How Fast do Cruise Ships go During the Day and Night

how fast do cruise ships go

Have you ever wondered how fast a cruise ship goes? It’s hard to imagine a massive vessel, complete with rooms, restaurants, entertainment centers and possibly hundreds, sometimes thousands of passengers, moving swiftly. But, if you’ve ever set sail before, you know large ships make it from port to port somehow without sprinting across the water. In this guide, we’ll answer some speed-related questions and explore factors that impact a ship’s cruising rate. 

Most of the time, cruise ships operate at cruising speed, which is sometimes referred to as service speed. Cruising speed is not the highest speed a boat can reach, but a rate that provides a smooth, comfortable ride and saves fuel. Therefore, if you’ve even worried about a cruise ship hightailing it over rough water to make it to a port on time, have no fear. Cruise ships aren’t meant to fly through the sea, but instead, function to enhance the comfort of its passengers while also improving fuel efficiency. 

How Fast Does a Cruise Ship Go?

A wooden boat in a body of water with a mountain in the background

The average cruise ship cruising speed is about 20 knots per hour. A knot is a form of measurement that equals one nautical mile. A nautical mile is a bit longer than a statute, or land-measured mile. One knot is the same as 1.15 statute miles. So, if a cruise ship is sailing at a speed of 21 knots, you might compare that to roughly 24 mph. 

A cruise ship can typically reach a speed of around 30 knots, about two to three knots higher than its cruising speed, but it’s not likely to go that fast. Cruise ships rarely hit top speed and will usually only do so if necessary. 

Why Do Ships Measure Speed in Knots?

The word “knot” traces back the 1600s when seafarers used an instrument called a chip log to determine the speed of their vessel. A log consisted of rope with uniformly set knots attached to a piece of wood. The device would float behind the vessel and release the rope as the boat advanced. After a specific time passed, sailors brought the rope back in and counted the knots between the boat and the wood. Today, most ships use GPS to measure speed.

What Factors Impact Speed?

A boat is docked next to a body of water

Even if passengers wanted their captain to surge through the sea as quickly as possible, it wouldn’t be the best idea. Captains take their time for several reasons — if they do decide to pick up the pace, it’s to serve some sort of purpose. Here are some of the top factors that affect cruise ship speed:

  • Itinerary: Depending on where you’re going, your ship may sail a little slower or a bit faster than the usual rate. For example, if you’re crossing the Gulf of Alaska, your cruise ship might slow down to prepare for marine-life encounters or to maintain stability in potentially choppy waters. Sometimes the captain might idle so passengers can take in the amazing scenery and snap photos of features like fjords, volcanoes or ancient coastal towns. You’ll also notice a reduced speed when it’s time to maneuver into a harbor and dock. However, if you’re cruising over open water, the ship may move at a faster speed, especially if the destination is far away.
  • Fuel consumption concern: Perhaps the main reason cruise ships move at slow, comfortable speeds is to conserve fuel. Unlike cruising in your car down the highway, ships have to plow through a lot of water resistance — this takes a ton of energy and burns fuel fast. And, the faster a ship goes, the more the resistance increases. Consider that a cargo ship might burn around 225 tons of fuel per day traveling at a speed of 24 knots. If the same ship decreased its speed to just 21 knots, its fuel consumption would drop to 150 tons per day — about 33 percent. Slowing down makes sense from both an economical and environmental viewpoint.
  • Weather: The weather impacts speed in a few different ways. First, the force and the direction of the wind can either work with the ship or against it. For example, if the wind pushes against the boat, it’ll need to use more power and fuel to move forward, which makes it challenging to maintain speed. Another factor is the weather forecast. A captain may decide to hit top speed to steer out of a storm’s path and into calm waters. In either case, cruise ship captains make informed decisions prioritizing guests’ safety and comfort. 
  • Emergencies: A ship may increase or decrease its speed to respond to an emergency. For example, in a “man overboard” situation, a ship typically slows down and turns around to initiate a rescue. On the contrary, if the captain receives a distress call from another vessel, they’ll most likely move as quickly as possible to assist.

These are some factors that affect the speed of a cruise ship.

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