The draft or draught of a ship's hull is the vertical distance between the waterline and the bottom of the hull (keel). The draught of the vessel is the maximum depth of any part of the vessel, including appendages such as rudders, propellers and drop keels if deployed. Draft determines the minimum depth of water a ship or boat can safely navigate. The related term air draft is the maximum height of any part of the vessel above the water.
The more heavily a vessel is loaded, the deeper it sinks into the water, and the greater its draft. After construction, the shipyard creates a table showing how much water the vessel displaces based on its draft and the density of the water (salt or fresh). The draft can also be used to determine the weight of cargo on board by calculating the total displacement of water, accounting for the content of the ship's bunkers, and using Archimedes' principle.
The closely related term "trim" is defined as the difference between the forward and aft drafts.
In commercial ship operations, the ship will usually quote the mean draft as the vessel's draft. However in navigational situations, the maximum draft, usually the aft draft, will be known on the bridge and will be shared with the pilot.
The draft of a ship can be affected by multiple factors, besides the variations caused by changes in displacement:
The drafts are marked on the hull with a "banded" scale, at the bow and stern, and for some ships, also amidships on both sides, where they may be accompanied by international load line markings. The scale may use Imperial units or metric units. If the Imperial system is used, the bottom of each marking is the draft in feet and markings are 6 inches high, spaced at 1 foot intervals. In metric marking, the bottom of each draft mark is the draft in decimeters and each mark is one decimeter high, spaced at intervals of 2 decimeters.
Larger ships need to keep the propeller immersed when they are light (without cargo), and may ballast further to reduce windage or for better directional stability or seakeeping, or to distribute load along the hull to reduce hogging and sagging stresses. To achieve this they use sailing ballast distributed among ballast tanks to stabilize the ship, following the unloading of cargo. The draft of a large ship has little direct link with its stability because stability depends mainly on the relative positions of the metacenter of the hull and the center of gravity. However, a "light" ship may have an excessively high stability which can cause uncomfortable rolling of the ship. A fully laden ship (with a large draft) can have either a high or low stability, depending on the height of the center of gravity, which is affected by the distribution of cargo.
The draft of a ship can be increased by longitudinal motion in shallow water, a hydrodynamic effect known as squat, which causes a local pressure reduction under the vessel.
Draft is a significant factor limiting navigable waterways, especially for large vessels. This includes many shallow coastal waters and reefs, but also some major shipping lanes. Panamax class ships—the largest ships able to transit the Panama Canal—do have a draft limit (and an "air draft" limit for passing under bridges) but are usually limited by beam, or sometimes length overall, for fitting into locks. However, ships can be longer, wider and higher in the Suez Canal, the limiting factor for Suezmax ships is draft. Some supertankers are able to transit the Suez Canal when unladen or partially laden, but not when fully laden.
Canals are not the only draft-limited shipping lanes. A Malaccamax ship, is the deepest draft able to transit the very busy but relatively shallow Strait of Malacca. The Strait only allows ships to have .4 m (1.3 ft) more draft than the Suez Canal. Capesize, Ultra Large Crude Carriers and a few Chinamax carriers, are some of the ships that have too deep a draft when laden, for either the Strait of Malacca or the Suez Canal.
A small draft allows pleasure boats to navigate through shallower water. This makes it possible for these boats to access smaller ports, to travel along rivers and even to 'beach' the boat. A large draft may increase ultimate stability in, depending on the hull form, as the center of gravity can be lower. A broad beamed boat like a catamaran can provide high initial stability with a small draft, but the width of the boat increases.
A term called keel depth is used for submarines, which can submerge to different depths at sea, specifying the current distance from the water surface to the bottom of the submarine's keel. It is used in navigation to avoid underwater obstacles and hitting the ocean floor, and as a standard point on the submarine for depth measurements. Submarines usually also have a specified draft used while operating on the surface, for navigating in harbors and at docks.
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