When you throw a small metallic pen in the water, it will sink, yet a big ship or boat sails in water and floats.  Why?  This is the question that all of us who have seen ships, ask ourselves and desire to understand the science behind it.

No doubt there is some mechanism behind all these ‘supernatural’ ships that seem to defy the forces of gravity.  Let us look at some factors that contribute to the floating of the ships.

Firstly, the weight of the ship determines the buoyancy.  This weight taken into account is both loaded and unloaded.

Secondly there is the shape of the ship to consider.  The weight of the loaded ships is calculated and compared to the weight of the water that is displaced once the ship is on the water. This is done by the designers of the ship.

Ships are not build as solid blocks of steel, on the other hand, they are hollow.  Therefore, because the ship occupies more volume, it displaces more water than its mass, thus its density becoming much lower and this aids it in floating.

The material that makes ship, steel, is denser than water and if the ship was just one big block of steel, it would not float at all, but because it is a big hollow box of steel, its density is less than that of water.

A needle or nail for example displaces very little amount of water therefore the weight of the displaced water is less than the weight of the nail.  On the other hand, the amount of water displaced by the ship once it is on water, is massive and is equal to its weight.  Because the weight of the displaced water is equal to the weight of the ship, then it floats buoyantly.

Think of a large container that has very thin walls and relatively strength members, which is designed to hold air.  Though it may contain many other things, the biggest capacity is occupied by air, it will float.

Ships are like this big container, full of other things but mostly air, made of steel material to hold the air.  The Archimedes principle supports this in that things full of air always tend to float.


We have seen that huge steel ships float because they displace an amount of water equal to its weight.  Ships are hollow steel containers full of air and cannot sink as compared to a box of steel that just sinks without effort.

Ships are able to navigate on oceans and fresh water because they are like big containers with strong walls but full of air.  A nail or needle displaces very little amounts of water, therefore it becomes heavier than the water displaced.  This causes it to float.

Next time you see that ship, know that there is an explanation to the ‘supernatural’ floating of the steel metal container.

In simple terms, if the volume of an object is less than the volume of water displaced, the object will float.

Written by Anne Mwangi

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The Ships Stories

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Titanic Fundamentals Explained

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Titanic Secrets That No One Else Knows About

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The Debate Over Titanic

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The Death of Titanic

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Henry Van Dyke is quoted as having said, “Of all the things that man has made, no is so full of interest and charm, none possesses so distinct a life and character of its own, as a ship.”

Here are four great ships that have left an indelible mark on history that you can add to your maritime repertoire.

The Santa Maria

Nicknamed La Gallega, after the province of Galicia where she was built, the Santa Maria is the historical version of the little engine that could.

She was not built for exploration but along with two other ships, she was tasked with the formidable feat of ferrying Christopher Columbus on his first expedition to the 'new world' which she did successfully.

She was unable to make the return voyage after running aground and sinking on Christmas Day. She did, however, gift her voyagers with wood to build a fort which they aptly named La Navidad.

The Bismarck

The Bismarck was the Goliath of the seas by way of German ingenuity. Billed as a state-of-the-art battleship, it was straddled with the hopes of reigniting German maritime prowess.

The Germans wanted to take back control of the ocean routes between Germany and the Atlantic Ocean that were currently being guarded by the British. The Bismarck was tasked with disrupting the status quo.

When the British, realized its intentions, they unleashed the majority of their Home Fleet to counter its attempts. It was a hard fought battle that saw the Bismarck severely hobbled but able to escape. The escape was short-lived as it was leaking fuel. It was spotted shortly thereafter and sent off to its final resting place.

The Yamato

The Yamato was a Japanese super battleship. It was built under a veil of secrecy seemingly under the mandate of bigger and better after Japan withdrew from the Washington Naval Treaty. A treaty was aimed at limiting tonnage, armament size and expansion of naval facilities.

The Yamato though intimidating in stature was a gas guzzling lumbering behemoth. Visions of longevity were not in its future. In 1945 she was sent off on Operation Ten-Go. A suicide mission demanded by the Emperor as a last attempt to defend Okinawa.

The Japanese fleet lacked air cover for this mission and the fate of the Yamato was sealed by American fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo planes.

HMS Victory

The HMS Victory was the largest wooden ship of her time. She was launched in 1765 by the Royal Navy and is best remembered for being the flagship of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson in the Battle of Trafalgar, Britain's greatest naval victory.

The HMS Victory is now a living museum. Her journey to this status began in 1922 when she was dry docked for repairs after having been damaged by HMS Neptune.

She was First opened to the public in 1928 and 2012 saw her custodianship transferred to the National Museum of the Royal Navy who have continued to repair and renovate her as needed.