saying "a boat/ship", the OP makes it clear that he looks for a generic term. Barrie has seen the point, too.
    – Kris
    Sep 14, 2013 at 12:43
  • You can also run it, but only aground.
    – terdon
    Sep 14, 2013 at 13:58
  • @terdon: You can also run a sailboat downwind, but not upwind (that'd be beating) or sideways to the wind (reaching). Sep 14, 2013 at 14:18
  • 1
    @IlmariKaronen thanks, I've always called that running before the wind, hadn't heard running downwind.
    – terdon
    Sep 14, 2013 at 14:20

6 Answers 6


You pilot it. And on larger watercraft having an enclosed room containing the pilot’s wheel, that room is called the pilot house.

The verb was either borrowed from pilot (n.) or from the French piloter, according to Online Etymology Dictionary:

pilot (v.) 1640s, “to guide, lead”; 1690s, “to conduct as a pilot”, from pilot (n.) or from French piloter.

pilot (n.) 1510s, “one who steers a ship”, from Middle French pillote (16c.), from Italian piloto, supposed to be an alteration of Old Italian pedoto, which usually is said to be from Medieval Greek pedotes “rudder, helmsman”, from Greek pedon “steering oar”, related to pous (genitive podos) “foot”.

As others have pointed out, pilot (v.) has also acquired a specialized modern sense (“to lead a ship through a difficult or dangerous area of water”, Macmillan Dictionary) and pilot (n.) now generally means such a specialist. But the general sense of steering a ship is still in use today, just as it was in the 19c and 20c. This explains how the terms were borrowed by balloonists and airmen when those technologies came on the scene.

  • 2
    The pilot, however, is oftentimes not at the helm (at least on a larger ship). Really, as has been mentioned, this question needs a bit more specificity. Sep 14, 2013 at 13:49
  • 2
    I always thik of the pilot as the one who knows how to navigate through tricky passages but is not necessarily at the helm, as in this definition.
    – terdon
    Sep 14, 2013 at 13:55
  • 1
    A ship's pilot is neither the captain nor the helmsman: I wonder why an aeroplane's pilot is both? Sep 14, 2013 at 23:30
  • 1
    @TimLymington It is untrue that the maritime pilot is neither the captain nor the helmsman. It depends on the situation and the size of the craft (and the crew). They can often be the same person. A licensed captain is a trained pilot; the captain or the pilot may well take the helm.
    – MetaEd
    Sep 15, 2013 at 1:39
  • 2
    Possibly national differences: in British waters, a pilot is specifically qualified on one stretch of water, and a skipper who called himself a pilot merely because of his captain's ticket would be in trouble or (in some circumstances) in jail. Similarly, though pilots give helm instructions, they virtually never actually steer, largely for insurance reasons. Sep 15, 2013 at 9:30

If it’s a sailing boat, you sail it. If you’re the captain of a ship, you skipper it, and if you’re the helmsman, you steer or helm it, but otherwise, there’s no general term. I did once hear a former captain of the Royal Navy aircraft carrier ‘Ark Royal’ say that he drove it, but that was in jest.

  • Isn't the helmsman the one at the wheel? According to M-W, they are 'the person at the helm'. There may be a job title usage too, but coupling the sense given here by M-W with most definitions' statement that 'a helmsman is a person who steers the ship etc', the person at the wheel steers the ship. // Skipper is defined as 'act as the skipper of'. Jun 8, 2015 at 22:15



  1. To control the course of a ship or aircraft. To plan, direct, or plot the path or position of (a ship, an aircraft, etc.). To act as the navigator in a car, plane, or vessel and plan, direct, plot the path and position of the conveyance.

  2. To voyage over water in a boat or ship. To travel over, through, or on (water, air, or land) in a boat, aircraft, etc. sail. To move on, over, or through (water, air, or land), esp. in a ship or aircraft. To travel on water propelled by wind or by other means.


Rare to voyage in a ship; sail.



You can say either row or propel. You can also paddle a boat.


The case with the boat would greatly rely on the boat you use or refer to. But "rowing" is more commonly used.

  • Pretty sure you don't row a speedboat.
    – Neo
    May 14, 2021 at 17:33

You 'steer' a boat especially if it is not a paddle boat

  • 2
    This is too simplistic, especially in light of the top two answers already discussing it. Steering implies, well, steering. You can steer a car or a motorcycle, too, but the OP is not asking for an equivalent of that.
    – RegDwigнt
    May 21, 2014 at 18:55
  • 2
    @RegDwigнt But can't you also pilot a car, a motorcycle, or a plane?
    – Elian
    May 21, 2014 at 21:10
  • @RegDwight Look at the AHDEL, Collins definitions for 'helmsman'. Jun 8, 2015 at 22:10

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