ferry, vessel providing passage over a river, lake, or other body of water for passengers, vehicles, or freight; the term is also applied to the place where the crossing is made and, by extension, to overwater train or airplane transit. Ferries were especially important in the days before engineers learned to construct permanent bridges and tunnels across bodies of water. At first most ferries were small boats or rafts, propelled by oars or poles and sometimes assisted by sails. Some ferries today still make short passages by winching themselves back and forth along a chain fastened to the shore on both sides. Other ferries rely on the force of the current against the side of the boat to push the ferry. Most ferries for heavier traffic and longer passages are powered by diesel or diesel-electric engines, such as the largest ferry in the world, the GTS Finnjet; others, such as the Staten Island ferry in New York City, are steam powered. Where railroad bridges are impracticable, there are train ferries; these may use paddle wheels for maneuverability or may simply be barges pushed by tugs. The train ferry that made through service possible between London and Paris after 1936 was largely replaced by the Channel Tunnel in 1994. An innovation during the latter half of the 20th cent. was the "fast ferry," high-speed ferries that have become an important component of transportation systems around the globe. This alternative provides a critical link for commuters and travelers in many world regions. Such passenger-only or combination motor vehicle and passenger ferries are relied upon in coastal ports in Europe, Asia, and Australia. The designs of these ferries incorporate features of catamarans, hydrofoils, and air-cushion vehicles.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.