How do you describe driving a boat? Is is correct to say

  • drive a boat
  • steer a boat
  • sail a boat?
  • what kind of boat are we talking about? certainly one would not sail a boat that lacks a sail. or do you want a word that fits for all boats?
    – abcd
    Jun 8, 2015 at 19:14
  • Ideally all boats Jun 8, 2015 at 19:15

4 Answers 4


The common term is "piloting".

Per Google definition:

pilot (gerund or present participle: piloting): act as a pilot of (an aircraft or ship).

synonyms: navigate, guide, maneuver, steer, control, direct, captain, shepherd

Per the Oxford English Dictionary (OED):

pilot: To conduct or convey (a person) in a ship or boat; to direct the course of (a vessel), esp. through difficult or dangerous waters; to guide or steer. Also occas. intr.: to perform the role of pilot on a vessel.

Per the SeaTalk Nautical Dictionary:

pilot: to operate a vessel, meaning to steer safely to a destination

See Also: navigate

  • 2
    This is mainly used in situations where a pilot is on board the ship (pilot: A person with expert local knowledge qualified to take charge of a ship entering or leaving a harbour.) (as the reference you cite also says) [ ODO, which you call 'Google' ] Jun 8, 2015 at 19:26
  • 3
    @EdwinAshworth Seems like a fine answer to me. The issue is that everyone in the crew is "sailing" the vessel, not just the master, captain, navigator, or pilot. And while I can say I sailed to Grand Cay, I cannot claim I was directing the boat that got me there: I was not piloting or navigating it.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 8, 2015 at 19:47
  • 2
    Well, the OP did offer several suggestions of his own, at least. Can't say that about every SWR. Personally, I hold SWRs involving specialized argot or the technical language of some domain to a different standard than general vocabulary questions. At the very least, they're fun to research. But if you believe the question is inadequate and have voted to close it, all well and good. You've done your duty, and so there is no reason to spend more time on it (especially not caviling at the answers the rest of us have put time & effort into supplying).
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 8, 2015 at 21:51
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth I offered a citation in the original version of my answer, and at your prompting further substantiated with references to not only the what is and has been considered the most authoritative dictionary of the English language for the last century, but also a specialized lexicon dedicated to the domain in question. They both record the definition of pilot as I have use it (as does the original citation, still). Dictionaries and glossaries reflect how language is used; this definition of pilot is recorded in those reference works because people use it this way.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 8, 2015 at 23:12
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth In sum: the answer is corroborated to my satisfaction, and I will make no more edits, nor add anymore references to authorities, nor engage in any more dialog about the applicability of the word. I will let the voters make their own determination.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 8, 2015 at 23:14

It depends on the boat. You may be coxing, if you are sitting in the back of a rowing boat. (example from Trinity College Cambridge)

If you are on a sailing boat, then you are, well, sailing the boat. But if you have a crew, (and you are potentially telling someone else to turn the wheel or move the tiller) then you are skippering or captaining.

If you are in a motorboat, to say that you are driving it is not inappropriate according to the UK government.

As the boat gets bigger, you may find that you are steering it.

And if you are a water rat, of course, then you are just messing about in boats!

  • 4
    In other words, whatever floats your boat.
    – Mr Lister
    Jun 9, 2015 at 13:18
  • 2
    Buoyancy floats my boat!
    – Josef
    Jun 9, 2015 at 15:03
  • 1
    In this collection, you are missing paddling, and the more obvious rowing.
    – jxh
    Jun 11, 2015 at 18:48

You may use "helm".

Steer (a boat or ship): he helmed a sailing vessel

Perhaps for more informal use there is "boating".

the leisurely activity of travelling by boat, or the recreational use of a boat


I believe pilot is the word you want, but as an alternative not yet mentioned, you can use skipper. Its relevance would be on the occasion there is minimal (or no) crew, and where the helmsman and captain are one and the same (a case of metonymy).

: to be the captain of (a ship or boat)
The boat was skippered by a skilled veteran sailor.

As an example, the Manhattan Yacht Club explains how to earn skipper privileges:

Any member, 18 years or older, can apply for Skipper Privileges if he or she believes they:
1) can safely skipper a boat in the harbor
2) understand the local sailing conditions (including topography, currents, wind patterns, etc.)
3) understand how the club operates (including rules, reservations, responsibilities, etc.).


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