Transportation on the Oceans

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Transportation on the Oceans

For thousands of years, oceans provided one of the fastest and most valuable forms of transportation. By 3200 b.c.e., Egyptian ships made of reeds (tall, woody grass) used sails to travel along the coast of northern Africa. Over the centuries, ocean-going ships became larger and faster. Around 1000 b.c.e. the Vikings explored the coast of Canada in sailboats. Spanish ships explored the Americas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. British tall ships carried settlers to the Americas, Asia, Australia, and Africa in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.

Until the mid-twentieth century, ships were the only mode of transportation for ocean crossings. The rise of air transportation after 1930 reduced the role of ocean-going vessels in transportation. Airplanes provided a quicker and often cheaper way to move people great distances, which caused the types of vessels and purposes of ocean transportation to change.

Immigration to the New World

For the first 450 years after the discovery of the New World, ships provided the only form of transportation between Europe and the Americas. Nearly every citizen of the United States is descended from ancestors who traveled to the New World by ship, and immigration to the New World was a major factor in ocean transportation during this time.

Immigration patterns to the United States reflect that immigrants came from various countries in waves. The earliest settlers came from the British Isles and Africa. Before 1790, about 500,000 immigrants came to the United States from the British Isles, and 300,000 immigrants came from Africa. The middle half of the nineteenth century saw a flood of immigrants from Europe with 3 million from the German Empire, 2.8 million from Ireland, and 2 million from England.

The United States experienced its greatest influx of immigration between 1880 and 1930. During this period, nearly 20 million immigrants crossed the Atlantic Ocean on ships. These immigrants came primarily from Italy, Russia, Germany, Britain, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Twelve million of these immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island, near New York City. Between 1897 and 1938, Ellis Island served as the main processing point for immigrants. Today over 100 million Americans can trace their ancestry to an immigrant who landed on Ellis Island.

Ocean transportation in America has a dark side. Slave ships transported tens of thousands of Africans to the New World every year. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, between 15 million and 20 million Africans were involuntarily brought to the Americas as slaves. About 400,000 slaves were transported to the British colonies and the United States. Scholars estimate that as many as 1 million African slaves died during ocean transit to the Americas.

Transatlantic journeys

Not all ocean crossing ships were only filled with immigrants. Travelers also used ships to cross the Atlantic Ocean to go between Europe and the Americas. In 1818, New York's Black Ball Line became the first company to offer regular travel across the Atlantic Ocean. The rise of steam ships in the mid-1800s made ocean crossings faster. While these ships focused on luxury travel for wealthy passengers, they also fueled immigration. Cruise liners offered low-cost, no frills transportation for many immigrants. The immigrants stayed in steerage class, the least expensive accommodations, and were often responsible for bringing their meals.

By the early twentieth century, cruise liner companies began to build larger and more luxurious ships, including Olympic, Lusitania, Britannic, and Titanic. These ships emphasized comfort and extravagance over speed. Many of these cruise liners contained swimming pools, dance halls, and tennis courts. Unfortunately, the superliners of the early nineteenth century did not stress safety. Thousands of lives were lost in the sinkings of the Titanic in 1912 and Lusitania in 1915.

The rise of the cruise ship

By 1950, airplanes replaced cruise liners as the main mode of transportation across the oceans. Many travelers did not choose to spend days crossing the ocean when it could be done in hours by plane. Cruise liner companies had to change their approach to fit the new reality of air travel. They could no longer market cruise liners as a form of transportation to take while on vacation. Instead, cruise companies began advertising cruise liners as a vacation by themselves. By focusing on exotic locales, such as the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas, cruise companies found a willing audience. In modern day cruise ships have swimming pools, cinemas, dance clubs, theatres, and classrooms. Modern cruise ships are subject to many safety regulations.

Today nearly 8 million Americans go on cruises every year. Cruises generate about $18 billion every year for the United States' economy. A modern cruise ship carries about 2000 guests and 900 crew members. The largest cruise ship in the world as of 2004, Queen Mary 2, was 1,132 feet (345 meters) long and 151,400 gross tons (term describing the size of a boat, ship, or barge). Queen Mary 2 can carry 2,620 guests and 1,253 crew members. In 2004 Queen Mary 2 was the only passenger ship that made regular transatlantic journeys.


Ferries are one of the most important forms of modern ocean transportation. Ferries are ships that carry people and, occasionally, cars over relative short distances. Some ferries are simple ships that transport only people. Ferries that transport people and cars are called "roll-on, roll-off" ships. Cars can quickly roll on these ferries upon departure and easily roll off upon arrival.

While some ferries are simple boats, many ferries are technologically advanced ships, including hovercrafts or hydrofoils. A hovercraft is a ship that floats above the surface of the water on a cushion of air. A rubber skirt is located between the main ship and the water. Air is pushed into the rubber skirt, creating a cushion of air. Hovercrafts offer smooth rides over rough seas. A hydrofoil is a ship that has wing-like foils (wing-like structures that raises part or all of a powerboat's hull out of the water) underneath the hull of the ship. As the boat increases speed, the foils lift the hull of the ship out of the water. Only the foils skim the top of the water. Like a hovercraft, the main body of a hydrofoil rides above the surface of the water. This reduces drag and increases speed.

Unlike most cruise ships, not all ferries are subject to strict safety regulations. Many passengers die in ferry accidents every year, mostly in the developing world. In 2002, the ferry Joola sank off the coast of Africa near Senegal. Joola was carrying over three times its capacity. Over 1,800 people died in the accident, which is more than the number of people who died on the Titanic.

Adrienne Wilmoth Lerner

For More Information


Cudahy, Brian J. The Cruise Ship Phenomenon in North America. New York: Cornell Maritime Press, 2001.

Walters, Eric. The Hydrofoil Mystery. New York: Penguin, 2003.


American Family Immigration History Center. (accessed on August 27, 2004).

Ellis Island Immigration Museum. (accessed on August 27, 2004).

International Council of Cruise Lines. (accessed on August 27, 2004).

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Transportation on the Oceans

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Transportation on the Oceans